Criticism of the funding council is rife but not everyone is ready to see it go, Anthea Lipsett discovers
"Everyone is disenchanted with the research assessment exercise and the funding council," says Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chair of Campaigning for Modern Universities, the lobby group for post-92 institutions.
"At some point, the cap will be lifted and fees will become a bigger source of funds. The Higher Education Funding Council for England's importance as a funder will decline over time. For some institutions, it is already a relatively small source of funding."
Professor Driscoll's views sum up what many in higher education are saying.
It is certain that the future of Hefce will be a subject for debate at this week's annual conference.
Top-up fees will transform higher education, as will a new government, the full economic cost regime, a higher education tsar and the possible demise of the RAE after 2008. To keep up with change, higher education quangos such as Hefce need to change, too. But whether it spells the end for Hefce remains to be seen.
Ian Gibson, chair of the Commons' Science and Technology Committee, said:
"There is a lot of gossip about whether it is up to the job. Many are upset about the RAE and what a mess it is."
Conservative Party politicians have talked about downsizing Hefce. Such opinions may lie at one end of a spectrum.
Others are more supportive of Hefce, but no one is without criticism. David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, said: "Hefce's role will inevitably evolve in the coming period. There are people who support its abolition, but I do not. The sector is better served by a well-functioning arm's-length body than by direct management by the Department for Education and Skills. Most of us want to see the burden of regulation diminished, so we would not want Hefce to embrace a stronger regulatory role. But we do not want a whole series of other regulators, either."
Ian Haines, chair of UK Deans of Science, said: "I would worry about being directly controlled by the DfES."
This worry is shared by Steve Smith, Exeter University's vice-chancellor.
He says the funding council was enormously helpful in brokering a solution when Exeter closed its chemistry department.
"For all its problems, Hefce does act as a buffer between the Government and the sector. I certainly would not want direct government control," he said. "We have had amazing settlements, and part of that is Hefce taking our arguments to Government."
Hefce officials are now in election purdah, unable to speak about any policy issues publicly. But Howard Newby, the funding council's chief executive, recently mooted three potential roles for Hefce: those of market regulator, public interest purchaser and public investor.
Fiona Martland, executive director of the Engineering Professors' Council, said: "There is a need for some kind of central or regulatory role, but I am not sure if that could be done by Hefce."
Universities do not embrace an increased planning role for Hefce. Professor Driscoll said: "As a standing bureaucracy, it will try to persuade the government of the day that it should have some broad regulatory role, but that will put it at odds with institutions' wish to be more autonomous."
Michael Sterling, Birmingham University's vice-chancellor and chair of the Russell Group, deemed a regulatory role "wholly inappropriate", but said Hefce could act as a brokering agent, helping to transfer students from beleaguered departments.
"It's a good way of shaping government policy, and somebody needs to perform that role."
He blames an increasingly directive Government for the growth in the role of the funding council and its prescriptiveness.
Richard Joyner, chair of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said:
"The time may well be ripe to replace Hefce, but what the alternative looks like would need some careful thought."
Peter Cotgreave, CaSE's director, said: "If you started with a blank piece of paper, would you come up with Hefce? Probably not."