VC Open Forum – see what was discussed at the May forum
Posted on behalf of: Internal Communications
Last updated: Tuesday, 30 May 2023
Last Tuesday, Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sasha Roseneil, held her third Open Forum – and the final one of this academic year. Almost 200 people attended in-person in the Attenborough Centre, and over 400 colleagues joined via Zoom. The title of the session was ‘Politics, Markets and Regulation: higher education today’.
Sasha began by sharing the news that Rosemary Martin, a Sussex alumna and member of Council for five years, has been appointed as the new Chair of Council. She updated colleagues on the consultation process for the proposal to formalise our existing ‘cluster’ structure by establishing faculties, and then she turned to the forum’s main focus – recent changes to the external environment in which universities operate, in particular the new(ish) regulator the Office for Students (OfS).
Politics, markets, and regulation: higher education today
After framing the presentation with Karl Marx’s insight that while we make our history we don’t do so in circumstances of our own choosing (Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire, 1852), Sasha explained how much has changed in higher education over the past decade.
As a result of the introduction of £9,000 undergraduate tuition fees in 2012, the hugely reduced teaching grant, and the removal of student number controls in 2015 (which capped the number of people the government would fund to go to university), universities now operate in a quasi-market, with the Office for Students (OfS) established by the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act to be a market regulator.
The number of students applying to, and attending, university has grown significantly, and so the cost to government has increased. The undergraduate fee cap was raised to £9,250 in 2017, but the government is clear that it will not rise again until at least 2025. There have been winners and losers in this quasi-marketised system, with Sussex part of the ‘squeezed middle’ – but all universities are dealing with the significant under-funding of home undergraduates.
Sasha went on to talk in some detail about the new regulatory framework established by the OfS, which has been rapidly developing its mode of operation and testing its new powers. The OfS is charged with ensuring that all students, from all backgrounds, with the ability and desire to undertake higher education: are supported to access, succeed in, and progress from, higher education; receive a high quality academic experience, and their interests are protected while they study or in the event of provider, campus or course closure; are able to progress into employment or further study, and their qualifications hold their value over time; and receive value for money.
The OfS has established seven sets of conditions of registration with which all universities must comply. These are concerned with:
- A. Access and participation;
- B. Quality and standards;
- C. Guidance on consumer protection law: student complaints scheme, and student protection plan;
- D. Financial viability and sustainability;
- E. Management and governance;
- F. Transparency of information; and
- G. Mandatory fee limits.
In relation to the E conditions – management and governance – there are nine public interest governance principles that must guide how universities are run. These relate to academic freedom, accountability, student engagement, academic governance, risk management, value for money, freedom of speech, the composition of the governing body, and the qualities (fit and proper) of senior leaders and the governing body.
If the OfS finds that a higher education provider has been in breach of any of its conditions of registration, it has a number of powers of intervention, ranging from imposing a requirement for improvement by placing specific conditions on the university, through the imposition of a monetary penalty, to suspending student support funding, revoking degree awarding powers, or, ultimately, de-registering a provider.
Sasha discussed concerns that have arisen across the higher education sector about the ways in which the OfS is exercising its powers. The OfS is currently being investigated by the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee, and Sasha suggested that colleagues might be interested to view the hearings of the Committee on Parliament TV.
She went on to highlight the wide range of other legal and regulatory frameworks within which universities are working today – including advertising standards and consumer law, charities law, equality and human rights legislation, employment law, higher education statistics requirements, national security and foreign influence regulations, data protection and freedom of information law, health and safety regulations, and freedom of speech legislation.
In particular, she outlined the key elements of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, passed just a few weeks ago, which places new expectations on universities to promote the importance of lawful freedom of speech and academic freedom for academic staff, and to take steps to secure freedom of speech for staff, students, and visiting speakers. The Act introduces the possibility of legal claims by individuals who consider their freedom of speech has been infringed, and has significant implications for all universities and for students unions.
Standing back from the detail of these changes, Sasha offered some reflections on the cultural politics and political economy of contemporary higher education. Universities in general, and Sussex in particular, are under high levels of political and media scrutiny and are culturally contested spaces. Sasha suggested that we need to lean into these challenges, and concluded by returning to the idea that we have the agency to make our own history, and to shape our own future. From September there will be opportunities for all colleagues to be involved in the development of Sussex’s new institutional strategy.
Question and answer session
In the second part of the Forum, Sasha, aided by Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Culture, Equality and Inclusion) Professor David Ruebain, took questions from the room and online, some of which followed up on the issues raised in her talk, including regulatory frameworks, and academic freedom and freedom of speech. More general questions related to staff morale and pay and conditions for Professional Services staff, industrial action, university funding models, and the impact of tuition fees and student number caps.
VC Open Forums are held once a term in person and live streamed on Zoom: the next one is planned for early in the new academic year.