Originally published 19 November 2003
Anyone who has worked in the university sector for any length of time will know that the burden of red tape has grown inexorably. Funding has been dissected into endless special funding streams, with multitudinous bidding and monitoring requirements while new standards with which we must all adhere are regularly introduced. We have come to expect different regulators to work in isolation. For autonomous institutions, universities have been almost overwhelmed by the tide of bureaucracy and feel micromanaged by government agencies.
When Higher readers opened their papers to find that bureaucracy was to be battled by the creation of yet another committee many must have thought they were reading Laurie Taylor’s column. Despite the irony of the situation I was persuaded in this instance to fight fire with fire and I agreed to chair the Better Regulation Review Group (BRRG). The Group brings together senior representatives from HE funding bodies, agencies and institutions to oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the Better Regulation Task Force report “Higher Education: Easing the burden”. It is also its duty to look at any area of excessive bureaucracy already in place and consider ways to ensure the bureaucratic burden of new policy is minimised.
I quickly began to wonder whether I had committed myself to an impossible mission as it became apparent that universities faced a raft of potential new bureaucratic burdens. There was speculation that the next Research Assessment Exercise would bring torturous additional administrative burdens, there was a growing fear that funding reform would be used as an excuse to introduce a mass of new bureaucracy, and the funding bodies were even considering a particularly prescriptive regime for postgraduate research students.
Eight months on however things feel much better. There is a real sense that government and its agencies are listening to concerns about the burgeoning bureaucratic burden and, despite being yet another committee, the BRRG has actually seen significant progress on all but one of the Task Force's recommendations.
Progress can be seen in the reform of HEFCE's financial and management audit regime, and the co-ordination of quality assurance reviews. Moreover, the Group has agreed a review of the Code of Practice with QAA to ensure that it is clearly understood as non prescriptive guidance, we have overseen the promise of significant reduction in the requirements HESA makes of universities, the plans for the new RAE appear to be giving consideration to the principles of good regulation, and HEFCE and the funding bodies are pursuing a single set of quality standards for postgraduate research degrees rather than the initial idea of a new framework entirely separate from the QAA’s Code of Practice on postgraduate research students.
There has been one key area that has until now seemed doomed to elude reform. The BRTF recommended a reduction in the number of special funding streams. There are far too many streams, and the bidding and monitoring processes are disproportionate. But even here we have a hopeful sign. I am cheered by Alan Johnson's announcement this week that he wants to see the mainstreaming of four significant special funding streams. The minister has obviously listened and intends to act. When the BRRG produces its final report next autumn we would be very pleased indeed if that report outlined progress in this area.
The minister also announced that he would be asking HEFCE, LSC and TTA to introduce impact assessments for new policies which affect higher education. Again this is good news. Regulators must show that they have frankly considered what new regulation will mean for universities. The impact assessment for the HE White Paper was late, but it happened and the BRRG was able to advise and comment on it. It is now clearly understood that impact assessments should be published alongside all new policy proposals and they will be a key tool for any “gatekeeper”.
In the next few months, the Group will consider proposals for a gatekeeper mechanism which should ensure that new policy, wherever it comes from, is comprehensively and publicly assessed before it becomes new regulation. The interaction with a gatekeeper mechanism, and the requirement to have an impact assessment, should together ensure that new policies are proportionate, targeted and consistent and that regulation is fit for purpose.
As institutions in receipt of public funds universities can never expect to exist in a world without regulation – but we can expect a world where the level of regulation does not shatter the very independence that is the signature attribute and key strength of those universities. The first BRRG report, and the positive response we have seen from government and agencies, bodes well. I urge everyone with an interest to consider our report and let us know your views. But let us know soon, as after its final report the group intends to add itself to the list of things no longer needed.
The interim BRRG report is available at www.hero.ac.uk