srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


Leave a comment

Guidance or interference? OfS under pressure

by GR Evans

The Office for Students received yet another ‘strategic guidance’ letter from the Secretary of State for Education, then Gavin Williamson, dated 1 January 2020.  This is the fourth in a year.  HEFCE used to receive just one, to go with the  annual statement of the ‘block grant’ figures covering both teaching and research.  This energetic approach recalls concerns about potential for future ministerial interference repeatedly expressed in the House of Lords during the debates before the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. The new legislation protects ‘the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers’ at s.2(1)(a) and s.2 (8) (b) and (c), and specified instances of institutional ‘academic freedom’ in ‘performing’ a provider’s ‘access and participations functions’ at s.36.  It defines the Haldane Principle at s.103 but in a curiously lop-sided way, in connection only in research and for UKRI not OfS.  So both the tone and the content of this series of letters of ‘guidance’ bear looking at closely for their implications.

OfS now receives only a Teaching Grant, because infrastructure funding for research now goes to Research England within UKRI. The same Minister was in charge of both – Chris Skidmore, one of the three who have gone in and out of that office since 2016. UKRI is in the Department of Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. So for research funding purposes the Minister of State operated in another Department of State altogether. Research England has taken over the infrastructure funding of research, the ‘R’ element of the old ‘block grant’.  Skidmore did not sign the latest letter to OfS,  though HEFCE often used to get its letters signed by both the Secretary of State and the Minister for Higher Education.

The ‘teaching funding’ element of the old block grant has now shrunk to a fraction of its earlier size.  In the latest OfS letter Gavin Williamson provides ‘some specific steers on funding priorities given the need to ensure we are spending public money in the most efficient and effective way’. There is to be a continuation of policy preferences tersely described, such as ‘allocations for high cost subjects’, ‘world leading small and specialist institutions’ and ‘supporting successful participation for underrepresented students’.  There is also to be a requirement to work ‘closely’ with  the DFE to ‘identify’ areas where the need is greatest, while ensuring ‘value for money’. A proposed review of ‘the funding method’ is strongly approved as a ‘move to evaluate value for money’.  ‘I know that  the OfS have been working closely with my officials on funding policy and I hope to see this continue’, Williamson concludes.

The tone is directive. Skidmore had been writing to Research England too, but in a rather different tone. On 2 October 2019 he wrote to David Sweeney, who had moved from HEFCE to head Research England to become its Executive Chair, to thank him for his outline of his ‘proposals’ for the development of the new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), to be added to the TEF and the REF.  He also took the ‘opportunity’ to ‘share’ his ‘priorities’ for ‘the future of research and knowledge exchange’.

Among them was Open Access,  ‘a key feature of REF2021’.  Skidmore pressed this urgently, merely noting briskly ‘the implications for Learned Societies of this implementation’ and encouraging  ‘Research England to develop mechanisms which will support them in the transition’ and to engage in ‘dialogue with publishers’, for open access monographs (free books) are on their way. There is no mention of the consequences of the huge upheaval for institutions and academic authors, caused by authors having to pay for publication themselves and institutions having to fund those they choose to support. The heat of anxiety on all that has been growing.

The overriding purpose of research as described in Skidmore’s letter to Research England is to be ‘the creation, transmission and exploitation of knowledge for economic and social benefit’ with KEF in a prominent place and a Knowledge Exchange Concordat being framed, ‘ensuring that it effectively supports our shared priorities around research commercialisation and impact’.

It could of course be understandable that as a new entity the Office for Students  and Research England should both need a specially vigilant ministerial eye on the way they were shaping themselves and their work.  But the artificial separation of Government control of the T and R elements in the old block grant is creating new problems. A controversial Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (the Augur Review), was published in May 2019, proposing a reduction in undergraduate tuition fees from the level of £9,250 a year at which they then stood.  In the summer of 2019 the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee questioned Philip Augar and members of the Committee about the implications for the future of the ‘dual support’ system with its established division between infrastructure and project funding. The Committee was concerned that though ‘traditionally’ the dual-funding system had ‘supported the research community well’, the failure to increase the infrastructure component –  Quality Related (QR)  funding – since 2010, had ‘led to a deficit in funding which universities have had to plug through cross-subsidies’. In other words teaching and research cannot in practice be supported by quite separate funding streams within universities. For example, libraries serve both students and researchers.

Skidmore’s letter to Research England is not insensitive to this problem:

University partnerships with business will be a significant contributor to reaching the 2.4% target by leveraging additional private investment in research through schemes such as UK Research Partnership lnvestment Fund (UKRPIF).

He links that with the ‘impact agenda’, which will increase the benefits and effects from excellent university research for the economy and society, and in addressing key societal challenges such as climate change and ageing’.

