Sector needs ‘oversight’ if BIS takes teaching grant in-house, says King’s principal

Ed Byrne warns institutions’ finances could be ‘undermined’ in the name of policy initiatives

November 13, 2015
Ed Byrne, King's College London

Higher education representatives must retain “oversight” if government officials take on responsibility for allocating teaching grant funding to universities, the principal of King’s College London said.

Ed Byrne told a conference that he was concerned that the move, suggested in the higher education Green Paper, could see some institutions’ financial health “undermined” at the expense of others in the name of policy initiatives.

Teaching grant is currently distributed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) according to strategic priorities set by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but the government proposes to merge Hefce with the Office for Fair Access to create a new Office for Students. One option is for the allocation of block grant to be taken in-house by BIS.

Professor Byrne told the Access to Higher Education Summit, organised by Universities UK and Action on Access, that there would need to be “measures in place to ensure that officials shaping the allocations have real insider knowledge and exposure to the front-line issues that will be critically affected”.

“There would need to be some form of consultative process, oversight process, involving university representatives to ensure year-on-year changes don’t undermine the financial health of some parts of the sector at the expense of others in pursuit of newly emerging priorities,” Professor Byrne said. “I’ve always felt Hefce has done an excellent job in balancing and translating competing priorities into sustainable financial settlements for the sector.

“Indeed, in Australia [as vice-chancellor of Monash University], where we didn’t have a Hefce equivalent, I sorely missed it.”

The Green Paper says that taking the allocation of teaching grant in-house would “enable ministers to strengthen incentives for higher education provision that supports the needs of the economy”, and adds that a duty to protect academic freedom and institutional autonomy “would ensure that ministers and officials could not single out specific institutions”. This could be supported by an independent advisory committee, the document says.

Another option is to pass responsibility for allocating teaching grant to the Office for Students.

Professor Byrne argued that the higher education sector should view the Green Paper and the planned teaching excellence framework positively: as “an opportunity to proactively shape” policy with Jo Johnson, the universities minister, not as “a threat to be mitigated or watered down”.

“I see it as an opportunity because, as the minister says, it has the potential to help ensure that quality of teaching is seen at all universities to be as important an area of strategic management focus as improvement in the quality of the university research base,” he said. “I think, if we are honest, that has not always been the case.”

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