Red spells danger

February 18, 2005

Lighten the paperwork burden, urges Patricia Hodgson. Freedom will give Britain the edge

Managing a large university must be one of the most demanding executive tasks in the UK.

It requires the ability to compete internationally for academic talent, support cutting-edge research, provide a complex service to anything from 1,500 to 35,000 young people, and look after a technologically demanding plant - as well as caring for parts of a collection of historic buildings that rivals the National Trust.

Institutions also need to connect to the regional, national and global economy in every field from teaching to biochemistry.

Such complex businesses are not best led by government agencies and clearly cannot succeed by form-filling.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England dispenses about £7 billion of public funds to colleges and universities, so it needs mechanisms to ensure accountability and value for money. But, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the burden of this regulation can be greatly reduced.

Even the most successful of institutions make three major submissions each year to Hefce in addition to funding bids, quality inspections and data returns to at least three government departments.

No wonder academics complain that excess bureaucracy keeps them from teaching and research. No wonder they believe this level of external monitoring threatens to divert institutions from the drive to improve management and governance - a drive that is essential if Britain's university sector is to stay at the top of the international tree. We need a real push against over-centralised bureaucracy and regulatory dependence.

The review group that I have chaired for the past few months was set up by the Department for Education and Skills to implement recommendations for better regulation.

That depends on good management and clear responsibility within institutions so we can streamline the external plethora of overlapping inspections and data requests.

In discussions with us, Hefce agreed to cut the number of funding streams requiring separate bids to six; to monitor universities using their own annual reports and forecasts; to abolish multiple data demands during the year, except for those institutions at risk; and to require institutions report only on failures to meet particular regulatory requirements.

Beyond this, my group of talented registrars and finance directors from a wide range of institutions agree that the problem can also be found in gold-plated responses from the sector seeking approval from funding bodies.

Soon there will be a new twist.

Following the hard-fought battle over tuition fees, universities and colleges are preparing for a direct consumer relationship with those they teach.

They will encounter the pressures of a real market in admissions where they are judged for standards and value not only by government administrators but by paying customers.

To meet rising expectations, resources will have to be transferred from bureaucracy to the front line. Universities have always prized independence and academic freedom. They need to develop these to deliver academic and business success.

The reforms I have mentioned are important. But they are only one step of many that must be taken to free up the sector.

Later this year, the review group will extend its work to the overlapping data demands and inspection regimes generated by the departments of health and of trade and industry.

We are also looking for ways to create a ratchet that will exert continuing pressure for deregulation after our two-year task is complete.

Dame Patricia Hodgson is chairwoman of the Higher Education Regulation Review Group. Your ideas are welcome - please email the group's secretariat at herrg.sec@ dfes.gsi.gov.uk

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