A strong regulatory environment protects the interests of students and taxpayers and helps to secure public confidence in the higher education sector. But too much regulatory burden, and the risk is that higher education providers find that red tape makes it harder to deliver the quality of education for the students that we are here to protect.
The events of the last year have put this into sharp perspective. Providers have been under significant pressure to transform the way students learn and experience higher education. That is why we removed many regulatory requirements – to allow providers the space to focus on supporting their students. But we did not remove all requirements. It was and is essential that no matter the circumstances, quality is maintained and students are supported.
How we are minimising burden
Balancing the burdens and benefits of regulation is not a simple process. But we are committed to getting it right.
As we emerge slowly from the pandemic, it is a good time to reflect on our promise to make sure that the burden on providers is kept to a minimum, and that we operate in a risk-based way.
We are not starting from scratch. We have already taken steps to reduce the burden on providers once registered. Today we have published a set of indicators that help us to measure – and share openly with the sector – how far the work we are doing is reducing or increasing burden.
For instance for those providers required to develop access and participation plans, we know that producing plans for each of the last two years has imposed significant administrative burden. Data released today shows no reduction in burden at this stage. However, this will change in future as we have increased the length of access and participation plans to five years.
Today’s measures show that we have reduced our data requirements. We now no longer require data about estates or non-academic staff, and providers were required to submit at most 15 data returns last year, down from 18 the year before.
We have also successfully reduced – where appropriate – enhanced monitoring requirements. There were a total of 468 conditions subject to enhanced monitoring across all providers in March 2020, and we reduced this to 406 in November 2020, despite increasing the number of registered providers overall. In addition, we have suspended random sampling and committed to reducing providers’ fees by 10 per cent in real terms over the next two years. Today’s measures show that the combined fees of OfS, HESA and QAA cost providers an average of less than £20 per student last year.
Recognising the needs of the sector
The measures we are publishing today show that we are making progress, but that we can do more. We want to make sure that we are effective in fulfilling our duties in a way that continues to be responsive to the sector we operate in. That also means recognising its diversity.
Every institution registered with us – from a large, multi-faculty university to a small specialist provider – must meet our conditions, both at registration and on an ongoing basis. But we recognise that different providers have different experiences of our regulation. We will look at how regulatory burden is experienced by different types of providers, including small providers, and discuss this with the sector in the coming months.
Larger, more traditional universities, often welcome our challenge to improve access and participation and acknowledge the progress they need to make. However, in other areas of our regulation, such as financial sustainability, these providers often do not pose great risk. They might see our regular requests for information, for example financial accounts, as unnecessary.
We will continue to look at these issues, recognising that, even as a risk-based regulator, we will need to hold a certain level of up-to-date and reliable data. This will ensure that neither us, nor the provider themselves, is caught off guard. We must be able to determine the risks to students to ensure they are protected.
We will seek to go further in reducing any duplication of regulation for those providers, usually further education colleges, who are also regulated by the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
We also plan to develop a new programme of work which will look at how we can ensure that the burden on compliant universities and colleges is lightened, and that our regulation is effectively risk-based, without compromising our responsibility to students.
We are committed to this agenda, and determined to make it work. But I understand that – for some – no burden or regulation would ever be acceptable. I cannot support this view of the world.
We recognise that the universities and colleges we regulate rightly enjoy significant autonomy. But they are in receipt of large amounts of public money, and students are investing considerable time and money in their higher education. Students are right to expect that their university or college is well run, financially sound, and offering quality provision to students from all backgrounds.
Regulatory intervention where standards slip is the sign of a healthy system – and is crucial to preserving and enhancing the quality and reputation of our world-class higher education sector.