The new Office for Students’ general duties include the need to encourage competition between English higher education providers.
This is not surprising, as the government believes that competition between providers in any market incentivises them to raise their game. The recent White Paper states: “higher education is no exception”. There is no doubt that competition can create innovation and improve courses. Universities already compete vigorously on these lines to make themselves attractive to potential students, and the removal of almost all student number controls has intensified the competition.
There are, however, differences between the higher education market and many others.
The most significant is that higher education is expected to deliver public as well as private benefits. This is recognised in the funding model and made explicit in another of the OfS’ duties – to promote equality of opportunity in access and participation in higher education, which, in turn, should support social mobility and the creation of a fairer society.
Universities that embrace a civic mission not only offer students an excellent education but are also active partners in the economic growth and social well-being of their town, city or region. This role is likely to be more important as we seek to build a post-Brexit Britain – particularly in those areas where voters said they felt left behind.
These “public benefit” activities are often done best by universities working together. In Oxfordshire, the Oxford Innovation Collaboration brings together the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University, the LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) and other partners to promote innovation in the region. Its activities include running “Pitchfest” events throughout the year that link innovators with investors. This is far more efficient than each university offering an individual programme.
Over in Liverpool, meanwhile, Sensor City – a university enterprise zone that aims to develop novel sensor systems – uses the best of the University of Liverpool's and Liverpool John Moores University’s sensor technology and business expertise. This is necessary if Liverpool is going to position itself as a world leader in a growth technology.
The Higher Education and Research Bill’s lack of attention to these activities is no doubt linked to its focus on convincing students that even though they experience a less generous funding model than their parents, the government has their back.
Collaboration can also lead to a better offer for individual students. A student who has little understanding of the range and diversity of higher education on offer will be better served by universities of different kinds undertaking outreach together rather than by recruitment activity from a single institution. Once at university, courses can be stronger when offered in partnership.
Examples of this include the joint architecture courses at Manchester Metropolitan and other Manchester universities, and the collaboration between King's College London and Portsmouth University, where student dentists and student dental nurses are brought together to practise working in real-world teams.
Of course, there is nothing in the bill that prohibits collaboration. Crucially, though, there is nothing in the bill to impede competition either – yet as it stands the OfS will be under a positive duty to encourage only the latter.
This is wrong, because the general duties of the OfS as set out in legislation will drive the priority its leadership and staff give to its various activities. The OfS should be set up in a way that will best enable it to support a wide range of social and economic goals.
This should include explicitly stating that it should use every tool in the box to promote the best interests of students – sometimes by encouraging competition, and sometimes by encouraging collaboration.
Maddalaine Ansell is chief executive of the University Alliance.