On Wednesday March 8, the Lords made two further important amendments to the HE Bill. These concern Quality Assurance and Degree Awarding Powers.
These amendments support greater government regulation of the process of privatisation, which the Higher Education and Research Bill is intended to facilitate. They introduce “checks and balances” on the process, rather than stop privatisation altogether. But they should still be strongly supported, in the interests of our students, our society and our universities.
Amendment 72 – Quality Assurance
Amendment 72 challenges the premise of a one-size-fits-all metric for evaluating the “quality” of higher education.
The HE Bill undermines the current role played by the Quality Assurance Agency in acting as an inspector and guarantor of quality in HE and replaces up-front regulation with TEF scores, ranking and retrospective intervention.
It is as if the Government proposed to remove inspection and licensing of abattoirs, say, and instead relied on prosecutions to enforce consumer safety standards. In some respects the HE Bill is worse: market forces operate in the food industry because each customer makes tens of thousands of individual purchases, and can therefore act when faced with poor quality. But a student does not get to return their degree and ask for their money back. They are at the mercy of miss-selling and fraud, which has happened in the USA and Australia.
For a detailed discussion of these issues see the Alternative White Paper for Higher Education.
The following amendment was supported by 280 votes to 186.
72: Clause 26, leave out Clause 26 and insert the following new Clause—
“Scheme to provide information about the quality of higher education and higher education teaching
(1) The Secretary of State must by order bring forward a scheme to assess and provide consistent and reliable information about the quality of education and teaching at English higher education providers and at higher education providers in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland which apply to participate in such a scheme.
(2) The scheme must be wholly or mainly based on the systems in place in higher education providers which ensure that the courses offered are taught to a high standard.
(3) The Secretary of State, or that body designated by the Secretary of State to develop such a scheme, must, before such a scheme is introduced, and on a regular basis thereafter, obtain independent evaluations, including an evaluation from the Office for National Statistics, of the validity of any data or metrics included in such a scheme.
(4) Any scheme introduced must evaluate and report on whether an institution meets expectations or fails to meet expectations on quality measures, but must not be used to create a single composite ranking of English higher education providers.
(5) The Secretary of State’s power to make an order under subsection (1) is exercisable by statutory instrument, a draft of which must be laid before, and approved by, a resolution of each House of Parliament.”
As Baroness Alison Wolf explains:
One of the prime rules of assessment — indeed, of measurement — is that you do not throw away information if you can avoid it. The Government have, rightly and repeatedly, emphasised their commitment to transparency and to giving students better information about teaching quality and other aspects of the higher education courses to which they might or do subscribe. But the trouble is that a composite measure is the opposite of transparent. It is also a problem that it is seductively simple: three stars, four stars—how can one resist it? We believe it is somehow objective because that is how we respond to a single number. In modern societies, we love rankings. But if we add up measures of different things and produce a single number, we are not being transparent and we are not being objective. What we are presenting to people, first, throws away large amounts of information and, secondly, imposes our value judgment on those different measures. When we use different indicators, add them up and create a single rank or score, we are denying other people the chance to see how it was done. It is irrelevant whether you gave equal weight to each measure or decided to do all sorts of clever things and weighted one thing at threefold and another at a half; the point is that by doing that, you have imposed your judgment. The students for whom these are designed — the students we want to help — may have different interests from you, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, has pointed out.
That is why I support the proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, that a scheme to assess quality must report individual measures individually. It is also why I completely agree with the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, that the last thing we want to do is impose on Governments, quite possibly for the next 30 years, the obligation to create rankings.
In this case, we are not even adding apples and oranges, which at least are both pieces of fruit. We are adding up things that are completely different. If the numbers are measuring or representing different things — and doing so with varying degrees of error, as is always the case — adding them up will compound the error. Obviously it would be nice to have a wonderful single measure, but the fact that we would all like one does not mean that it is better to have an unreliable one, rather than not have one at all. On the contrary, it is worse.
Amendment 116 and 116A – Degree Awarding Powers
These amendments concern the process that new providers must be required to go through before they are permitted to award degrees in their own name. This issue goes to the heart of the HE Bill, which is to facilitate the entry of new providers, including for-profit companies, into the Higher Education sector, permit them to recruit students and charge full fees.
Following the Commons debate, the Government proposed an amendment to its own Bill. This is Amendment 116.
The Lords voted to amend this amendment (hence 116A) by 208 to 186.
