srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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From money to the market: the transformation of the Strategic Plan

by GR Evans

Speaking on a Topic for Discussion, a draft of Oxford’s Strategic Plan for 2013-8, Shearer West, then Head of Humanities, spoke as a woman with experience of strategic plans. She had “been involved” with their “development” in other places. She wanted to see the new Strategy “regularly revisited and subject to adjustment as times change”. As to its content, she spoke as a pragmatist. “Oxford academics rightly pride themselves on elegant and incisive writing”, she said, but “a strategic plan will certainly never win a prize for inspiring prose, because it is an operational document”.

The Strategic Plans of Britain’s universities may have begun on that practical and unpretentious assumption, but they have evolved into glamorous presentations designed to market their universities to prospective students and benefactors as well as to offer assurance that they are well run and not in financial difficulties. As headlines announce that a dozen universities may now be at risk of financial collapse it is a topical question whether this is a desirable trend. The Institute of Fiscal Studies’ Briefing Note provides a table. Yet universities which may fall into the category of the financially vulnerable have Strategic Plans as confident and optimistic as those far higher in the league-tables. The University of Sunderland, reported by THE in January as facing a ‘challenging financial environment’ and closing courses, has a Plan for 2020-2025 presenting it in visually exciting terms and glowing wording as ‘a twenty-first century global university’.

The principal reason at first for requiring universities to have Strategic Plans was ‘operational’. They began as a device to ensure they took long term financial planning seriously and to facilitate monitoring of their use of the public funding of higher education. They became a requirement for universities when the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 created the Higher Education Funding Councils, replacing the short-lived single Universities Funding Council. For nearly a century until it was abolished in 1989 public money for university higher education been distributed through the University Grants Committee.

Although the new Councils were intended to act as buffers betwee Government control and the allocaton of block grants of public funding, the Government nevertheless gained closer control of the spending, for each year the Minister send a letter of guidance and instruction. The Councils’ Financial Memoranda required universities to give an accurate account of their finances as a condition of funding.

In 1997 the Dearing Report took it for granted that:

institutions share their strategic plans, including an estates strategy, with the three Higher Education Funding Councils; and the financial memoranda require institutions to secure value for money in the use of their assets and to follow a maintenance plan for their estates.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England was by now duly receiving and analysing these plans. In 2000 it published a guide for heads of institutions, senior managers and members of governing bodies, Strategic planning in higher education.

The call for such plans was reinforced in 2003 the White Paper, The future of higher education. The intention was to ask HEFCE to

look at how funding for departments with lower ratings under the existing system can be related to potential to progress further, and linked to good planning for future improvement.

HEFCE felt it had to set an example. Introducing its own internal Strategic Plan 2003-8 its then CEO, Howard Newby, said:

We hope that our colleagues in universities and colleges, for their part, will find in our plan a secure and practical framework for their own planning and activities throughout and beyond the planning period. We look forward to working with them to ensure that national policies and our strategy are put fully into effect, and to support and maintain a national HE system working consistently to international standards of excellence.

However, in 2017 the Higher Education and Research Act replaced HEFCE with the Office for Students and the Financial Memorandum requirement disappeared. The other parts of the UK have made their own arrangements under devolved powers. The Scottish Funding Council funds further as well as higher education and in 2020 it requires each college and university to have an Outcome Agreement in line with both ‘ministerial priorities and the SFC’s own ‘strategic framework’. It explains their purpose:

Outcome Agreements articulate how institutions provide an education that best meets the changing social and economic needs of their regions, reflecting a changing and increasingly diverse profile of students. They are an important part of the framework in which we ensure that institutions make best use of public funds and exercise good governance.

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales published a Corporate Strategy (2017-20) setting out its strategy for ‘delivery of the Welsh Government’s priorities for higher education’, as ‘informed by our annual remit letter’. It promised to: Monitor the financial sustainability of HE providers, and the organisation and management of their financial affairs, with particular reference to the requirements of our Financial Management Code. Northern Ireland’s Government funds its universities directly through the Department for the Economy without the intervention of a Funding Council.

