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Regulation and Quality Information

June 22, 2011

Following on yesterday’s post about moving towards a new regulated market in higher education, here is an very interesting paper from Prof Roger Brown on the problems of producing the kind of timely, valid and reliable information about quality that could inform applicant decisions.

Vince Cable and David Willetts have repeatedly stressed the aim of allowing ‘student choice’ to drive change in the sector.  ‘The Operation of the Market in HE’ suggests that quality cannot be captured or assessed in this manner. 

In other words, instead of assuming that students know best (or would do if only the necessary information could be prised out of the system), and wasting resources on things like the National Student Survey, we should be putting our regulatory effort into ensuring (a) that all institutions are using their resources, including their resources of research and scholarship, to give all their students the best possible learning opportunities and qualifications, and (b) that the information institutions put out about themselves and their offerings is rigorously scrutinised for its veracity. We also need to put more effort into improving various aspects of academic practice, particularly student assessment. In this way, we can do our best to protect our students from the risks of making bad choices, which is surely our public, as well as our professional, duty.

That is, quality in education really depends on academic and professional practice: this form of assurance is threatened by commerical and market pressures, the effects of which cannot mitigated by bureaucratic regulation.

  1. The trouble with these kinds of argument is that they prove rather too much. One might say the same about lawyers, homeopaths or restaurants. None of us is ever likely to have timely, valid and reliable information about the future, and there will always be information inequalities as between sellers and buyers in any marketplace. Somehow capitalism has to stagger on anyway. Brown isn’t making any distinctive case about education, still less about HE.

    • It’s not information about the future that’s the issue here, but how you orient a sector around choice if individuals are making a large financial commitment on a ‘one-time purchase’ (which they cannot sell-on like a secondhand car or a house). Restaurants are not a valid comparison in this regard since you don’t commit to one exclusively for three years; homeopaths are still controversial; whilst lawyers have barriers to practise. It’s precisely this last comparison that I take to be the issue – the market solutions currently proposed would drop/lower/alter the barriers to entry (degree awarding powers) to allow more providers into the sector, but then it’s not clear that a regulatory function combined a with market led by student choice can operate optimally. I took this to be the point of your blog entry on RAB data against individual institutions – the timeframes over which it’s produced militate against it being a useful performance indicator. Brown’s argument is not about providing certain kinds of information but against using them instead of other forms of regulation. But the general point does seem to be the manner in which HE resists being treated like a commodity.

  2. There are quite a few points I want to make here, so I will struggle in a comment. Blogging is also making even clearer to me how catastrophically badly I write, so tell me if I don’t make myself clear and I’ll try again at greater length elsewhere. I shall also prescribe myself a daily dose of Orwell until my writing improves.
    – There are essentially no current barriers to entry, and certainly DAP isn’t one of them. Lots of organisations (FE Colleges and private providers) operate in the HE marketplace without DAP – you only need to find a university to validate your provision, or offer the UoL International Programme. Universities are (to a first approximation) tarts, and will validate anything you pay them to validate.
    – The key change coming with the lifting of the fees cap and imposition of recruitment caps on public providers (already in place), and access to SLC support (in place for certain providers although the process for getting it is murky) is that it is now possible to offer UG HE at a price point in the £5-£6k range that will look very competitive and allows a good profit. Previously price points that were competitive against the public sector were not too attractive from a profit perspective. So it is not a case of more market entrants being allowed in, it is a case of more entrants being attracted. In fact, due primarily to UKBA but perhaps also to some extent from regulatory change in the White Paper, regulation (and barriers) for the private HE sector are rising very rapidly just now.
    – All real, existing capitalist markets are imperfect precisely because of issues like information inequality (and most things traded in the market are not commodities). You can use this as an argument against capitalism, if you wish, but I don’t see you can build any case for the exceptionalism of HE this way which is why I said the argument ‘proves too much’. Barriers to entry, in particular, don’t help the consumer make a choice between the providers who have crossed that boundary and often (e.g. in banking services) operate very strongly against the consumer interest.
    – The role of student choice in the old dispensation is an interesting one, and maybe beyond my core competency. What is very clear is that where student choice of institution is minimised and institutional choice of applicants is maximised (that is, in the elite institutions) the result is very stark social segregation. Institutions which are less able to be selective are less socially segregated. I don’t really expect current Government policy to undermine the position of elite institutions, but working in a non-elite institution I see constant pressures from Governors, senior managers and academic colleagues to aspire towards that institutional ability to choose, reject and exclude. So countervailing pressure even on non-elite institutions will (IMHO) be helpful. At least it may reduce the rate at which inequality is growing in our society.

    • Thanks again for the comments, Andrew. I think I would disagree on two main points:

      First, the place of the ‘welfare state’ within Britain largely involved the recognition that certain public goods were not best managed by market mechanisms and that involved organising and providing those goods differently within a capitalist economy. In the case of HE, we have been operating on an assumption until recently (really a canard now) that undergraduate degrees are largely equivalent in terms of standard of teaching and assessment and that the forms of regulation in the sector were directed to that end (with variations in the educational experience often dependent on what the student brings to study and the work they put in). I accept that this understanding is now tendentious, if not in crisis, but it will be exacerbated by moving towards a different form of regulation premised on money following students rather than paid directly to institutions. The tenor of the recent proposals is that degrees vary in quality and price, which means ‘choice’ has a different meaning (add to that the new financial commitment it entails for individuals).

      Second, degree awarding powers are key here. I accept there is a large sector of franchised and validated courses: ‘HE in FE’ numbers over 100 000 students, I believe. But the government is worried that universities may withdraw from these arrangements if caps are maintained in restrictive fashion – speeches by Willetts and Cable from April were directed explicitly against this kind of ‘anti-competitive’ practice; Martin Doel has complained of the ‘feudal’ relation between universities and colleges as the power differential created by the former having degree awarding powers, and therefore validing the latter, is so great. This is why Willetts is very keen on the idea of granting Edexcel degree awarding powers – to free up this aspect of the market. So, your point about universities validiating anything you pay them to validate is largely correct in the current terrain, but many have already reviewed their ‘partnerships’ – e.g. De Montfort has pulled out of several already. This threatens the cheaper tier of provision that the government desires and needs.

      Similarly, the current requirement that for-profits like BPP renew their DAP every 6 years grates – the public universities (plus Bucks and College of Law) have theirs indefinitely. They have been lobbying against this for a while, not least as, on current QAA interpretation, this need for renewal precludes a for-profit ever being granted the ‘university’ title. BPP report a boost to recruitment since being allowed to style themselves ‘university college’. (BPP and Apollo have extravagant ambitions).

      Certainly private providers can enter a restricted, largely separate market at present, but the new proposals are designed to allow them to compete with the established universities and undercut them in an expanded, integrated field. Especially as the increased fees and the expansion of loans to non-public providers makes the market much more attractive as you point out above.

      I don’t want to say too much about ‘elite’ provision here but they have very different interests. oxford basically indicated in its submission to the Browne review that it saw a need for the undergraduate service it provides but not that it should continue to provide it (see its tables comparing its proportion of undergraduates compared to Yale & Harvard); while UCL have already investigated ignoring the recruitment caps.

      Sorry, long reply!

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