Regulating higher education

One common feature of higher education in Britain’s political regions – i.e. England, Wales and Scotland – is that all are making or considering changes to the way in which higher education is supervised. Until now one aspect of each system has been the same: each had a regulatory and funding body – the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the Scottish Funding Council.  Now however the nature and role and identity of these bodies has become the subject of official review or proposed reform, raising the question of what they are for and of whether they are necessary or helpful.

In England the government has proposed the setting up of an ‘Office for Students’ taking over some of the functions of HEFCE and other bodies. In Scotland at the time of writing the government is conducting a review of the ‘enterprise and skills agencies’ which may lead to a significant reconfiguration of the system. In Wales a review of higher education conducted by Irish academic Professor Ellen Hazelkorn was published earlier this year; she recommended a new agency to be called the Tertiary Education Authority (a proposed name drawing more than a little from Professor Hazelkorn’s Irish background).

The question raised by all this is whether a university system needs an arm’s length agency set between the sector and the government. Such agencies usually administer public funding and act as regulator; they also, to some degree, represent the interests of the university sector in addressing government. Is this a useful function that gives better protection to the institutions while also providing assurance of oversight; or could such a role be carried out more effectively within government itself (as is the case in Northern Ireland)?

Higher education has become one of the most regulated and bureaucratised sectors within what one might call the public interest areas of the state. Do these agencies make such bureaucratisation better or worse? Or perhaps, should government agencies be configured differently, so that innovation and research is managed in such a way as to ensure that university research is aligned (where appropriate) with private sector research or R&D?

Despite this trend of review and reform there has been little open debate about the value and role of these arm’s length agencies. Reform, if it is to occur, should not be by stealth but should take proper account of – and subject to debate – the appropriate principles of regulation and management.  Right now there is no visible common understanding of what these principles are.

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