England’s funding council will be given powers to regulate the entry of new providers and universities to the sector, a move described as “an early job application” for the council to be the chief regulator after the election.
Meanwhile, the University and College Union has accused the Higher Education Funding Council for England of furthering the marketisation of higher education through the programme for its annual conference.
The government’s grant letter to Hefce, published on 30 January and signed by universities and science minister Greg Clark and business secretary Vince Cable, discloses that total funding for universities from Hefce will stand at just over £4 billion in 2015-16, “essentially unchanged” from indicative allocations set out last year.
However, unlike previous years, the letter does not indicate funding levels for two years ahead, an acknowledgement of the uncertainty of what will happen after the election.
Mr Cable and Mr Clark also say they want Hefce to “assume responsibility” from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills “for the administration of the processes for degree awarding powers, university and university college title, designation as institutions eligible to receive Hefce funding, and transfers from the FE to the HE sector”.
David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies and co-author of Reshaping the University: The Rise of the Regulated Market in Higher Education, said that the letter was an attempt to create a new role for Hefce, as its direct funding role diminishes under higher fees.
He said the new role was “an early job application by Hefce itself to become the new OFHE [Office for Higher Education] regulator if the forthcoming general election triggers the chance to review higher education as a consumer industry” and prompts new legislation.
There are also other signs of a fresh approach at Hefce under Madeleine Atkins, who took over as chief executive in January 2014 after serving as Coventry University vice-chancellor.
The programme for Hefce’s annual conference, held on 4 and 5 February, departed from previous line-ups, which have featured prominent academics such as Brian Cox, National Union of Students presidents and vice-chancellors.
This year’s programme includes two speakers from global management consultancy McKinsey; John Latham, chief executive of the private equity-owned University of Law; Andy Street, managing director of the John Lewis Partnership; and a representative from accountants Baker Tilly.
Of the total 12 speakers, only one was scheduled to be from a Hefce-funded university – University of Manchester economics professor and former Browne review member Diane Coyle – and there was no student representation on the programme.
A UCU spokesman said that the list of speakers “will concern those who oppose the marketisation of higher education. Where once eminent academics or representatives from the sector would be heard, we now have guest slots dominated by management consultants, private equity firms and for-profit education providers.”
A Hefce spokesman said the conference “brings together a range of different perspectives on trends and developments in higher education investment and collaboration”, adding that the council supports the student interest via funding to improve student engagement, “listening to the student voice through the annual National Student Survey and continuing to help universities improve widening participation and student opportunity”.