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Introduction

Regulation has many different facets. The operation, governance and management of an HE provider can itself give students and the public confidence. Providers that are companies are run by company directors, who are bound by company law, while providers that are charities are run by trustees, who are bound by charity law. All providers demonstrate accountability through their published data and information, including publications such as annual reports and corporate governance statements and financial accounts. This approach is a form of self-regulation. 

There is also a long-established tradition among higher education institutions of collaboration for academic, business and other purposes; for example, universities and colleges rely on external examiners from other universities to scrutinise their assessment processes. So, although they are autonomous and in competition with each other, there is voluntary co-regulation.

The gateway and exit processes to and from higher education, described in this framework, are also forms of regulation.

Providers are also subject to a range of employment, planning, health and safety, freedom of information, data protection, public interest disclosure, and environmental legislation. Some of these statutory requirements apply differentially across the various types of higher education provider. Freedom of information requirements and procurement rules, for example, apply only to publicly funded providers. Further information on these requirements is available in the Higher Education Better Regulation Group (HEBRG) 2011 report ‘Review of the non-HE regulatory landscape and its impact on HEIs’.

As well as these forms of internal and external regulation, HE in England is also regulated by independent bodies. This section describes how that regulation by independent bodies is carried out.

The regulatory framework: the work of HEFCE and other public bodies

The Government, specifically the Department for Education, sets the regulatory framework within which HE providers operate, with advice from public bodies such as HEFCE. They do this to safeguard the interests of students and ensure effective use of public funds. A number of bodies are involved in this regulatory framework and they have specific responsibilities. These responsibilities lie in the areas of:

  • academic quality and standards
  • financial sustainability and good governance
  • access to higher education
  • information provision
  • student complaints and redress.

Academic quality and standards

The main organisations responsible for ensuring academic quality and enhancement are HEFCE, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), Ofsted, and the professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs).

HEFCE

HEFCE has a statutory duty under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 section 70 to ensure the assessment of the quality of the education provided in the institutions that it funds.

In 2015 HEFCE and the HE funding bodies for Wales and Northern Ireland sought views on the kind of quality arrangements that would be necessary for the next decade of the HE sector’s development. A Revised Operating Model for Quality Assessment was published in 2016. It sets out the arrangements to be implemented in England from 2017-18, the transition arrangements during 2016-17 to support such implementation, and plans for a range of pilot activities during 2016-17.

The approach is designed to be proportionate, risk-based and responsive to the context of each individual provider and its students. Regulatory scrutiny will be centred on what matters to students: degree standards, student outcomes and the academic experience to encourage continuous improvement in providers of HE.

HEFCE also manages the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which assesses the quality of research in UK higher education institutions (HEIs), so that funding bodies can selectively allocate the funding that they receive for research.

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is a voluntary scheme for recognising excellent teaching, in addition to existing national quality requirements for universities, colleges and other higher education providers. It was developed by the Department for Education in England and provides information to help prospective students choose where to study. The TEF is managed by HEFCE.

QAA

QAA is an independent body that monitors and advises on standards and quality in UK HE. It reviewed HEFCE-funded providers through regular visits under contract from HEFCE until 31 July 2016 and reports are available with details of review methods on the QAA website. It continues to undertake work on behalf of HEFCE under contract to deliver the new operating model for quality assessment.

QAA also reviews alternative providers that are applying for a course to be designated for student support purposes and reports are available on the QAA website.

QAA reviewed HE programmes delivered by UK providers through partnership links with organisations abroad or delivered on overseas campuses. Reports are available on the QAA website.

QAA works on behalf of the Home Office to review providers that wish to recruit international students. 

OFSTED

Ofsted assures teaching quality for initial teacher training courses leading to the award of Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) on behalf of the National Council for Teaching and Learning. The output of this quality review is used to determine the distribution of initial teacher training places across institutions.

Professional statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs)

PRSBs regulate professional and occupational standards and issue their own licences for professional practice. HE providers are subject to specific requirements within courses leading to professional qualifications, accredited by these bodies, which sometimes set the curriculum in those courses. A list of PRSBs is available.

Financial sustainability and good governance

The primary responsibility for ensuring that a HE provider is a going concern rests with its own governing body, board or owner.

HEFCE is the main regulator of the financial sustainability and governance of higher education providers in receipt of HEFCE funding, deriving its power from the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. Financial sustainability, management and governance are covered in HEFCE's annual risk assessments, along with other factors. HEFCE relies on the Education and Skills Funding Agency to provide risk assessments of financial sustainability, management and governance for further education colleges providing HE that it funds.  

HEFCE supports DfE to monitor the financial sustainability of alternative providers with specific course designation.

HEFCE's Memorandum of Assurance and Accountability outlines the obligations of providers that receive HEFCE funds. Alternative providers’ obligations are outlined in the criteria and conditions associated with the designation of the provider's course for student support purposes. 

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) plays a role in facilitating the regulation of financial sustainability by collecting the data returns which HEFCE requires. It is a condition of the Memorandum of Assurance and Accountability and of specific course designation by DfE that data are returned to HESA. HEFCE requires that data submitted to itself, HESA, SLC and other agencies must be fit-for-purpose and that HE providers provide assurances to this effect. Alternative providers with specific course designation and student number control must also subscribe to HESA.

