An academic partnership carol

This blog, authored by Angela Halston, IHE Policy and Engagement Officer, was first published on Wonkhe.

This is the time of year where we are all used to a little reflection and stock taking.

So let us apply this, with something of a Dickensian lens, to the area of academic partnerships.

It may not be the most promising setting for a seasonal story, but Independent Higher Education (IHE) is working with Pinsent Masons to explore the shape of academic partnerships in 2022.

It’ll be a broad project that will look at the experiences of the teaching partner, awarding partner and students to lift the bonnet and see how it all works. We are currently asking UK based “teaching partners” to complete our survey.

The ghost of partnerships past

Wind back the clock to 2017. IHE were working with the Open University and QAA to publish a report on a streamlined approach to validation.

The first of the recommendations made by the report was the creation by the Office for Students (OfS) of a register of validators, like a Bumble for academic partnerships. How many providers are out there, looking for their perfect partner?

Eight recommendations were made in the report, such as the need for staff development and training, and the recommendation that the OfS should carry out a review prior to any decision to “commission” validators as allowed for in the Higher Education Reform Act (HERA).

2017 saw HERA pass into law, designed to level the playing field and open up the sector to competition. It included the ability for the OfS to validate provision, or commission another provider to do so on their behalf. So 2017 was a notable year for paving the way for new providers, or new course provision; presumably by 2022 we would now see a stampede as people took advantage of the opportunities laid out before them.

The ghost of partnerships present

Of late, there has been the noise of a stampede but it turned out to be the sound of multiple boots on the ground as the OfS takes regulatory action, rather than that of new providers forming an orderly queue to register and snap up degree awarding powers. (I won’t go into the difficulties of regulatory burden for small providers here, that would be an entirely different blog.) Compounding this burden for the independent sector, is the complexity of establishing partnership arrangements.

None of the recommendations of the IHE report have been heeded.

We remain in a situation where there’s no directory of degree awarding bodies who are open to new partnerships. There is no way of knowing how long a search for a partner takes, on average. Once someone has found a lead, there is no way of knowing what will happen, or how. Not great for business planning and strategy.

Fast forward to a deal being struck – the costs and contractual arrangements are opaque across the sector. It is hard to tell what is good value. Aside from the concerns for the partners in this scenario, the money is coming from student fees. It is essential that costs reflect a fair deal for students, but there is no oversight on this, and the granularity of what may be included is wildly variable. It is not entirely clear what students are able to access from awarding partners, i.e. getting for their money, across all of the partnerships that exist. Quite a lot, my gut tells me, but we can’t qualify that. Which is unsurprising because we can’t currently quantify the partnerships; there isn’t a directory of what already exists.

Academic partnerships (or collaborative agreements, or validations, or franchising, or sub-contracting, or teaching partners…) offer the perfect environment for innovative, new or niche provision to flourish. They provide high value for all parties. The teaching partner is able to access a variety of resources, not least the recognised award at the end of the course of study. The awarding partner can supplement their courses with specialist provision, ensuring supply for an identified demand is met through their own portfolio. Local areas are bolstered with provision of courses which are predominantly vocational, often recruiting from the mature, local student demographic. At the centre of all these benefits are the students themselves, who are given choice and local opportunity that could otherwise elude them.

But regulatory focus is honing in on this as an area of risk. The OfS are worried that partnerships are a high risk for fraud within SLC payments. Whilst the registering – awarding – partner is held responsible for ensuring students are genuine, scrutiny will come down the line to the teaching institutions.

In 2022 the OfS is not prioritising regulatory action based on B3 data around partnership arrangements. However, the announcement that criteria for action in 2023 will focus on “other undergraduate” provision gives a clear steer that the OfS will be dissecting partnership data within lead provider dashboards.

All in all, Tiny Tim’s future is hanging in the balance. We need to hope the final visitation can show the regulator the true meaning and value of partnerships.

The ghost of partnerships future

The OfS Strategy for 2022-25 states their intent to intervene in validation arrangements. This is actually really welcome – they can and should be taking steps to use the power given under HERA to validate via partnerships. The hope is that this will be a positive influence – along the lines of the new OU Validation project.

However, the devastating blow is always from the unintended consequence. And it will be disguised as the left hook of a regulatory intervention aimed at another part of the sector.

The OU Validation project has been set in motion to meet the aims of the government around vocational and technical education at Level 4 and 5. But there is little sense that either the government or the OfS understand what validation options currently exist, their strengths and limitations, and what is needed to fill the gaps (see earlier 2017 recommendation for a review prior to any decision to “commission” validators). The HE sector, including FE institutions which provide HE, must therefore step up and lead the way on gathering this data to ensure that there is no unintended consequence of an ill-informed OfS or DfE action. It is difficult to form useful policy directions in this vacuum.

Imagine a worst case future scenario of partnerships governed entirely by regulatory action, and the stifling effect that would have, those boots stamping out the embers of enterprise. Much better to pull together to shape the future we would wish to see.

How does our Christmas partnerships carol end?

Phase one of the IHE and Pinsent Masons project on partnerships project asks providers who are the “teaching partner” from across the UK to respond to our partnership arrangement survey, designed to explore questions including, is there value for money across partnerships? How do we balance risk management and a collaborative approach in our partnerships? What benefits do students get directly from the partnership model?

Expect more on the project in early 2023 as we shift focus to the awarding partners’ perceptions, and of course the students themselves.

It will take more than a festive spirit to unlock the full potential of partnerships, but by working together to make them more accessible, responsive and resilient, we can make room at the higher education table for everyone who is hungry to learn – for life, not just for Christmas.

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