Higher Education Bill: ministers must address key concerns

Despite having some questions about how the bill will be implemented, Douglas Blackstock believes it is a force for good

November 15, 2016
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I recently met with a higher education minister from the Middle East. He suggested that the UK had the best higher education system in the world.

I believe that our world-class reputation for the quality of UK higher education has been underpinned by external quality audits by my own organisation, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, and effective regulation by the funding councils. But the world of higher education, particularly in England, has changed dramatically since the current regulatory system was adopted in 1992.

The QAA now deals with 600 higher education providers – from ancient universities to small specialist independent colleges. 

That is why the Higher Education and Research Bill, which is progressing through Parliament, brings what I believe is much needed change. It sets out important reform, aiming to give English higher education a regulatory system fit for the next 25 years.

It will bring into being the Office for Students, a regulator focused on the interests of students, offering better protection and a new, publicly available, single register of all approved providers. It will promote competition while retaining rigorous checks on quality and standards for new providers via an independent quality body. 

When discussing legislation it is easy to drift into technical detail, so at the risk of doing so... the bill also balances opening up the higher education "market" by making it possible for new organisations, such as the proposed Dyson Institute of Technology, to gain the power to award degrees, while creating options to limit those powers to particular subjects or qualification levels.

This is a positive step, because it is possible now for providers with limited subject expertise to achieve these powers. But, once granted, there is no limit on which subjects or in which countries they can deliver qualifications, or on validating other providers to deliver their degrees for them. This has concerned QAA for some time and the proposed new system is a distinct improvement. 

There is always a risk in higher education that every reform is greeted with claims of disaster. Since the 1950s we have had three waves of new universities including Bath, Exeter, Lancaster, Surrey and Warwick – all of which perform well in domestic league tables. 

Don’t get me wrong. I understand why some might have concerns about new private providers. The QAA has found some really poor practice in this part of the sector. The now-defunct Manchester College of Higher Education and Media Technology, for example, demanded of its master’s level students the ability to identify scissors and tape measures among its assessment criteria. 

The QAA, working with the government, has weeded out poor quality, while helping others to improve. We’ve commended more alternative providers than ever before in the past year, and some of these could potentially achieve the new powers to award degrees.

We should also expect the larger further education colleges that have extensive experience of higher education to come forward given the recent success of Newcastle College, the first further education provider to achieve full taught degree awarding powers. 

There have been concerns and questions raised, many of which have been addressed in the government’s technical note, which contains important details about market entry and plans for the future of quality assurance in the new system. It is long but worth the read. 

As with any bill, there are some areas where it could be improved in the parliamentary process. Many are rightly worried that future less well-intentioned secretaries of state may over-interpret the proposed duty on academic standards and interfere with university autonomy. That duty would be better expressed in terms of assessing how well universities are managing their responsibilities for setting and maintaining standards. 

So the QAA supports the bill, but believes that the government could address some other concerns by publishing further detail about how some of the detailed procedures will work.

This includes what would happen to guarantee a student’s qualification if a new provider fails and guidance on the nature of the approval process for becoming a university. The title of "university" is protected by law and should only go to sustainable institutions that can show they have a self-critical, cohesive academic community with a proven commitment to quality assurance supported by effective quality and enhancement systems.  

So yes, scrutinise the detail and propose improvements to make it a better piece of legislation, but let’s not lose sight of the big picture. The Higher Education and Research Bill is a positive step. It clarifies an increasingly confused regulatory landscape. It puts the focus of regulation of universities and colleges on protecting students.

It would be a mistake to risk such beneficial reform through outright opposition, particularly with the House of Lords debates allowing plenty of opportunity for further change.   

Douglas Blackstock is chief executive of the QAA.

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