Politics, Philosophy and Economics – Or what does sector ownership mean and does it matter?

What is the value of ‘sector ownership’ – the philosophy that within the higher education sector (with the knowledge and support of peers and peer institutions) is the best place to form judgments of quality, effectiveness and professionalism? It’s a question that should be taking up more time and thought than is currently the case.

Sector ownership is one of the big things that distinguishes the different policy frameworks in higher and further education. In HE we tend to take it for granted – a fundamental part of the sector’s autonomy that we routinely defend. FE is quite different – famously surrounded by a ‘galaxy of oversight, inspection and accreditation agencies’ (in the words of Sir Andrew Foster when he reviewed the purpose of FE in 2006). As a sector or system, FE is largely ruled and guided from outside rather than from within. This brings all sorts of consequences for institutional capacity, innovation and responsiveness but for now let’s just consider the impact on teaching quality and professional standards.

FE are establishing a ‘guild’ – though it probably won’t end up being called that – to lead its own teaching and learning and professional standards amongst many other things. It’s the right thing to do and an idea formed by many over several years – Sweeney, Sliver, Rammell etc. and more recently by John Hayes and Frank McLoughlin. It was finally formed and agreed upon at a recent event held at Windsor Castle. There have been many false starts along the way – the ‘single voice’, the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, IFL, LSIS, QIA, LLUK and so on.

Now for the economics and politics. What will happen after 2015 to ‘sector ownership’ in both FE and HE? After all there is a pretty serious spending review on its way and a general election. The first is unveiled next month – though only for 2015-16 – with the prospect of an even more difficult settlement to be reached alongside the new set of manifestos. Only two things are certain – that there will be less money and probably more policy (whoever wins the 2015 election we can expect legislation covering both HE and FE). What will sector ownership look like then?

Lord Browne recommended a single regulator – a model that most governments, keen on symmetry and neatness, are usually drawn towards. The idea of HEFCE as the lead regulator emerged in this Government’s higher education white paper, though with no bill to ultimately enshrine such a role. Nevertheless the idea remains significant not least in how HEFCE together with the Student Loans Company relate to other existing regulators (or bodies with regulatory functions) in the meantime.

What are these sector bodies? They are many and varied. Jisc and UCAS are two – ‘owned’ by members in HE and FE. Others include the QAA, HESA, HEA, LFHE, ECU, UCEA – all owned and governed slightly differently across the four UK nations, UUK, GuildHE and AoC. Added to that are the two statutory bodies of OFFA and the OIA.

So what do we want? How should we pay for it? What should we defend? Or at this moment do we take the opportunity to think again about what is really needed? How do we manage the most important functions if the spending review strips away large chunks of public funding (because it almost certainly will)?

In the meantime the political narrative over teaching quality and contact hours is hardening. The recent Which and Hepi survey has led headlines about variability and poor value in the sector. The concerns also stretch to transnational education and how we regulate teaching and learning towards UK degrees overseas. We might like to dismiss many of the findings and to claim – justifiably perhaps – that there are many different kinds of teaching and learning and many ways to do it – part of diversity and autonomy rather than a more rigidly described national curriculum in HE.

I am being deliberately provocative, but I think it’s important for HE to think about this question and to think about it now. Next month with spending decisions for 2015 and beyond being laid out, some of those decisions may be made for us. Nothing is guaranteed or sacrosanct. Economists at the Treasury and politicians alike all start with blank sheets of paper. Designing regulatory systems and directing funding (or cuts to funding in this case) are popular starting points.

Look across at schools (and colleges) and the Department for Education  – it’s pretty instructive in this area. Michael Gove has had another difficult weekend with the teaching unions – this time the National Association of Head Teachers. But because his popular political narrative allows him to describe all his critics as against knowledge, aspiration and higher standards, he can easily shout down his opponents. He pointed out that he would have to ‘part company’ with head teachers if they think OFSTED is the problem. And amongst the media and the grass roots of the Conservative party (swivel eyed loons or otherwise) this is both convincing and extremely popular policy. It’s just one of the reasons why neither schools nor OFSTED are in line for budget cuts in 2015.

Returning to higher education, it’s disappointingly easy to see how a mix of criticisms over variable teaching quality, low contact hours and increasing stories of graduate unemployment and underemployment might produce a similar outcome. We may be sleepwalking into a position where we give up sector ownership and find ourselves with a more external model of quality and inspection – something worryingly like an OFSTED for HE. We need to think about this now if we are going to have any chance of avoiding it.
Andy Westwood – CEO, GuildHE