It's time to cut the red tape

Higher education is slowly being buried in bureaucracy, but now a former TV chief is taking on the paper mountain. Lucy Hodges meets Patricia Hodgson
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The Independent Online

The number of official bodies requiring information from universities is extensive and includes the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), the Quality Assurance Agency, the National Health Service, the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the Teacher Training Agency. Staff are understandably fed up with having to cough up what is often the same data for these bodies, when they would rather do their core job of researching, preparing lectures and marking students' work.

The mountain of red tape in higher education had reached such a point six years ago that the Cabinet Office's Better Regulation Task Force decided to take a look at it. Its report recommended that "there is a need for someone to take an overview of the burden and duplication, and to work in a systematic fashion to reduce it". This would require compromise by government departments and bodies with a stake in higher education, it observed. "It will require them to consider how they might adapt data already collected for one purpose to suit other purposes, rather than issuing an additional separate demand."

So a second body was set up, the Better Regulation Review Group, chaired by Professor David VandeLinde, vice-chancellor of Warwick University. It also produced a report.

"Both of these were terrific documents but the question was how much actually happened," says Dame Patricia Hodgson, former head of the Independent Television Commission and the newly appointed principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, and the person chairing the third group established to crack the problem.

"David VandeLinde's group did what seemed to be the sensible thing. It had got representatives of all the interested parties, with the result that they spent their time in deadlock, really. They could all agree with motherhood and apple pie, but actually getting change was much harder for them. It was a first-class report but there was frustration in the sector."

However, Professor VandeLinde made key proposals. He recommended that work be taken forward by administrators in the universities - the registrars and finance directors. And, crucially, he proposed that there should be a chair who was independent of higher education. That person would have no preconceptions, no special loyalties and not too much knowledge. Enter Dame Patricia.

Her inquiry began last July, after she had taken a call out of the blue from a mandarin at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). She was, by that time, a freelance troubleshooter, a member of the great and good, parachuted in to sort out tricky problems.

One of the first things she decided was that no more reports were needed. "All that work had been done. The question was how to make it happen," she says. "My early experience was that the vice-chancellors and the institutions were frightfully polite and sceptical. Of course, the real word is cynical. They didn't think anything was going to happen so they couldn't be bothered."

But they had reckoned without Dame Patricia, who had cut her teeth at the BBC as a lieutenant of the former director-general John Birt. She was resolutely determined to start reducing unnecessary bureaucracy.

Her group estimated the cost of policymaking and regulation across higher education at £64m. Previously, in 2004, PA Consulting, in a study done for Hefce, estimated the cost of bureaucracy in the sector as £210m. "There's a lot of scope for getting this number down and the resources back into research education and learning, which is what it's all about," she says.

Dame Patricia and her group decided that they had to show some results in order to get people cooperating. The place to start was Hefce, the main funder for the sector. Relations with Hefce, which had started off as cordial, cooled fast.

"We got them in for a day and went through their processes with them," she explains. "I pay tribute to Hefce. Their strategic plan was already going in the right direction. But when you put processes under the microscope, as an outsider, you see ways of cutting through things not quite so evident to the people working on it more closely."

Hefce agreed to cut the number of times they went to institutions for data. They used to ask for the information three times a year. Dame Patricia's group asked them to do it once. (That excludes the small number of institutions in financial trouble.)

Hefce has also agreed to reduce the number of "jam jars" - the special funding streams for which universities can bid - to six. If ministers propose a new one, then one of those six has to be dropped and rolled into core funding. These "jam jars" have been the source of deep frustration for universities because they have to put so much effort into preparing a bid, only to find it rejected.

"It's no good trying to do away with it altogether because politicians will have ideas and they will want to incentivise behaviour and monitor that," she says.

These two reforms at Hefce changed attitudes, according to Dame Patricia. They were small first steps, but important ones.

Hefce had made it clear to the higher education sector that it was prepared to move. As a result, the sector began to cooperate. Dame Patricia received invitations to speak and evidence began to pour in.

Now she could tackle the unnecessary bureaucracy caused by multiple-funding bodies across government having their own reporting, data collection and inspection/audit arrangements for higher education.

The result is last month's announcement of a proposed concordat. That would make the Higher Education Statistics Agency the sole source of base data, and the Quality Assurance Agency the organisation doing the basic inspection and quality assurance. Dame Patricia's outfit, the Higher Education Regulation Review Group, will seek to broker such a concordat in the coming year.

As it is at the moment, any university gets asked at least nine times a year for student numbers to different specifications and on different dates. "It's madness," she says. One of the organisations demanding the information is the Higher Education Statistics Agency, another is Hefce. Then there is the Teacher Training Agency, the Learning and Skills Council, and the Department of Health, all of which demand details about student numbers from institutions. Each has its own inspection routines.

"We had some very hard-hitting evidence, for example, from Brighton University, that if you were a university that does a fair amount of medical and teacher training, you could have inspection teams in the entire teaching year," says Dame Patricia. "It became a no-brainer to say that surely we can coordinate the demands for data collection and quality audit and inspection."

Will the concordat be easy to achieve? Dame Patricia doesn't underestimate the difficulties ahead but points out that she has already done some pre-brokering. "We know we have support," she says. "I am not so foolish as to raise our heads above the parapet if we didn't have the commitment to do it."

Just streamlining the processes via this concordat will save £15m, according to her group. That is the equivalent to one or two posts for each university in the land, although it is bound to be more than that, she says.

It is amazing that Dame Patricia had achieved what she has on a schedule of only one day's work a week. After another year, she expects to wind up her group, but she thinks that there has to be a continuing mechanism for monitoring red tape without adding more bureaucracy.

"None of this is rocket science. The sector knows what's wrong. It's about the will to change things."

There are signs that things are improving already. Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, pays fulsome tribute to Dame Patricia. "She is confident and doesn't stand any nonsense," he says.

David Rhind, vice-chancellor of City University, London, agrees: "We have a real problem with unnecessary bureaucracy in universities. I strongly support what she is trying to do. We are heavily bureaucratic but don't notice it half the time. She is a very experienced, very determined player."