Question mark over Office for Students in English funding review

Achieving the prime minister’s goal of reshaping post-18 education will require another shake-up of sector regulation, warn experts

February 26, 2018
Theresa May giving speech
Source: Getty
Lift-off: Theresa May launched the government’s review of higher education at a further education college in Derby

England’s higher education review may recommend the creation of a “more hands-on” regulator for higher education which also oversees post-18 skills training, sector experts have predicted.

With the Office for Students only due to become fully operational in April after the hard-fought passage of legislation last year, ministers are unlikely to want to revisit the issue of a new higher education regulator.

However, the review’s terms of reference, which call for a “joined-up post-18 education and training sector…delivering the skills our country needs”, might make the recommendation of a new overarching tertiary education regulator inevitable, said Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester.

“If you want to look at developing the whole tertiary education sector, you have to look at the bodies overseeing it – you cannot just wish for a better tertiary system,” said Professor Westwood.

At present, the “highly interventionist” Education and Skills Funding Agency in charge of post-18 vocational training and the “light-touch, let the market rip” OfS are “about as different as they could be”, he explained.

“For instance, the ESFA has stepped in to prop up a number of providers, but the OfS has promised that it will not do that,” he said, adding that these two bodies would need to be brought together.

The focus on expanding technical-level qualifications was commendable but “if you are going to intervene this much, then the OfS model is not going to work”, added Professor Westwood.

The inclusion of Baroness Wolf of Dulwich, author of the influential 2011 Wolf report on vocational education and Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King’s College London, on the review panel also suggested that a more interventionist approach to rebalancing tertiary education could be among the final recommendations, said Professor Westwood.

Speaking on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme on 20 February, Lady Wolf said that the UK had an “extraordinarily unfair, bifurcated system in which huge amounts of money go into higher education…and the technical and vocational sector [is] starved of funds”. She added that a “core part of the review is to bring these bits [of post-18 education] together”.

However, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said Lady Wolf’s “diagnosis of problems within tertiary education seems to be stronger than her prescriptions to solve them”.

“The issue with ‘rebalancing’ is that there is not a single pot of money that you can take from higher education and give to further education,” said Mr Hillman, who explained that the system of income-contingent loan repayments accessed by university students would not work for further education students. Professor Westwood’s idea of a new regulator was a “valid point” given the aims of the review, he added.

Given that the review’s recommendations must be “consistent with the government’s fiscal policies to reduce the deficit”, they would “almost certainly disappoint many people who want it to sort out part-time student funding [and] further education, reintroduce maintenance grants and reduce the burden of student debt”, Mr Hillman added.

“With all this, you would very quickly get a bill of £10 billion, which is roughly what it would cost to scrap tuition fees,” he said.

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