The New Regulatory Framework – Fit for All?

Graham Donelan, University Secretary at Liverpool Hope University, takes a look at Section 75 of the Higher Education & Research Act and asks for those in the sector to voice their thoughts on the new system.

The Higher Education & Research Act 2017 brings into being the Office for Students (OfS) and United Kingdom Research & Innovation (UKRI).  It suggests significant changes in the regulatory framework relating to the power to award degrees and university title, registration (and de-registration) as a higher education provider, quality and standards amongst many other points of important detail.

The purpose of this blog is to highlight Section 75 of the Act and to call for those with an interest in the future of higher education to contribute to the forthcoming consultation on the Regulatory Framework, for it is that which is the focus of Section 75.

Section 75 requires the OfS to establish a regulatory framework. This regulatory framework will govern how the OfS works but also how the OfS ensures that institutions on the register of HE providers meet the terms of that registration.

Smita Jamdar, Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau, wrote earlier this summer about some of the threats she sees in the compliance culture she fears will be ushered in by the implementation of this regulatory framework and other provisions of the Act.

Jim Dickinson, Chief of Staff at UEA Students’ Union, used a recent WonkHE article to call for a fundamental reappraisal of approaches to university governance. This will help ensure transparency, diversity and acting in the public interest and, not surprisingly, that students are more explicitly and extensively involved.

Sir Michael Barber, the Chair of the OfS, is more sanguine than Smita and probably too corporate for Jim. However, he encourages the sector to engage fully with this successor to HEFCE – “a new regulator with a new approach” as he put it in his speech to UUK on 23rd June 2017. We should take him at his word.

At the small gathering in Woburn House, he went on to say “our [i.e. OfS’s] task is to be the stewards of the higher education landscape in the interests of both students and the taxpayer”.

Sir Michael’s first priority (of five) focused on the regulatory framework.  He said the right things about wanting the sector to flourish, of OfS being a risk-based and proportionate regulator and gave the required nod to institutional autonomy.  However, he did point out – quite rightly from his perspective – that the OfS “will prioritise the student interest and the regulatory perspective will reflect this perspective”.

I do share this concern for the student interest, but this summer’s onslaught of articles and Twitter campaigns has in my view focused too narrowly on the interests of a significant, but not our sole, constituency – the 18-year-old school leaver looking for a full-time undergraduate degree.

This blog is not the place for a debate on the rights and wrongs of the current funding system for institutions or students, but a call for those of us with an interest in how the system is regulated to make our voices heard to avoid a regulatory system being set up that focuses on that narrow group of students.

Sub-section 8 of Section 75 of the Act, requires that:

“before publishing a regulatory framework […] the OfS must consult (a) bodies representing the interests of English higher education providers, (b) bodies representing the interests of students on higher education courses provided by English higher education providers, and (c) such other persons as it considers appropriate.”

The consultation is expected in the autumn and UUK has a conference on 10th October on the implications of the Act.

We, as senior leaders in the sector, should make our contributions to this consultation. We have an interest in a successful sector, but not necessarily with the narrow consumerist view of the sector that much of the language of the Act, rhetoric from recent governments of different hues and polemic from media commentators suggest will be dominant if we are not vigilant.

So, look out for the consultation document and sharpen those pencils.