In the plans for a shake-up of the regulatory regime governing higher education, all providers, regardless of their status, would be subject to the same oversight if they have loan-funded students.
The new regime is likely to include a transformed, but not renamed, Higher Education Funding Council for England, which would become a “consumer champion” with beefed-up powers to act on concerns raised by other bodies such as the Quality Assurance Agency.
Meanwhile, the QAA would move towards a more “risk-based” approach to inspection that makes it easier for student complaints to trigger an audit, as well as reducing the burden for universities with a good track record.
David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said the “conceptual shift” was that the whole framework of regulation needed to focus on “the student in receipt of the loan, rather than a group of institutions in receipt of Hefce grant”.
He said: “You have to think of a regulator protecting students as consumers, ensuring they have access to what is still a very significant amount of public money and being clear about what happens in return.”
There are no plans to create a single “super quango” to regulate the sector – as proposed by Lord Browne’s review – but Mr Willetts envisaged that Hefce could ultimately have the power to stop institutions accessing the student loans system if they fall foul of the rules.
“I would say that [Hefce’s] powers will be linked ultimately to whether it will [allow money to be lent] to students to pay the fees to go to institutions.
“Some of the conditions that are currently attached to [teaching] grants – in a modernised, light-touch way – will be attached to eligibility to student support,” he said.
There are also proposals to allow the Office for Fair Access to impose new fines if a university or other provider fails to keep to agreements on helping poorer students.
Meanwhile, the White Paper says the government will look at the rules governing degree-awarding powers and university title, which could make it easier for companies, further education colleges and providers from overseas to enter the market.
On university title, the government aims to look at the rules specifying how many students an institution must have before applying for use of the term.
With degree-awarding powers, there are proposals to remove the barriers that can prevent non-teaching institutions such as examining boards from offering degrees that can then be taught by institutions such as further education colleges.