New university watchdog “biggest shake up to higher education in 25 years”

By Cameron McIntosh
Durham Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge said: “The area that would give me pause for thought is the idea that students are unequivocally consumers. So in one sense they are, we understand that. But there’s a difference between buying a university education and buying a car”

Durham University will face greater government scrutiny over Vice-Chancellors’ pay, grade inflation and accessibility for disadvantaged students, according to the newly published regulatory framework of the Office for Students (OfS).

At a launch conference in Westminster on the 28th February 2018, the government initiative to establish a more comprehensive regulatory system in higher education officially presented its administrative framework.

The independent regulator, described by Universities Minister Sam Gyimah as “the biggest shake-up to higher education in 25 years”, will take effect from April this year.

Within its newly established remit includes powers to monitor funding responsibilities, teaching standards, fair access and close supervision of free speech on University campuses.

Media scrutiny of value for money in the higher education sector has placed universities increasingly under the spotlight. The majority of undergraduates pay fees of £9,250, a threefold increase in fees charged just a decade ago, and independent calculations suggest many will be unable to pay back debts accrued at university.

Furthermore, Vice-Chancellors’ pay has been a controversial issue, with average salaries of £268,000 for university chiefs nationwide, and 13 earning at least £400,000.

Upon assuming legal authority, the OfS will subsume the responsibilities currently vested in the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) and will combine these with many of the functions of the current regulator – the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). This will be made independent of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Durham’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart Corbridge, expressed mixed feelings about the new governing body, set to challenge some of the independence currently granted to British universities.

This is a new age, says Universities Minister Sam Gyimah – “the age of the student”

Corbridge told Palatinate: “What’s being proposed now is clearly a very different regulatory landscape.

“There’s a number of things that you can’t object to, and I don’t think should object to. So, if you’re looking at what’s happening in UK higher education generally, I am a supporter of creating a broader ecology of higher education.

“So, there will be more entrance into higher education than there has been in the past. That’s dealing with the first instinct of greater competition and market entry.”

He continued by outlining the elements of the new framework he agreed with: “You can’t really object to a value for money agenda.

“Students are paying a lot of money to go to university. We’ll have to see what the new university tuition fee regime is.

“The area that would give me pause for thought is the idea that students are unequivocally consumers. So in one sense they are, we understand that. But there’s a difference between buying a university education and buying a car. I think we need to work through the implications of that within the UK.”

“Some in the sector see this as a sort of annus horribilis for higher education… This is not a blip”

At the launch conference, Sam Gyimah detailed his vision for the future of the UK’s higher education industry: “In almost every international league table, we are a global superpower in HE, second only to the US.

“The brightest and the best from around the world are queuing up to study here.

“And yet, it cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that in recent months our universities have found themselves in the full glare of public scrutiny.”

He continued: “Some in the sector see this as a sort of annus horribilis for higher education, a storm to be weathered in the hope of calmer times ahead. “I think this is a mistaken reading. This is not a blip.

“Gone are the days when students venerated institutions and were thankful to be admitted. We are in a new age – the age of the student.”

The OfS was first introduced in January 2018 by the then Universities Minister Jo Johnson, amid controversy surrounding the appointment of right-wing columnist Toby Young to its 15-person board.

Mr Young has since resigned his position following a petition to have him removed was instigated after the uncovering of offensive tweets he had made in the past. The OfS will officially assume legal authority from April 2018.

Photograph: Policy Exchange via Flickr

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