New DAPs anyone? Is the proposed multiplication of types of degree-awarding powers a good idea?

Preamble: The Higher Education and Research Bill will reach undergo line-by-line examination in the House of Lords on 6th March, when it reaches the Report Stage. This post is the third in a series of opinion pieces by G. R. Evans, reflecting on the Amendments tabled prior to this stage.

Opinion piece

by G. R. Evans

Concerned comment has focussed on the plan set out in the Higher Education and Research Bill to allow ‘high quality’ new providers to grant degrees on a probationary basis for three years rather than having to learn the ropes first under the supervision of an experienced ‘validating’ provider.

Even that existing common-sense provision has led to problems. The QAA’s Quality Code (B10) covers the whole field of collaborative and validating provision under the heading Managing higher education provision with others. This has been designed in the light of a history of disasters, from the ‘franchising scandals’ of the late 1990s to the collapse of the University of Wales when it had overreached itself in entering into validating arrangements. Years of active QAA consultation on all this can be found in a moment’s internet search.

To allow a brand new provider to plunge straight into the granting of degrees is clearly a high-risk strategy, as the Government seems to be realising. In the general discussion of the Amendments to the Bill published in late February is a reference to a paper published in January entitled Market Entry Reforms. That in turn refers the enquirer to another paper, where, it says, ‘we set out more detail on this and other changes to Degree Awarding Powers, as well as linked reforms to University Title’.

This further Factsheet paper explains that:

Our reforms are aimed at removing unnecessary barriers that may currently stand in the way of providers that can demonstrate that they have:

  • the ability to design and deliver high quality HE degree courses,
  • the ability to set and maintain academic standards, and
  • their teaching is informed by scholarship and research

Whereas the existing process for gaining degree-awarding powers requires a provider to demonstrate that it has actually been doing these things in a satisfactory manner for a period of time (thus satisfying Government Evidence Criterion B), the new proposals recognise that something different will be needed for a complete beginner. It will merely need to provide details of its plans:

Policies, procedures and guidance associated with programme development, approval and review; Policies, procedures and guidance associated with assessment of students and external examining; List of external examiners (if available); Terms of reference, constitution, reporting line and minutes for last two years of any advisory body; any reports from Professional Statutory and Regulatory Bodies

The PDAP (Probationary Degree Awarding Powers) candidate is envisaged as quite possibly offering only a single subject or seeking powers only to offer undergraduate (bachelors) degrees. These, let us call them SSDAPs and T(B-only)DAPS), would be something quite new in the list of DAPS.

It is easily forgotten that until 2004 – and still in Scotland and Northern Ireland – the degree-awarding powers held by a provider which wished to call itself a ‘university’ had to be teaching-and-research powers. Since 2004 in England and Wales a provider may acquire only taught degree-awarding powers (TDAP) and apply to become a university. However, the TDAP has included powers to grant taught postgraduate (usually Masters’) degrees. The T(B-only)DAPs will set a lower requirement.

A holder of SSDAPs at T(B-only) level, like any other new holder of degree-awarding powers, will in future have the powers on a time-limited basis. After three years they can expect to be granted unlimited DAPs.

A holder of indefinite DAPS may then apply for University Title. This will not include holders of only Foundation Degree-awarding powers (FDAPs) at Level 5. These were introduced in 2010, restricted to Further Education Colleges, though automatically included in the DAPS of any publicly-funded provider holding TDAPs. There has been a limited take-up of these so far and they seem to be rather a dead-end at present. HEFCE’s Register lists only half a dozen.

However it seems that the SSDAPs and T(B-only)DAPs holder will be free to apply to become universities.

Companies seeking to use the sensitive word ‘university’ in their titles may still do so:

This does not replace any requirements for consent under the Companies Act 2006, however we do expect all English higher education providers to obtain OfS consent. Where a provider requires a non-objection letter to register a new company or business name that includes the word ‘University’ with Companies House, the intention is that the OfS will issue such a non-objection letter at the same time as granting University Title.

The Factsheet containing these details is reassuring that:

we expect the OfS to set out the approach it will use to identify the ‘institution’ and legal entity that is seeking DAPs.

It is surely important for more of this to be clarified on the face of the Bill, for the multiplication of types of lower-level or restricted DAP constitutes a bigger change than the Factsheet seems to realise