Welcome to the July 2022 edition of Higher Education Today, looking at current topics and questions facing higher education.

In each edition we feature content from key members of our Higher Education legal and regulatory team. If you would like further details about these individuals or information about the wider Higher Education team please see Our Higher Education Brochure.

We hope you find the newsletter interesting and helpful.

Virginia and Ashley

Joint Department Heads for Higher Education

Building Safety Act 2022: is the Higher Education sector prepared?

The much anticipated Building Safety Act 2022 is now law after receiving royal assent on 28 April 2022. A copy can be found here - Building Safety Act 2022 (legislation.gov.uk). Having worked with higher education clients for a number of years, it is clear that the Act will have a widespread impact on higher education institutions given the significant estates, potential for high risk activities and large number of people using buildings at any given time.

The Act received Royal Assent just before the 5th anniversary of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire. But the Act is not just about cladding and not just about fire, it is about the safety of buildings as a whole. Whilst much of the detail will be provided in future Regulations, the Act gives us advance warning of what is to come.

The Act applies to England and aims to improve the standard of buildings and secure the safety of people. It will bring about the “biggest improvements to building safety in nearly 40 years” by putting in place “new and enhanced regulatory regimes for building safety and construction products” and ensuring “residents have a stronger voice in the system”.

Some of the changes and requirements of the Act will apply to all buildings. Section 3(1) of the Act tasks the new Building Safety Regulator (part of the Health and Safety Executive) to secure the safety of people in or about and the overall standards of all buildings (not just higher-risk ones). The higher education sector already knows that building and fire safety is an issue that can cause devastating consequences. One only has to remember the two fires which relatively recently destroyed the Glasgow School of Art, following which an investigation found issues around inadequate risk assessment and the lack of a mist suppression system and also the serious fire at The Cube student accommodation in Bolton in November 2019.

Many of the provisions in the Act do apply only to “higher-risk” buildings, which must have a residential element. These provisions will include student accommodation if it is 18m or more high or has 7 or more storeys, meaning that a reasonable amount of student accommodation buildings will be caught particularly those in city centres. For these buildings that are already occupied, they must be registered with the Building Safety Regulator. An Accountable Person must be appointed to have legal responsibility for ensuring that fire and structural risks are understood, and that appropriate steps and actions to mitigate and manage these risks are taken. A safety case must be prepared by the Accountable Person to record how this requirement is being met. A golden thread of building information must be created, stored and updated throughout the building’s lifecycle. Information must also be provided to the fire service, including a floor plan and details of design and construction. There are even more requirements for higher-risk buildings during construction, including a number of stringent gateways at each of which building safety must be evidenced.

Given the reputational and financial risks associated with building and fire safety, not to mention moral duties and the duty of care owed to staff and students, now is the time for Universities and student accommodation providers  to be reviewing their estates and buildings (both existing and proposed) to ensure that they are safe.

If you would like more information about this topic or to discuss health and safety matters in higher education more generally, please contact Legal Director Louise Mansfield.

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Going global: higher education collaborations

Interest from UK Universities in the delivery of transnational education (“TNE”) is nothing new. Many higher education institutions have been involved in the export of higher education since the mid-1990s. Prior to the pandemic it was estimated that around 80% of UK Universities are involved in some form of delivery of TNE.

The changing nature of TNE

At one time it was relatively straightforward to define transnational education. The QAA defined it as “the delivery of higher education level awards by recognised UK degree-awarding bodies in a country, or to students, other than where the awarding provider is based.” It was also easy to recognise TNE by the physical presence of international branch campuses and/or academic delivery collaborations that involved students studying in both the host country and the country of the awarding body. Since the expedited growth of online delivery, TNE has become increasingly multi-faceted and borderless – a change that has, in part, led to the increased use of the term global education rather than transnational education.    

Evolving delivery models

TNE delivery models have shifted from a single branch campus operation to the establishment by higher education institutions of international networks based in core international cities hosting a diverse and dynamic student body. The creation of overseas higher education knowledge and research hubs such as the Dubai International Academic City has, without doubt, facilitated the development of these structures. My experience from working with universities and higher education providers is that effective TNE partnerships take considerable time and effort to establish – they are relationships that are not created by the signing of legal documents, albeit that collaboration agreements should facilitate co-operation and support the parties in achieving their goals.

Local connections

The most successful TNE collaborations I have been involved with have intentionally created a new local identity that is connected but different to that of the awarding provider. As above, this takes time to establish and is very much an iterative process for both the local provider and the UK University. Fundamentally, both parties need to have a clear understanding of their own responsibilities and, in particular, that the awarding provider will have certain academic and quality assurance responsibilities that, from a higher education regulatory perspective, are also borderless.

If you would like more information about this topic or to discuss corporate education matters more generally, please contact Rachel Soundy.

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UK Covid-19 Inquiry

Previous newsletters have covered the early stages of the Covid Inquiry. The Inquiry’s Opening Statement was published on 21 July (you can find it here). This provides some information on the Inquiry’s structure, and the approach it will be taking to the many areas it will be scrutinising. The full Terms of Reference can be found here.

The Inquiry is going to be structured in “modules”, reflecting the different areas of the Terms of Reference. Some information has now been provided about the early modules, and timescales for hearings. 

Module 1 will examine pandemic preparedness, and is already inviting applications for Core Participant status. After preliminary hearings later this year, the Inquiry expects to begin holding full public hearings on this module in spring 2023.

Education and children and young persons” will be the subject of a later module, which has not yet been formally announced or timetabled. However, Module 2, which will open in August 2022 and hold hearings in summer 2023, may engage some parts of the Higher Education sector; it will focus on political and administrative governance and decision-making, including “the use of scientific expertise, data collection and modelling”. This means that universities who have been involved in undertaking research or providing advice to Central Government, for example on early clinical research or on non-pharmaceutical interventions, may wish to, or be asked to, contribute to the Inquiry.

The Opening Statement says that this Module will open in August 2022 and at that point, there will be a window of several weeks within which to file an application for Core Participant status. 

Bevan Brittan regularly advises bodies engaged by public inquiries, including on the provision of information and evidence, identifying witnesses, and attending hearings. Please contact Daniel Purcell or Virginia Cooper if it would be helpful to discuss how we can support your organisation.

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If you would like to discuss any of these topics in more detail, or to find out how we can help your organisation, please contact our Higher Education team.

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