In the week that the government’s latest shake-up of the university landscape heralded the probable end of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, it is apt that there is also a nod in our pages to how it originated. According to University of Oxford historian William Whyte, it was the emergence of the UK’s redbrick universities – finally breaking Oxbridge’s near-monopoly on higher education – that initiated government grants to universities. The body responsible, after passing through various guises, eventually became Hefce.
It’s worth noting that the proposal in the government’s Green Paper for Hefce to morph into the Office for Students (which sounds either like a workplace where you can turn up any time you like, or a weird spinoff of the Ricky Gervais sitcom) is not a harking back to the days of narrower participation. Far from it: the Green Paper has wider participation running through it like a mantra, as the Conservative government recognises it as a key plank of its “One Nation” land-grab of the centre ground. Instead, the end of Hefce merely reflects a reality that has been coming down the line ever since fees became the main source of university income: that there is little point in having a funding council that doesn’t fund much (if you assume that someone else will take on Hefce’s research funding role, as the government envisages).
On the face of it, many may welcome the replacement of Hefce: vice-chancellors may be particularly glad see the end of its red tape, edicts and complex funding formulas. I vividly recall one vice-chancellor complaining about the time that had to be set aside each day to deal with emails or directives from Hefce, which he likened to some Orwellian department.
But at the same time, it has arguably been the glue holding the sector together, especially during the turbulence of recent years.
And the trouble is that the system on the cards to replace Hefce – a market regulator (the OfS) overseeing a multi-layered fees system underpinned by yet another centrally controlled bureaucratic assessment system, the teaching excellence framework – is not exactly simple. In addition, it looks as though many of Hefce’s functions would become the remit of civil servants in Whitehall rather than a body making decisions at arm’s length from ministers. So are we potentially left with something even more Orwellian?
If so, it would be a very odd position to end up in, especially since the very essence of introducing a market is to simplify the rules of the game so that individuals, in this case students, determine the outcome. Of course markets – especially those, like education, that many would argue are not markets in the traditional sense at all – need regulation, but this seems a messy way to create one.
Ironically, if truly variable fees are your aim, then a simpler and more intuitive model was suggested five years ago by the Browne Review. Perhaps what the Green Paper is attempting to do is finally implement that idea – after all, Browne did recommend one all-seeing regulator to ensure that the student interest was served, with fees let loose. But there has to be a better way to go about it than introducing a more complex, centrally controlled and metrics-based behemoth than was ever conceived by the direct grants system ushered in by the redbricks.