The OfS has so far been noisier than UKRI in publishing policy objectives, many of them more ‘social and economic’ than academic or educational. That is unavoidable because the former Office for Fair Access created under the Higher Education Act 2004 ss.22-41, has been absorbed into the OfS. This has encouraged the OfS to launch many objectives which seem to belong in that area rather than in the purely academic. However, the Government’s locus in social and economic affairs is clearly of a different kind from its long-controversial place in controlling the way public funding for higher education is spent.  Those letters from Secretary of State and Minister to OfS and UKRI are beginning to form a corpus worth close study.

Meanwhile it looks as though teaching and research are to be prised even more decisively apart. The Government reshuffle removed Chris Skidmore but replaced him  with Michelle Donelan, who is to be a Minister only in the DfE.  Announcement of a Minister to take charge of research in BEIS was slow to emerge, but the eventual announcement led Nature’s news reporters to ask “Has the UK’s science minister been demoted? Amanda Solloway comes to the job with no ministerial experience, amid concern that the Prime Minister’s office is controlling the science agenda.” Clearly we must continue to watch this space …

SRHE member GR Evans is Emerita Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and CEO of the Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE (www.idras.ac.uk).


Leave a comment

How are the Office for Students and the sector bodies getting along?

by GR Evans

An article in Times Higher Education on 5 December 2019 quoted an unpublished report by Universities UK and the Association of Heads of University Administration. The THE says the report is ‘highly critical’ of the way the Office for Students is working with providers. UUK (the Vice-Chancellors) and AHUA (the Registrars) are both UK-wide organisations so it would be helpful to know how the gathering of information for this report  on the England-only OfS  was done, the methodology designed and the conclusions drawn.

Universities UK and AHUA are composed respectively of the Vice-Chancellors and the Registrars of only a modest proportion of the 389 providers admitted to the OfS Register by early December 2019.  UUK lists a scattering of alternative providers amongst mainly traditional universities.  AHUA says it has 190 members though one must be a member to see who they are.   It is not clear whether other bodies with an interest were involved in the consultation, for example GuildHE with its array of English alternative providers among its 50 published membership. 

Most notable among the bodies apparently not involved in the consultation which produced this report is the Committee of University Chairs, another UK-wide body, but of supreme importance in that these Chairs represent the governing bodies of their member institutions.  The CUC publishes its membership list of 135 including ‘a small number of alternative providers’.

The CUC revised its Higher Education Code of Governance in 2014, providing guidelines strongly endorsed by HEFCE. The CUC is now consulting on a proposed review. Its consultation questions, seeking to address changes of expectation in the sector since 2014, are online. It notes some points emphasised by OfS:

The OfS has also given renewed emphasis to the importance of robust academic governance and the relationship between Board and Academic Board/Senate. There has also been increasing media attention to academic standards and the use of unconditional offers. CUC guidance in this area is set out in Illustrative Practice Note 3: Academic Governance .

The OfS has drawn up its own guidance.

More transparency and some rethinking of the best way to pool expectations must surely be in the interests of OfS and the ‘sector bodies’ if they are to learn to work together for the common good as the UUK/AHUA report apparently desires. There is of course always a case for allowing sensitive consultations to take place in sufficient privacy to permit free and frank discussion.  But there comes a time when the public interest in publication is strong enough to demand transparency. 

The THE says UUK explained that the report was: ‘not published formally, but we did share it with our members to support the development of their own processes and practices under the new approach’. Presumably AHUA’s members got a copy too? THE suggests the UUK/AHUA report has been ‘seen within Government’. Does this mean by the Secretary of State, the Minister for Higher Education, civil servants and advisors? If it had been published that might be less of a puzzle.

And did OfS itself get a copy? At the time of writing the OfS website does not seem to have anything to say about the UUK/AHUA report though perhaps future Board papers will fill that gap. The papers from the 26 September meeting mention a paper from the National Audit Office ‘setting out the key observations and recommendations arising from their audit of the OfS’s financial statements for 2018-19’. Those included a request for ‘more information on the impact of the OfS’s work as a regulator in the 2019-20 performance report’, on which the UUK/AHUA report will clearly be relevant. For the UUK/AHUA report appears to be concerned chiefly with the working relationship OfS is establishing with the providers for whose registration is it responsible.

From HEFCE buffer to OfS Regulator: the transition

For the most part HEFCE took seriously its role as a ‘Haldane’ buffer between universities and Government. Its normal response to the emergence of a serious problem in a provider’s conduct of its affairs was to seek to support the institution to mend matters. This is did informally and constructively, offering guidance to autonomous institutions. It favoured a ‘light touch’. Its operation of conditions of grant sanctions proved to be vanishingly rare. 

