IHE21: Burghart breaks his duck, and regulators mount up

The Independent HE conference doesn't get the coverage that other sector body events do, but there was some pretty notable stuff happened earlier today.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

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The Office for Students’ Susan Lapworth is always a top drawer speaker, and she did not disappoint here.

We got a sneak preview of the responses to the quality and standards consultation – suggesting there is some divergence between regulator and sector views on extending sector recognised standards, and on the role of the Designated Quality Body and academic judgement in an increasingly mechanised quality assurance system. There were also reported concerns about the timing of implementation, with a general view that changes to all B conditions (we are awaiting a B3 (outcomes) consultation next month) and the TEF should start at the same time.

Susan fierce

We got a repetition of the “principles-based regulation” and “equality of outcomes” lines that have become familar, but jaws really began to drop in the section of the speech on enforcement.

As Lapworth tells it, the years since 2017 have seen a focus on registering providers – the OfS has become skilled in using this part of the regulatory toybox, but the shiny enforcement powers (fines, suspension of registration, deregistration, specific requirements) remain largely fresh in their wrappers. Though there will be some stuff on enforcement in the B3 consultation, the plan seems to be to explore how effective these powers are in use by getting out and using them.

What’s clear to OfS is there is far too much stuff that OfS could enforce, so it needs to priorities. Suggested approaches include a focus on particular subject areas, on the number of students affected by a problem, and on the likely impact of a fine on compliance elsewhere – the strength of incentive example given was that a fine to a provider making a late submission to HESA would encourage others to submit on time!

New kid

Earlier in the day Skills Minister Alex Burghart delivered his first speech in that role, and put in a fairly impressive performance. The tone was gentler and more thoughtful than the Williamson years – Burghart took time at the start of his speech to thank higher education. In a very Johnsonian turn of praise, he offered thanks that “the great conveyer belt did not stop whirring” and providers continued to train the skilled workforce we need.

IHE members TEDI London and the Dyson Institute were singled out, respectively, on access and business engagement, though on the latter the new minister declaimed that “too many employers are complaining about vocational skills for the future” – a statement which is at odds with actual government data. Taking the old horse that is “low quality courses” (expressed here as the need for a “high quality academic experience”) for a trot around the lectern, Burghart appeared to suggest that links with local employers are what can turn a poor course good.

He also snuck in a plug for the international education strategy before his peroration – very much still a thing, even though the ambition to serve 600k international students feels less of a target with 557k international students in the system in 2019-20. It was a speech targeted to the room – clearly IHE and DfE have a good working relationship, and this bodes well for less combative policy directions in the future.

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