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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Policymaking in a pandemic

By Rob Cuthbert

Policymaking in a pandemic must be decisive, transparent and inclusive (1)

After Secretary of State Gavin Williamson announced in March that there would be no GCSE or A-level examinations in Summer 2020, higher education focused at first on whether it would be desirable or even possible for students to begin the new year in Autumn 2020, with particular doubts over international students’ ability and willingness to travel. With the number of UK 18-year-olds in a demographic trough we expected extreme pressure on universities at the exposed end of the market, and there was much talk about the ten or 12 or 14 institutions said to be already especially financially vulnerable. The response of a number of institutions was to make tens of thousands of conditional offers unconditional, reducing uncertainty for themselves and also for their potential students. But ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, even in the market decreed by the government, never seemed to respect the integrity of student choice; it seemed reasonable that they should be outlawed, but government and the OfS went much further.

OfS published its regulation on unconditional offers on 4 May (updated on 17 August 2020, after A-level results by algorithm were announced), enabling OfS to take “… action against higher education providers that use offer-making practices which would not be in the interests of students and the wider higher education sector in these exceptional circumstances.” These included: “Other unconditional offers to UK students that could materially affect the stability and integrity of the English higher education sector …”, which in theory might have threatened selective institutions aiming to hoover up home students to compensate for a possible shortfall of international students, regardless of the effects on universities less well-placed in the market. But after the government imposed temporary student number controls no-one was in much doubt that the target was precisely those less well-placed, in case students dared to choose them rather than those higher up the league tables. Government policy is that student choice is paramount, but only if students choose the institutions which the government think they should choose.

On 16 July the DfE announced a ‘restructuring regime’ in response to Covid19, a mixture of University Strategic Planning 101 and oddly selective messages about the specific requirements to be satisfied by the minority of universities expected to need ‘support’. The Secretary of State’s foreword said: “Public funding for courses that do not deliver for students will be reassessed. … all universities must, of course, demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech, as cornerstones of our liberal democracy. … The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns. Vice-chancellor pay has for years faced widespread public criticism … equally concerning is the rapid growth over recent decades of spending on administration more broadly, which should be reversed.”

The announcement was much criticised but it receded from view as the threat of ‘restructuring’ diminished. Demand for HE with a 2020 start remained strong, with UCAS numbers higher than expected. The intentions of international students were still in doubt, but attention shifted to the slow-motion shambles of A-levels, and the hardly less shambolic, though less remarked, handling of International Baccalaureate and technical and vocational qualifications. Ofqual and DfE remained committed to their A-levels algorithm, doubling down on the assertion that it was the fairest way to determine grades in this unprecedented situation. This was despite the growing clamour of expert opinion pointing out the many faults and unfairnesses in the approach determined by Ofqual. The DfE/Ofqual response might have seemed resolutely decisive, but was neither transparent nor inclusive. A series of blogs from HEPI and many others provided more transparency than the government and Ofqual statements which had led most people to believe wrongly that ‘teachers are determining grades’ and ‘there is a robust appeal system’.

Scottish Higher assessments followed a similar approach to the English but were announced on 6 August, a week ahead of A-levels. Facing mass public protest, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted on 10 August they had got it wrong; education minister John Swinney the next day announced they would abandon their algorithm and use only Centre-Assessed Grades (CAGs), a reaction which ticked the decisive/transparent/inclusive boxes, albeit after the last minute. The Scots decision sent the English DfE into panic mode. Gavin Williamson had repeatedly nailed his colours to the this-algorithm-is-robust-and-fair mast; he would not follow Scotland’s lead, and there was no sensible alternative. So he went for something that wasn’t sensible – the announcement late on Tuesday night (11 August, just 36 hours before students would get their grades) that students could use mock grades under certain circumstances instead of the algorithm’s grades. It was a decision made without consultation with anyone, so not at all inclusive, and certainly less than decisive, but at least it seemed transparent.

