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Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.
Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.
The new regulatory framework for universities will have “an unflinching focus” on students but not reduce English higher education to a “crude transaction between buyer and seller” said Sir Michael Barber as the government published a 181-page consultation report on its proposals.
Sir Michael, the chair designate of the new Office for Students (OfS), described its role as one of “stewardship” and promised a “rich, open and honest” dialogue with institutions to promote a new “golden age” for higher education.
Universities, students, business and other interested parties have until 22 December to respond to a suite of consultations on the Government’s proposed changes to university regulation. Central to the proposals is a new “light touch, risk based” approach to regulation, targeting institutions that appear from the data or other events, such as whistle blowing or student complaints, to be failing to meet their duties. But there will also be “random sampling” of a proposed five per cent of universities, after which they will be exempt from visits for three years.
The report says “Overall, low risk providers should see a significant reduction in their regulatory burden,”. The consultation asks for views on whether the right risks have been identified.
Ensuring access to education and continuing support for “non-traditional” students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds will be central to the OfS’s work, says the report. Respondents are asked what else the OfS could do to improve access and participation and where else might it be appropriate to take a more risk-based approach.
The consultation also asks for views on whether the new quality review systems should focus on securing outcomes for students to an expected standard, rather than focusing on how outcomes are achieved. It revives the debate on whether a system of grade point average should be considered alongside the current honours system.
Obligatory student contracts and the inclusion of the control of senior staff pay as a condition of registration are also discussed, along with measures that the OfS will take to make it easier for students to transfer courses and institutions.
Data will be central to the new regime and the Government published a further consultation the suitability of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) to fulfil the role of the Designated Data Body for English higher education information. In response, HESA immediately published the backing it has received from bodies such as Universities UK, the National Union of Students, GuildHE and the Institute of Student Employers.
The other three consultations are on suitability of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) to fulfil the role of the new Designated Quality Body for England, simplifying access to the market for providers seeking degree awarding powers and university title and the calculation of fees to register with the OfS.
Professor Janet Beer, President of Universities UK, said the key challenge for the OfS would be finding ways to fully integrate students into its decision making. “The Office for Students should ensure that competition works in the interests of students. This includes ensuring that new higher education providers are high quality and deliver good outcomes for students. It is important that the OfS works with universities to add value for students, rather than just adding to the regulatory burden for all,” she added.
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