Striking a balance: quality assurance for alternative providers

In 2015, the government faces some interesting contradictions in its approach to regulation of higher education.  Naturally drawn to the philosophy of reducing red tape, the conservative party has presided over several major increases in regulation of higher education.  It was a conservative government that ended the public sector of higher education, incorporating the polytechnics and colleges of higher education. In the new funding regime drawn up in 2010, the government has placed greater emphasis on ‘alternative providers’ – those who haven’t received public funding – to take forward an agenda of rising quality through market competition.

Of course, this hasn’t gone entirely to plan.  For a government obsessed with ‘bogus colleges’ the thought that some providers might not play by the rules seems to have entirely slipped their minds. It’s fallen to the Public Accounts Committee to take them to task.

Public Accounts conclusion: The Department has failed to protect the interests of legitimate students, the taxpayer and the reputation of those alternative providers who may be performing well.

Recommendation: The Department needs to ensure that it has a much firmer grip on the quality of teaching and the standard the students can expect in private sector higher education colleges. It needs to identify poor performers and take appropriate action to protect students and the sector as a whole.

As such we have now seen a raft of proposals to regulate the sector.  Fuller reviews, annual accountability to BIS, student data, access for students to the OIA.  Both Greg Clark and Jo Johnson have been much quieter about alternative providers than David Willetts had been.  There may be signs that they are confident that the measures they have in place are firmer as the Productivity Plan includes the following clauses:

4.9 Widening the range of high quality higher education providers can stimulate competition and innovation, increase choice for students, and deliver better value for money. The government will remove barriers preventing alternative providers from entering and growing in the market, and adopt a risk-based approach that safeguards quality.

4.10 To enable the best new providers to compete on a level playing field with established universities, the government will introduce a clearer and faster route to degree awarding powers for those assessed to offer the best quality education. As part of the review of validation arrangements, the government will explore options to allow the best providers to offer degrees independently of existing institutions before they obtain degree awarding powers.

4.11 The government will also free up student number controls for the best alternative providers by introducing a performance pool of places from 2016-17, which will allocate additional student places to the best providers. The government will continue to monitor the quality of courses offered by providers and will impose sanctions on those where quality is not high enough.

Following swiftly from this, BIS have now published a new document: Specific course designation: guidance for alternative higher education providers.

New Guidance

Call me cynical, but I always try to read all those HE documents issued on Fridays – they seem to be the most fascinating.  This is the answer to the concerns about under-regulation; there is plenty of regulation here.  Unfortunately, BIS has opted to make most of it commercially confidential.   BIS, as regulator, writes directly to the provider – often regarding judgements that it has made, but it is unlikely that this information will ever be made open.

For example, the productivity plan talked about a performance pool of student numbers, it is clear that BIS intend to use student numbers as a performance device. BIS have assessed providers retention and completion rates and they said:

We have written to those providers where we had concerns to inform them of our intention or decision to review their student number control for 2015/16.

BIS also say that they will not award more numbers to courses leading to Higher National awards and that there will be numbers available to those who have a majority of provision leading to other awards.  Recruitment to HND/C courses has been a particular concern.

The document confirms the approach to be taken to ‘best’ providers, with guidance (if not criteria) as to what makes a ‘best’ provider.

For 2016/17, performance will be determined by BIS reviewing quantitative and qualitative information. Providers that want to benefit from the 30% increase will be expected to provide evidence on: • student drop-out rates; • recruitment and attendance policies; and, • data relating to: enrolments, progression, course completion rates, and qualifications awarded.

It would be churlish to complain now that BIS are finally putting in place firm regulatory measures.  However, there are areas for concern – which will be a worry for both the alternative providers and the wider sector.  If the whole sector is to flourish, then we should be looking to maintain a controlled reputational range (David Watson’s very useful concept).  There is a concern that this will work against that.

The main problem is that regulation is mostly done by directly by BIS. As no HE bill came forward, HEFCE cannot be given these regulatory powers.  In the main, BIS will carry out these powers under a cloak of commercial confidentiality.  Even where you could infer what judgement BIS has taken (say by an increase or decrease of numbers) data will be hard to obtain.   Although HEFCE have guarded their financial judgements about the institutions they regulate, there are large amounts of data and judgements in the public domain about universities.    As we move to a steadier system of regulation, BIS will need to share more information about their judgements about alternative providers to reassure those directly affected (students and their families) but also the wider higher education sector.

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