Million+ wary of biddable regulatory superpower

Response to Hefce consultation on quality assurance raises fears of an all-powerful regulator susceptible to political influence

March 12, 2015

Any proposal to merge university funding councils with the bodies responsible for quality assurance could create an all-powerful regulator susceptible to political influence, a mission group has warned.

In its response to a consultation by the Higher Education Funding Council for England on the future of quality assurance, Million+, which represents a number of post-1992 universities, raises concerns about the possibility of too many powers being located within a single body.

“The risk is that, in moving to a new system of quality arrangements, the government (through Hefce) seeks the power to require specific actions of universities and vice-chancellors,” the group says in its submission.

Hefce is due to put the contract for assuring standards, currently held by the Quality Assurance Agency, out to tender from 2017 in what is likely to be a major shake-up of how universities are assessed.

If quality assurance were brought in-house to Hefce – as some have suggested could happen – the body would then have too much power to impose penalties on institutions it had concerns about, Million+ says.

Million+ endorses the current sector-owned model of quality assurance, which relies on external examiners and peer review to guarantee comparability of standards, rather than an Ofsted-style mode of inspection based on “periodic licensing or centralised assessments”.

If principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom were undermined, higher education would require “a significant standardisation approaching a pseudo national curriculum for degree- awarding bodies”, Million+ warns.

In its consultation response, the University Alliance, which represents 20 “business-facing” modern universities, says that there should be a “single regulatory body for all higher education providers, commissioning an organisation to undertake quality assurance across the system”.

It also advocates a “risk-based” system of assurance in which performance indicators, key information sets and an institution’s history of passing inspections are used to determine the frequency and intensity of quality assurance reviews.

Both the Russell Group of large research-intensive institutions and the Independent Universities Group, which represents eight leading private providers, declined to share their consultation responses with Times Higher Education.

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