The three big political parties must commit to an English higher education bill to avert “a threat to the system”, according to a major new report.
There should also be a Council for Higher Education with more autonomy from the government to regulate the sector, according to the report from the Higher Education Commission - an independent body made up of senior figures from education, business and politics.
The study, Regulating Higher Education: Protecting Students, Encouraging Innovation, Enhancing Excellence, also warns that private provision amounts to a “growing unregulated sector” that “has the potential to damage England’s reputation as a leading provider of higher education”. It recommends that all higher education providers be forced - under threat of fines or closure for non-compliance - to sign up to common regulatory standards.
Both the inquiry’s co-chairs - Conservative peer Lord Norton of Louth and Roger King, former vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln - said they believe the government may introduce a consolidation bill before the election, drawing together existing regulatory changes.
But their report, published on 9 October, which took evidence from the education sector over eight months, recommends much more significant change.
It concedes that higher education regulation is seen as a “geeky” topic, but stresses the repercussions of failing to introduce a bill to update regulation to accompany funding changes and the advent of new providers (as the government originally planned with its shelved White Paper).
“We are concerned that the regulatory structure is not yet equipped to manage the new system of funding, or the increased diversity of providers, and that gaps are forming, which pose a threat to the system,” says the HEC report.
Professor King, who is visiting professor in the School of Management at the University of Bath, said the report was about ensuring that “we don’t have a fire without a fire brigade”.
He urged the political parties to “move on with our proposals before we find out we’ve got some institutions, who we don’t know about, suddenly getting into real difficulties without any recourse for their students, which might affect the reputation of the sector”.
Lord Norton, professor of government at the University of Hull, said the commission was “making progress in that the parties are listening”. But the key point now was “actually getting them to act”.
Among its 13 recommendations, the report says the government should commit to higher education legislation - and if time does not allow for a bill before the election, “new legislation should appear in all three major parties’ manifestos”.
The report calls for the creation of a Council for Higher Education that reports annually to Parliament. It would, Professor King said, have “power to regulate in the public interest” rather than linking its powers to funding.
It would build on the remit of the Higher Education Funding Council for England but incorporate the Office for Fair Access, the Student Loans Company and a new body focused on private providers and universities’ private offshoots.
Professor King said that unlike the “rather simplistic” call in the Browne Review for a single regulator, the HEC recommends that the Quality Assurance Agency, Ucas and the Higher Education Statistics Agency remain as independent bodies as examples of “good self-regulation”.
Hefce has been left hamstrung by the lack of a bill, as the phasing-out of teaching grant - which it used under the old system to enforce regulation - diminishes its powers.
The HEC says it heard from witnesses that “Hefce had become too close to government”, and describes its own proposal as having autonomy from both the government and the sector.
Liam Burns once lamented when he was president of the National Union of Students that students have “more financial protection on a holiday to Magaluf than…taking out a £K loan and going to university for three years”.
The Higher Education Commission was obviously listening.
It warns that under the new more marketised system, “the chances of an institution failing are increased”.
It therefore proposes two options for an insurance scheme to protect students against such an outcome - one a “sector-wide” system modelled on the Civil Aviation Authority’s Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing (Atol) scheme, and another that would be individual to universities.
The commission’s report leans towards the first scheme, under which institutions would pay a sum per student “into a fund which would cover costs in the event of a failure”.