Higher education needs a robustly independent regulator

19 Jan 18

Toby Young’s brief tenure on the board of the Office for Students should prompt the education secretary to reflect while choosing a replacement, argues the Institute for Government’s Daniel Thornton.

Toby Young was a non-executive board member at the Office for Students (OfS) for just over a week.

His appointment brought together #MeToo campaigners, the Labour Party, and academics concerned about the role and independence of the OfS.

They were eventually joined by Conservative MPs, and Young resigned on the day that the education secretary Justine Greening and universities minister Jo Johnson were reshuffled from their jobs.  

Johnson had argued that the OfS should be seen as a “classic market regulator” and Young’s experience in bringing new schools into the education market was one of the reasons he was appointed.  

But many in universities do not see higher education as a market, but instead see universities as a space for ideas and debate.

I would argue that both ideals of higher education need a robustly independent regulator.

Market regulations are less effective if they are subject to political intervention because markets depend upon the predictable behaviour of the regulator.

Equally, if universities are to “question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions” an independent regulator is also necessary to maintain universities’ autonomy.

The Office for Students is, sadly, less independent than most regulators.

Unlike other regulators, it is not a non ministerial department – this means that it gets funding from the Department for Education, instead of from Parliament.

Universities policy is going to remain controversial.

Debates continue on ’safe spaces’, the pay of university administrators and student fees.

In all this, the OfS needs to “protect the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers”, which means it needs to stay at arm’s-length from government and be seen to do so.

The launch of the OfS has not been ideal.

As the new education secretary, Damian Hinds, and the new universities minister, Sam Gyimah, consider a replacement for Young, they should remember the importance of the OfS’s independence.

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