Elite embittered as Hefce decides to not risk calling time on audits

Funding chiefs shy away from White Paper plans for 'light-touch' regulation. John Morgan reports

November 1, 2012

The Russell Group is "disappointed" that there will be no major changes to the sector's quality assurance regime after the Higher Education Funding Council for England steered away from government plans to scale back or even scrap regular audits.

In last year's higher education White Paper, the government outlined a switch to a "risk-based" quality assurance regime.

It said that it would "explore options in which the frequency - and perhaps need - for a full, scheduled institutional review will depend on an objective assessment of a basket of data, monitored continually" but at arm's length.

However, Hefce - tasked with consulting the sector on the proposed system - has announced that scheduled institutional reviews will be retained and will take place every six years, a situation unchanged from the status quo.

The outcome of the consultation will be viewed as a blow to the government and to the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, which supported the scaling-back of regulation for its members.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: "We are disappointed that Hefce has not taken this opportunity to adopt a genuinely risk-based, light-touch quality assurance regime - especially since the higher education White Paper made a commitment to substantial deregulatory change."

Russell Group universities "should be subject to considerably less inspection and bureaucracy", she added.

In its paper on the consultation outcomes, Hefce says that institutions "with a longer track record of successfully assuring quality and standards" (ie, universities) will be subject to institutional review by the Quality Assurance Agency every six years.

Institutions with shorter track records, such as private providers, will be reviewed every four years.

Instead of the type of review of data suggested in the White Paper, Hefce says that it will "ask the QAA to take greater account of publicly available data and information in its review methods".

Any form of mid-cycle review will be discontinued.

Hefce will also ask the QAA "to no longer undertake separate reviews of collaborative provision, and to work towards an integrated review method for all providers of HE".

Fine judgement

Roger King, visiting professor at the University of Bath's School of Management and author of a paper evaluating the "risks of risk-based regulation" for the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the funding council's proposals were "pragmatic and well judged".

He added: "There is enough bending of the knee in the direction of risk-based regulation not to embarrass the government, while keeping the essentials of the current system - namely universal coverage and regular cyclical reviews - intact. "Student opinion has been influential in these proposals. The consultations show that consumers actually like regulation. It gives them protections in markets, something the White Paper failed to recognise properly."

However, Professor King warned that the "mid-cycle arrangements for detecting risk look flimsy", especially considering the "withdrawal of mid-cycle reviews and the abandonment of the planned annual reviews of institutional data".

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

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