Graham Donelan Posted by Graham Donelan on 24th May, 2016

Universities – Red Tape Doesn’t Rule

In this blog post, Graham Donelan, University Secretary at Liverpool Hope University, looks at the various regulations within which universities must operate, and asks whether a level playing field can ever be possible.

When the Green Paper was published, many in the HE sector got very excited about the reference to the Freedom of Information Act tucked away on page 68.  I lost count of the number of times I said to people that it did not mean that the FOI Act would cease to apply to universities.

Now that the White Paper has been issued, we see that on page 38 it is confirmed that the FOI Act will continue to apply to universities – or some of them. In a section ironically called “Levelling the playing field through deregulation”, the government confirms that one of the most burdensome regulations affecting universities will not apply to all providers.

Now, this piece does not intend to argue the pros and cons of the Freedom of Information Act, or indeed any of the regulations or Acts of Parliaments identified, but merely to comment on the very broad spectrum of rules and regulations by which we must abide. One of the reasons it seems to me that universities have so many regulations and Acts of Parliament to adhere to is the wide scope of higher education.

Of course, we have the Acts of Parliament that have been passed over the years specifically for Higher Education…

…you get the picture. But we are also affected directly by so many other areas of regulation:

Add to this the health and safety legislation from so many different perspectives, disclosure and barring rules, at least four Tiers of the UKVI system and many, many more.

We are involved in so many sectors – schools and teacher education, NHS, social care, law, nuclear industry, animal testing.  The list goes on and on.  So how can we operate within these regulations?

As those responsible for compliance within universities, members of AHUA know the detail of these rules and regulations better than most. In fact, we are so used to it that we almost shrug when we get yet another regulation to manage – most recently the Modern Slavery Act, Register of Significant Persons, the requirement to have a Student Protection Plan in place.

Occasionally these new regulations seem to be overburdensome – PREVENT monitoring perhaps? – but we soon adapt and end up often overcomplying, because we are all so professional and like to do the right thing.

Much of the discussion of HEFCE’s proposals for QA assessment (whether they survive the White Paper or not is as yet unclear) focused on the extra administrative burden we would have; I wasn’t too sure myself – I think the burden in this case might actually have been reduced!

The traditional university sector – multidisciplinary, “public”, employing hundreds or thousands of staff, running support services ranging from cleaning to mental health advice, reaching out to local communities, international organisations, and in their spare time doing some research and teaching – is caught by so many Acts of Parliament, government regulation, EU regulation, regulatory body guidance, accrediting body requirements that it must surely be impossible to find a level playing field – even the same sort of field – for those universities to work in.

Add to that the providers from different backgrounds – whether they be FE Colleges, not-for-profit Colleges, private providers, Google, Harvard or Trump University – and a level playing field seems impossible.

My advice to the sector and to AHUA colleagues is to focus on what universities should be doing first and foremost – research, teaching and service. Keep abreast of policy developments through organisations like AHUA and admirable forums like WonkHE, use sector bodies like Universities UK and mission groups to lobby when we really should but, most importantly, focus on what matters and actually enjoy life working in HE.

It’s the complexity and variety of activity which, for me, makes a university one of the best places of all to work .

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