The Higher Education Commission (Policy Connect) report on “Regulating Higher Education” has one of those fashionably modish design concepts like the Browne Review did, immediately leading one to the broadly accurate conclusion that it will say little of any great surprise.
However, unlike the Browne review, it does have a lot to say of great sense. It is a house-keeping report, not something to point the way to the future of Higher Education in England but to make the current models work in the way in which they were intended.
In many senses, the report would have been better titled “I CAN HAZ H.E. BILL PLZ? – K THX BAI” as the central thrust is something that wonk-kind have been saying for ages – the current regulatory system is simply not fit for purpose without regulatory underpinning. In calling for a bill, if not this parliament then included in the manifestos of each major party, it subtly highlights the astonishingly poor quality of HE policy making by the coalition government.
Going along with recommendations implicit in the Regulatory Partnership Group Operating Framework, it calls for a more streamlined system of sharing data on institutions – in particular the expanding “for profit” sector where very little data is currently held by anyone. There is a small degree of quango-munging (HEFCE, OFFA, an Office for Student Loan, and new functions within a putative name of the Office for Competition and Institutional Diversity) but respected independent (and UK-wide, as the report notes perhaps in deference to this very blog) bodies like the QAA, OIA and HESA remain independent.
Within this new Council for Higher Education – yup, no Browne-ite “Higher Education Council” here! – amongst the plethora of “offices”, the OCID has a remit for new and weird institutional models, with the Coventry University College cited as a model for the kind of thing that needs attention. What I like about this is that it puts changes by existing institutions centre-stage – to me the risks from existing institutions changing form and function is greater to students than fly-by-night 16 student units, which none but the most foolhardy risk-taker would consider attending at this time. The OCID would also examine stuff like the New College of the Humanities and whatever spins out of the MOOC bubble.
The idea of an “Equitable” playing field is a useful one, there are strange anomalies between public and private sector university regulation, and most of them need to be fixed to avoid the government being subject to legal challenge. A requirement for all institutions to register is just common sense (and they have to for many things anyway), a requirement for them to provide data – and open data at that – is just plain obvious if we are going to have the Barber-ite data-led market of parliament’s dreams.
Most headlines will be taken by the recommendation for the ATOS-style insurance for students against failing institutions. Again – what is proposed is the best of a bad job. If the government is foolish enough to allow institutions to fail financially (with no recourse to the quality of the education they provide, I hasten to add) then it damn well needs to have some kind of safety net for students who have borrowed government money to spend there.
This kind of report separates the true Wonk from the Wonk-passant. It has no vision for the future, no guiding ideals – it is almost (though where *are* the academic and collegiate structures in this new regulatory landscape?) ideology free. It simply seeks to make bad policy workable.
There is no tweaking into a whole new era here. CHE and OIA gotta regulate.