On 9 September 2020 the Office for Students published its Guidance for providers for the financial monitory returns. It requires an Annual Financial Return with ‘workbook’ and commentary’, and in the case of relative newcomers to higher education provision, a Business Plan. It has a Strategy (2018-21) of its own but it does not seem to see it as a regulatory essential for a university to have one.

Nevertheless, it has become a continuing custom for universities to publish their Strategy or Strategic Plan. Such Plans have broadened far beyond the endeavour to assure funding councils and government that they had their finances in good order and are spending public money appropriately and to good effect. They are unlikely to mention their finances except to invite donations. They now tend to include Visions and Missions, often dividing their content into small pieces for easy consumption. They offer photographic and even video illustrations . In its interim ‘refresh’ of its current Plan Delivering Impact for Society, our Strategic Plan 2016, Edinburgh points to developments so far and a video to watch for ‘a short summary of the values, strategic priorities and aspirations of the new draft plan’.

The transformation of a vehicle for reporting financial soundness to a public relations and marketing opportunity in which the plain truth is edited for frankly presentational purposes should surely sit uncomfortably with the purposes of a university.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and served as CEO of the Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE.


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Five reasons why rich people shouldn’t found universities

By Paul Temple

Some ‘alternative providers’ are the product of a rich person’s ambition to create something different or distinctive in the HE sector. But it doesn’t always work in the longer term…

1             Rich people expect to get their own way

Rich people – I mean seriously rich, not merely well-off – tend, in my limited experience, to want to have things their own way. Doing what other people suggested probably wasn’t how they became rich in the first place. So a university founded by someone like this will be planned the way they want it, with other ideas being pushed aside. (If the person had simply wanted to support higher education they could have become a benefactor of an existing university – as many rich people of course do – but they would then have had to fit in with how an established institution worked or risk having their money politely declined.) The founder’s ideas may have been quite sensible, perhaps even innovative, at the time of the university’s creation, but he or she will have been reluctant to adjust their views as time passed and the original conception became less attuned to contemporary realities. Universities need to be in states of constant evolution, while pretending that nothing has really changed: that is the secret of their longevity. A single founder, continuing to exercise at least a degree of control and certain of the correctness of their original “vision”, impedes this evolutionary process.

2             “How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” (Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises)

Having access to a seriously rich person’s cheque-book might seem like a dream come true to most university finance directors. But a kind of dependency culture develops if, whenever a financial problem arises, some more cash magically appears. The university comes to resemble an oil-rich sheikhdom, able to buy-off internal tensions without having actually to resolve them, and not having to bother much about external pressures. So the university business model appears on the face of it to be working, because of regular cash injections into the balance sheet. Difficult questions about the university’s priorities and how its future sustainability can be ensured don’t get asked seriously, let alone answered: the priority is to ensure that the founder is happy in order to keep the cheque-book open. Short-term imperatives obscure longer-term perspectives. The university gradually drifts further and further away from real sustainability – but…

3             Even the rich don’t live for ever (yet)

If the university had problems when the founder was alive, they can become much more intractable once they’re dead. However clear the founder thought his or her intentions were about supporting the university financially after their death, there will be others with their own claims to understand the founder’s “vision” and what should be done to protect it (see below). The magic cheque-book is suddenly not so open: it’s not that the money isn’t there, it’s just that, well, we maybe need to reflect a little on what the founder “really” wanted and how best to achieve the “vision” in the new circumstances. Someone involved in a “wishes from beyond the grave” discussion of this sort remarked that early Christianity must have been a little like this: “Speaking as someone who knew Jesus well, I can say that what He would have wanted is…”

4             “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” (F Scott Fitzgerald, The Rich Boy)

You might perhaps think that your financial affairs are complicated because you have a couple of bank accounts, a few credit cards, a mortgage, and an ISA. The seriously rich, though, are surrounded by a horde of financial advisers and lawyers who set up offshore accounts, “investment vehicles”, trusts, foundations, real estate portfolios, the list goes on, to protect their wealth. When their client dies, these advisers become strangely reluctant to hand money over, regardless of what seems (to the intended beneficiary) to have been their client’s clear intentions (see above). Those controlling the money emphasise their heavy responsibilities to safeguard their late client’s “vision”, and can they be quite certain that the university’s plans are consistent with it? How can they be completely sure that the founder’s money will be managed wisely? “Tell us more about your plans” is a request to which the answer can be, as university planners know, a one-paragraph mission statement or volumes of studies and data – to which endless queries and objections can be presented. When the late founder’s wealth is tucked away in different forms, controlled by different people, under different legal jurisdictions, getting it can be slow, expensive – or, in practice, with the clock ticking and the university budget going into the red, impossible.

