Cabinet ministers could soon approve plans for a higher education White Paper, with home secretary Theresa May said to be keen that it moves against plans by England’s funding council to fundamentally change quality assurance.
The White Paper is thought to have reached the stage of a “write round” – a consultation process in which Cabinet ministers are asked to give the views of their departments on potential legislation and grant clearance for it to go ahead.
One important factor in this process may be the concerns of Ms May about quality assurance in the context of fitness of institutions to recruit overseas students. Ms May is said to be worried that the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s move to contract out work, currently undertaken by the Quality Assurance Agency, in separate tenders would mean the break-up of the UK-wide quality system overseen by the QAA.
She is thought to fear that this could lead to weakening of the oversight of institutions’ fitness to act as sponsors for overseas students, a process currently undertaken by the QAA.
There is speculation that the White Paper could thus include a passage addressing Ms May’s concerns, calling for safeguarding of the UK-wide quality system.
But such a passage would put intense pressure on Hefce to pull back on its quality plans.
To avoid its plans in effect being killed off, Hefce may find itself in a race against time to finalise the quality assurance contracts before publication of the White Paper.
If the write round process proceeds smoothly, the government could aim to publish the White Paper in the window between the end of the local election purdah period, 5 May, and the start of the European Union referendum purdah period, 26 May.
The Queen’s Speech, which could announce plans for a higher education bill, takes place on 18 May.
If it is not possible to publish a White Paper during that window and the government does decide that it cannot publish during the EU referendum purdah, that would rule out the emergence of a document until after the vote on 23 June.
Hefce has scheduled the signing of its quality assurance contracts for 21 June.
Nick Hillman, Higher Education Policy Institute director and former adviser to Lord Willetts in his time as universities minister, said he believed that a White Paper is most likely soon after the Queen’s Speech in May.
He added: “Given cabinet write rounds can be difficult, it would make sense to be doing it now.”
Mr Hillman continued that the Home Office is now “a back door regulator of higher education” and “is looking at what is coming out of the BIS [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] a lot more closely than it would have done five or 10 years ago”.
He warned that if the Home Office is unhappy with the outcome of quality assurance change, it could aim at “trying to regulate universities itself more directly”.