Universities may suffer under an ill-advised regulatory regimeby David Midgley / May 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 passed into law on 27th April. But the ease with which it slipped through both Houses in the week before the dissolution cannot disguise the fact that its passage through parliament was exceedingly rough. Between December and March the bill was subjected to well over 500 amendments before a version was arrived at that both the Commons and the Lords could accept. What can we learn from this process, and where does it leave our universities?
The issues the bill was designed to address are complex. It was apparent to all factions in the parliamentary debates that, following the introduction in 2012 of a funding system for teaching that is primarily based on tuition fees and loans, the regulation of the higher education sector needed some adjustment. The more that students are required to invest financially in the courses they take, the more they need an appropriate regime of consumer protection. And since universities had been encouraged by the financial incentives established in recent years to concentrate on research, it could fairly be argued that some action was needed to redress the balance and ensure that adequate time and attention is also devoted to teaching.
Yet the reforms proposed by the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) did not end there. The bill presented to parliament in May 2016 also included measures to reorganise the research councils and incorporate them into a new overarching funding body, along with Innovate UK, the agency that facilitates the practical application of research outcomes. It also sought to make it easier to establish new institutions that would provide training in the specialised skills thought necessary to drive the economy forward. But beyond that point, an extraordinary muddle seems to have been generated by the insistence on subordinating educational requirements to a very crude application of economic logic.
The Browne Review in 2010 sought to apply the dynamics of the market to higher education, offering the mollifying reflection that “competition generally raises quality.” However, in the plans that BIS devised, that proposition hardened into the dogma that the only way to gauge the quality of a higher education institution was in terms of its throughput and customer satisfaction ratings. As a result, universities were confronted with the “Teaching Excellence Framework,” (TEF)…