Professional Services in the New Era of Regulation
Dr Andrew West FAUA has worked in HE professional services for thirty years. Formerly University Secretary at the University of Sheffield he is Strategic Adviser to the AUA and Managing Consultant for AUA Consulting. Andrew is a member of the Board of Governors of Leeds Beckett University, an Associate of Advance HE and a Fellow of the Halpin Partnership.
Issues relating to regulation and compliance are often among the themes featuring in enquiries to AUA Consulting, as institutions look for additional support, and an external perspective, in navigating the various expectations and requirements. Thinking of the ‘new era’ of regulation within the English HE sector, I have been struck by considerable commentary on the governance-related implications of the new arrangements but relatively few discussions of the ways in which the new regulatory environment touches on student affairs and those with leadership and management roles in the student experience. Reflecting on these student issues from a professional services perspective – and based on the experience of recent AUA Consulting projects – I want to put forward six questions which seem to me important for universities to consider.
1. Who has the regulatory overview?
The regulatory ‘web’ around the student experience is increasingly complex and the implications for institutions are arguably more significant than ever, raising questions about who maintains the overview of compliance. Areas include the Office for Students registration conditions, expectations associated with Access and Participation Plans, requirements driven by the Competition and Markets Authority, not to mention the Quality Code, equality and data protection legislation, Home Office visa rules and the longer-established 1994 Education Act provisions on student unions. Thinking of the new regulatory environment, I wonder how far the key teams in areas like registry and student services now have a regulatory ‘mindset’ and are they now approaching their roles in those terms? If not, what development might the university need to put in place to get these issues on the agenda and raise awareness?
2. What is your regulatory strategy?
Some commentators have pointed to a new tone in HE regulation during the first full year of operation of the Office for Students, with an increased emphasis on points like monitoring and intervention. Universities will need to consider how to approach this change from the point of view of a strategic ‘relationship’ with the regulator. Professional services teams will need to engage with, and shape, the internal ‘narrative’ about the regulator – both within the institution and with the students’ union – and it will be important to ensure that key individuals are in touch with this from a student affairs as well as a governance point of view. Of course there are also connections to be made with the institutional risk appetite in this new environment. Are your operational student-facing teams making that connection in their work? How are they speaking about the regulator and what is their level of awareness of its activities? How can you best build confidence as the new arrangements bed in?
3. Where are the risks in your context?
The various regulatory requirements self-evidently present differential risks depending on the institutional context and there will be similarly diverse implications for the various service areas/functions/activities, when looking across the student experience. Within the professional services it will be important to understand how commitments made in your APP (for example) are directed, supported and resourced in practice. Who has the oversight of these student-related risk areas, thinking of the new regulatory focus, and how are their voices heard in your university when decisions are made about resource investment and disinvestment?
4. How are you approaching monitoring & evaluation?
The heightened compliance risks for universities in the new regulatory environment are likely to present a challenge to your existing approach to monitoring and impact evaluation in the student experience – potentially there will be a need to develop your approach or to encourage a new emphasis in this area. Looking at the relevant professional services teams, such as in areas like widening participation and student support, who is leading the task of service evaluation? What skillsets have you assembled to support the activity (eg confidence in data analysis)? What datasets are you tracking locally (eg ‘leading’ indicators) in anticipation of external data analysis by the regulator? Generally speaking, how far do your operational teams understand this increasingly important data-related emphasis in their work?
5. How are you planning to improve?
If you identify compliance risks or associated service improvement opportunities, there are some interesting questions for institutions around how best to respond in the new regulatory context. How does such action planning work in your university and does your approach need to change? Are you consciously targeting specific areas of activity with a view to limited interventions to achieve a tipping point ‘micro-gain’ effect in respect of indicators where there is the most scrutiny? Or have you decided to move away from smaller-scale projects and piloting towards a whole institution or systems-level approach to achieve a step-change? On the flip side, if you detect a tendency towards ‘gold plating’, there are different sorts of conversations to be had. In all this what is the most appropriate direction for your university bearing in mind your intended approach to regulation and the local risk levels discussed in questions 2 and 3 of this blog?
6. What works elsewhere?
A new era of regulation in an increasingly competitive HE market may point to the need for a more sophisticated approach to benchmarking and horizon scanning, inside and outside the sector, in the UK and overseas. Professional services teams will need to ask how familiar they are with what works elsewhere. How are you drawing learning from other approaches and who is taking responsibility for this outward facing work in your HEI? Are your operational teams well connected in the wider sector and in their own professional networks, including internationally? Are there any functions and service areas where you might benefit from an external perspective to help identify opportunities for improvement? Some of AUA Consulting’s recent projects touch on these questions and more. Our consulting team has significant experience of the regulatory environment and of student affairs and we are keen to work with more universities. Get in touch with us to find out more: