Grant letter: HEFCE’s regulatory powers beefed up

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Today came the long-anticipated HEFCE grant letter from BIS which outlines funding for higher education in England for 2015-16.

The total funding for higher education via HEFCE will stand at just over £4 billion, a slight drop on 2014-15. The total funding available to universities is estimated to rise from £11.1 billion to £12.1 billion in 2015-16 outlined in the letter signed by business secretary Vince Cable and universities and science minister Greg Clark.

Funding remains largely stable however this year’s letter does not set out any indicative funding levels for next year, raising uncertainty for the HEFCE budget in 2016-17 after the general election and expected spending review.

However most notably for policy, the letter reveals that BIS is to hand over more responsibility to HEFCE, recognising that the council has developed its role as lead regulator and has ‘integrated this effectively with a continuing role as the significant funder of higher education in England’. HEFCE is taking responsibility for the ‘administration and processes for degree awarding powers, university and university college title, designation as institutions eligible to receive HEFCE funding, and transfers from the FE to the HE sector’. It makes sense for HEFCE to manage this, but it does put the council a stronger-overall position as ‘lead’ regulator of the sector.

Alongside yesterday’s announcement of new regulations of alternative providers, the government is finally finding ways to follow through on the 2011 reforms without introducing new legislation. And HEFCE’s position is consolidating in to something ever-closer to the ‘single’ regulator or ‘higher education council’-style body envisaged by Browne and others. If there is to be a higher education bill in the next parliament, then HEFCE will be in a strong position to take on any other regulatory functions that may remain on the cutting room floor – if the government choose to go down that route.

The letter also remarks on the lack of diversity among senior leadership in higher education and highlights that ‘only one vice chancellor in five is female’. BIS asks the council help improve diversity in the sector by continuing to work with the ‘Council of University Chairs and other sector bodies to education governors and senior managers are drawn from the full range of excellent people, including who are underrepresented at the top level of higher education.’

Certainly a worthwhile challenge to the sector, although with HEFCE having withdrawn funding to the Higher Education Academy and expected to withdraw the bulk of its funding from the Equality Challenge Unit and Leadership Foundation, there are clearly some mixed signals being sent about government and funding council priority in this space. However, regardless of these policy and funding machinations, the sector’s duty to deal with these issues remains – the challenge must be met either way.

Grants for individual universities and colleges will be published on 31 March.

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