5             Just buy the yacht

Instead of founding a university, just buy a nice yacht and sit on deck in the sunshine at Monte Carlo with other rich people and, really, save the rest of us a lot of trouble.

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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The VERY big financial picture for English universities?

By David Palfreyman

The Financial Sustainability Strategy Group, a dedicated bunch of HE nerds, has churned out 90 pages on the funding model of UK universities (February 2019), based on TRAC data (Transparent Approach to Costing, as compiled and collated since 1999). 

The core activity of teaching UK/EU undergraduates brings in c£13.25billion of income and covers its full economic cost (FEC). Within that overall picture, subjects vary in matching fee income to their FEC. Even after some (HEFCE) top-up grant subsidy for STEM, there is an internal transfer as subsidy to STEM from the cheap-to-teach and massively expanded subjects such as Law and Psychology, as well as the cheap but less expanded Humanities. International student fee income is c£4.5billion, with a third of such high fee-payers coming from China. The FEC is more than covered – leaving a 40% surplus transferred to subsidise research. 

Research generates c£9.25billion (£1.5billion as HEFCE QR and the rest as grants/contracts from various sources) but recovers only about 75% of its FEC. Research grants from Government cover 80% of their FEC, from industry and the Research Councils 75%, from the EU 65%, and from charities 60%. The overall loss on research will, therefore, vary according to the mix of research funding from these various sources. The Russell Group lose the most but are best placed to attract more international student fees. A thing called ‘Other Activities’ generates c£5.5billion and has a 15% profit on its FEC – again a source of subsidy for over-trading in under-priced research. 

What are the challenges and threats to this financial model? 

  1. Any wobble in the UK share of the global student market – especially since most universities in their financial projections make happy assumptions about growing their International fee income. 
  2. The hikes due in employer contributions to USS (c5%) and to TPS (c8%). 
  3. The freezing of the £9250 UK/EU UG fee.  
  4. The impact of (now unlikely?) Brexit on EU undergraduate numbers and their fee income – although the loss of EU research grants when every one involves a subsidy of 35% of the FEC would be no bad thing!
  5. Whether the Augar Review will recommend UK undergraduate fees should be cut from £9250 to, say, £7500 – and, even if it does, whether any Government ever implements the proposal.
  6. How those universities that have borrowed massive amounts will be able to service the interest payments as the above happens – let alone save up so as one day to repay the capital. 

In the current financial year English universities get c£1.5billion of funding from the OfS, mainly for the extra cost of STEM teaching over and above the £9250 tuition fees but also for various specialist programmes. Then some £1.6billion is shared out by UKRI to all UK universities as support for research (based on the REF). The OfS and UKRI funding is the job HEFCE used to do before the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act. So the direct taxpayer spend on HE is c£3billion pa, plus spending on support for teaching in UK universities beyond England – and not counting the cost of the subsidy to the student loans system, nor the financing of the various research councils. 

We await the Augar Review; meanwhile the supply of UK 18-year olds continues to decline until the early 2020s, which can be bad news for some universities, as the OfS warned in its analysis of Financial Sustainability of Higher Education Providers in England on 4 April 2019. The flow of EU students may reduce IF Brexit ever happens, and on the spending side institutions face significant increases in employer contributions to pensions. All in all, this is not a rosy picture in the short term and potentially grim in the medium term – unless, of course, the Augar Review gets lost in the context of Brexit-induced government chaos or the Treasury generously substitutes extra grant funding for any Augar reduction in the £9250. Unless indeed any ‘Brexit dividend’ leaves room for more public spending on HE as a call on taxpayer largesse alongside the NHS, social care for the elderly, the funding of schools, etc etc…

SRHE Treasurer David Palfreyman is Bursar, New College, Oxford, Director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (OxCHEPS), and a member of the Board of the Office for Students. He writes in a personal capacity.