Universities, not the regulator, are best placed to help students

As England’s new higher education regulator the Office for Students begins this week, its deputy chair Martin Coleman explains how it will balance institutional autonomy and public accountability

April 6, 2018

As a regulator, we have been ambitious in our aspirations because regulation can raise standards and support positive change.

But we’re modest about our role. We know that regulation is no substitute for the energy and creativity of those on the ground. 

There are four core elements to the new system: baseline conditions to protect student and public interests; targeted interventions to advance specified student and public interests; freedom for institutions to determine their own path; and the Office for Students leading discussion on best practice and the future of the sector.

The baselines are a floor to protect students and safeguard confidence in the system. Important conditions will ensure that a registered provider will deliver well-designed courses that offer a high-quality academic experience with reliable assessment.  

It is for each provider to decide how to meet the baseline outcomes. What is right for one may not be right for another. That said, we are aware that it is helpful to have some guidance on behaviours that may satisfy each condition, and we have set out indicators that might demonstrate compliance.

Our main concern is to protect the interests of students. This is best done by avoiding infringements through the early identification of potential risks via a combination of effective monitoring and a trusted relationship between the OfS and providers.

Sometimes that will not be enough. Where information indicates a material risk that a provider is not meeting conditions, we shall consider intervening, having regard to the specific circumstances and likely impact.

There is a spectrum: a one-off error, with very limited impact on students, at one end; and deliberate sustained infringements, with serious consequences, at the other.

Our second element is more targeted intervention. The baselines set out minimum, albeit strong, requirements. Targeted interventions are more specific in advancing change and are limited to areas where individual provider initiatives will be insufficient to advance important student and public interests.

Foremost of these is ensuring that all students who have the potential and desire to benefit from higher education have access to the full range of institutions and courses and are properly supported to fulfil their potential.

Within and beyond these parameters, institutions, not the regulator, are best placed to make decisions.

Some will build on a long history to craft their future provision. Others will be new. Innovators will seek to identify where need is not currently being well met, such as provision for mature students. In doing this, they will increase opportunities for students and ensure the health and vitality of the system.

Our role will be to encourage and support such initiatives, including providing students access to information that they can assess effectively and act upon.

It is this aspect of the system that is closest to a market, with providers seeking to deliver strong outcomes, to innovate and to differentiate their offerings to attract students.

But it is a regulated market, as is appropriate for a sector delivering public and private goods and serving some vulnerable users. Baseline conditions, and targeted interventions, ensure that the benefits of choice, and responsiveness to change and new ideas, that come from a well-functioning market, are combined with appropriate interventions and protections for students and the public.

Much public money is invested in the system, and students incur significant debt to meet providers’ costs. It is, therefore, reasonable that providers give proper weight to matters such as student engagement, good governance and efficient use of resources and that they are held to account on how they do this.

Accountability is facilitated by transparency. Providers will be required to publish specified information on matters such as senior leadership remuneration to enable the OfS, students, staff and the wider community to engage on how valuable resources are expended.

Finally, the OfS will have a unique oversight across the sector, including non-registered providers, and power to examine what works well (and not so well). We shall spread best practice, and engage in thought leadership. We shall have a distinct perspective but others will also have valuable insights.

There are those who say that relying on outcome-focused baselines, and limiting direct intervention to certain public interest areas, is insufficient. They want a regulator to set the agenda for the sector and to protect it from change.

But the success of English higher education is not a result of state direction; it reflects the efforts and initiatives of our institutions and those who work in them. Regulation is an important adjunct to institutional decision-making, not a replacement.

Others consider regulatory oversight, beyond the bare minimum such as the protection of the “university” title, as illegitimate. Providers should advance their own concerns, taking into account wider interests as they see fit. This fails to acknowledge the need for accountability of a sector that serves critical social and economic objectives and in which significant public funds are invested.

So our new regulatory system seeks to tread a careful path, protecting vital student and public interests, while recognising that institutional autonomy is essential in delivering a good quality, diverse, independent, responsive and vibrant sector.

Martin Coleman is deputy chair and board member of the Office for Students. He is a competition lawyer and a former board member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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