The future of the Higher Education Academy looks uncertain after the UK’s funding councils decided to withdraw support for the champion of university teaching.
Times Higher Education understands about 100 of the HEA’s 180 staff could lose their jobs after the York-based organisation announced that its central funding, worth £13.5 million this year, would gradually be slashed to zero by 2016-17.
Its funding council grants are to be cut by £4 million in 2014-15, reduced by another £4 million in 2015-16, and “it has been indicated” that there will be no money from the bodies, including the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the following year.
With the grants accounting for about 83 per cent of its £20 million income last year, the cuts may jeopardise the future of the organisation, which oversees and accredits most higher education teaching qualifications.
Cuts to the body, which supports and encourages teaching excellence, may also call into question ministerial assurances that teaching would be prioritised as annual tuition fees trebled to £9,000.
Stephanie Marshall, who took over as the HEA’s chief executive in August 2013, said the extent of the cuts had surprised her, even though she had expected some reductions when the government slashed £125 million from England’s higher education budget in February.
“We had always planned to be self-sustainable by 2020, but we did not expect to have to accelerate these plans so soon,” Professor Marshall said. She added that she had started a 45-day redundancy consultation with all staff, during which she was keen to hear ideas on how new income steams could be found.
Money-making ideas welcome
The HEA is looking at how it can increase its income from consultancy, events and investments – worth about £1.1 million in 2012-13 – by offering services to overseas institutions.
The potential creation of a pan-European version of the HEA, recommended in a European Commission review by Mary McAleese, former president of the Republic of Ireland, could lead to a possible source of income, Professor Marshall said.
In a statement, the HEA said that it intended to focus on curriculum design, teaching innovation and improving support for staff involved in student employability, as well as its “core services” of teaching qualification accreditation, its teaching awards and its postgraduate experience surveys.
The announcement follows a review undertaken by Capita Consulting into whether the HEA is “effectively achieving the priorities of its funders and owners [universities]”, which is due to be published later this month.
Founded in 2004, the HEA replaced the Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT), which was a national body controlling professional standards in teaching. But its central funding has been halved since 2010, when it received £26.7 million, leading to the closure of its network of 24 subject centres in 2012, which were set up to support different disciplines.
About £2.2 million of its income comes from universities, which pay for staff to attend training workshops, although some have suggested that members could also be asked for subscriptions similar to those required by the ILT.
Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, had warned in a Higher Education Policy Institute blog last month that cuts to higher education funding could threaten a huge shake-up of sector bodies.
He told THE that it was “inevitable in some ways” that pressure on government budgets and higher tuition fees would mean universities’ being asked to be the principal funders for agencies such as the HEA.
“Rightly or wrongly, there’s an expectation in government that a high fee – at least higher than expected or predicted by [ministers] – brings the assumption that institutions would meet all kinds of costs out of an increased level of resource,” he said.
Mr Westwood also pointed to a government announcement this week seeking to shift funding for disabled students’ support towards universities as another example of the “growing list of things that the new funding regime is expected to absorb”.
Reductions are necessary
A spokeswoman for Hefce said that it was “well aware of the value of HEA to the sector…[but] it has been necessary for us to make reductions in funding for national facilities and initiatives”.
“We are already working closely with the HEA to support them in diversifying their income streams…and will consider future opportunities to support specific initiatives on a project-by-project basis,” she added.
Sir Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester, who chairs the HEA, said he believed that “the HEA will be well placed to support enhancement of learning and teaching” despite the “difficult funding environment”.