For thousands of students who had taken mocks, it sounded like blessed relief. Not only could they apparently now make an individual appeal (something previously ruled out), they knew it would succeed. But that was late Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning Ofqual, Schools Minister Nick Gibb and Universities Minister Michelle Donelan were doing their best to dilute and obscure the message, saying only that mocks might form part of the grounds for an appeal and even suggesting that not many appeals were expected. Schools and colleges, who had only that day received their students’ grades with shock and horror, pointed out the huge variability and complete lack of standardisation of mocks even within one school, let alone across the whole sector. Williamson stood firm on his ‘triple lock’ – mocks or algorithm grades or Autumn exams. It was presented as a solution for all, when it was nothing of the sort. He had announced that Ofqual (who had not been consulted in advance) would issue guidance on how the new appeals system would work; Ofqual understandably said they would need a few days to work out how to operationalise the process. They issued advice on the amended appeals process by early afternoon on Saturday, suggesting (correctly) that CAGs were a more reliable basis for judgment than mock exams. Then very late on Saturday evening Ofqual withdrew its advice, saying that the Ofqual board would review it and another statement would follow ‘in due course’. Speculation centred on the suspicion that it was the mention of CAGs that might have caused the Department for Education to tell Ofqual to change tack, mostly because of a report in The Sunday Telegraph by the well-briefed Camilla Turner. This was the position at midday on Sunday.

The next day (Monday 17 August) came the final climbdown, as Williamson confirmed that England would follow Scotland in using CAGs rather than the grades determined by the algorithm. Universities were left scrambling to cope with the U-turn, and many students were left wondering whether they still had the place they originally wanted, as many in-demand courses had naturally been filled as usual very soon on the day of the announcement of results, 13 August. Former NUS President and chair of BPP University Aaron Porter wrote for Schoolsweek on 18 August 2020 about the consequences of government ‘passing the buck’ to universities to sort out the A-levels fiasco, and Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon called for the abolition of Ofqual.

Universities minister Michele Donelan wrote to universities on 20 August 2020 confirming the lifting of all student number controls and the establishment of a task force to oversee clearing and admissions for 2020. She said: “The interests of students were at the heart of the change in awarding results … we all agree that providers should: (1) Honour all offers accepted to date. (2) Honour all offers made and met through the new arrangements for both firm and insurance offers where students would like to take them, wherever this is possible.” That ‘wherever this is possible’ gave everyone a get-out clause, while doing its best to shift the blame away from government and onto the universities, but the blame game picked up speed. A VC’s diary in The Guardian on 21 August 2020 accused government ministers of incompetence and lack of compassion, and it was clear that universities could hardly be blamed for the A-levels mess. Ofqual’s attempts to shift the blame onto schools and colleges were equally unconvincing. It had emerged that the Royal Statistical Society had much earlier offered Ofqual the services of the redoubtable Guy Nason (Imperial) and the statistically legendary Sharon Witherspoon, but the RSS had declined to sign the non-disclosure agreement which Ofqual had proposed. Roger Taylor, chair of Ofqual, wrote to the RSS on 21 August 2020 saying “nothing to see here, you were being much too picky” (we paraphrase), but the next morning Stian Westlake of the RSS was on Radio 4 Today saying the NDA was far too broad and vague to be acceptable.

The first head rolled: Ofqual chief executive Sally Collier stepped down on 25 August with immediate effect; Collier’s predecessor Glenys Stacey was drafted as an interim replacement. Ofqual were summoned to an Education Select Committee hearing on 3 September, and Roger Taylor released a statement just hours before the hearing, memorably summed up by Committee chair Robert Halfon as saying “Not me, guv”. Taylor, it emerges, is also chair of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which advises the government on artificial intelligence – presumably not including what the Prime Minister called Ofqual’s ‘mutant algorithm’. Taylor made various promises to the Committee of transparency, of which some remain unfulfilled. It was reported that Taylor had kept his chair’s role because he threatened to publish all the correspondence between DfE and Ofqual, showing how much DfE had known all along about the algorithm and its effects.

