Strength in variety

April 18, 2003

Hefce intends to develop a robust, diverse sector that offers quality at every level, says Howard Newby

Much of the debate on the government’s white paper has focused on access. While the recent publication of proposals for an Office for Fair Access has heightened discussion about widening participation, it is essential that we give equal attention to all the challenges facing the sector.

At the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s annual conference this week, this wider dialogue gained momentum. Debate centred on our draft 2003-08 strategic plan - a vision and blueprint to take forward the issues in the white paper.

Like so many sectors, higher education faces an uncertain future. The full impact of globalisation is yet to be felt. Universities and colleges must meet new challenges to maintain and enhance their position in the global market. And while we have one of the finest higher education systems in the world, we face huge challenges ahead with limited resources.

Demand for higher education is rising. The nature of students is changing - today, about half are over 21 and most of these study part time. Varieties of interactive learning are increasingly benefiting all students. Learning is shifting, too, from a life-stage ending at 16 or 21 to a lifelong experience.

Many of tomorrow’s students will look very different from those of previous generations. They may get a taste for higher education at an evening class or on a vocational course and then take an online degree course. They may want interactive tutorials after a day at work but also the chance to attend lectures at a local university. They may start with a foundation degree at a further education college then progress through a first degree to a PhD in a research-intensive university department. Our challenge is to meet these changing demands imaginatively by opening doors while maintaining standards.

To do so effectively, we must accept that no individual university or college can meet all the needs of every customer and stakeholder. Instead, each must build on its strengths and work with other providers so the sector as a whole can deliver the full range of provision.

Our approach to funding will reflect this reality, encouraging distinctive missions and responding to the individual aims of institutions and their expert areas. Through this approach, we also hope to develop a system in which excellence in teaching is as highly regarded as excellence in research.

Some colleagues see this as a threat. But I believe it is an opportunity to develop the strengths that diversity brings. In this regard, we must subvert the English genius for turning diversity into hierarchy. We must recognise that each institution depends on other parts of the sector doing well. Without collaboration, the sector’s capacity to deliver the range of public policy objectives expected of us would break down.

I believe our proposed strategic aims help to crystallise this vision. First, we believe that widening participation should be a permanent goal for every university and college. It is the first step in developing education tailored to meet individual learners’ needs, including through workplace learning.

Second, we recognise that learning and teaching are vital to every institution’s mission and to the public perception of the sector’s role and achievements. Students will increasingly expect high standards and clear information. New centres of excellence in teaching will be vital in meeting this demand.

Third, we must support world-class research, encouraging effective collaboration and providing capacity for developing new research capability. To sustain our research base against global competition, we must fund truly excellent research. This means being selective. But we have also earmarked £20 million for research in emerging subject areas.

Finally, we must ensure that the knowledge that our sector accumulates contributes to the economic and social benefit of all, especially local and regional communities. The “third leg” is now an integral and permanent part of Hefce core funding. We must develop it further.

These aims are underpinned by cross-cutting themes: we want a system that builds on institutional strengths, invests more in human resource development at every level, is guided by the best leaders and governors.

I am convinced that our sector can and must meet these collective challenges. But please join the debate - the stakes are too high for silence.

Sir Howard Newby is chief executive of Hefce.

To have your say on Hefce’s 2003-08 draft strategic plan, visit the website at


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