OfS has begun its working life with some fierce and threatening  statements and the repeated assertion that failing providers must simply be allowed to collapse. The setting for this heavier ‘touch’ will have to be adjusted to get it right,  and this UUK/AHUA Report could form a useful starting-point for consideration.

If so, there must be a case for publication of the UUK/AHUA report. But what of the performance of UUK, AHUA and other sector bodies in reviewing their own performance in response? Keeping their cards close to their chests would not be a good look at a time when the performance of UUK, AHUA and other sector bodies, statutory (like OfS) or in the form of ‘clubs’ (such as UUK itself) or semi-professional bodies (AHUA?) is also a proper concern. An objective assessment of the performance and very approach of the OfS surely demands a similar transparency about the way the various sector bodies are responding to it. 

Wales is engaged in a review of its own arrangements ahead of new legislation of its own. It retained its own Funding Council in the Higher Education (Wales) Act of 2015 but times and expectations have changed and it is now expected that Wales may move towards a new structure closer to that which allows more active Government control of policy and practice in England  through direction of the OfS as a Regulator through increasingly frequent letters of guidance from the Secretary of State.

It may be too much to hope that any Government will join with the sector bodies and OfS in a dispassionate review if that is for the best for higher education. Too much political investment went into the creation of OfS for such fearlessness to be likely. But at least let the documents in the discussion come out in the open for everyone to read.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emerita Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and CEO of the former Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE (www.idras.ac.uk).

Paul Temple


Leave a comment

From ‘predict and provide’ to ‘mitigate the risk’: thoughts on the state and higher education in Britain

by Paul Temple

January 2020 marks the second year of the Office for Students’ (OfS) operations. The OfS represents the latest organisational iteration of state direction of (once) British and (now) English higher education, stretching back to the creation of the University Grants Committee (UGC) in 1919. We therefore have a century’s-worth of experience to draw on: what lessons might there be?

There are, I think, two ways to consider the cavalcade of agencies that have passed through the British higher education landscape since 1919. One is to see in it how higher education has been viewed at various points over the last century. The other way is to see it as special cases of methods of controlling public bodies generally. I think that both perspectives can help us to understand what has happened and why.

In the post-war decades, up to the later 1970s, central planning was almost unquestioningly accepted across the political spectrum in Britain as the correct way to direct nationalised industries such as electricity and railways, but also to plan the economy as a whole, as the National Plan of 1965 showed. In higher education, broadly similar methods – predict and provide – were operated by the UGC for universities, and by a partnership of central government and local authorities for the polytechnics and other colleges. A key feature of this mode of regulation was expert judgement, largely insulated from political pressures. As Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath observe in The Governance of British Higher Education (Bloomsbury, 2020), “In the 1950s it had been the UGC, not officials in the ministry, who initiated policy discussions about the forecast rate of student number expansion and its financial implications, and it was the UGC, not a minister, that proposed founding the 1960s ‘New Universities’” (p18).

Higher education, then, was viewed as a collective national resource, to be largely centrally planned and funded, in a similar way to nationalised industries.

The rejection of central planning methods by the Thatcher governments (1979-1990) affected the control of higher education as it did other areas of national life through the ‘privatisation’ of public enterprises. Instead, resource allocation decisions were to be made by markets, or where normal markets were absent, as with higher education, by using ‘quasi-markets’ to allocate public funds. Accordingly the UGC was abolished by legislation in 1988, and (eventually) national funding bodies were created, the English version being the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Whereas the UGC had a key task of preserving academic standards, by maintaining the ‘unit of resource’ at what was considered to be an adequate level of funding per student (as a proxy for academic standards), HEFCE’s new task, little-noted at the time, became the polar opposite: it was required to drive down unit costs per student, thereby supposedly forcing universities to make the efficiency gains to be expected of normal market forces.

The market, then, had supplanted central planning as an organising principle in British public life (perhaps the lasting legacy of the Thatcher era); and universities discovered that the seemingly technical changes to their funding arrangements had profoundly altered their internal economies.

HEFCE’s main task, however, as with the UGC before it, was to allocate public money to universities, though now applying a different methodology. The next big shift in English higher education policy, under the 2010 coalition government, changed the nature of central direction radically. Under the full-cost fees policy, universities now typically received most of their income from student loans, making HEFCE’s funding role largely redundant. So, after the usual lag between policy change and institutional restructuring, a new agency was created in 2018, the Office for Students (OfS), modelled on the lines of industry regulators for privatised utilities such as energy and telecoms.

