If you have always wanted to design a new regulatory framework for English higher education without the government passing any laws to help you do so, then pay attention: your dream job is up for grabs.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England is scheduled to advertise for a chief executive - traditionally one of the sector’s biggest jobs - on 13 May, with interviews expected to take place in July. Sir Alan Langlands, the incumbent, leaves to become vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds on 1 October.
With Hefce’s role as funding council set to diminish as it takes on new roles as regulator and “student champion”, and with the pressure of austerity likely to build, who might be given the job? And what difference, if any, will the choice make to the sector?
The appointment will be made by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, on the advice of Hefce, which will run the recruitment process. All its past leaders were previously vice-chancellors, but if the funding council and Mr Willetts want to recruit at that level again, they must clear one important hurdle: salary.
As a quango, Hefce comes under new coalition rules stating that for any public sector appointment where the pay offered exceeds that of the prime minister (currently £142,500 a year), the salary must be approved by the chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander.
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that the salary had not been set yet. However, others suggested that £2,000 has been decided on - a figure nearly identical to Sir Alan’s £230,000 a year pay packet.
Steve Barclay, Conservative MP for North East Cambridgeshire and a Public Accounts Committee member who gave Hefce a rough ride over staff costs at a hearing in 2011, said that the figure “appears excessively high for what is a very interesting role”. He also criticised vice-chancellors for setting “telephone-number salaries” as the standard.
Assuming the hurdle is cleared, even a £230,000 salary may not be enough to attract a senior vice-chancellor, by whose standards the pay might seem uncompetitive.
Among those mentioned in sector dispatches as being possible candidates for the role have been Sir Steve Smith and Sir Ian Diamond (see below).
However, there is a chance that Mr Willetts will want someone from outside the sector: he may have grown tired of Sir Alan’s coded (and uncoded) criticisms of coalition policy and might welcome fresh blood.
The government’s White Paper promised that Hefce would become a “student champion”, so a candidate from a consumer affairs or business background might be considered best placed to achieve the required organisational change.
Lord Browne of Madingley, who led the government’s review of higher education funding, has said in written evidence to MPs on the BIS select committee that Hefce should be an independent regulator “along the lines of Ofcom or Ofgem”.
However, the case for a senior figure drawn from the sector’s ranks is arguably strengthened by Hefce’s looming challenges: devising a financial memorandum to govern the conduct of universities when funding is routed via student loans instead of grant; regulating the growing private sector; and completing the often-controversial research excellence framework. This may require someone with a sure grasp of the big picture and the fine detail of regulation and funding (Hefce will need to be nimble to establish new powers without legislation), as well as the clout to deal with senior Whitehall figures.
Leadership potential: three figures in frame to take Hefce helm
Sir Steve Smith
As a former president of Universities UK, the University of Exeter vice- chancellor has experience of wrestling with the detail of the government’s funding system and is used to walking the corridors of power. However, he is thought to have ruled himself out of the running in favour of staying at Exeter, having spent time away from the institution during his stint at UUK’s helm between 2009 and 2011.
Some in the sector back Steve Egan, Hefce’s deputy chief executive and director of finance and corporate resources (and suggest that Tim Melville-Ross, its chair, could take on a beefed-up role). Mr Egan joined Hefce in 1996, having risen from graduate trainee to chief financial accountant at British Gas. Although he has shown a thorough grasp of the technical problems posed by coalition policy, some may feel that he lacks political experience.
Sir Ian Diamond
Having previously served as chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, the University of Aberdeen vice-chancellor could be viewed as a safe pair of hands on research funding - soon to make up the vast bulk of Hefce-allocated funds. His authorship of a 2011 UUK report, Efficiency and Effectiveness in Higher Education, which recommended outsourcing, could be viewed as a plus in the age of austerity.