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Letters from Willetts – Browne’s HE Council

June 21, 2011

I blogged earlier about some personal correspondence I have received from David Willetts.  In a second, longer letter dated 11 May 2011, he takes time to respond in detail to several points I raised with my MP.

I will concentrate on one issue here: the proposal in the Browne review to create a single superquango, HE Council, which would merge together the various HE bodies involved with funding, regulation, improving access and ensuring that students are receiving detailed information about courses.  That is, HEFCE, the Office for Fair Access (Offa) and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) would be brought together into one body.  This perhaps explains some of the very public positioning these bodies have been doing recently. (Especially HEFCE’s warning about the dangers of greater private sector involvement in HE).

Willetts writes in relation to Browne’s suggestion:

“We will think this through carefully and not rush to a decision.  However ‘superquangos’ are not inherently attractive to this Government.  We will consult on any structural change as part of a HE White Paper, to be published later this year.  We recognise the need for the OIA [Office of the Independent Adjudicator] to remain an independent body. … We are taking the time to engage comprehensively with stakeholders before we publish our longterm vision for HE.” 

Although not inherently attractive, such a body would have certain advantages as a regulator within a new marketised environment. 

Given the government’s commitment to ‘free up the system’ (Willetts phrase in the letter), reforms are likely to be geared towards allowing universities more independence but also allowing new providers into the sector.  Willetts is commited to a ‘dynamic and responsive HE with fewer barriers for new institutions’ particularly as they are likely to be lower cost, better value for money and potentially innovative (less likely to ape the way in which the established sector teaches).  Here, the main ‘barrier’ to entry is the power to award degrees and the process by which it is granted by the Privy Council with the involvement of the QAA (private institutions must currently seek renewal every 6 years).     Willetts would prefer to remove this hurdle and replace it with an information-based, regulatory system. 

Willetts recognizes that there are ‘high expectations’ that have to be met for ‘any institution which benefits from public funding or student support [loans?]’ .  Here, for the third time in this short section of the letter, he refers to a consultation: the White Paper is going to be very ‘Green’.  We should not miss the emphasis here: let the new providers have a go and see if they live up to expectations, rather than set an initial, very high bar to control who is allowed to offer their own degrees. 

Regulating such a  liberalised sector would require robust forms of quality monitoring, especially in relation to concerns over for-profit providers offering ‘lower cost approaches’.  It is not clear if the appropriate data is currently available, though both HEFCE and QAA have been given a broader remit in this regard recently, with the QAA being tasked to ensure ‘minimum threshold standards’.

In brief, what will this mean for the understanding (public and otherwise) of what a degree is? how will such regulatory structures change the traditional autonomy of the university (currently understood to be a ‘self-critical academic community’ and hence ensuring its own standards)?

There is a further dimension here.  HEFCE is not simply a funding body: it must approve financial commitments before they can be undertaken by public universities and, since 2010, it has also had responsibility for overseeing their charitable status.  Both of these functions would change substantially were HEFCE to be incorporated into a regulatory superquango.  But such changes would be of a piece with freeing the sector from central control.

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