A higher education bill with tougher quality control sanctions is essential if the sector is to protect teaching and academic standards, experts have warned.
No new measures to safeguard standards have been unveiled since last week’s announcement that student number controls will be abolished in 2015-16, although institutions that expand student numbers “at the expense of quality” will have their places capped, the government has said.
However, lifting the cap across the sector will almost certainly require extra checks and regulatory powers to ensure that standards are not compromised, argued David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies.
“It makes the need for a coherent and comprehensive regulatory regime all the greater if higher education is now to get even bigger and cost even more,” he said.
More regulatory control would be necessary because “institutions will be tempted to expand even more at the expense of teaching quality”, he added.
Ministers, who scrapped plans for a higher education bill in January 2012, would no longer be able to ignore the need for legislation to ensure that the taxpayer received value for money and standards were upheld, insisted Roger Brown, a former head of the Higher Education Quality Council, predecessor of the Quality Assurance Agency.
“In terms of quality, this move is more remarkable than introducing £9,000 fees because the sector will become a complete free-for-all,” said Professor Brown. “The only good thing about it will be a renewed focus on quality.”
It is also unclear what additional measures could be introduced to maintain standards and bolster the QAA’s current system of institutional checks every four to six years.
Minimum tariff entry requirements – as proposed in the 2010 Browne Review – are one possibility, although this is likely to undermine institutional autonomy and efforts to widen participation.
“It would be a very backwards step,” said Professor Brown, a former vice-chancellor at Southampton Solent University.
“Some students at my university did not get any qualifications but often did better in the end than those with a string of good A levels.”
Annual institutional health checks scrutinising information on dropout rates, teaching hours and financial data were introduced in Australia to police standards more firmly as student numbers were deregulated there over the past few years.
However, adopting such an approach in the UK would impose large amounts of unnecessary red tape on institutions, with few results, said Bahram Bekhradnia, outgoing director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
“It would be a massive sledgehammer to crack a very small nut, namely the existence of a few rogue operators,” he said. “However, we do need a quality assurance system that identifies any concerns quickly.”
Anthony McClaran, chief executive of the QAA, said he welcomed the “commitment to protect academic standards, the experience of students and the quality of provision” in the Autumn Statement.
He added that the abolition of student number quotas was an “unprecedented opportunity” for institutions.