Uncertain future for Hefce

March 17, 2016

The annual grant letter from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which typically arrives in late December or January, has arrived unprecedentedly late this year in March (“BIS grant letter asks Hefce to deliver TEF”, 4 March). You can see the difficulty. Here is Hefce slated in the Green Paper for abolition and replacement by an Office for Students at some date to depend on a higher education bill, possibly to be in the Queen’s Speech in May (or June? No, May again). Meanwhile, the law says that it’s still the Funding Council, the statutory body through which the allocation of public funding for higher education must pass. Glimpses of discussions with BIS may be spotted in Hefce’s board papers.

The Green Paper is vague on proposed new arrangements. “Allocating grant funding” is mentioned briefly, with a sketch of a choice to be made between letting ministers set the policy and then handing much of the task of detailed funding allocation by formula to “BIS officials”, or allowing BIS to devise the necessary formulas before “handing” the task of disbursement to the Student Loans Company or “another funding body” (unspecified). With 600 responses to be collated, it will be quite a while before BIS can publish its “findings” on respondents’ views on this point.

However, the grant letter hands Hefce the responsibility for “implementing the second year of the Teaching Excellence Framework”, a task for which it has been negotiating energetically since the TEF was announced. That seems to assume that it will still be there some time ahead. Yet Hefce gets a rap over the knuckles in the letter in connection with its “Quality Assessment” plans, although it is putting work out to tender as though it had quite a long tomorrow.

Central to the funding allocation question is the eligibility of providers to access the public funding for higher education that Hefce currently disburses. The Financial Times ran an article on 10 March stating the prime minister’s intention that the bill will include the necessary legislative changes to make it easier for a private newcomer to call itself a university. Such new entrants would automatically become eligible for student loan funding. But the Green Paper’s suggestion that the SLC might disburse the remainder of the public “teaching funding” to which student fees are complementary must surely open the way to their being able to access some of that too. The Donald Trump University is just waiting to move in.

G. R. Evans

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