Samantha Booth reported for SchoolsWeek on 21 August 2020 that Susan Acland-Smith, “has been appointed as second permanent secretary at the DfE for six weeks, temporarily leaving her role as chief executive of the HM Courts and Tribunals Service. The government said she will work “closely” with permanent secretary Jonathan Slater and “support” the department’s response to this year’s exam results.” Slater’s position was said to be under threat, and sure enough, Slater’s departure was confirmed on 26 August, with Acland-Smith becoming his permanent successor.

Taylor, against the odds, remains as Ofqual chair. In an unusual step, the respected Institute for Government Director Bronwen Maddox called for Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson to resign, in her 27 August 2020 blog. “The misjudgements in education have been some of the worst the government has made since the start of the pandemic. They were avoidable, given the time available to plan … they are serious in their impact on children’s education, the gap in achievement between social groups and the ability of the nation to get back to work. At the heart of these misjudgements are decisions that could only be made by politicians, not civil servants.” Senior Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin said Williamson had “lost the trust of his officials to such an extent that he can no longer serve effectively in the cabinet”, according to a report by Toby Helm and Michael Savage in The Observer on 23 August 2020. My HEPI blog on 16 August 2020 about the A-levels debacle said: “for five months the Government and Ofqual have been too secretive, made bad choices, refused to listen to constructive criticism, tried to tough it out and then made the wrong concessions too late.” Not decisive, not transparent, not inclusive, and not how to make policy in a pandemic.

  1. That was the view of Ramathi Bandaranayake and Merl Chandana (both at LIRNEasia, a regional digital policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka) on the LSE Impact Blog on 1 October 2020.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics


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The Office for Students and ‘successful outcomes’

by GR Evans

In March the Office for Students press release welcomed a ‘landmark victory’ which ‘sets an important precedent’ in the  recent judicial review of the Office for Students’ decision not to register Bloomsbury Institute Ltd. The OfS warns that:

The OfS will not hesitate to defend its decisions robustly where they are in the interests of students and will seek to recover its costs in doing so …

Nevertheless, it is likely that this will not be the end of the matter, with other challenges from disappointed providers in the pipeline.

What exactly has been decided and what demands further clarification? The question answered by the judgment was not  whether the decision was right. It was whether the Office for Students had acted ‘lawfully’. That depended on whether the OfS Conditions of Registration were themselves lawful and whether they had been properly applied.

The main hurdle at which Bloomsbury’s application for registration fell was its failure to satisfy OfS Condition B3, which includes the requirement to secure ‘successful outcomes for all of its students’ (‘continuation rates’). This includes an expectation that the ‘successful’ student will be one who enters into well-paid employment on graduation (‘progression rates’) and thus  arguably gets ‘value for money’ for the student fee. These were the two criteria on which Bloomsbury was deemed to have failed.

The judgment considered how OfS had actually applied condition B3. It did not attempt to explore the boundaries of the grey area in which the definition of ‘continuation’ and ‘progression’  continue to sit. It simply concentrated on what the OfS had done to set detailed rules to be applied case by case. It just asked whether they were ‘lawful’.

The problem OfS faces is that providers do not all have the same or similar ranges of students forming a typical body. Bloomsbury had made that point very energetically, explaining that 85%, of Bloomsbury’s students were mature students; 66% were BAME; 16% were disabled; 90% came  from families earning less than £25,000 per annum;  and 88% began with a Foundation year because 80% did not not have A Levels. The OfS explained that it had dealt with this problem pragmatically and that:

this had already been taken into account in the selection of the baselines, ie the baselines were lower than they might have been to take this into account.

In other words, the expectations had been set low so as to accommodate these outliers. That was potentially perfectly reasonable and unlikely to be unlawful.

