Vice chancellors push back against regulatory burden

The House of Lords inquiry into the work of the Office for Students continues apace

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

After speaking to former ministers last week, this week’s instalment saw the committee invite former and current vice chancellors to share their views.

Certain themes dominated discussion, with the regulatory burden getting a repeated going over, and the guests had some concrete figures to back up its general sense of overwork.

The University of Manchester’s Nancy Rothwell estimated that responding to OfS requests for data, consultation responses and the like cost the institution in the region of £1m a year, on top of the almost £200,000 in registration fees (noting in passing that these are rumoured to be about to rise substantially). University of Lincoln’s Neal Juster concurred that staff time might be in the region of four or five times the cost of registration fees.

The cost of retaining student data including assessment for five years after graduation – as discussed recently on Wonkhe – was held up as the paramount example of this. Rothwell suggested for Russell Group universities this would cost in the region of £250,000 to £1m per institution. But this brought the discussion onto the issue of communication – the wider problem here, she said, is that “we’re not quite sure why” this policy is coming into effect.

Juster reported that Lincoln had asked OfS four times how the retention of student work would be managed in the case of practical assessments, before finally being told that the matter was still under consideration by the regulator. The lack of a named contact person, and lack of dialogue and “mutual learning”, were also raised several times by former University of Hull vice chancellor Susan Lea and former University of Birmingham vice chancellor – and former chief executive of HEFCE – David Eastwood.

Eastwood was perhaps the most critical voice, suggesting that risk-based regulation (an unquestioned good in the dominant “theology of regulation” apparently…) was a promise made to the sector “which hasn’t been fully delivered,” and even that the creation of a regulator with a predominant focus on students was “conceptually flawed” given the multiple missions of universities. The other guests were less concerned on this point.

On student voice – a recurring theme in the inquiry by now – both Rothwell and Lea argued that the Office of Students board should have more than one student member. Lea suggested that universities also needed to do better with voice, and even seemed to float the idea that OfS should compel universities to engage more with students. We understand students will feature in a future hearing as part of this inquiry.

The inquiry is also taking a careful look at the sector’s financial sustainability, leading to various substantive exchanges around university funding more generally, cross-subsidy and the unit of resource, and what the best university business models would look like. Given the frozen unit of resource and the vanishing likelihood of further allocations, current vice chancellors saw universities as being “at the very limit” of what they could do in terms of efficiency before quality begins to suffer. For those no longer in post, the picture was (even less) optimistic – consolidations and mergers may be on the horizon, and Eastwood (perhaps with an eye on the Welsh experience) hoped these could be managed in an orderly way.

Recommendations from the committee, when the report finally lands, will make essential reading for anyone with an interest in the sector.

Leave a Reply