Bell’s agency cocktail needs added vision

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James Bond likes his martinis “shaken, not stirred”. Anyone who knows about cocktails is intended to instantly recognise Fleming’s hero as a rough and ready bounder (rather than the suave sophisticate of the movies), because shaking a martini ‘bruises’ the drink.

With his recent review of the sector agencies, David Bell has shown that he knows how to mix a good martini. This is a stir, not a shake-up. Sure, it’s what the customer ordered, but I, for one, am still thirsty.

The trigger for the review, as the report half acknowledges, was that some members of the Universities UK board feared a raft of subscription increases from various agencies which, unless resisted, would in due course reach a climax with a hefty membership fee from the Office for Students.

The impending increases were the inevitable result of the removal or reduction of funding council grants from most agencies. The Higher Education Academy was unlucky enough to find itself as the first head above the parapet, flagging the self-evident truth that efficiencies and restructuring can only go so far and that, eventually, if we want to preserve the great value that the agencies bring to the sector, then we need to find another way to fund them.

I don’t accept that the rise in HEA subscription fees created a financial imperative for the Bell Review. The increases were relatively modest (for larger universities, they were almost negligible when set against turnover), most universities had already accepted them by the time the UUK board decided to launch its review and the smaller institutions – those potentially most affected – were generally sanguine about the need for increases.

The real imperative was that – quite rightly – higher education institutions needed to draw a line against a creeping tide of frameworks, standards, data requests and costs that are threatening to box in universities’ autonomy to provide world-leading teaching and research in the way that they have done for many years. They also needed to draw the line before the granddaddy of sector agencies, the OfS, starts thinking about how to meet its costs.

The result is that the review makes various recommendations about channels of influence for UUK and GuildHE over the ten ‘core’ agencies (to use the report’s terminology), most of which, in legal terms, they ‘own’. It also suggests further partnership between agencies of the sort that’s been coalescing anyway: the M5 group being the prime example. The agencies didn’t need to be told to do this, but it doesn’t hurt to encourage and nudge further.

The report acknowledges, however, that one recommendation has greater significance than all the others: namely it calls for the merger of the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the Leadership Foundation (LFHE) and the Equality Change Unit (ECU). Bell is clear: ideally this would lead to a cost reduction, but, when it comes to it, value for money is more important than savings.

But, as I said, I’m still thirsty.

As long as any changes do not lose sight of the value of the people on whose expertise and hard work these agencies are built, then there’s next to nothing in the Bell Review that anyone can reasonably object to. But nor is there anything much to get excited about. It’s a functional report. It offers no vision.

There are good functional reasons for bundling HEA, LFHE and ECU together, but equally good arguments could be presented for different bundles: the HEA and QAA, for instance; or ECU and OFFA (which is itself bundled in with HEFCE). Or – in a dystopian world – agencies could have been left out to try their luck as profit-hunting commercial organisations.

Where’s the why?

To declare my interest, I’m a non-executive member of the HEA Board. I am not spinning an HEA line, nor would I presume to speak on behalf any of my fellow board members. So, speaking purely as a frontline witness, while I find the review findings themselves unexciting, I’m exhilarated by the prospect of the proposed merger. Needless to say, it’s not ‘efficiencies’ that have got my pulse up.

I’m enthusiastic because we can use this opportunity to build an agency that champions the effectiveness of higher education institutions and that supports them in a constant quest for improvement through research, recognition, and professionalism.

Bringing the HEA and the LFHE together provides an opportunity to foster the people that comprise our wider academic community, help them to develop in a smooth progression from early career through teaching and management roles and into leadership and governance.

I see that as a ladder and, on every rung, the word inclusivity is written. The higher education sector serves a diverse set of stakeholders – students, employers, society, even the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. To meet those diverse needs, we need to encourage diversity at every step. Equality is not just about fairness; diversity makes each HEI stronger and make the sector as a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

For many years, policymakers have buffeted the sector from all sides. How are we supposed to respond, for example, to Jo Johnson’s description last year of some university teaching as “lamentable”? That was an excuse for an attack by stealth on universities’ autonomy. In other countries, academic freedom is curtailed by censorship and government control, but our government may instead persuade universities to suppress themselves through marketisation and metrics.

The resistance starts by demonstrating that the UK leads the world in our effectiveness at delivering higher education. To that end, we need a new unified agency that is a bold expression of our sector’s collective expertise. Each higher education institution should be able to dip into the pool and draw out what it needs to realise its distinctive place in the firmament.

The Bell Review has concluded that there’s no good reason why these agencies should be separate. I agree. But now let’s think about the real challenges the sector faces and how to be visionary in forging the agency that will help to meet them. This martini could do with a shake-up.

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