Light-touch rules could quickly become heavy

A risk-based approach to quality assurance could lead to more rather than less red tape for universities because the government's reforms are likely to put pressure on standards.

November 10, 2011

That is one of the findings of a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute, published on 10 November, that looks specifically at the recent White Paper proposals to cut bureaucratic oversight for institutions deemed to be low risk.

In the study, Roger King, a research associate at the London School of Economics' Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation, suggests that competition for student places is likely to encourage more risk-taking among universities.

"Some institutions may become particularly vulnerable to the continual loss of student numbers, and this may lead to riskier behaviour by those deemed originally as 'low risk'," he says in The Risks of Risk-based Regulation: The Regulatory Challenges of the Higher Education White Paper for England.

He adds that such universities might need to take action to counter a loss of income, which "could take the form of significant cost-cutting in budgets for the institutional assurance of standards".

Professor King argues that universities might also be tempted into "risky entrepreneurial behaviour" by chasing high tuition fees from unregulated markets such as international students, but without the safeguards to maintain quality.

Such developments would increase the danger of a major scandal with the potential to damage the reputation of English higher education, leading to doubts about the efficacy of a risk-based system among the very people proposing it - politicians.

"Scandal or failure can quickly turn such stakeholders away from risk-based regulation and back towards more uniform and standardised compliance models," he suggests.

Professor King adds that the government's mantra of "championing" students as consumers sits "uneasily" with a light-touch approach and warns that the proposals appear "out of kilter" with the wider agreements on quality assurance contained in the Bologna Process.

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