Government to axe ‘bureaucratic burdens’ on universities

The government wants to rewrite the ways funding and regulation work in the higher education sector

The government will slash red tape in a bid to reduce “bureaucratic burdens” on universities, the universities minister has told vice-chancellors.

Speaking today at the annual Universities UK (UUK) conference, Michelle Donelan said the government will axe bureaucracy that might distract universities from their core teaching- and research-related activities.

Universities “in the midst” of reopening, do not want “a load of red tape to wade through,” she said.

Ms Donelan will work alongside research minister Amanda Solloway and innovation minister James Bethell, and in conjunction with the Office for Students (OfS), UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), to “refocus resources on the core essential activities of research and teaching”.

As part of her plan to cut bureaucracy for universities, minister Donelan announced a “radical, root and branch” review of the National Student Survey (NSS), which will be led by the OfS and conclude by December 2020. She blamed the “extensive use of the NSS” in university league tables for promoting courses to students that are “easy and entertaining, rather than robust and rigorous”.

“There is a valid concern from some in the sector that good scores can more easily be achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students, rather than pursuing high standards and embedding the subject knowledge and intellectual skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace. These concerns have been driven by both the survey’s current structure and its usage in developing sector league tables and rankings,” Ms Donelan told vice-chancellors.

The government is concerned that the NSS – which was launched in 2005 – is “open to gaming” and expensive and bureaucratic for academics, she said.

There is a valid concern from some in the sector that good scores can more easily be achieved through dumbing down and spoon-feeding students, rather than pursuing high standards and embedding subject knowledge and intellectual skills
Michelle Donelan, universities minister

Although Ms Donelan conceded student perspective does “play a valuable role” in monitoring universities and measuring course value, she said providers should “educate their students to high standards rather than simply to seek ‘satisfaction’”.

Fixes for the NSS mooted by Ms Donelan include not releasing the results to the public.

For her part, Ms Donelan wants the OfS to reduce compliance monitoring to a “very small fraction of the cases that are currently subject to enhanced monitoring”. She expects the regulator to report its reductions to the DfE in three months.

Susan Lapworth, OfS director of competition and registration, wrote to vice-chancellors on 30 July to announce the regulator’s approach to regulation for the 2020/21 academic year. She explained that the regulator expects higher education providers (HEPs) to provide all but two of the usual compulsory data returns – the estates’ management return and non-academic staff return. The regulator is set to review its “principles-based regulation”, Ms Lapworth wrote, to “target attention where it is needed and reduce the burden for providers that do not pose an increased risk”.

The OfS will also advance its UK-wide Data Futures project to reform the way student-level data is collected, reduce registration fees by 10% in real terms over two years and review the Transparent Approach to Costing for Teaching data.

In response to today’s announcement, OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said: “The OfS board will carefully consider this guidance and have regard to it when deciding any action it takes in response. On the National Student Survey, our review will seek to reduce any unnecessary bureaucracy, prevent any unintended consequences and gaming of the survey, whilst ensuring that the NSS stands the test of time as an important indicator of students’ opinions and experiences at every level.”

She said the regulator “remains firmly committed to robust and proportionate regulation, in the interests of every student” and would place access and participation for the most disadvantaged students “at the core of our mission”.

Cross-departmental campaign to cut red tape

The cross-departmental plan was created in conjunction with Ms Solloway and Lord Bethell, of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) respectively.

In a ministerial foreword, the three junior ministers wrote: “We have been concerned by major growth in bureaucracy over recent decades, which became particularly apparent for the R&D system during the pandemic, much of which has added limited value or in some cases led to negative behaviours or consequences. Too often administrative activities are a distraction from the core purpose of research and education providers.”

The ministers want the OfS, UKRI and NIHR to stop recognising voluntary membership awards, which include the Advance HE’s Athena SWAN gender equality charter and Race Equality Charter (REC), when making regulatory or funding decisions.

“Universities should feel confident in their ability to address such matters themselves and not feel pressured to take part in such initiatives to demonstrate their support for the cause the scheme addresses,” the ministers explained.

Since 2011, the NIHR has required academic departments applying for funding to hold an Athena SWAN silver award – but the requirement has now been scrapped.

Advance HE published an independent review of the Athena SWAN charter in March 2020 as part of an effort to reduce the administrative workload for applicants.

As part of that review, Ms Solloway said funding councils should simplify eligibility criteria to allow organisations outside of the higher education sector to apply for research and innovation funding. UKRI has been tasked with streamlining its funding application and review processes, and implementing “a brand new, fully digital, user-designed, applicant-focused and streamlined grants application system” by August 2021.

The plan unveiled by Donelan, Solloway and Lord Bethell also requires universities to reduce their internal bureaucracy by “stripping out” layers of management and processes.

Earlier today, the DfE announced updated guidance for universities based on the most recent advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Ms Donelan said this announcement meant it was safe university campuses to reopen, but “open if the guidance is followed”.

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