New age of regulation must not forget the lessons of the past

The Office for Students’ arrival marks a new era of higher education regulation but it can also learn much from its predecessor's successes, argues Tim Melville-Ross

April 19, 2018
hefce ofs lightbulbs
Source: Miles Cole

As chair of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, I am naturally a little sad to see it superseded by the Office for Students and Research England, part of UK Research and Innovation.

Of course, I accept the rationale for the government’s decision. The world of higher education has changed to such an extent that a new oversight framework is desirable. But that does not mean that some of the characteristics of the previous framework should not form part of the new, especially where there is plenty of evidence to show that they work.

For two very important reasons, the new organisations should base much of their work on a close understanding of and dialogue with the sector.

The first reason relates to the all-important regulatory role of the OfS. It has much wider powers than Hefce did, but needs to balance the use of these so that, on the one hand, the interests of students and the stability and sustainability of the sector are both protected, and, on the other, that the greatest possible autonomy and academic freedom for both students and institutions is ensured. Another way of putting this is that the use of powers should be proportionate to the needs and circumstances of individual institutions.

It is widely accepted that Hefce successfully acted as a “buffer” between the sector and government, thereby preserving such autonomy and academic freedom. These principles are enshrined in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, and it is important for them to be maintained.

The second reason for working closely with the sector is that, throughout its life, Hefce performed a crucial role in supporting government as it developed and implemented new policies and legislation for higher education. Our ability to do that relied heavily on the sector expertise and connections with institutions that Hefce had. Preserving such expertise and connections will ensure that regulatory activities and dialogue with government can always be well informed.

Students have a key part to play and it is good to see recognition of this in the governance arrangements being put in place by the OfS. I might add that Hefce board meetings benefited greatly from the presence of successive presidents of the National Union of Students as observers.

One very important development during the Hefce period was many more disadvantaged students going to universities and succeeding. But wider educational policy needs to take this much further, especially through recognising the need for lifelong learning, to enable those who do not participate fully both economically and socially in our national life to do so.

Symptomatic of the scale of this problem is the continuing dramatic decline in the numbers of part-time learners. Put simply, we must address age discrimination. Policy has focused too much on the pipeline of people coming into the labour market. A high-skill, high-wage economy will need large parts of the stock of labour – those currently in work – to be upskilled to make their full contribution.

Higher education institutions have a key role to play here, by offering choices that address mid-life skill shortages, overcoming barriers to learning (such as funding, family life and work pressures) and ensuring that those who participate enjoy genuinely life-changing opportunities and experiences.

I am sure that Research England will be able to continue to support yet more progress in UK research and knowledge exchange. The previous dual-funding arrangement, whereby quality-related infrastructure funding came from Hefce and project funding came from the research councils, was widely acknowledged to be an important part of the UK’s research success. To maintain this momentum – and because the two streams will now come together under the overall direction of UKRI – it will be vital for there to be close collaboration between UKRI and the OfS to preserve the important links between teaching and research.

There are many more challenges for the new organisations. These include funding and the post-18 review; the important role universities play in the civic life of the cities and towns where they are based; medical research and teaching, especially regarding mental health; the importance of collaboration as well as competition; the implications of all this for the UK’s Industrial Strategy; and understanding the social dynamics of the pace of change affecting us all, and what that means for institutions’ business models.

Higher education has a long-term impact on the lives of individuals, on the economy and on society as a whole. Those contributing to policy, regulation and funding need to adopt considered and informed positions so that advice given and actions taken are not over-influenced by current media pressures, including social media.

Higher education in the UK is a success story. There are many gifted individuals in the sector who will be working hard to ensure that this success continues. Our national wellbeing depends on it.

Sir Tim Melville-Ross is the former chair of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. This article is based on a speech he gave at an event at the House of Lords to mark Hefce’s winding up.

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