England’s new regulator, the Office for Students, has been accused by the most senior UK university leaders of failing to show “due regard or respect” to the devolved nations, according to a letter seen by Times Higher Education.
“Our motivation in raising these concerns with you is about safeguarding both the cohesiveness of the UK higher education sector and its international reputation,” says a letter sent to Sir Michael Barber, the OfS chair, by Dame Janet Beer, the Universities UK president; Sir David Bell, the UUK vice-president for England and Northern Ireland; Julie Lydon, the Universities Wales chair; and Andrea Nolan, the convener of Universities Scotland.
The letter, sent last month, follows friction between the OfS and the nations over the redrafting of the UK Quality Code.
That is the subject of another unpublished letter, also seen by THE, sent by the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish sector members of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment – all pro vice-chancellors or more senior – which warns that “there are some around the table who are not sufficiently concerned to maintain the strength and distinctiveness of a UK sector-wide reputation”, which is “in danger of being damaged, both by an apparent lack of regard for the views or needs of the devolved nations; and indeed by the abrasive approach taken by the OfS”.
The complaints underline that the OfS – created by the government to promote competition and a market in England – has a very different character from its predecessor organisation, the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The letter from the UUK leaders to Sir Michael says: “We have…become increasingly aware that the experiences of OfS engagement with the devolved nations have been less than satisfactory.
“Some policies with important UK-wide implications have been pursued without an apparent full awareness or recognition of the statutory positions in place.
“We are particularly concerned about the appropriateness of English driven changes being pushed through UK-owned infrastructure without due regard or respect for other administrations with a stake in those processes.”
The letter refers to the redrafting of the UK Quality Code, saying “key strengths of our…UK higher education sector are in danger of being damaged if we are unable [to] have effective and constructive dialogue”. It also calls for dialogue on other key areas, including changes to the teaching excellence framework, “in terms of the speed of reforms and relevance across the UK”.
In the letter to Sir Michael, the UUK leaders “request a meeting as a matter of priority to discuss how we can work collectively to ensure a UK-wide infrastructure”.
The separate, earlier letter from UKSCQA sector members in the nations, sent to Andrew Wathey, the Northumbria University vice-chancellor who chairs the committee, says that the “haste” of the Quality Code redrafting process was “due to the demanding position and timelines set by the Office for Students”.
New expectations and practices of the code were published in March, to form the basis of a fully revised code scheduled for publication in November.
The letter adds: “Being presented with a position by the OfS that demanded an immediate decision, coupled with the threat that OfS would refuse to use the code within its framework, not only demonstrates disregard for the opinions around the table from the devolved nations, but also served to place others in the sector with more nuanced views in an invidious position.”
An OfS spokeswoman said: “We have sought to ensure that it was possible to retain a genuinely UK-wide Quality Code and are very pleased that, through close joint working, we have been able to achieve this.
“Our commitment to the UKSCQA represents our ongoing commitment to a UK-wide view of quality, and we look forward to working with colleagues on shared agendas in the future.”
The spokeswoman added: “We are in constructive dialogue with UUK and will be meeting with them in the autumn for further discussions.”