Three-pronged attack on red tape

September 14, 2001

University regulators were hit by a triple whammy this week, as vice-chancellors, union leaders and Cabinet Office watchdogs moved against over-regulation and excessive red tape.

Lecturers' leaders called for a concerted campaign against bureaucracy at the Trades Union Congress conference in Brighton, while Universities UK president Roderick Floud was leading calls for "a root and branch review of all areas of scrutiny, audit, bidding and other bureaucracy that cost so much in time and staff energy" at the vice-chancellors' meeting in Southampton.

The rallying cries came as the Cabinet Office Better Regulation Task Force considered a sweeping review of regulatory red tape in higher education.

At the TUC conference, Penny Holloway, an executive of the Association of University Teachers and a member of the TUC's general council, was due to move a council-backed motion calling for curbs on excessive bureaucracy in universities and across industry. Her motion was passed by the TUC General Council as the Congress was halted following the terrorist attacks on the United States.

The motion called on the TUC to prepare a comprehensive review of bureaucracy and regulation in time for next year's conference, exploring ways to slash red tape while maintaining clear and transparent systems that the public can trust. "Congress notes the contradiction between seeking vital reductions in risk and overtly bureaucratic methods of dealing with it," it said.

At the UUK residential meeting, Professor Floud was expected to announce plans for an "action plan that promotes a new accountability regime that recognises the sector as low risk and cost effective" to be completed by the end of this year.

He was expected to say that vice-chancellors had made "excellent progress" in the war against over-zealous quality assurance. UUK had taken a key role in developing plans, with funding chiefs, for a light-touch audit-based regime that would virtually do away with subject-level teaching inspections.

In a thinly veiled attack on John Randall, who resigned as head of the Quality Assurance Agency last month claiming the current plans were too weak, Professor Floud was due to warn: "We must rebut - by our action, and by the information that we provide to students and the public - any allegations that we fear public scrutiny and wish to protect the producer rather than the consumer."

Consultation over the new regime ends in late October. But some hope the expected decision by the Better Regulation Task Force to review university regulation, as well as the moves from UUK and the TUC, will allow a more fundamental debate.

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