England's new regulator, the Office for Students, will have considerable powers that it can deploy swiftly but will use them in an “intelligent” and “thoughtful” way, according to its chief executive.
Nicola Dandridge told Times Higher Education that the OfS – whose wide-ranging proposed powers, detailed in a consultation document published last month, have provoked concern from some in the sector – would be “tough and rational” rather than “tough and capricious”.
“If we were going to turn ourselves into a regulator that was just going to dive in and take action without any foundation or context, that would be really worrying. That is not what we are doing,” she said.
“We are going to be transparent, risk based, thoughtful and intelligent, so we should be an organisation that institutions are comfortable engaging with,” she added.
The powers of the OfS, which officially comes into existence in January and is aimed at enforcing a market-style, competitive approach in the sector, will extend beyond those of the current regulator, the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
As well as awarding universities their teaching grant allocations, the OfS will have an array of powers that includes granting degree-awarding powers and university title to new entrants and, potentially, validating its own degrees, as well as sanctioning institutions not making sufficient progress to widen participation.
Ms Dandridge said that to be effective, the OfS needed considerable powers that it could invoke quickly if an institution put students’ interests at risk.
But it would be a mistake for the OfS to have preconceived ideas about the circumstances under which it would intervene, she said. “One of the things we have to do is not think in those historically weighted ways,” Ms Dandridge added.
Higher education providers that comply with what she called “threshold minimum standards” will “genuinely see less intervention”, she said, adding that they will be “encouraged to flourish and pursue their own particular strategic priorities in a way that is uninhibited by regulatory oversight”.
It would be “utterly wrong” for universities to think that the consultation document represented a done deal in terms of how the OfS would operate to regulate the sector, Ms Dandridge continued.
“We really want to discuss and engage because if this is going to have unintended consequences that undermine the valuable activities in higher education providers or if it is not helpful for students, then we are doing the wrong thing,” she said.
Although the focus on students was non-negotiable, “how we get there is very much up for discussion”, she said, adding that it was critical for the consultation to be “open and genuine”.
The trebling of tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012-13, accompanied by deep cuts to direct public funding, had made it almost inevitable that the higher education funding council would have to shift to a regulator, Ms Dandridge said. “There needs to be a greater focus on the student than perhaps when there was grant funding direct into universities,” she explained.
“Many more students are going to university now than was ever the case before, so the systems and structures, the regulatory oversight that may have worked when going to university was just for a very few people just doesn’t work in a contemporary environment. The stakes are very much higher now for everyone.”
Looking at the detail of the OfS’ remit reveals that Ms Dandridge will be grappling with some new and contentious issues while finalising the regulatory framework. One task will be to define the value for money that higher education represents, both for the student and the taxpayer.
The OfS will require institutions to publish value-for-money statements, which should allow students to understand how universities spend their tuition fees. “This is not a straightforward concept,” Ms Dandridge said.
“You only have a higher education experience once. It is not just that it is value for money through those two, three or four years; it has to be across your whole life, so there is a question of returns when you are older as part of the concept.
“I think that however you define it, it is going to come back to student choice and [the question of] do students get what they hope, want and aspire to out of university.”
Some have raised concerns that Ms Dandridge’s previous post, chief executive of the vice-chancellors’ organisation Universities UK, will compromise her ability to run a regulator intended to protect student interests.
But Ms Dandridge, who started her career as a lawyer in the City and worked for trade unions before moving to UUK, said: “Judge me on my record.”