Fight back now, or you'll buckle under the burden

November 21, 2003

The Better Regulation Review Group is waging war on excessive red tape and winning, says David VandeLinde

Because universities are in receipt of public funds, they can never expect to exist in a world without regulation.

But we can expect a world where the level of regulation does not shatter the very independence that is the key strength of universities.

Anyone who has worked in the university sector recently will know that the burden of red tape has grown inexorably. Funding has been dissected into endless special funding streams, with multitudinous bidding and monitoring requirements, while new standards are regularly introduced. Universities have been almost overwhelmed by the tide of bureaucracy and feel micromanaged by government agencies.

When readers of The THES opened its pages to find that bureaucracy was to be counteracted by the creation of yet another committee, many must have thought they were reading Laurie Taylor's column. I was persuaded to fight fire with fire, and I agreed to chair the Better Regulation Review Group (BRRG). The group brings together senior representatives from funding bodies, agencies and institutions to oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the Better Regulation Task Force report Higher Education: Easing the Burden . It is also its duty to look at excessive bureaucracy already in place and to consider ways to ensure the bureaucratic burden of new policy is minimised.

It soon became apparent that I had committed myself to a mission impossible, as universities faced a raft of potential bureaucratic burdens.

There was speculation that the next research assessment exercise would bring tortuous additional administrative burdens; a growing fear that funding reform would be used as an excuse to introduce a mass of new bureaucracy; funding bodies were even considering a prescriptive regime for postgraduate research students.

Eight months on, things feel much better. The government and its agencies are listening to concerns about the burgeoning bureaucratic burden, and the BRRG has seen significant progress on all but one of the task force's recommendations.

There is visible progress in the reform of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's financial and management audit regime and in the coordination of quality assurance reviews. Moreover, the group has agreed a review of the code of practice with the Quality Assurance Agency to ensure that it is clearly understood as non-prescriptive guidance. We have overseen the promise of a significant reduction in the requirements the Higher Education Statistics Agency makes of universities. In addition, the plans for the new RAE appear to be giving consideration to the principles of good regulation, and Hefce and the funding bodies are pursuing a single set of quality standards for postgraduate research degrees, rather than the initial idea of a framework entirely separate from the QAA's code of practice on postgraduate research students.

There has been one key area that seems doomed to elude reform - a reduction in the number of special funding streams. But, even here, higher education minister Alan Johnson's announcement this week that he wants to see the mainstreaming of four significant special funding streams has given us hope.

The minister also announced that he would be asking Hefce, the Learning and Skills Council and the Teacher Training Agency to introduce impact assessments for new policies that affect higher education. Again this is good news. Regulators must show that they have carefully considered what each new policy will mean for universities. The impact assessment for the higher education white paper was late, but it happened, and the BRRG was able to advise and comment on it. It is now clearly understood that impact assessments should be published alongside policy proposals, and they will be a key tool for any "gatekeeper".

In the next few months, the group will consider proposals for a gatekeeper mechanism to ensure that new policy is comprehensively and publicly assessed before it becomes regulation. The interaction with a gatekeeper mechanism and the requirement to have an impact assessment should ensure that new policies are proportionate, targeted, consistent and fit for the purpose.

The first BRRG report, and the positive response we have seen from the government and agencies, bodes well. I urge everyone to consider our report and let us know their views. But let us know soon - after its final report, the group intends to add itself to the list of things no longer needed.

David VandeLinde is vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick. He chairs the Better Regulation Review Group. Its interim report is available at: www.hero.ac.uk

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