According to a senior Australian quality assurance expert in an exclusive interview, England’s higher education regulator must demonstrate independence from the government to regain trust and respect from universities and the higher education sector.
For the Office for Students (OfS) to regain trust and respect from universities and other providers in England, it is crucial that the regulator establishes clear independence from government interference.
One potential approach to achieve this is through parliamentary accountability, in addition to ministerial accountability.
Anthony McClaran, former chief executive of Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) from 2015-20, and the United Kingdom’s Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) from 2009-15, advocates for the argument.
In an exclusive interview with University World News, Anthony McClaran, the current vice-chancellor of St Mary’s University in London and a board member of AVEPRO (the Holy See’s higher education quality assurance agency), highlighted that drawing lessons from Australia’s higher education regulatory approach can effectively address concerns surrounding the Office for Students (OfS) and its regulation of higher education institutions in England.
One of the concerns raised pertains to the perceived proximity between the Office for Students (OfS) and the UK government.
The Office for Students (OfS) has faced recent scrutiny from the House of Lords Industry and Regulators committee. The committee has been reviewing complaints from university representatives regarding the communication and interaction of the OfS with institutions.
The ongoing inquiry by the House of Lords is examining the development of the regulatory framework since the establishment of the Office for Students (OfS) in 2018. It aims to evaluate the independence of the OfS from the government, its relationship with the government, its expertise and resources to fulfill its functions, and the clarity of its statutory duties.
The inquiry is taking place at the same time as the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) resigning from its contract as the designated quality body (DQB) for independent quality assurance and assessment of English universities with the OfS.
The QAA stated that the requirements imposed by the OfS were not in line with standard international practice.
While the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) will continue its role in the other nations of the UK and maintain its quality assurance of transnational education, both for UK universities and internationally, it has decided to relinquish its status as the designated quality body (DQB) for the regulator of higher education in England.
The QAA’s decision was driven by its aim to align with the standards outlined in the European Standards and Guidelines, as reported by University World News.
Effective from April 1, 2023, the decision by the QAA to step down as the designated quality body (DQB) for higher education in England has been implemented.
As a temporary solution, the Office for Students (OfS) has assumed the responsibility of the DQB function, even though the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) of 2017 specifies that an independent quality body should be designated by the Secretary of State to provide assessments and guidance to the OfS on quality and standards.
Highlighting the need for checks and balances, Anthony McClaran argued in a paper released by the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) on June 8, 2023, titled “Good Regulation: Lessons for England from the Australian Experience,” that England should explore emulating Australia’s example.
He suggested that, just as England adopted Australia’s higher education, income-contingent tuition fee loans, and the removal of student number caps, it should also adapt its regulatory approach to universities.
In an interview with University World News, McClaran emphasized that Australia’s regulatory framework had notable benefits, particularly in achieving independence through the implementation of checks and balances.
He highlighted the importance of visible accountability, which serves to provide reassurance to students, taxpayers, stakeholders (including the media), and international audiences.
McClaran stated, “During my tenure as the chief executive of TEQSA (Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency), I was required to appear before an Australian Senate committee three times annually, where I was subject to extensive questioning regarding the regulator’s functioning.”
According to McClaran, he believes that the inclusion of parliamentary accountability, in addition to ministerial accountability, is crucial for ensuring an independent regulator that remains free from political influence. This aspect is present in both the English and Australian systems and holds significant importance.
McClaran emphasized that the legislation for both TEQSA and the OfS states the importance of the regulator being independent. He stressed that it is not only necessary for the regulator to be independent but also to be perceived as independent, as trust is built upon this perception.
McClaran explained that TEQSA ensured independence through a comprehensive system of checks and balances.
This included genuine accountability to parliament, a mechanism for challenging regulator decisions through administrative appeals, and a TEQSA commission that held the chief executive accountable. Regulatory decisions required the involvement of the commission.
McClaran added that TEQSA had three statutory requirements for all its decisions: they had to be clearly proportionate, risk-based, and necessary in regulatory terms. He found these three principles to be highly beneficial in guiding their decision-making process.
Source : universityworldnews.com