'At risk' of not delivering for our students

July 27, 2007

Hefce must publish current data on institutions' financial health, insists Geoffrey Alderman.

Earlier this month, under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, the media obtained access to hitherto top-secret financial analyses held by the Higher Education Funding Council for England relating to the financial health of taxpayer-funded higher education institutions. It had been known for some time that Hefce compiled data relating to those it regarded as "at risk" financially. But it had consistently refused to name the institutions. So secretive was the funding council that, until two years ago, even those deemed to be "at risk" did not themselves know that they were on the list.

Last week, the Information Commissioner ordered that, in the public interest, Hefce should publish the list. And so The Times Higher was able to name institutions regarded by the funding council as being at various levels of risk of financial failure - immediately at risk; at risk unless urgent is taken; and at risk unless action of some sort is taken, but not urgently. Or, to be absolutely precise, the media were able to name institutions that had been deemed to be at various levels of financial risk in the period 1998 2003. Were they still "at risk"? If so, at what level? Have other institutions been added to the list over the past four years? We simply do not know, because what the Information Commissioner actually ordered to be released are simply historical documents of little contemporary relevance.

To make matters worse, Hefce has now let it be known that it has changed its financial risk typology, and has invented a new dual categorisation - "higher risk" and "lower risk". And we also know that six institutions are in the new higher-risk category. But which are they? Hefce will not tell us and the Information Commissioner has made it clear that the funding council is right not to do so, and indeed should not do so until three years have passed. Explaining why such time should pass before the data enters the public domain, the commissioner - who has presumably agreed this with Hefce - declared that this was "to allow a degree of protection for the majority of full-time undergraduates during the time they are on their courses, and allow institutions time to try to address the majority of the difficulties they face."

All this is highly unsatisfactory, and hypocritical into the bargain.

As we move into something vaguely approximating a true market economy in higher education, students and their parents surely have the right to access current information about the institutions in which they will invest very significant sums of money. It is simply unacceptable, even insulting, for Hefce to say that potential students - one of the principal stakeholder groups in higher education - can only access historic data. And it adds injury to insult for the Information Commissioner to claim that by supporting a three year moratorium on the release of Hefce's financial analyses he is somehow "protecting" the student body.

He is doing no such thing. The ability of an institution to deliver a good quality education depends on many factors. But one of these is its financial state, which in turn will affect its ability (for example) to fund learning resources at the appropriate level, to provide a satisfactory administrative infrastructure, and indeed to attract and retain academic staff of the right calibre. This is why, in the US, the university accrediting commissions routinely inquire into the financial health of the institutions they accredit. Indeed, in the US, failure to achieve and maintain financial stability is one of the most common reasons why institutions are "sanctioned", and even denied accreditation renewal altogether.

But this in turn raises another issue. In the UK, publicly funded institutions are now required to publish a great deal of information said to relate to the quality of their provision, in order (it is said) to inform student choice. For the same reason the results of the research assessment exercise are publicly available. So too - for what they are worth - are the Quality Assurance Agency's audit reports. To cover Hefce financial analyses with a shroud of secrecy flies in the face of all this talk about openness and public accountability. But it also reveals a fault line in the matrix of quality assurance arrangements.

If a major university claims that its teaching is informed by its research, why assess the two activities separately? If staff at a further education college allege that its higher education provision is adversely affected by inadequate funding, why hide the fact?

And if the QAA genuinely believes that its mission is "to inform and encourage continuous improvement in the management of the quality of higher education" why not announce that in future all QAA "enhancement-led institutional reviews" will include a financial appraisal?

Geoffrey Alderman is professor of politics and contemporary history at Buckingham University.

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