In contrast to its predecessor agencies, OfS is neither a planning nor a funding body (except for some special cases). Instead, as with other industry regulators, it assumes that a market exists, but that its imperfect nature (information asymmetry being a particular concern) calls for detailed oversight and possibly intervention, in order to ‘mitigate the risk’ of abuses by providers (universities) which could damage the interests of consumers (students). It has no interest in maintaining a particular pattern of institutional provision, though it does require that external quality assurance bodies validate academic standards in the institutions it registers.

As with utilities, we have seen a shift in Britain, in stages, from central planning and funding, to a fragmented but regulated provision. The underlying assumption is that market forces will have beneficial results, subject to the regulator preventing abuses and ensuring that minimal standards are maintained. This approach is now so widespread in Britain that the government has produced a code to regulate the regulators (presumably anticipating the question, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?).

Examining the changing pattern of state direction of higher education in England in the post-1945 period, then, we see the demise of central planning and its replacement, first by quasi-markets, and then by as close to the real thing as we are likely to get. Ideas of central funding to support planning goals have been replaced by reliance on a market with government-created consumers, overseen by a regulator, intervening in the detail (see OfS’s long list of ‘reportable events’) of institutional management.

Despite every effort by governments to create a working higher education marketplace, the core features of higher education get in the way of it being a consumer good (for the many reasons that are repeatedly pointed out to and repeatedly ignored by ministers). Central planning has gone, but its replacement depends on central funding and central intervention. I don’t think that we’ve seen the last of formal central planning in our sector.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546


Leave a comment

“A market exit…with a material negative impact”

by Paul Temple

Our late and much-missed friend David Watson used to say that every government department should have an office marked “Cassandra”. Whenever a new policy was proposed, someone had to poke their head round the door and say, “Cassandra, what went wrong when we last tried this?”. David went on to point out that, just as the mythological Cassandra was cursed to make accurate predictions that were never believed, so policy-making would plough ahead regardless of what the Cassandra down the corridor told them about last time’s mistakes. Still, he thought, it would be nice to know in advance in just what respect a policy was going to fail.

A number of Cassandras predicted, in general terms, the disaster – or “material negative impact” [1] , in OfS-speak – that has now overtaken the 3,571 students of for-profit GSM in London. This was one of the “alternative providers”, so enthusiastically promoted by David Willetts following the 2011 White Paper. In my chapter on private sector higher education in Claire Callender’s and Peter Scott’s Browne and Beyond: Modernizing English Higher Education (2013), I invented the conditional-optimistic tense to describe the White Paper’s language about “alternative providers”: “new entrants to the sector…may have different strengths…they may offer particular well-honed teaching models…” (2011 White Paper, para 4.5). They would shake up the stuffy old university sector with a bracing private-sector ethos – although the exact problem to which they would provide the answer was never precisely set out. This was evidence-free policy-making, but with a blithe assurance that everything would turn out for the best (remind you of anything?). I suspect that the unlucky GSM 3,571 would now prefer to have been at a university with some of the boring old strengths.

The OfS email to other universities about the GSM collapse could serve as a text for a doctoral class on bureaucratic buck-passing: its message might be summarised as, “We’re only the regulator; can the rest of you do something? No, we won’t do anything to help.” The GSM 3,571 are, it is clear, on their own; OfS isn’t going to do anything constructive to clear up the mess. On the contrary, when asked “whether transferred students can be subject to special arrangements relating to the reporting of their progression, completion or in respect of other outcome data/metrics…The answer is no.” Nice.

As I noted in my 2013 chapter, you didn’t need particular insights, let alone Cassandra’s skills of prophecy, to foresee problems ahead in the “alternative” sector – because we had the worked example of the United States before us. A devastating critique of for-profit higher education there was made in 2012 in a report by Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “In this report”, Senator Harkin was reported as saying, “you will find overwhelming documentation of exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation”. The for-profit sectors in the US and the UK depend on easily-available public funding to cover student fees and light-touch regulation of institutions with minimal records of achievement and limited accountability. It is a tragedy that British politicians, driven by free-market ideology, and regulators, following politicians’ biddings, failed GSM’s students so comprehensively.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

[1] Office for Students email, 21 August 2019


1 Comment

Learning gain expectations – the parental perspective

By Valerie Anderson

Issues of ‘learning gain’ increasingly arise from opinions and concerns about ‘value for money’ in higher education. In what some believe is an over-supplied graduate labour market, the discourse of employability also looms large as a feature of this discussion. Continue reading

Image of Rob Cuthbert


Leave a comment

The Toby Young saga and what it tells us about the blunders of our governments

By Rob Cuthbert

Once upon a time some politicians used to take the blame for their departments, even when civil servants were perhaps more at fault (famously, in the Crichel Down affair). And once upon a time the integrity of the civil service could be relied on, even or especially amid government mistakes. Continue reading