Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

Tiers before bedtime? Registers, gateways and regulatory tiers in higher education


Higher education regulation is a bit like Goldilocks – too much for some, not enough for others. But unlike Goldilocks it has been suggested that the answer may lie in tears – or should I say tiers.

The amount of regulation in higher education is fiercely contested and as the higher education sector continues to become more diverse, this issue is likely to become the focus of more attention. For those institutions that have a long-track record of delivering high quality education, they argue that the regulatory burden is too high and not proportionate to the low risks. However, on the other hand we have the NAO and Public Accounts Committee questioning whether there is enough regulation to provide adequate public reassurance for those new entrants to higher education receiving public funding.

This is the third in a series of blogs looking at the regulatory landscape in higher education. Previous blogs looked at Protecting the Student Interest and the huge diversity in the independent higher education sector: 50 Shades of Dross?

Tiers of regulation

Should there be different regulation in place for different amounts of public funding received? Whilst perhaps a seemingly obvious question, I would argue that it should not be about the amount of public funding received, but rather being able to justify the regulation based on that needed to provide reassurance about the quality of the student learning experience.

This would suggest different tiers of regulation – or gateways if we want a less loaded term – based on the different types of activity or complexity of provision. In other words, an institution only receiving public funding for teaching one course, or with just a few students, may have similar regulatory requirements as an institution delivering several courses because it will be providing reassurance on the same issues. However, there would be additional regulation required to provide reassurances on funding for different types of activity – such as funding for research – and there will also be additional requirements based on the complexity of provision.

If the primary concern is therefore the quality of the student learning experience, this would imply that it is necessary to have a relatively high initial threshold to access any form of public funding, or being listed on the register of HE providers as being part of the UK higher education sector. This last point about the regulation applying to all those in the HE sector is key since students may be less aware of the distinctions between an institution receiving public funding or not, and all higher education should be high quality not just the publicly funded. However, this burden shouldn’t be so high that it unnecessarily restricts entry to the system but should be the minimum required to provide reassurance.

There should also be an expectation that whilst the initial entry requirement may be relatively high this may decrease based on the stability and strong track-record of regulatory compliance and good student outcomes. There will of course need to be various triggers to alert regulators that an institution which has reduced regulatory burden is beginning to drift, but that these should apply to all types of providers.

CNAA Mark II?

One of the positive effects of Government regulatory changes since 2010 has been the increase in the number and diversity of new higher education providers – offering increased student choice and innovative new curriculum areas and mode of study. We must continue to ensure that we enable innovation and new entrants into higher education. There needs to be a clear route into the market and regulation shouldn’t restrict entry just because an institution is new.

Currently new providers often have their courses validated by existing universities, or by Edexcel for pre-degree level qualifications. However, I have heard from several institutions that in an uncapped, increasingly competitive higher education sector, some validating institutions are less keen for their partners to develop new courses – it’s just not in their commercial interest for them to do so.

It is also important to recognise that with the huge risks of Home Office and QAA sanction, or removal of accreditation, that some validating bodies are looking more closely at the number and scale of partnerships and reducing these. The reward is increasingly being out-weighed by the risks. This is as true for research degrees as it is for taught degrees.

As these partnerships have the potential to become increasingly tense it is worth considering whether there needs to be an alternative route to delivering higher education from the university partnership model? Before 1992 the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) was a national degree-awarding body, awarding the degrees for the polytechnics, institutions of higher education and other bodies.

There might be a case to consider the establishment of new CNAA, or expanding the remit of an existing body such as say the University of London, to award the degrees for new higher education providers prior to them being awarded the ability to offer their own degrees. This national body might also provide greater reassurance to Government in an area where there has been some concern expressed and enable focused scrutiny of this activity.

If we did go down this route there would be a number of questions to consider such as how we prevent the return of a prestige differential that would negatively impact on an institution’s brand. We would also need to consider how this body maintains quality, it would need to be more than just a paper exercise and so this would be difficult for a non-teaching institution without a strong higher education ethos. This option wouldn’t replace the existing university partnership model but would act as an alternative route.

Conclusion

I believe that there should be different regulatory expectations for access to different sources of funding and “title”. These requirements will vary based on the complexity of provision, including volume and amount of funding. A high threshold of regulation is required to gain initial access to funding or title, reducing, based on strong track-record, to the minimum burden needed to provide reassurance. There should however be a route into the system to prevent new providers from being locked out of the system.