‘Comply or explain’ – or just ‘comply’: a regulatory shift to monitor?

Guest blog by G.R.Evans

Rudd forced to rethink work visa plans for foreign students (The Times, 23 November), ‘Vice-chancellors warn there could be a legal challenge if metrics designed to assess teaching quality were used for immigration purposes.’ The article had attracted 76 online comments by the next morning.  The Home Secretary had had the bright idea of linking student visa availability to the quality of the provider of the course and there had been an outcry.

It had, however, taken a while for the indignation to prompt any ‘rethink’. The underlying policy had been summed up succinctly by Jo Johnson in the Third Reading Debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill two days earlier when the topic stirred some impassioned exchanges.

‘High-quality institutions are compliant institutions. We want compliance to be a strong feature of our system,’ he insisted. Challenged that the Home Secretary had not mentioned compliance, he said she had ‘mentioned compliance and quality. He went further. ‘High-quality institutions are compliant institutions; they are one and the same.’  Asked to unpack this statement he assured the House that it would be possible  ‘to assess the Government’s proposals in due course when the Home Office is ready to publish them’.

The context of this exchange was the part of the Debate which dealt with student visas. ‘Compliance’ did not come up again elsewhere in the Third Reading debate. But the statement that ‘high-quality institutions are compliant institutions; they are one and the same’, can hardly be allowed to stand in the record unmodified without comment.

The principle could well be extended more widely, well beyond Amber Rudd’s controversial suggestion in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference:

We will also look for the first time at whether our student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution.

Though in fact Amber Rudd had not used the word ‘compliance’, she spoke of ‘sticking to the rules’:

our consultation will ask what more can we do to support our best universities – and those that stick to the rules – to attract the best talent.

In recent years the policy during HEFCE’s operation of the Financial Memorandum requirements has been to require universities to ‘comply or explain’:

The Committee of University Chairs has published detailed guidance about audit committees (HEFCE 2008/06). This reflects best governance practice, and HEFCE expects HEIs to take account of such guidance in meeting the required standards …or explain why the guidance is not being applied and good practice is not being followed.

The HEI’s arrangements for ‘risk management, control and governance’ are included in the specified ‘comply or explain’ areas, but the Memorandum of assurance and accountability between HEFCE and institutions treads extremely carefully when it speaks of requirements about ‘quality’.  It does not intrude upon academic freedom or academic autonomy and if it was felt to threaten to do so the institution would be free to ‘explain’ what it was doing.

The crude compacting together of ‘quality’ and ‘compliance’ in the Minister’s extraordinary statement to Parliament that compliance and ‘high quality’ are ‘one and the same’ clearly needs watching.