All about that baseline

July 2, 2015

On 16 June, Alex Chisholm, chief executive of the Competition and Markets Authority, wrote a letter to Sajid Javid, the new secretary of state at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, on “regulation in higher education”. The CMA favours the introduction of “a sector-wide regulatory baseline”. In three pages, “regulation”, “regulate” and “regulatory” appear 22 times. “Baseline” occurs five times.

Readers of the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s Quality Assessment Review consultation, now published a month late, may be struck by its own 33 “baselines”. The incentive to give a “yes” response to all those “Do you agree?” questions is the suggestion that for “established providers” above the “baseline” there need be no more Quality Assessment Agency-type institutional review visits every six years. But will regulation by Hefce really be less onerous? Hefce is a funding council. It hands out money and can withhold it. It now proposes to build the proposed new dual-purpose regime for quality “assessment” (102 mentions) and “assurance” (82 mentions) for England on a financial memorandum requirement that places an “annual” (18 hits) reporting expectation on the governing body.

Hefce has long admitted off the record that governance for institutions is often dysfunctional. There have been high-profile catastrophes in recent years. And the governors are expected to rely on “student outcome data, including feedback and complaint information” – notoriously inexact measures.

Every five years, Hefce will make its “visit to check the evidence and processes used” to produce the annual statement, “as is done currently for financial management”. Satisfaction about this would form part of “the terms and conditions for payment of Hefce grants”. How will financial punishments be calculated? Even the best regarded are not perfect. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge were both the subject of some significant “recommendations” after their last QAA visits.

G. R. Evans

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