Failing to look, listen or legislate

An OMG moment is predicted for whoever wins the election as politicians address lapses in oversight and funding challenges

December 4, 2014

Asked, recently, about the sustainability of university funding, Sir David Watson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, responded with a particularly pithy line. The system is so precarious, he said, that regardless of who wins the next election, there will be an “OMG, what have we done” conversation within the government.

Sir David’s prediction was prompted by Times Higher Education’s reporting of the likely growth in the number of European students at universities in England following the decision to abolish the student numbers cap. However, it seems even more prescient this week, with the publication of a National Audit Office report into financial support for students at “alternative” providers.

The NAO’s analysis is damning, setting out the failings of the system of oversight – or, perhaps more accurately, the lack of a system of oversight – as private providers, which inevitably range from good to bad to ugly, have responded to being designated for access to Student Loans Company funding.

The government has stepped in to try to deal with the expansion, but the underlying problems were plain to see

There are a slew of facts and figures in the report – many highlighted previously by THE and by independent analysts such as the author and researcher Andrew McGettigan.

Did you know, for example, that there were as many as 140 private institutions accessing SLC funding – roughly equalling the number of mainstream higher education institutions?

That as of October, just under 1,000 European Union students who were not eligible for maintenance support had received more than £5 million from the SLC to which they were not entitled?

That at nine alternative providers dropout rates were more than 20 per cent in 2012-13, compared with 4 per cent across the rest of the sector (which echoes the experience of the for-profit sector in the US, and demonstrates the strength of our mainstream universities in this regard)? The list goes on: between 2010-11 and 2013-14, the number of students at alternative providers claiming support rose from 7,000 to 53,000 (half of the growth accounted for by five institutions).

Like the little Dutch boy who used his finger to plug a leaking dyke, the government has stepped in to try to deal with the uncontrolled expansion, but the underlying problems are, and were, plain to see – indeed, they were highlighted time and again in these pages.

But, for a variety of reasons, the legislation that the government had envisaged to provide a framework to safely diversify the higher education ecosystem was never introduced, and the NAO report points out that too often when problems have occurred, “none of the oversight bodies has specific responsibility for scrutinising whether this aspect of performance is acceptable”.

Appropriate oversight is also the theme of our cover feature this week, in which we spend time on the ground in Plymouth, taking soundings about the impact of a period of exceptional turbulence at Plymouth University. Its well-documented difficulties have been around management and governance, and our feature asks what wider lessons are to be learned from its experience.

We’re in an age, post-financial crash, in which the importance of appropriate governance is all too clear, and that is as true in higher education as in any other area of national importance – particularly at a time when new forces, motivations and business models bring a new set of pressures to bear.

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