Universities warned over ‘sleepwalking’ into Ofsted-style regime

Higher education may be “sleepwalking” towards a new quality control system based on Ofsted-style inspections, a leading sector figure has warned.

March 25, 2014

Writing on a new blog launched by the Higher Education Policy Institute, Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, claims universities may be moving away from their current system of self-regulation via independent peer review towards an “external model of quality and inspection”.

His comments follow calls from politicians, think tanks and commissions for more powerful regulator to police higher education and ensure students paying annual tuition fees of £9,000 receive value for money.

The Office of Fair Trading, the Higher Education Commission, the IPPR and Lord Browne of Madingley, who undertook the 2010 review of higher education, are among those to suggest changes to regulation in recent times.

Predicting “the biggest shake-up of agencies and quangos for over 20 years”, Mr Westwood, a former Labour special adviser on higher education, says any regulatory changes could compromise the principle of self-regulation on which the sector is currently run.

“Sector-owned regulation is one of the big things that distinguishes the different policy frameworks in higher and further education,” he writes.

“It goes to the heart of peer review – the idea that we in higher education are best placed to determine what is good and what is not.”

Any legislation to beef up higher education regulation via the creation of an overarching sector regulator - incorporating the powers currently held by bodies such as the Quality Assurance Agency, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and the Higher Education Funding Council for England - could threaten the existence of university autonomy and the principle of peer review, Mr Westwood adds.

“Sector-owned ‘self regulation’ via organisations like the QAA, UCAS, HESA – even the sector’s role in organisations like HEFCE and the OIA – are increasingly in question,” he writes.

“We may be sleepwalking into a position where we give up sector ownership and find ourselves with a more external model of quality and inspection – something worryingly like an OFSTED for HE.”

The blog post is the first to feature in a new “Debate” section on the revamped Hepi website, which was launched on 25 March.

Nick Hillman, Hepi director, said the new site wanted to encourage more people to debate current issues in higher education.

“Our new website won’t just be a shop window for Hepi’s output. It will provide a new forum for people in higher education to comment, propose and criticise,” he said.

“The best way to get a better higher education system is to debate its current strengths and weaknesses.”

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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