The National Union of Students will be given a key role in exerting power over England’s universities under plans unveiled by David Willetts, the universities and science minister.
In an unexpected announcement, Mr Willetts was set to tell the House of Commons in a written statement on 11 July that a new regulatory framework for higher education will be put in place without extra legislation.
The statement will attempt to fill the regulatory “black hole” created by the coalition’s failure to introduce a higher education bill to accompany the new fees and funding system.
Without a bill, there had been fears that the Higher Education Funding Council for England would be left powerless to regulate universities, as the teaching funding it apportions to the sector (and can withhold) has plummeted under the high fees system.
However, under the plans announced by Mr Willetts, if a university fails to meet Hefce’s conditions, it will be able to impose a new ultimate sanction: barring the institution’s students from accessing state loans.
The move could lead to a backlash from universities that believe tuition fees are private funding and should not be subject to state control.
Mr Willetts’ statement will also articulate a fresh “oversight and coordination” role for Hefce. The funding council will run a register of higher education providers, setting out whether they are state-funded, not-for-profit or for-profit, and what commitments they make on provisions such as fair access.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr Willetts said that the work of Hefce and other sector bodies on how to regulate the system without legislation had “taken us a lot further than I would have dared hope a couple of years back”.
The government can “achieve a lot with existing powers”, he added. However, he said that in the long run legislation would still be needed to “detach Hefce ever further from dependence on its grant-giving powers and be more explicit on its regulatory function”.
In a letter to Tim Melville-Ross, Hefce’s chair, Mr Willetts sets out eight elements for the regulatory framework.
In its oversight and coordination role, Hefce will work with “providers, agencies, representative bodies and the NUS, to monitor…observance of the conditions associated with operating in the new system, with a focus on protecting the collective student interest”.
Hefce and its partners will “identify and address issues within…providers and take appropriate remedial action”, Mr Willetts adds.
The minister told THE that whereas years ago his Conservative colleagues might have seen the NUS as “a bunch of Marxists plotting revolution around the world”, it was now viewed as a “crucial ally in the agenda for putting students at the heart of the system”.
Hefce’s current ultimate sanction of withdrawing grant from universities that step out of line has been gradually losing its deterrence value: in around two years some institutions will receive virtually no teaching funding as fees take over.
But in future, conditions will be attached to the “designation” of courses – the system by which students are made eligible for public-backed funding.
Mr Willetts says in his letter to Hefce: “Regulatory requirements…are currently primarily applied through the Hefce financial memorandum which applies conditions to …grant funding and establishes clear accountability for [it].
“This arrangement will continue. From academic year 2014-15 onwards it is my intention that similar conditions will also apply to Hefce funded institutions’ automatic course designation for student support.”
Other elements of the framework set out by Mr Willetts in his letter cover the updated financial memorandum – to be consulted on by Hefce and introduced for 2014-15 – as well as previously announced measures both to reform the designation system and introduce student number controls at private providers.