Autonomous universities should not request state bailouts, says OfS chair

Sir Michael Barber said that the OfS had, at times, appeared a “little bit tone-deaf” in its communications with universities

Autonomous universities should not request state bailouts during times of financial difficulty, the out-going chair of the Office for Students has said.

Sir Michael Barber, who will end his four-year tenure in March 2021, was speaking with OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge during an OfS online event on higher education sector regulation on 3 December. Sir Michael said replacement of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) with a regulator had been a “big culture shift” for the sector.

He described the situation of government financial support for universities as “the dilemma in the sector”.

“The message from university leaders and academics is [that] we’re autonomous institutions, we have academic freedom. And we, as a regulator, totally support that. But the same people who say they want autonomy, then say, ‘I want you to bail us out’. And the answer to that is: autonomy means taking responsibility for your decisions.”

“People say we want autonomy,” Sir Michael continued, “and then when something like the pandemic comes up, or even a more minor problem, they say, ‘What are you going to do?’

“It reminds me of the debate we had with headteachers when I was at school reform, where the headteachers say, ‘Give us the money and get out of the way so we can manage our schools’. And then as soon as a problem comes up, they say, ‘What’s the government going to do about it?’ The two ideas are inconsistent.”

Sir Michael recalled the words of Sir Keith Joseph, who once commented that the first words English babies learn are: “It’s the government’s fault”.

One of the reasons for this event is to put our approach under greater scrutiny because we want to learn how to be continuously better than we’ve been before
– Sir Michael Barber

Sir Michael discussed the language the regulator used in its communications with universities during its first few years. “We sometimes got that right, but not always. And we work on that all the time,” he reflected, adding that the OfS had, at times, appeared a “little bit tone-deaf”.

“One of the reasons for this event is to put our approach under greater scrutiny because we want to learn how to be continuously better than we’ve been before,” Sir Michael added.

The OfS chair and chief executive discussed why the body favoured principles-based, as opposed to rules-based, regulation. He said the former was more effective for a sector that includes institutions as diverse as the “Dyson Institute, the Royal College of Music, the University of Liverpool and Barking and Dagenham College”.

On principles-based regulation, Sir Michael added: “We’ve seen it this year more than ever – the sector is constantly changing, the context is constantly changing, the world is constantly changing. The rules would have to be constantly changed to keep up with the pace of change in the world.”

He said the regulator deserved credit for averting problems in the HE sector.

“One of the ways you measure the success of the regulator is measuring what it prevented, and it’s easy to miss these things. At the beginning of the year, people were talking about multiple institutions going into financial meltdown, it hasn’t happened.”

He added later: “It’s very hard to define success or measure success because success is sometimes that something did not happen. Obviously, it doesn’t register in the data: it is the same theoretical problem that MI5 has.”

Sir Michael also said it was right that the government intervened in sector regulation because “the Treasury is paying and the student never pays back if they don’t earn certain amounts of money”.

Read more: OfS seeks to encourage students to report poor quality teaching

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