Leader: Diplomat needed for thankless job

February 10, 2006

Being the most powerful person in higher education can be a thankless task. Sir Howard Newby, the departing chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, was ultimately in charge of more than £6 billion of teaching, research and other grants every year.

And yet this annual largesse will never be enough to meet the diverse needs of the 100 English universities and colleges that the funding council supports. Sir Howard's potential successors, being interviewed by the council this week, should be under no illusions about the key skill required to be a successful funding council chief: how to say "no" diplomatically.

The job of the funding chief is to politely turn down 90 per cent of demands made by the vice-chancellors who come knocking at Hefce's door and to kick into the long grass the frequent madcap proposals from political masters at the Department for Education and Skills.

He or she must also be prepared for attacks on Hefce's very existence at any time from either side of this tense political-academic divide.

Vice-chancellors and civil servants have been equally prone over the years to call for its abolition, and a return to the funding of universities directly by government, so avoiding, they claim, the extra bureaucracy and costs that an independent body requires.

All the global evidence, however, suggests that this would be a retrogressive step. Direct funding and intervention by government curtails the ability of universities to innovate, to be responsive to the market and to express views freely. Indeed, worldwide the trend is in the opposite direction; Japan is just the latest country to create a funding council.

Lest it be forgotten, the funding council is uniquely responsible for protecting public interest in our university sector - and the individual interests of 100 institutions do not necessarily add up to the same thing.

Hefce also provides much-needed stability in funding for a sector that is rapidly evolving in an ever more uncertain marketplace. Under Sir Howard's stewardship, there have been four secretaries of state for education and five higher education ministers.

In the year that tuition fees for English students increase to £3,000 a year it is only right that there should be consideration of the funding council's role. This is the major challenge for Sir Howard's replacement.

But it would be a matter for regret if that debate put in doubt the future of the funding council itself.

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