Hefce’s role has changed; can it still get the leader the sector needs?, asks Bahram Bekhradnia

If the funding council can’t find a leader with the stature to stand up to ministers, everyone will suffer, argues Bahram Bekhradnia

May 9, 2013

Sir Alan Langlands is to leave his post as head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England before his contract is up - as did his predecessor, David Eastwood. On both occasions, this led to speculation that the chief executives had grown fed up with increasing intrusion into Hefce’s business by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and its ministers, and as a consequence, the erosion of their positions. While there may be something in that, the whole truth is likely to be far more mundane.

Langlands’ next career step is to become head of a major civic university (the University of Leeds) and the same was true of Eastwood, who now leads the University of Birmingham. Such positions do not become available on demand: when the opportunities arose they had to seize them.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that over the years Hefce’s position has changed - diminished, even - and this may affect the attractiveness of the post for any potential successor.

Hefce is a descendant of the University Grants Committee, which was established in 1919 in recognition of the fact that universities were part of the national infrastructure - virtually part of the (unwritten) constitution - and should not be susceptible to the usual political controls and decisions. But we should not be surprised if there is tension between this principle and the desire of ministers and their officials to control things. When Hefce devised a funding premium to recognise the costs of providing for disadvantaged students, David Blunkett, at that time the education secretary, was reputed to have asked how it was that the funding council could introduce such measures without his approval. As ministers have become more involved in the details of running the higher education system, Hefce’s role has increasingly come to represent that of the man trotting along behind the elephant with the bucket and spade. The most vivid example of this was Gordon Brown’s staggering intervention in 2006, when the chancellor announced to the surprise of all - including Hefce - that the next research assessment exercise was to be based solely on “metrics”. It took the council three years to extricate the government from the absurdity of that policy. More recently, it has had to do what it can to rescue the coalition from its ill-thought-through “core-and-margin” and AAB/ABB policies.

Hefce’s role has increasingly come to represent that of the man trotting along behind the elephant with the bucket and spade

The changing nature and length of the annual grant letters from BIS to the funding council characterise this changing relationship. The earliest said, more or less: “Here is a lot of money, please spend it wisely, having regard to the government’s overall strategies for higher education, society and the economy.” In contrast, more recent letters specify in great detail what Hefce is to do with the cash. In my view, the government would do far better to restrict itself to simply setting out the broad strategic direction.

Importantly, Hefce has always been led by one of the country’s most distinguished vice-chancellors. This has helped to make it respected and its decisions acceptable to the sector as a whole. The first three heads were elected - and in the case of Sir Howard Newby had already served - as president of Universities UK or its predecessor. Eastwood had been head of the Arts and Humanities Research Board and a successful vice-chancellor. Langlands had been chief executive of the NHS - arguably a much bigger job than running the funding council. Some were worried because the NHS is an agency of the government in a way that Hefce, in theory, is not. But once in post Langlands quickly dispelled such concerns: he displayed commendable independence, if not boldness, when he stated in October 2010 - just after the coalition had announced its plan to replace state funding with student fees - that universities should get ready in the not-too- distant future for the balance between fees and grants to shift again.

Has Hefce’s role diminished? Undoubtedly. But this is less because of the reduction in the funding it allocates and more because of ministers’ increasing tendency to meddle in matters that they would be far wiser leaving to the funding council.

So can Hefce continue to attract the “big beasts”? It may not eclipse that of the secretary of state as it once did, but the role of chief executive remains a substantial one - possibly the biggest in the sector. It could still be attractive to some of higher education’s more substantial characters: whether this is what the coalition wants is another question. (Under the appointment process, David Willetts, minister for universities and science, will have to endorse the decision of Hefce’s board.) The government should beware, however. One of Hefce’s most useful roles has always been to rescue ministers from the unintended consequences of their own wishes. If someone is appointed who does not have the stature to stand up to them, the sector will be all the poorer for it - and the government will also come to regret it.

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