But Bloomsbury argued that that the OfS erred in law because it had created secret ‘thresholds’ in ‘confidential Decision-Making Guidance’. It said these should have been  published in advance and the attention of applicants for registration should have been drawn to them. It added that they were contrary to the OfS’s published Regulatory Framework and the guidance provided by the Secretary of State for Education. Bloomsbury also pointed to the fact that these ‘thresholds’ had been ‘drawn up by the OfS’s Director of Competition and Registration’,who did not have the necessary authority under the  OfS’s scheme of delegation.

The judgment considered all this and held that the Director for Competition and Regulation had been ‘entitled to take responsibility for the drafting and circulation of the Decision-Making Guidance’, because it counted as an ‘operational decision-making function’. That leaves these ‘thresholds’ not only deemed to be lawful but open to further amendment ‘operationally’. And it does nothing to address the question whether they are satisfactory or fair, and the bigger question whether there can be accurate quantification of degrees of compliance so that setting ‘thresholds’ is appropriate.

It is not the first time quantifications of higher education performance – of students or providers – have been attempted. Under the previous rules, Bloomsbury had been ‘designated’ for Student Loan Company purposes since 2009. In 2015 it had been one of only two alternative providers commended by the QAA and the QAA had been ‘complimentary’ in 2016 and 2017. However, its failure to perform to the standard expected on the numbers of its students who ‘continued’ beyond their first year had brought it an ‘improvement notice’ in February 2106 and again in August 2018. In March 2019 the Department for Education had ‘noted’ the failure to mend Bloomsbury’s performance on continuation rates but this was merely a warning that action might be taken in future if things did not improve.

Bloomsbury argued that the OfS should not have relied on these thresholds without consulting the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher or taking into account the outcomes of reviews and investigations by the QAA in its previous incarnation before it became the OfS Designated Body under Higher Education and Research Act 2017 s.27. It said that it had been unreasonable of the OfS to refuse to grant registraton when it ‘had been granted on previous occasions on the basis of essentially the same data’.

Here the court relied on an important OfS paper which had considered whether the OfS ought to rely on previous QAA assessments.  This had drawn a key distinction. The OfS’s ‘primary aim is to ensure providers are delivering positive outcomes for students’. The task of the OfS  was to form a ‘regulatory judgment’ about that. By contrast, ‘previous QAA review activity’ was considered ‘not relevant to the assessment of student outcomes for condition B3’ because it  had a different purpose. It did not ask about ‘outcomes achieved by the provider’s students’ but ‘focused on the design and operation of a provider’s systems and processes.

The court thought that was clearly correct from the point of view of ‘lawfulness’ in being faithful to the OfS conditions in the decision-making, providing the thresholds were themselves lawful.  In any case, Condition B3 is excluded from the list of conditions on which the OfS is to consult its Designated Quality Body. The Regulatory Framework makes it clear that the OfS itself is alone responsible for assessing Condition B3.

In this connection the judgment makes a clear separation of responsibility for ‘quality’ and for ‘standards’:

The effect of [HERA] section 27 is that when a body is designated as the DQB, only that body can be responsible for assessment of standards. The OfS is, therefore, not responsible for standards. However, section 27(3)(b) makes clear that the OfS is still responsible for the exercise of assessment functions which do not relate to standards. Condition B3 is concerned with quality of education, not with standards, and so the effect of section 27 is not that only the QAA can assess compliance with Condition B3. There was no requirement in section 27, or anywhere else in HERA, for the QAA to play a part in the OfS’s assessment of quality criteria.

Here too there seem to be points which need to be returned to, not in litigation, which cannot easily address them, but in policy-discussion and wider consultation. If there is to be a ladder of quantification of provider performance in setting which the QAA can have no say its existence and the placing of its rungs demand as much. Otherwise how can those ‘successful outcomes’ ultimately be defined?

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).


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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).


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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


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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


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“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


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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