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Higher Education and Research Bill - Committee (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for Education) (Higher Education) 4:00 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for the opportunity to discuss validation arrangements. We believe that they are essential to a fully functioning higher education sector. We have listened to the concerns raised around the potential for Clause 47 to create a conflict of interest. However, I believe that a more substantial conflict of interest already exists within the sector.

At the moment, new providers usually have to find a willing incumbent provider to validate their provision. This gives those incumbent providers significant levers to control which new providers can enter the market, and what kind of provision they offer. Even if established providers are willing to help new providers get a foothold in the sector, there is an inherent conflict of interest if the proposed new provision would directly compete with one of their own courses. Of course, conflicts of interest are not the only problem validated providers can face. We know that some providers still find it difficult to find a partner that is willing to enter into validation arrangements with them, or have established arrangements unexpectedly withdrawn, and not because they are considered poor quality.

The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, stated that there was no evidence, but I have to put her right. We only need to look at events at Teesside University last year. Following a change of leadership, the university unexpectedly withdrew important validation services to 10 local colleges, based on a change of strategic direction and not as a reflection of the quality of the provision. Ensuring new and existing high-quality providers are not locked out of the market via their preferred entry route is essential to ensuring that students are able to access the right type of higher education for them.

The OfS cannot force providers to enter into validation arrangements. If insufficient providers are entering into validation agreements with each other or into commissioning arrangements with the OfS, or these fail to correct the problem, the OfS will need to find another way to promote competition and choice. Without further powers, the OfS could potentially be forced to stand by and watch while good-quality providers that do not want to seek their own degree-awarding powers remain locked out of degree-level provision indefinitely.

The OfS will, if it performs any validation function, have to have regard to the need to encourage competition among higher education providers in England. Its aim will not be to compete with the other higher education providers with a view to diminishing their attractiveness or their ability to offer validation services. It will only offer these services if there is demonstrable evidence that validation services are failing to support the sector. A regulator needing to take a role in the sector it regulates is not totally unprecedented. For example, the Bank of England regulates many aspects of the financial sector in order to maintain financial stability in the UK. In extremis, however, it will also act as the lender of last resort, or a market-maker of last resort, for example by buying and selling assets such as government bonds to provide liquidity at a time of financial stress.

Noble Lords might wish to read an interim report by the Open University and Independent Higher Education on a joint project piloting a streamlined approach to validation. The report highlights several perceived obstacles for providers in developing successful validation partnerships, including restrictive behaviour on the part of some validating universities and,

“insufficient support for alternative delivery models including accelerated and more work-based degrees”.

While the report accepts that this is not representative of all validation partnerships, it recognises the importance of validation as a route into the higher education sector and the need to fix problems which, if left unchecked, could have an adverse impact on student choice.

The report says:

“Validation stands as a critical part of the regulatory infrastructure, and its role as a gateway into the higher education sector means that any dysfunction will have a substantially negative impact on the diversity and quality of provision available to students”.

Relying on incumbents to shape the future of higher education can also curb innovation and result in the entrenchment of the same model of higher education, as providers may be hesitant to validate courses that do not conform to their usual modes of delivery. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, validation can create a closed shop. As part of its work on improving validation services, we would expect the OfS to draw and build on this and other work already carried out.

I also noted the suggestion in the previous debate to create an independent central validation body akin to the CNAA model. As a regulator of the higher education sector, the OfS is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the regulatory framework and its supporting processes are functioning effectively. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, it therefore makes sense for the OfS to have a role in determining how validation problems that could prevent it from fulfilling its responsibilities, such as ensuring that market entry routes and related processes are functioning effectively, are actually fixed.

The OfS’s broader strategic role makes it best placed to identify emerging trends in validation services across the sector and to monitor the impact of whatever solution it puts in place to correct any problems. It will be able to draw on information and advice from all its designated bodies and stakeholders to develop a robust evidence-based approach to address any serious validation failings. I reassure noble Lords that this is not a power easily given or used. We envisage that the OfS would be authorised as a validator of last resort only if it was absolutely necessary or expedient after other measures had been tried and failed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, said that this would be based only on anecdotal evidence. The Secretary of State may exercise this power if she considers that it is necessary or expedient to do so, having taken OfS advice. That advice is most likely to come in the form of an evidence-based report.

The Secretary of State would need to lay secondary regulations in Parliament. As we all know, it is common practice for these regulations, which use the negative procedure, to be laid before Parliament 21 days before coming into force, giving Parliament the opportunity to see these conditions. As always, Parliament retains the power of veto.

The regulations, should they be deemed necessary, are expected to set out the terms and conditions of any OfS validation activity. I would expect the OfS, as the overall regulator of higher education quality and champion of students’ interests, to be best in class in terms of demonstrating that its validation services abided by best practice validation principles and delivered to the highest standards. I would also expect the OfS to put in place appropriate governance arrangements ensuring that an appropriate level of independent scrutiny was applied to the validating arm of the organisation and the safeguards to protect student interests.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, asked how this would work, who within the OfS would do the validating and whether they would have the requisite skills and qualifications. The regulations by the Secretary of State could attach certain conditions to ensure that the service set up by the OfS was underpinned by the necessary expertise. As we expect members of the OfS board to have between them experience of providing higher education, the organisation will have the necessary expertise to recruit the staff needed to set up a validation function. For further detail on how the OfS validation arrangements would work, I again refer noble Lords to my letter of 19 January enclosing a factsheet published by the Department for Education on validation. With that, I move that this clause stand part of the Bill.