Why regulate? Reflections from our latest Insight event

What is the point of regulation? What do students and higher education providers want to see from the higher education regulator?

These were a couple of the questions we wanted to raise in our third Insight event held online last week. If you missed it, we've uploaded recordings.

The discussions were fascinating, and while wide-ranging, there were a few distinct themes that emerged. First, the question of why we should even be regulating and how we should go about it; second, the relationships between the regulator, those that are regulated and the interaction with students; and third, the role of regulation in defining and ensuring quality and value.

These themes, in particular around quality and standards, and how we have developed our regulatory approach, are also a central theme in our 2020 annual review, released on the same day.

Why regulate?

It might seem odd for the regulator to pose such an existential question, but having replaced what was until 2018 a funding body with a regulator, the last couple of years have involved a culture shift both for the higher education sector and also for OfS staff.

Sir Michael Barber, OfS chair, in his opening keynote reflected on this culture shift and on the rationale for establishing a regulator in the first place. He remarked that there had been growing public concern in relation to issues such as the value and quality of a degree, grade inflation, and vice-chancellor pay – all challenges where we are beginning to see progress as we develop our regulatory approach.

He also reflected on the way higher education is a complex and diverse sector, but that as regulators we are here to create the conditions for a sector that thrives, now and into the future. These remarks were echoed by both Cathryn Ross, Group Regulatory Affairs Director at BT, and Philip Augar, known to the sector as the chair of the government review of post-18 education, whose combined regulatory experience spans a range of sectors from transport to financial markets.

Cathryn spoke about the fact that regulation exists in sectors where there is a public interest and where there is an imbalance of power between institutions and the customers. Philip made the same point, emphasising the risk of ‘regulatory capture’ and the importance of distance between the regulator and those they regulate.

Although this event was not primarily about the pandemic, the impact of coronavirus emerged regularly in the discussions. At the OfS we have shifted our approach to regulation in response to the pandemic. Cathryn similarly emphasised the need for dynamism in regulation, as a process which responds to changes in society – and as she observed there has hardly been a change bigger in society than those we have seen this year.

What’s the right relationship?

The title of the event was ‘regulator and regulated: what’s the right relationship?’ so the question was, naturally, a running theme throughout. The pitch from Professor Julia Buckingham, Universities UK President and Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University, was for collaboration and engagement that reflected more than just ‘tick-box exercise’ consultations.

Cathryn highlighted that the way a regulator engages with its sector and its service users is changing: while regulators may have once presumed that they knew best, technological advances, in particular the acceleration of the way we have used technology during the pandemic, and tools like social media, have all shown that regulators need to be, and are becoming, more tuned in to what consumers and society have to say.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS Vice-President for Higher Education, argued against considering students as consumers. For Hillary, students need to be seen as partners and peers, and in some cases students themselves play a dual role as educators, as well as educated.

It’s a complex challenge and involves a delicate balance. A question from our 400-strong audience added another key player into the mix – the government. With the Treasury subsidising the fees of many students, and the economic and public good that graduates bring (doctors, teachers, nurses – as well as innovators and business leaders), the public itself - and the government - have a strong interest in this relationship.

The value of a degree

A number of questions from the audience picked up on the issue of how to define value. It’s an issue that is top of mind for many providers as we review the way we define, monitor and take action in quality and standards.

An important challenge that Philip identified was how you measure success or value in higher education, when students will often not know what the value is for them until many years later.

Hillary made a powerful point about the change we want to see in the world and Julia agreed that this goes to the heart of the argument about value in higher education. How we model and develop higher education of a high quality could go one of two ways – it could simply help to recreate a world we already see, or it could create the conditions for something new.

Do we want to support individuals to develop and succeed in life as creators and innovators, or do we want to develop people who go into the same jobs in the same industries? In reality it is likely to be an element of both, but the measure of quality and value in higher education has to be more than just a reference to a particular type of job or a particular salary. As Cathryn rightly said, just because we can’t accurately measure it, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

Watch the recordings of the Insight event

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Published 08 December 2020

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