Modern student expectations should be at the heart of future post-16 education law

(Title Image: National Assembly of Wales)

Children & Young People Committee
Post-Legislative Scrutiny – Higher Education Act 2015 (pdf)
Published: 4th December 2019

“We want to ensure that the original ambitions for the reforms – which include prioritising learners’ needs and realising the talents of all learners – are not squeezed and wrung out of the (proposed) Tertiary Education Bill. I urge the Welsh Government to consider carefully our recommendations and to maintain that original ambition. The Higher Education Act is focused on providers – the new Bill must be focused more on learners”.
– Committee Chair, Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen)

1. Gaps remain in how higher education is regulated

The Act works in such a way that higher education providers can deliver courses with little to no oversight by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), as the Act only applies to courses supported by Welsh Government grants and loans (known as “designated courses”).

This means that some designated part-time undergraduate and postgraduate courses which receive funding from sources other than HEFCW fall outside the regulatory framework.

Also, as HEFCW are responsible for higher education and Estyn are responsible for further education, there are examples of FE colleges which offer both levels of courses being subject to oversight by both organisations.

The Committee concluded that any future Tertiary Education Bill had to clear up these anomalies and provide an integrated, consistent, future-proofed approach to all forms of post-16 education.

2. HEFCW’s powers under the Act are “difficult to use”

The 2015 Act granted HEFCW some powers to take action against regulated institutions, such as issuing sanctions. As the powers were said to be potentially “existentially threatening” (even described as “nuclear”) to some course providers, the process involved is often slow and HEFCW often seeks a more proportionate method of addressing shortfalls.

An example is given whereby HEFCW could effectively close down an institution by refusing to approve a fee plan if the provider fails to do what they’re told. The fee and access plans themselves – designed to widen access to university – were also criticised as being overly bureaucratic and run on short timeframes.

The UCU trade union said the 2015 Act often fails to provide HEFCW with the necessary tools to make interventions on governance arrangements. The Committee agreed and recommended that any future Act sets the conditions for good governance at institutions.

3. Student interests aren’t paramount in the Act

The Act heavily leans towards regulation of finances – based on the amount of public funding at stake – at the expense of the key aim to react to risks to student interests.

There was some disagreement on what “student interests” actually means, though the Committee were told it’s supposed to mean maintaining quality of courses and financial viability of an institution. There was no wider requirement regarding student experience, student well-being or value for money (i.e. graduate employability).

The Committee recommended that in future, there’s a move away from regulation based on public funding to a greater focus on the safeguarding of student interests to ensure reasonable student expectations are met by post-16 providers.

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