Winds of Change: A framework for autonomy or control?

02 March 2018

As the Office for Students launches its framework, Russell Group's Chief Executive, Dr Tim Bradshaw, says there are many questions that will only be answered once the new regulator is properly up and running

Along with the Beast from the East and Storm Emma, we received the much-anticipated regulatory framework from the Office for Students (OfS)  this week. The first two will quickly blow away, but at the launch event for the framework we were told this will be with us for the long-term, 25-years even, and that we’d better embrace the winds of change.

So, let’s start with the hopeful aspects of the framework. There are plenty of warm words about autonomy. Tick (but see below). Universities will be encouraged to innovate. Tick. This is all about making sure universities operate above baseline requirements and removes the need for unnecessary cyclical reviews. Tick (although the OfS will still employ a random sampling approach). There is a strong commitment for OfS and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to work together, and the interconnections between teaching, research and innovation are recognised as being valuable. Tick. Tick. We can also expect some new thinking around access and participation plans in the future and we hope this will allow a much more strategic approach with multi-year plans that can make a real difference.

So far, so good then. But what about ‘risk-based and proportionate’, which were also high on the agenda. Well, not yet, but maybe in future, if you squint against the biting wind a bit. The first big problem is there appears to be no coherent plan for dealing with the large number of providers now left outside of the regulatory system.  The core rationale for the Higher Education and Research Act (which created the OfS) was to give Government a way of regulating such providers, but this will now apply only to those with students who have access to Government-backed loans.

Then there’s the fee structure for providers which loads the cost heavily on medium and large institutions, without reference to whether this is warranted by the risk they pose. The true cost of the new regulator for institutions – and by implication, students and taxpayers – remains unclear as estimations of costs remain indicative.

During the transition year to the new system we already know there will be a bigger burden on institutions. It’s somewhat inevitable with a big change of any kind, but the detail required by the framework looks onerous.

For example, as part of their new student protection plans, it appears institutions will need to assess the risk that any component of each and every course they offer may change in future, and then put in place arrangements to mitigate any identified risk. This looks like a considerable administrative task with potential unintended consequences in terms of risks to commercial confidentiality and negative impacts on student behaviour.



In reality, the extent to which the framework will lighten the regulatory burden on institutions, and enable them to maximise the use of their funds for the benefit of students, will only become clear when we get to see the risk appetite of the regulator in action. There are many unknowns. What baseline will providers have to meet in order to register? How might this differ between providers? How will the ‘real time’ monitoring of institutions in the new data dashboard really work? What might constitute a breach of registration conditions? What sanctions will be used if a breach occurs? These questions are unlikely to be answered until the OfS is fully up and running.

The intention to focus on assessing an institution’s compliance with the regulatory framework, based on outcomes rather than on institutional processes, should mean that autonomy in areas like governance and the deployment of funding can be protected. But the OfS will also use tools to direct and influence activity in ways it wants, so it will need to be mindful how it does this— in particular in areas where it is difficult to assess outcomes (like freedom of speech or “value for money”, for example). The temptation for OfS to take a more hands on, controlling, approach will be very high, and that’s exactly when the regulator will need to exercise the most care so as not to undermine institutional autonomy.

The risk of this happening is increased as the OfS does not intend to maintain a detailed understanding of institutional context in-house in the way that HEFCE has done. It is therefore imperative that providers can play an active role in developing regulation alongside students. An open and honest conversation is needed about how to design intelligent regulation, which meets the needs of students and supports the continuing success of the higher education sector and the broader academic community.

A defining characteristic of the UK higher education sector is its diversity. Enabling institutions to apply the regulatory conditions in a way that is appropriate to their mission, context and student cohorts should ensure they have the freedom to continue to be distinctive, responsive and innovative.





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