Super-agency the ‘go-to for how-to’ in English higher education

Advance HE will be a supportive friend to higher education as England’s new regulator gets tough, explains chief executive Alison Johns

March 21, 2018
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Advance HE will look at the system ‘through a supportive lens’

With public attention fixed on the Office for Students’ controversial first few months, the arrival of a second major new higher education body in England has largely gone unnoticed.

However, Advance HE – created by a merger involving the Equality Challenge Unit, the Higher Education Academy and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education – officially came into existence on 21 March, just days before England’s universities regulator becomes fully operational.

The new body, which was created after a Universities UK-commissioned review led by Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, will be headed by Alison Johns, formerly the Leadership Foundation’s chief executive.

While it will not wield any of the OfS’ fearsome regulatory powers, Advance HE will be an important part of the UK’s new higher education landscape, Ms Johns told Times Higher Education, saying that she wants the new outfit to become the sector’s “go-to for how-to” agency on a range of issues.

While the OfS' predecessor, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, had several supportive roles and fairly big initiatives, such as the £30 million-a-year Catalyst Fund to support specific improvement projects for teaching and research, the new regulator will be different in nature, observed Ms Johns. And many academics are “now asking who is looking at the whole system through a developmental and supportive lens”, she said.

“The OfS will regulate more on data and outcomes and will not be so much concerned about process…so there may be a gap in who is doing all the things around good practice and continuous improvement,” Ms Johns said.

Having a friendly, supportive organisation as a counterweight to the tougher OfS oversight will be crucial for the health of UK higher education, Ms Johns explained, as it “provides confidence to students, government, banks and all sorts of stakeholders that institutions can run themselves effectively”.

Combining the three agencies will help institutions to tackle various sector challenges by exploiting the synergies between them, Ms Johns said.

For instance, the ECU’s detailed statistics around the lower average attainment of black and ethnic minority students can feed into work by HEA-linked staff on improving teaching for this cohort. In addition, the Leadership Foundation’s expertise on leadership and management can identify some of the further complexities that need to be resolved to drive change on this issue from the top.

“We have a better chance of finding a solution to this problem if people are working together,” Ms Johns said.

Advance HE will not be enacting any big changes soon, with the boards of the three agencies having voted to approve the merger only in December, Ms Johns said.

A consultation on the organisation’s future role, structure and funding model is now under way, with the fate of the HEA’s work likely to generate the most discussion.

As recently as 2011-12, the HEA received almost all of a £23 million budget from funding bodies and spent much of it on 24 subject centres dotted throughout the country. In 2016-17, less than £1 million of its £10 million income came from funding body grants, following a 88 per cent cut in central funding. Instead, institutional subscriptions (£4.7 million) and “other income”, including fees associated with individual HEA fellowships and consultancy (£3.5 million), made up the bulk of its income, with the subject centres defunded in 2012.

Noting that the HEA celebrated its 100,000th teaching fellow last week, Ms Johns acknowledged how the York-based organisation has managed to continue its influential role during a tumultuous period. “That is one hell of a community of professional practitioners and it demonstrates that individuals and universities care about teaching,” she said.

However, she also recognises that there is “disquiet” about the HEA's “substantial fees” of up to £50,000 a year for the largest institutions and a need to “renegotiate, recreate and revitalise its relationship with the sector”, Ms Johns explained.

“We are looking at how we might unbundle parts of what the HEA and the ECU offer, so institutions can buy what they really want,” said Ms Johns, who added that she will cut the HEA’s fees by 10 per cent from next year.

Giving institutions the chance to opt out of various services offered by the HEA, the ECU (which oversees equality charter mark Athena SWAN) and the LFHE, would, of course, have cost implications – with the organisation’s current 177-strong combined workforce, of which the HEA’s comprises about half, likely to shrink over time.

However, the smaller organisation will be vital in helping the sector overcome some formidable challenges caused in part by last year’s Higher Education and Research Act, Ms Johns said.

“I think that [the act] will change higher education fundamentally and I’m not sure what the sector will look like in 10 years’ time,” she said.

“But when a tricky challenge comes across the doorstep of universities, we can mobilise the knowledge that already exists in the sector to help institutions overcome it,” she said.

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