Reel in red tape to free sector

July 26, 2002

Excessive bureaucracy is the bane of the sector. Matti Alderson offers a burden-busting solution

For those who prefer the grind of an uncomfortable status quo to the uncertainty of new initiatives, the conclusions and recommendations of the Better Regulation Task Force will bring yet more sighs. For others who seek more radical changes to sweep away existing burdens, our broadsword will have been wielded with a weak wrist. We rejected both extremes. Instead, we set a commonsense target of seeking a progressive route to the incremental changes that this sector needs.

Our job was to look at whether bureaucracy hampered institutions in carrying out their core activities of teaching and research. The answer was a resounding "yes".

We heard repeatedly about uncoordinated multiple audits, sometimes rolling from one body swiftly into another; excessive data requirements in formats that differed from one body to another; over-restrictive funding requirements; frequent unrewarded competitive bidding; and separate accounting for what are sometimes small pots of money.

In short, the checks and controls imposed on the sector result in a paper chase that distracts institutions from their core activities. And one theme that occurred in almost every conversation we had was the deep-seated and long-standing lack of trust between the government and its agencies and higher education. Why this should be so remains puzzling in a sector that is generally regarded as low risk in terms of management or financial failure and malpractice.

While the government uses education policy and funding as a lever to engineer change to meet its objectives for higher education, it acknowledges that there are excessive burdens on institutions and is working to reduce them.

But there is a fundamental flaw in this drive. We were surprised to learn that no single government department has an overview of the burdens imposed on higher education.

Universities are big business; indeed, some of the institutions we spoke to used the language of the boardroom more than that of the senate, and accountability was taken for granted. But in a sector that lacks an overarching vision and communication, it is little wonder that these burdens have grown unchecked over time.

We want to see the Higher Education Forum strengthened and given the impetus and resources to agree a burden-busting plan with the responsible minister and to report annually on its progress. It should assume the role of gatekeeper, ensuring that the government and its agencies assess any burdens that new proposals could introduce.

Funding initiatives should be reduced to a small number of key theme funding streams with clear criteria for a successful allocation, with any audit and reporting requirements being proportionate to the amount of money involved. The forum would assess the burden of data collection and, where possible, merge returns and agree a common set of data definitions.

A trained and educated workforce is essential to the economic health of the country and whatever resources and commitment, and indeed goodwill, can be marshalled to that end will be very much in the national interest.

Matti Alderson is chairman of the higher education sub-group of the Better Regulation Task Force. The views expressed here are personal. For more information: www.cabinet-office.gov.uk/regulation/taskforce/index.htm

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