Where risk lies for HEIs: the conflation of regulation, reputation and enhancement

I had a conversation with our head of QA about the consultations current in HE regulation. Her pragmatic approach is refreshing.
I thought I might share the gist of my side of the conversation. I am working through documents at a more leisurely pace than the folk at Wonkhe. And I did read David kernohan’s  A game of risk. So, I have probably tainted my mind.
David took a very useful wider political perspective and wasn’t looking at the practicalities of working in a main-sequence institution, upon which the larger burden of risk appears to be being laid. Russell Group: fine. New providers: fine. It’s all you ex-polytechnics that are the problem. It is not only Andrew Adonis taking this position. It could be read as the same old “Media Studies are Mickey Mouse Degrees” argument: sound and fury signifying old attitudes dying hard.
But my tentative conclusion is the conflation of regulation, reputation and enhancement is where the risk lies. Institutions need to be careful not to conflate NSS, TEF and league-table positionality with either: their own enhancement or the regulatory regime. I think those are three different “games”.

My argument would be similar across all three, however. The way to manage risk and positionality in HE over anything more than a year (which will be essential as regards positionality) is to focus on enhancement at the institutional level: decide what is good about your core function (learning and teaching in our case), set your own targets and stick to your guns.
If everyone is gaming the system in similar ways, and if the framing of the surveys and even the individual questions and sequencing changes year on year, we should expect volatility in the broad mid-range of really-quite-OK-universities. England’s midrange should be as high or higher than the rest of the world’s midrange. But, some universities have dropped many places – and some have similarly risen West London up 27 and de Montfort down 28 – in some tables recently. It could happen to others next time. Institutions could bounce back by doing nothing. Or bounce further down: 25% either side of half-way could be determined by very few percentage points and Panels Chair’s moods at the moment. I expect if everyone did nothing, year on year student variation and regulatory tweaks would keep the pot turning over. Institutions would flow around the middle like bubbles in a lava lamp. Chance could drive an institution deep into the third quartile, but have no regulatory impact. The risk is that positionality is attached to regulation and positionality may be attached to fees, thereby directly impacting on resources and limiting opportunity for real enhancement.
So Institutions do have to do things. But they are different things. They do have to manage position to maintain income. And they do have to be good at what they do. In my opinion institutions could to be at risk of letting the former drive the latter. And that would – how do I put it – increase the risk of whatever the opposite of enhancement is.

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