The National College of Teaching and Learning reviews the financial sustainability of all providers which it accredits as Initial Teacher Training providers, except for those providers funded by HEFCE. 

Access to higher education

HEFCE and OFFA have separate but complementary roles in supporting access to HE and student success.

HEFCE provides funding for widening participation in the form of annual ‘non-mainstream’ allocations to universities and colleges. It undertakes data analysis to enhance understanding of the key issues relating to widening participation to inform policy.

The Higher Education Act 2004 introduced variable fees from 2006. This required HEFCE funded providers that wished to charge above the basic fee level to submit an access agreement. The Act created the post of Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, who is supported by the Office for Fair Access to ensure that the introduction of higher tuition fees did not deter appropriately qualified people from disadvantaged backgrounds from entering HE.

OFFA works with HEFCE-funded providers on their activities to widen participation and promote good practice in access and student success. Each HEFCE-funded provider offering undergraduate HE courses above the basic fee develops an access agreement based on its own access and student success priorities and with reference to OFFA guidance.

The agreement is renegotiated annually and is subject to the approval of the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education. Access agreements cover institutions’ plans and any financial or other support commitments that they make to the students entering the institution for the duration of their studies. Access agreements are published on OFFA’s website, alongside institutions’ self-assessment of their performance.

The Director of Fair Access has a number of sanctions if an institution breaches its agreement, and fails to rectify such a breach. These include: 

  • requesting HEFCE to withhold grant until access agreement commitments have been met
  • imposing a fine of up to £500,000
  • for the most serious of breaches, refusing to approve a new agreement for a specified period.

Alternative providers with specific course designation cannot access the higher fee rates. However, there is no overall cap on the fees which they can charge.

More about OFFA

Information provision

HEFCE requires the providers it funds to publish certain information as part of the national quality assessment arrangements and also for accountability purposes.

Unistats is the official site to search for, and compare, data and information on university and college courses from across the UK. The site includes course information for publicly funded providers, franchised provision and a small number of other providers. It draws together comparable information about areas that students have identified as important in making decisions about what and where to study. The items are:

a. Measures of student satisfaction, as determined by the National Student Survey, which is completed by more than 300,000 mainly final-year students in the UK each year.

b. Measures of employment or further study, as determined by:

  • the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey, which is completed by students who gained a qualification from a university or college, six months after they left
  • the Long DLHE, which surveys a sample of those who responded to the DLHE 40 months after they left university or college.

c. Information provided by the HE provider, such as cost of student accommodation.

Work on the provision of information is overseen by the Higher Education Public Information Steering Group (HEPISG).

HE providers must also make data and information returns to support the operation of the regulatory framework.

Student complaints and redress

The majority of HE providers of all types in England provide high-quality education, and each provider has systems for dealing with complaints, although procedures vary widely. Students’ unions can help and NUS provides advice.

Where problems are not resolved to a student’s satisfaction using internal procedures, a student can refer their complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). The OIA cannot hear complaints about academic judgements or university admissions. From September 2015 all providers where students are in receipt of student support must subscribe to the OIA. The OIA provides details of subscribing institutions.

In cases where students, staff or other parties have concerns about HEFCE-funded providers that indicate serious systemic or procedural problems, HEFCE can investigate them in detail through its concerns process.

Other regulation

Student number control

The student number control allows the Government to limit the number of students that can access undergraduate student support and is an important control over public spending.

Student number control is applied only to alternative providers of higher education, but not to those alternative providers with UK degree awarding powers. Each year the Government provides a mechanism allowing growth in the highest quality providers.

The Government sets these numbers directly, and HEFCE provides advice and collects data. The number controls are likely to remain in place until the 2018-19 academic year.

More about student number controls for alternative providers appears in chapter 7 of Guidance for providers: criteria and conditions and annual re-designation.

Charity legislation

HE providers with charity status are subject to charity regulation. HEFCE is principal regulator for those higher education institutions that are exempt charities. To undertake this role HEFCE draws on information it already collects for ensuring accountability of funding.

Those HE providers that are charities but are not subject to HEFCE as principal regulator are regulated by the Charity Commission.

Consumer legislation

HE providers are subject to consumer protection legislation in their dealings with students. The Competition and Markets Authority issued consumer law guidance to providers and students in March 2015 to help them understand their obligations.

Prevent

The Prevent duty is a statutory requirement under the Counter-terrorism and Security Act 2015 for specified groups of HE providers to have regard for the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.

The providers are:

  • HEFCE-funded institutions
  • providers with specific-course designation
  • providers with more than 250 students
  • the autonomous colleges, schools and halls of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham.

HEFCE monitors compliance with the duty.

Read more on the Prevent duty

Research funding

Many HE providers apply for research funding from one of the UK's Research Councils. Those that receive this funding are accountable for it and subject to audit from the Research Councils UK assurance unit.

HE providers with research facilities receive HEFCE quality-related (QR) funding on the basis of their assessment through the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the volume of their research and relative costs of research areas.

More about research funding 

Page last updated 4 October 2017

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