King’s v-c: English sector regulation ‘may dampen creativity’

Ed Byrne warns Office for Students could be creating a model where university leaders have less freedom

February 10, 2020
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The stricter regulation of the English higher education sector under the Office for Students risks dampening universities’ creativity and producing institutions with only “theoretical” autonomy, a sector leader has warned.

Ed Byrne, president of King’s College London, said that although every country “needs to have a mechanism of accountability for organisations using and spending public funds”, there was “a real risk that the balance [of regulation in England] may not be completely right”.

Speaking to coincide with the publication of his book The University Challenge: Changing Universities in a Changing World, co-authored with former UK education secretary Charles Clarke, Professor Byrne said “the worry in this country is that [the OfS] will perhaps reach a stage where it starts to dampen creativity in a very vibrant sector at a time when the country needs creative universities perhaps more than ever before, in a post-Brexit world”.

“It’s almost impossible to either eliminate risk or drive excellence through hyper-regulation,” he added.

Professor Byrne, a neurologist, compared the OfS to Monitor, the agency that regulates NHS foundation trusts.

“The raft of things [the foundation trusts] have to report against gets increasingly larger. Eventually these places are managed around the bevy of things they have to report against, so that you have a theoretically autonomous institution reporting against a whole raft of parameters; and if they’re not doing well against those parameters, they lose that autonomy,” he said.

“If you [look at] the Office for Students, we’re in danger of developing a similar model where you have theoretically universities with a reasonable degree of independence, but they’re forced to report against almost everything, so that the degree of freedom they have around critical academic issues gets less.”

Professor Byrne added that university leaders in the UK, Australia and “definitely” the US still have enough independence to “do something in a different way”, but he questioned whether this would be the case in England in the future if institutions are obliged to report against “a uniform set of criteria that involves the whole sector”.

“At a time when the world of education and of knowledge is changing so rapidly, you want as many people doing new and different things as possible. Any drive towards conformity of standards of behaviour is to be decried,” he said.

Professor Byrne said that when he led Monash University in Australia from 2009 to 2014, the higher education sector had “very detailed and appropriate reporting requirements, but the number of interventions or requests for information I would get from government I could count on one hand every year”.

“Here, the number of things that one is required to report against for the Office for Students gets greater and greater and greater,” he said.

Mr Clarke, a visiting professor at King’s, who was education secretary in Tony Blair’s government from 2002 to 2004, agreed that it was “not a desirable state of affairs that the government and the Office for Students set down a set of directives to all universities on how they behave”.

“As we observe the current system, there’s too much of a tendency in the university sector to wait and see what the government wants to do and to deal with whatever the government seeks to regulate through the Office for Students or ministers,” Mr Clarke said.

“Ministers often make remarks about how universities operate…It’s not their business to do that, and we think universities need to take the leadership and the responsibility to do that. The way to make that happen is through clear missions for each university, within which university leaders have to operate.”

Mr Clarke added: “The more the funding system is unsustainable – ie, the more that the state has to pay for universities because [student] loans aren’t being paid and so on – then the more the state will feel it has an obligation to say how things should be done in the individual universities.”

The book calls for “serious consideration” to be given to requiring employers to contribute to the higher education costs of the graduates they employ. Mr Clarke said this could best be achieved by requiring companies to pay higher national insurance contributions for each graduate they recruit.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: OfS’ heavy hand ‘may dampen creativity’

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