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HEFCE is committed to reducing avoidable burdens on institutions and commissioned PA Consulting to carry out three studies on the costs, impacts and burdens of accountability in English higher education in 2000, 2004 and 2008.

The latest report, 'Positive accountability', published today, has found that costs to institutions continued to fall between 2004 and 2008 by 21 per cent. That is broadly in line with HEFCE's stated objective in its strategic plan. HEFCE is looking for a further 10 per cent reduction by 2010-11.

The progress made in 2004-2008 follows a reported 25 per cent reduction in administrative burden between 2000 and 2004.

The 2004 review estimated the costs of compliance at around £240 million (in 2008 prices). The equivalent costs to the 2004 estimate in 2008 were around £190 million across the sector.

Mike Boxall of PA Consulting said:

'These results are very encouraging, and show a continuing pattern of improving accountability relationships over the past eight years. However, the picture behind the headline numbers is still quite mixed.

'Our studies have measured sector-specific accountability demands, where HEFCE and other bodies such as the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and Higher Education Statistics Agency have worked with institutions to reduce burdens. Institutions themselves have improved their systems significantly between our three studies, and this has further reduced their costs.

'Our findings do not, however, take account of the impacts of more general public regulations, such as employment and health and safety regulations, or freedom of information requirements, which lie outside HEFCE's power to influence and which have probably risen over the period.'

Steve Egan, Deputy Chief Executive at HEFCE, said:

'Universities and colleges deserve credit for these results because they have embedded many of the requirements such as risk management into their own systems. These were originally regarded as impositions by external bodies, but are now accepted as contributing to the effective management of institutions.

'As we look to establishing a successor body to the Higher Education Regulation Review Group, this report will help us move from a position where accountability is regarded as a burden to one where it becomes a positive force. As the report makes clear, accountability is an evolving relationship between funders, agencies and institutions and should be based on mutual trust and openness. In taking this forward, we need to ensure that the accountability regime continues to command full public confidence, while minimising bureaucratic burdens.'

Minister for Higher Education, David Lammy, said:

'In these challenging economic times, universities continue to be a huge success story for our country as well as a significant force for helping local communities out of the downturn.

'With investment in higher education at its highest level and the burden of bureaucracy continuing to reduce, it is encouraging to see that institutions are taking greater responsibility for their own accountability for the public funding they receive.'

Diana Warwick, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said:

'Universities UK is grateful for the efforts sector bodies have made to reduce unnecessary accountability burdens in higher education. The thoroughness of this study clearly shows that institutions take seriously the need to be accountable, but that this is done in a professional and efficient way. There still remains a significant agenda to address, and we look forward to working with HEFCE and others on the successor body to the Higher Education Regulation Review Group.'

Michael Whitehouse, Assistant Auditor General at the National Audit Office, said:

'The progress being made in reducing the accountability burden on universities is welcome. If accountability can be assured with less burden on university staff, that has to be a good thing. And it is to be hoped that this progress will free up institutions and staff to focus on their main activities: supporting front-line teaching and research.'


Notes

1. 'Positive accountability: review of the costs, benefits and burdens of accountability in English higher education', by PA Consulting Group, is available on the HEFCE web-site.

2. Universities are subject to a wide range of regulatory requirements and conditions, reflecting the diversity and scope of their activities. Many of these are the general public regulations applied to all organisations operating in regulated areas, such as health and safety, planning, equal opportunities and Freedom of Information.

3. While these general accountability demands impact significantly on higher education institutions, as they do on many other public organisations, they are not something that HEFCE can influence or reduce. The PA study and report is concerned with the burden experienced from sector-specific regulations and requirements imposed on higher education institutions by HEFCE and other official agencies, which HEFCE is committed to reducing.

4. The PA study was based on in-depth research with 20 higher education institutions, involving well over 100 structured interviews with institution staff as well as extensive data analysis from institutions' management systems.

5. The research assessed the activities involved in institutions' responses to over 75 different sector-specific accountability requirements, and also any non-staff costs, for example relating to IT systems. PA then related these activities and other costs to the work and costs that each institution would otherwise incur for its own internal management controls and governance processes (what the report calls 'business-as-usual activities').

6. For each of the 75 requirements, PA reached agreement with the participating institutions on the work and costs generated beyond business-as-usual activities. The extent of additional cost thus identified varied greatly between institutions, and PA derived a weighted mean incremental cost for each requirement; these costs were then extrapolated to a sector level based on the factors driving the relevant costs (for example, student numbers, research bids).