Regulated response

July 18, 2013

The Operating Framework for Higher Education in England, released on 11 July, sets out with admirable clarity practical proposals for holding things together now that plans for a Higher Education Act have been dropped and the existing legislative provisions are being stretched to breaking point (“we are constrained by the existing legislation at the present time”, notes the document drily). (“NUS and Hefce team up for regulation without legislation”, News, 11 July.)

The exercise of ministerial powers to create statutory instruments will need watching in this situation. There was quite a fight to restrict those powers in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, restrictions recently tested by way of the government’s allocation of targeted funding through the Higher Education Funding Council for England. “I will be updating the education (student support) regulations,” says David Willetts, the universities and science minister, in his statement launching the framework. What else may be “updated” by this route?

The government is encouraging “provider diversity” to give students more choice and there are sound proposals to ensure that alternative providers have to pass muster to enter the sector. But it will be a rare applicant who consults the (welcome) planned Hefce register knowledgeably and spots that his choice is “not subject to the same oversight arrangements as designated higher education providers”, or knows how to make “enquiries about the quality of provision and other matters of potential interest”. How many 17-year-olds, noting that courses from their preferred providers are not “subject to the full operating framework”, will instantly apply elsewhere?

If something goes wrong and a student wants to complain, the discovery may come too late that although most providers will subscribe to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, “some alternative providers may not”. If “students, staff or other parties have concerns about a university or college that they believe require investigation, and where such concerns indicate serious systemic or procedural problems”, the Quality Assurance Agency “will investigate them in detail through its concerns procedure. Note that again this will not be relevant for any university or college which does not subscribe to the QAA or have Tier 4 status.”

If a designated course is de-designated or a provider fails altogether, Willetts says he has asked the funding council, in concert with the government and the sector, to look at options for developing a designation resolution process: not in place yet then. Well done Hefce and the Regulatory Partnership Group for quietly flagging all this up.

G.R. Evans
Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service

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