116: After Clause 44, insert the following new Clause—
“Grant, variation or revocation of authorisation: advice on quality etc
(1) The OfS must request advice from the relevant body regarding the quality of, or the standards applied to, higher education provided by a provider before making—
(a) an order under section 41(1) authorising the provider to grant taught awards or research awards,
(b) a further order under section 41(1)—
(i) varying an authorisation given to the provider by a previous order under section 41(1), or
(ii) revoking such an authorisation on the ground that condition B in section 43(4) is satisfied, or
(c) an order under section 44(1)—
(i) varying an authorisation given to the provider, as described in that provision, to grant taught awards or research awards, or
(ii) revoking such an authorisation on the ground that condition B in section 44(5A) is satisfied.
(2) In this section “the relevant body” means—
(a) the designated assessment body, or
(b) if there is no such body, a committee which the OfS must establish under paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 for the purpose of performing the functions of the relevant body under this section.
(3) Where the OfS requests advice under subsection (1), the relevant body must provide it.
(4) The advice provided by the relevant body must be informed by the views of persons who (between them) have experience of—
(a) providing higher education on behalf of, or being responsible for the provision of higher education by—
(i) an English higher education provider which is neither authorised to grant taught awards nor authorised to grant research awards,
(ii) an English further education provider, and
(iii) an English higher education provider which is within neither sub-paragraph (i) nor sub-paragraph (ii),
(b) representing or promoting the interests of individual students, or students generally, on higher education courses provided by higher education providers,
(c) employing graduates of higher education courses provided by higher education providers,
(d) research into science, technology, humanities or new ideas, and
(e) encouraging competition in industry or another sector of society.
(5) Where the order authorises the provider to grant research awards or varies or revokes such an authorisation, the advice provided by the relevant body must also be informed by the views of UKRI.
(6) Subsections (4) and (5) do not prevent the advice given by the relevant body also being informed by the views of others.
(7) The OfS must have regard to advice provided to it by the relevant body under subsection (3) in deciding whether to make the order.
(8) But that does not prevent the OfS having regard to advice from others regarding quality or standards.
(9) Where the order varies or revokes an authorisation, the advice under subsection (1) may be requested before or after the governing body of the provider is notified under section 45 of the OfS’s intention to make the order.
(10) Where there are one or more sector-recognised standards, for the purposes subsections (1) and (8)—
(a) the advice regarding the standards applied must be advice regarding the standards applied in respect of matters for which there are sector-recognised standards, and
(b) that advice must be regarding those standards as assessed against sector-recognised standards.
(11) In this section—“designated assessment body” means a body for the time being designated under Schedule 4;“humanities” and “science” have the same meaning as in Part 3 (see section 107).”
116A: After Clause 44, at end insert—
“( ) The OfS must not authorise a provider unless—
(a) the provider has been established for a minimum of four years with satisfactory validation arrangements in place, or
(b) the Quality Assessment Committee is assured that the provider is fully able to maintain the required standard expected for the granting of a United Kingdom degree for the duration of the authorisation, and may therefore be authorised to grant taught awards or research awards or both, and has reported to the Secretary of State; and the OfS is assured that the provider operated in the public interest and in the interest of students.
( ) In this section the “Quality Assessment Committee” is the Committee established under section 25 and “validation arrangements” has the same meaning as in section 47(4).”
Moving the amendment, Baroness Wolf said
My Lords, I listened carefully to the Minister’s response on this and I have to say that I was rather disappointed. I was very pleased with the government amendment, to which I put my name, but I feel that, as part of thinking hard about how new providers enter the system in the decades ahead, we have to be aware of the fact that, although there is enormous promise, there are also enormous threats. I am rather taken aback by how many new providers we have.
Looking at the fact sheet on degree-awarding powers, I note that there is an intention to reduce the typical amount of time before a track record is approved as adequate in validation to three years rather than the existing four, which is not a good idea. If completely new institutions are going to go straight to having degree-awarding powers, I reiterate the importance of being absolutely sure that it is a special type of institution, that it is well established and that there is a good reason for this. It is worth remembering that we have now, around the world, a large number of cases of institutions that have gone through apparently quite thorough regulatory oversight and have still failed—in large numbers in the United States.
I accept that the Secretary of State has set up a regulator, which will be independent, and clearly I do not think that he or she should involve themselves in every decision. However, this is a very important part of our higher education system and our reputation. If we are creating brand new institutions that can go forth and give degrees straight away, and which therefore often carry the rather strange term of having “probationary” degree-awarding powers, this ought to go right up to the top. In the next few years we will have a new and, I hope, exemplary regulator with a very well-known and highly respected chairman. However, the reality is that regulators are subject to regulatory capture and, as time goes on—particularly if we have the volume of new entrants coming through that the Government would like—there will be real risks.
For that reason, as well as because I would like to encourage the Secretary of State to be involved in this and to think actively about where something really exciting can occur and should be given support, the suggestion in our amendment that on that route the Secretary of State should have some involvement remains a good one. Therefore, rather sadly, I would like to test the opinion of the House on this.