England’s funding council is mounting a “worrying move for power in the sector” with its plans to outsource quality assurance.
That is the view of critics after detailed scrutiny of the terms and conditions issued for the quality assurance work by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which insists that the contracts “reflect normal commercial practice”.
The work is being put out to tender in six packages. Commercial operators Tribal and Capita are said to be potential bidders, while the Quality Assurance Agency is also seeking to retain at least some work.
Hefce’s critics argue that its ultimate goal is to take quality assurance in-house – which they fear could end the “co-regulatory” system as currently led by the QAA, along with the UK-wide system that some believe is key to British higher education’s “brand” overseas.
The funding council is viewed by some in the sector as seeking to carve out a greater role for itself as it faces, under government plans, being merged with the far smaller Office for Fair Access to create the new Office for Students.
But Hefce’s moves could end up bringing quality assurance closer to government power, critics fear.
Four of the six contracts will include a mutual one-year break clause that could allow Hefce to walk away quickly; all the contracts grant Hefce intellectual property rights over documents and computer software prepared or developed by contractors in the provision of “products”; and the contracts will tie the contractors to Hefce’s “successor” body.
Contract is ‘a shocker’
Gill Evans, emeritus professor in medieval theology at the University of Cambridge, said: “I found the contract a shocker. It would remove all independence from any contracting supplier and make it simply a long arm of Hefce. It would give Hefce control of the intellectual property in materials created by any contractor to support quality assessment, whereas the current materials belong to the QAA.”
Professor Evans said that under the contract terms, “the contracting party agrees to go on working with any ‘successor’ body to Hefce, and we all suspect that Hefce is hoping to be transferred into the Office for Students and [essentially] take that over, too”.
Critics have suggested that the one-year break clause also shows Hefce catering for the possibility that the government will squash its plans by moving to protect UK-wide quality assurance in the forthcoming higher education White Paper.
The contract also says that the contractor “shall not publish any literature, deliver any lecture, or presentation, or workshop, or event, or make any communication to the press relating to the business of the council [Hefce] or on any matter with which the council may be concerned unless it has previously and on each occasion obtained the prior written permission of the council’s authorised representative”.
A Hefce spokesman said that the contract terms set out “standard terms and conditions, and these reflect normal commercial practice when entering into contracts with third-party organisations”.
He explained: “A one-year break clause is common in circumstances where a significantly redesigned service is being tendered as this provides a mechanism to ensure that the supplier is able to achieve credible delivery of the new service in practice and to ensure value for public money: we would not wish to be contractually tied to a supplier for the lifetime of a five-year contract if we had concerns about that supplier’s performance.”
The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 gives the UK’s funding councils responsibility to “secure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education provided in institutions for whose activities they provide, or are considering providing, financial support”.
Professor Evans said that at the time the act was passed, there was “lots in the parliamentary debates stressing how important it was that there should be no direct government control of any academic or institutional activity”.
Given the new system’s potential to fundamentally change the nature of the system, she added: “Government control seems likely to be far more direct under the new plans, and all those speeches in Parliament will need to be made again.”
Aldwyn Cooper, vice-chancellor of Regent’s University London, said: “It must be a matter of concern that Hefce are rushing to tender for packages of QA processes before the expected White Paper is published in the next month. It seems that their action is not welcomed by the minister, the select committee or the sector.”
He added: “It appears to be a worrying move for power in the sector rather than for the benefit of higher education and brand UK.”