Has Hefce's approach to quality review damaged its standing in government?

Publication of quality assessment consultation so soon after the general election may not have gone down well in Whitehall

December 17, 2015
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The Higher Education Funding Council for England is dead; long live the Office for Students.

This is the scenario proposed by the government as, in its own words, it looks to “simplify the higher education architecture”.

If the proposals contained in the higher education Green Paper are enacted, and many of Hefce’s functions are passed to the OfS along with those of the Office for Fair Access, will tears be shed for the sector’s regulator?

Hefce would point to a survey conducted earlier this year, which found that 89 per cent of the organisations and people it serves believed that it acted as a broker between government and higher education providers. In addition, 85 per cent felt that it acted in the public interest.

But whether Hefce’s demise would be the source of great sadness in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has been more hotly debated in recent months. What has been the cause of this discussion? It was Hefce’s decision to launch a consultation in June – just after the May general election – on the future of quality assessment in higher education.

This sounds innocent enough but, if sector sources are to be believed, it did not go down well with BIS.

Hefce’s decision, it is argued, put Jo Johnson, the new universities minister, in a difficult position.

Here was a minister with a Conservative pre-election pledge focusing on quality in higher education: the teaching excellence framework. Indeed, he was the man who wrote the manifesto that promised the introduction of the TEF.

And, rather than being given the space to develop these ideas, Mr Johnson found himself having to contend with one of the main sector bodies launching a consultation on proposals that heavily overlapped with his priorities, within weeks of being appointed.

To some observers, the TEF certainly has a strange place in the Hefce consultation document, not making an appearance until the final paragraphs, and being accompanied by a statement that the government’s initial view was that the TEF should incorporate cyclical external peer review of institutions, running counter to the thrust of Hefce’s proposals for less regular inspections.

By the end of July, Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of Hefce, was speaking publicly of the need for quality assurance and the TEF to form “one overall system”; something that would have been easier if the proposals had been unveiled at the same time, some would argue.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute who was a special adviser to Lord Willetts, the former universities minister, described Hefce’s timing as “unfortunate”.

Hefce first announced its intention to review the UK’s quality assurance arrangements in October 2014, planning for two phases of consultation to sit either side of the general election but operating largely independently of political processes; but the fact that its detailed proposals were being circulated several weeks before the consultation was launched in June suggests the political process did cause a slight delay in publication, although that is not unusual given the pre-election "purdah" period.

You either ignore the political timetable or you build your processes around it,” Mr Hillman said. “And, with hindsight, perhaps they were doing a slightly uneasy mix of both.” 

Manifold considerations

It would be easy to overstate the significance of BIS’ reported unhappiness, and to criticise Hefce unfairly. Deciding on the future shape of quality assessment is properly a matter for funding councils, not ministers, and Hefce’s review was already well under way by the middle of 2015. Delaying the publication of the proposals even further, it could be argued, would only add to uncertainty in the sector.

In addition, there was limited detail available about the TEF in June and the speed with which the higher education Green Paper then emerged surprised many in the sector.

Nor would anyone suggest that there is a causal link between any unhappiness in BIS about the quality assessment consultation and the decision to create the OfS. Instead, this reflects the fact that students are now the primary funders of university teaching, not the government, as well as the desire to bring into UK higher education more alternative providers that do not receive any public funding.

Also, speaking at Hefce’s annual meeting last month, Professor Atkins said it was “irrelevant” whether the funding council is “translated into a new body” or not as any new organisation would still need many of the functions currently held by Hefce.

Certainly, many of Hefce’s responsibilities are expected to pass to the OfS – the Green Paper says as much – and many of the staff are expected to transfer as well.

But other key influencers would argue that Professor Atkins’ comments underestimate the amount of change that is envisaged by BIS as it looks to create a consumer-focused regulator.

One issue that will have a significant impact on universities is the debate about whether OfS should retain a funding role at all, or whether teaching grant allocation should be taken in-house by BIS, with distribution of quality-related research funding passing to the new Research UK body.

Whether a student-focused regulator such as OfS could be led by a former vice-chancellor, as is the case with Hefce, is also an area of active debate.

Several sector observers suggest that the episode of the quality assessment consultation may not have won Hefce many friends in government at a time when the future shape of the OfS is still unformed.

In terms of friends in the sector, Hefce may not have made itself popular by withdrawing funding for the Higher Education Academy, along with other funding councils. However, this reflects reductions in the support that it receives from the UK government.

Meanwhile, the Quality Assurance Agency faces an uncertain future as a result of Hefce’s quality assessment proposals, with the current institutional review arrangements due to come to an end in July, and no further reviews of established providers planned for after that date as yet.

But Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group, said that “no one should write Hefce’s obituary”, highlighting that its oversight and analysis work would likely prove invaluable to the government.

Legislation will probably need to pass for Hefce to be replaced, Ms Tatlow added, and she explained that this may “take a backseat” if it faces opposition in the House of Lords, and if political attention shifts to the European Union referendum.

“It will become the OfS but it would be unwise to assume that the latter will have a narrow regulatory function akin to Ofwat or Ofcom,” Ms Tatlow said. “Ministers need an 'arm’s-length body' that has oversight of the sector and many functions of Hefce will need to continue.”


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