Running a university sometimes feels like swimming in Jello. The number of government regulations seems to have reached fever level. Not a week goes by without another consultation (especially in August, it might be added, when people are meant to be on vacation but cannot afford to leave their desks for fear of missing the latest round robin).
It often seems like governments are playing out a game of we can’t afford to send you money anymore but we can afford to send you more regulations. That might not matter so much except that the costs of regulation tend to fall on the regulated. And these costs are steadily increasing.
Why might this be?
First, universities are just expected to do more. The calls on their time and expertise are legion. Sometimes I am amazed at just how many extra tasks U.K. universities have taken on since the 1960s: industrial outreach, widening participation, regional connection, to name but three. Each of these tasks tends to come with its own statutory bodies. And then the tasks that are often thought of as core have equally expanded: the quality and standard of teaching, research governance, including ethics, postgraduate affairs, and so on, as well as all the apparatus of general funding of universities. All these again have statutory bodies asking for their share of attention. Finally, there are general responsibilities which have to be taken up: health and safety, freedom of information, immigration, adjudication of complaints, each with their own statutory bodies, too. I’m feeling exhausted just thinking about the level of oversight!
Second, there are more and more regulatory bodies – and they have ambitions. Regulatory bodies will often try to expand their influence in all manner of ways – by setting up more and more standards that require oversight or by producing new skills that then need a field to play in to.
Third, regulation tends to breed more regulation. As the regulatory field becomes more crowded, so regulation produces echoes in other regulatory bodies.
The result is that universities not only exist in a spaghetti of regulation but are continually having to create posts to keep feeding the regulatory machine.
Now, I am quite sure that some of this regulation is needed. But I am also sure that a lot of it is not, or is not proportionate, at least. Are there any solutions? Interestingly, the U.K. has a Regulatory Policy Committee which advises the business department on the quantity and quality of new regulations. The committee has already criticized lack of explanation for regulation, failure to examine other options, and inadequate scrutiny of the costs and benefits of regulation. On top of this, the business department has recently announced a new ‘one-in, one-out’ system wherein any new regulation has to be balanced by getting rid of another one.
Well, it’s a start on eroding the apparently inexorable presumption that regulation is the default option. There must be other examples from around the world of better ways of regulating universities, mustn’t there? I would love to see some comments to this blog that could point us to better practice and I would love it even more if my own part of the world actually drew some lessons from those examples.