After a 2016 full of higher education policy news, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there could be no further surprises in store. But for staff in many sector agencies, the review led by Reading VC Sir David Bell has caused months of consternation, negotiation and ultimately preparation for a major shakeup.
We understand that the Bell review, when published next month, will propose a merger between the Higher Education Academy, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Equality Challenge Unit, to create a new super higher education development agency. In fact, work is already underway to begin the merger process.
Other bodies may see remit changes, new requirements (including around collaboration and addressing agency overlaps) and there’s the possibility of other recommendations. However, the other existing agencies are going to remain independent, most notably HESA which some had expected to be folded into UCAS.
Simplicity was the watchword
Sailing largely beneath the mainstream news radar, the Bell Review was commissioned to look at the functions, infrastructure and services of a range of agencies funded by institutional subscription.
You may recall Jo Johnson’s famed Powerpoint slide of despair, showing the myriad bodies, functions and connections that make the English HE sector work. If the rise of UKRI has been the most visible means of reducing this perceived complexity by the government, the Bell review was the sector’s much less reported attempt to achieve a similar goal.
For a number of years agencies like the Higher Education Academy (itself, lest we forget, a tidying up of three earlier HEFCE funded agencies – the Learning and Teaching Support Network, the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education and the TQEF National Coordination Team) have seen grant funding from HEFCE drop, with the expectation that institutional subscriptions and other income generation schemes would take their place.
Recent times have seen a number of often contentious agency reviews – most famously the review of Quality Assurance in HE, There has also been numerous reviews of the HEA and the Leadership Foundation, the Wilson Review of Jisc and many others that have been assessing the model and impact of the agencies since their inception. Most of these led to radical changes, including the now-familiar recommendation to seek subscription funding.
Funders and owners
Ideas of ownership, both over organisations and over funding, are key to understanding Bell. Formerly, and indeed in some cases currently, agency funding was hypothecated at source (either within HEFCE or the government department in question) before institutional allocations were made. In other cases, such as with HESA or the QAA, an institutional subscription was mandated as a condition of institutional grant funding.
It should be noted that the majority of these agencies provide essential services to the sector – from UCAS’s undergraduate applications to Jisc’s state-of-the-art Janet network – and others offer support for key agendas where institutional collaboration makes sense, or where commercial logic would otherwise make such collaboration impossible.
On establishment, agencies tend to be legally ‘owned’ by Universities UK and GuildHE as ‘sector representative bodies’. In practice, this ownership amounted to two seats on the board and a voice in key decision-making. Agencies have generally danced to the tune of the largest funder, more often than not HEFCE (as a proxy for wider UK funding).
As the role of HEFCE (generally primary funder) has changed, the total pot of money available for funding agency work has fallen. Some have suggested that a will within HEFCE to carve out an essential role for itself in an (ultimately doomed) attempt to preserve its existence, has had an equal impact.
Relying on institutional subscriptions over central funding has given the ‘owners’ more power, as the agencies, as we have learnt, can now only exist with the consent of vice chancellors. None could carry on if UUK and GuildHE recommended to institution heads that they pull their cooperation or money, and so this is why Bell’s recommendations are much more than just blue sky thinking. The wheels are already turning to ensure the merger can be moved along as swiftly as possible, with the new agency hoped to be up and running in time for the next academic year.
The UK-wide nature of these agencies has long been a favoured wonk joke at the expense of bad think-tank policy that would often propose overly simplistic solutions: one could no more merge the QAA into HEFCE as merge HESA into the Welsh Government. Although contractual agreements and scope of activity may differ in the devolved nations, this UK-wide role is taken very seriously. Even when an agency like the HEA is created by a DfES white paper (as the Teaching Quality Academy in 2003’s The Future of Higher Education), it quickly gains roles and funding from the other three UK funding councils. Merging in former UK-wide bodies like the LTSN complicates matters further.
Funders (either from all four nations or represented by HEFCE) often sit on agency boards alongside senior institutional managers to marry funder and user interests. Those that deal directly with academics or other professionals often have direct user representation from those groups, either at board level or via partnership with professional or other representative bodies. And the level at which these boards directly influence the work of agency executives is also variable.
Income and advocacy
Another point of variation is the way in which each body has managed to generate income. The Leadership Foundation is basically self-supporting, but it could be argued that big-ticket senior management training and development is a particularly buoyant market. The Higher Education Academy has famously struggled, and in the context of a refocusing of policy around teaching quality, this is harder to understand. But a model that the sector would be happy to pay for was never found, and ultimately the clock ran out on HEA’s ability to find a solution that could ensure the agency survived and was able to rise to that bigger challenge.
Other agencies, such as the Equality Challenge Unit, may benefit from strong advocacy in one part of an institution but are utterly invisible in others. Without the deeply-felt support across the sector, they would always be vulnerable when the squeeze on subscriptions came down.
The dash for subscription cash did focus the attention of all these agencies on the people within institutions that sign the subscription cheques – but with wildly different results. It worked when processes were sharpened and offers made clearer, but when much-used services closed and experts replaced by salespeople, it is difficult to see how institutions benefited.
With a big merger now ahead, it is hoped that the focus will turn to the best way for the new agency to provide the services to the sector that it needs and wants, especially where the market is unable to provide them.
However, time will tell whether an overall reduction in institutional subscriptions will have been the best way to achieve this.
Meanwhile, creating a new agency will also inevitably be a painful process. This is not a paper exercise: three organisations and their infrastructure are going to become one, which means sites will be consolidated and jobs lost, and the pressure to do this while reducing the combined ongoing subscription rate will be high.
And so many in the HE sector face an anxious holiday season as they brace for what 2017 is expected to bring.