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The UK’s shadow higher education regulators

Away from the Office for Students and funding councils there is a whole world of effective, if sometimes burdensome, higher education regulation. David Kernohan prepares for validation
This article is more than 1 year old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

A thought experiment for you.

Imagine if the Office for Students benchmarked the contents of every course, and the experiences offered to students, against strict standards developed by experts in their field.

In one provider, for one subject, these standards have not all been met. The regulator steps in, seeks assurances and changes, but when these are not up to snuff a year later it declares that degrees awarded that year, by that provider, in that subject will not count as qualifications for a graduate job.

The students on the course will be supported by other providers. The provider judged not to have met the standards describes the experience as “devastating”.

Not my regulator?

Of course, if you’ve been reading your Wonkhe daily you’ll know that this has all just happened – save for one detail. The regulator in question was the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

Forget B3, forget TEF, this is real regulation. Boots have been on the ground, multiple times. But instead of high-handed press releases and tough talk, we see swift action. And NMC works in partnership with other regulators too – Health Education England took soundings via a student “listening event” (that’s your student voice, right there). The Care Quality Commission has announced enforcement action after concerns raised at one placement provider. It is notable that the “risk based” OfS approach had not spotted this issue, and there has been no reaction to it.

The in-university consequences have been precisely targeted. NMC has been clear that there are no concerns with the practice of previous graduate cohorts, or the institution’s nursing and nursing associate courses. In a climate where NHS staffing is stretched to the limit, and where nurses and midwives are increasingly taking on “advanced practice” roles, the regulator needs to be confident that trainees are supervised and mentored appropriately.

In the shadows

There’s a fair case for describing professional, statutory, and regulatory bodies (PSRBs) as our real regulatory system. Ministers and chairs could complain all they want, but if a few big accrediting bodies lost confidence in the courses offered by UK higher education providers then any claim to prestige and quality the sector has would be lost.

PSRBs bring professional credibility to higher education – as actual or effective gatekeepers to entry to professional careers (either specific jobs or more general fields) they are the way in which the promise of social mobility becomes real for students on more vocational courses. From medicine, to engineering, to computer science, to events management – there will be one (or more than one) body measuring provision and outcomes against standards set by those working in the field.

When we talk about regulatory burden, the question of PSRB accreditation is seldom raised at a national level – though if you have a programme leader or departmental head in your life you would hear about little else. Practice is varied – many PSRBs have worked with universities to modernise accreditation and validation processes, but in some cases it still does feel a bit like the 1990s.

But it is difficult to appreciate, unless you have experienced it – just how many accreditations a university needs to deal with. All of these will be on a multi-year accreditation cycle, many will have interim engagements too. Whether the accreditation is a professional requirement, or simply a guarantee to applicants that their course will prepare them for the job they want, there’s a lot to do. This visualisation shows you how things look in your institution – though as unistats data only shows undergraduate provision, and some accreditations are not shown, this can only ever be a partial picture.

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Note that Unistats refers to full- and part-time iterations of a course seperately.

How it comes together

During the pandemic restrictions there was genuine concern that many students on professional courses may not meet all their requirements – particularly around practical work, competency assessments, and placements. The government was very keen that the various accrediting and regulatory bodies came together to ensure that contingencies could be made.

So they turned to the Quality Assurance Agency.

It wasn’t one of the DQB requirements – so wasn’t covered by mandatory subscriptions in England – but QAA has always maintained close ties with the many PSRBs that have an interest in the sector, not least so they can feed into the subject benchmarks that help to define what applicants can expect from any course. QAA managed to get disparate PSRBs to agree on approaches over Zoom(!), and helped them communicate these mitigations and contingencies clearly to providers and course leaders.

The Office for Students also has some links to PSRBs – they are listed (via a link to a list hosted by HESA) as “people we work with”, and they had some involvement in things like the TEF subject pilot. But there’s no regular meeting, no board representation, no named liaison, and no PSRB panel. And OfS spokesperson told me that:

We have ongoing relationships with PSRBs and engage with them on a number of relevant regulatory matters, in particular quality.

Perhaps there should be something a bit more formal?

4 responses to “The UK’s shadow higher education regulators

  1. And of course, what’s on Unistats is just the undergraduate provision. Any provider with postgraduate courses that have PSRB accreditation has even more to deal with.

  2. Hi David, might be worth reminding your readers that there are plenty of PSRB relationships that aren’t in coverage for the Unistats data – for instance CILEX (, so your data illustrate the issue but they are incomplete. In fact it maybe supports your point that there’s no single source of data from which you could even attempt to chart all these relationships.

    1. Thanks Andrew, a really useful point, and I have added a note to draw attention to this issue.

  3. Alignment with the EU still a major concern in this area. We also haven’t generated burden reduction in the UK through rationalisation of data returns. Currently data flows from many HEPs to many PSRBs, with multifarious formats and modes of transfer. Original goals for Data Futures included that it a be a service that PRSBs could take data from directly, rather than chasing individual HEPs.

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