The government looks set to introduce a higher education bill, possibly following a White Paper in May, with David Cameron said to be convinced of the need for legislation.
Meanwhile, the Higher Education Funding Council for England appears to be pressing ahead with a plan to put out to tender England’s quality assurance work in several packages.
The plan – which would see bidders compete for contracts on elements such as the Higher Education Review, external examining and transnational education – may be seen by some as undermining the Quality Assurance Agency, which would struggle to continue in its current form unless it won all the tenders.
Large firms such as Tribal and Capita are said to be potential bidders for the quality assurance tenders, while some also see sector bodies such as the Higher Education Academy and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education as possible organisations that could be interested.
Tendering packages plan
Several sector figures warn that pressing ahead with the plan could be an unwise move on Hefce’s part and potentially create further ill feeling with ministers, given that the government's plans for the teaching excellence framework have a lot of overlap with quality assurance.
The move towards legislation – needed to implement Green Paper proposals such as submerging Hefce within a new Office for Students market-style regulator – comes after senior figures in the government expressed unease about a bill.
A bill could run into opposition in the House of Lords and, if it addresses plans for inflation-linked fee increases arising from the TEF, could bring hostile amendments from Labour.
But in a 30 January article in The Sunday Times, Mr Cameron pledged that there would be legislation to force universities into transparency on applications and to improve social mobility.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “The prime minister wading into the social mobility debate and using the words ‘we will legislate’ did, I think, make a higher education bill more likely.”
Mr Hillman, special adviser to Lord Willetts in his time as universities and science minister, also contrasted the situation with that under the coalition government – when he said that plans for a bill were undermined by a lack of support from then business secretary Vince Cable.
“All my indications are that Sajid Javid [the business secretary] does see it as the number one legislative ask from BIS [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills], which will mean it is taken more seriously in the Cabinet Office and elsewhere,” he added.
Mr Hillman said that he would be “surprised if there wasn’t a higher education bill in the next Queen’s Speech”, to be delivered in May, although he added that this would be “pretty tight timing”.
Another sector source suggested that the government’s response to the higher education Green Paper will come in May, possibly in the form of a White Paper.
But Mr Cameron’s commitment to legislation on admissions transparency may not equate with a commitment to a full higher education bill.
And Mr Hillman also warned that a bill “could be disrupted by the impending EU referendum”.
Critics of Hefce’s quality assurance tendering plan argue that the QAA’s existing contract should be rolled over for an extra year pending the government’s response to the Green Paper.
The government’s Green Paper consultation sought views on “the UK-wide role” of the QAA – but Hefce’s move to put quality assurance out to tender in England could effectively kill off a UK-wide system.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, said: “A higher education bill is an odds-on bet and there are no great advantages for the sector in Hefce introducing new arrangements that will almost certainly be temporary.
“Any tendering exercises will also incur additional costs and risk diverting resources that might be better invested elsewhere.”
Asked about the tendering packages plan, a Hefce spokeswoman said that at a meeting on 3 February the organisation’s board “agreed a coherent approach to future quality assessment arrangements, and expects this to include some activities delivered under contract by one or more external organisations”.
She added: “We continue to undertake more detailed design work in collaboration with the other UK funding bodies, government and with the sector and student representative bodies. We expect to publish our ‘next steps’ later in the spring.”