Higher education agencies for whom the Bell tolls

Image: IKON Image: IKON

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.

Devolved matters

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.

7 thoughts on “Higher education agencies for whom the Bell tolls”

  1. To declare my interest, I’m a non-exec member of the HEA Board, but I’m not writing on the HEA’s behalf, but in a purely personal capacity. Given my position though, I shan’t comment on the article’s broader accuracy other than to say the Bell Review will certainly bring exciting changes.

    However, I do think it’s worth taking issue with the claim that the HEA has “struggled” financially or that “a model the sector would be happy to pay for” has not been found.

    It’s certainly true that the transition from around £20Mn in grant funding to a model based on income from subscriptions and services has involved some serious restructuring. There’s been pain along the way, but at every stage the HEA has homed in on what’s most central to its mission to support teaching. It has become more focused, more streamlined and more efficient. You can call that “struggling” if you want, but only in the same way that it’s easier to sail a ship in calm waters than through a storm. In the end, you must judge the success by whether it comes out ship-shape on the other side.

    With that in mind, a workable financial model is exactly what has been found. As the last of HEFCE’s grant funding was ending, the HEA consulted extensively with the sector about new subscription arrangements and received almost universal agreement to a ‘core plus’ model. As everyone knows, the Bell Review was set up when the UUK Board recognised that all the agencies’ subscription models would be changing – the HEA was merely leading the way – and universities understandably did not want to be left with a stream of fees rising without some overview.

    The core plus model was put on hold for a few weeks and adapted further. With a few changes it was shared again with the sector and the vast majority of institutions opted for far more than basic membership. Meanwhile Prof Bell set to work.

    Mergers notwithstanding, the new subscription model – alongside an ever-growing stream of additional income from expert and valuable consultancy, CPD and surveys in the UK and abroad – has put the HEA in a more sustainable financial position than it has been in for a long time while it still relied on grants. After all, grant funding comes and goes, but providing services that institutions and academics – and ultimately students – value is always going to be something that the sector recognises it must find ways to afford.

  2. Sara Parkin says:

    Like Johnny Rich I am a non-exec Director of HEA but a relative new one. I endorse Johnny’s comments and indeed, as a bit of a governance-wonk, was much impressed by the professional approach taken by the HEA executive to the inevitable changes as the HEFCE grant was withdrawn. The HEA has emerged financially and structurally in good shape with a strong mission to help HEIs achieve excellence in teaching and learning practice.

    Although I come from a non-HE background, I know nevertheless how much students want and appreciate high quality teaching. Not only in pedagogic terms but also in the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in an increasingly difficult and interconnected world. They look beyond the boundary of their institutions and rightly worry about what the future will hold.

    The rationale for simplifying the HE agencies is clear, but the challenge will be to do that without sacrificing quality in either teaching and learning or leadership, or losing equality as sector-wide principle. Like the worries of the students about their future, the sector’s motivation behind any merger will have to be transparently wider than the walls of its institutions.

  3. Stephen says:

    A quick comment on Sara’s point. The HEA and other agencies have little influence over the quality of teaching that students experience on their programmes of study. The reality is that it is in the institutions themselves where the actions taken by teachers and administrators shape the experience that students have and the existence of the HEA has a very marginal impact in this respect.

  4. Sara Parkin says:

    Not accurate Stephen – though I can only comment from the HEA perspective. (You give no surname or affiliation so the context of your remarks is unclear.)

    True, the institutions are where implementation of any teaching strategy occurs, but see https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/downloads/annual_cpd_review_report_2014-15.pdf for evidence of the contribution HEA makes to quality improvement. Students care a lot about the quality of the teaching they get; it is becoming a key differentiator when selecting a course and HEI. Those teachers who are open to sharing ideas and learning from good practice fare better (a fact not restricted to post-school education). Which is where the HEA comes in.

  5. Stephen says:

    Two points. You say above, “It is becoming a a key differentiator when selecting and course and HEI” – what is the evidence for this?

    Secondly, the report you point us towards (written by the HEA on a scheme run by the HEA) states under Theme One – student experience:

    “A number of institutions provided anecdotal evidence to support this theme. Given the importance for schemes of providing this type of evidence, this topic might be explored explicitly within
    future reports to contribute to an evidence base linking engagement in UKPSF
    and the quality of the student experience.”

    This hardly a robust evidence base on which to assert that the HEA is having a significant impact on quality [teaching].

    The arrangement we have at the moment comes about because of the way the HEA was funded historically. Making a claim for impact is a logical way of seeking to preserve the existence of the HEA into the future. As I suggested earlier, I think the evidence of impact by the HEA is weak, but on that we will have to disagree.

    Ultimately, the survival of the HEA will depend on whether or not institutions continue to subscribe. However, there are other models where the UKPSF standards could be assured without the need for a third party (the HEA) and at a far lower cost by institutions collaborating and quality assuring each other.

    I am a supporter of academics being qualified as teachers and I work as an academic in an English university.

    1. Identify even what teaching quality means, let alone measuring it is difficult (as the Government has been discovering), but even with all the methodological challenges, the evidence for the direct impact of the HEA’s contribution has been building fast. Just a few further refs on the impact of different aspects of HEA work:
      Fellowship prompts critical self-reflection on practice which in turn enhances individual teaching performance & improves student learning (Hattie, 2012; Fung & Gordon, 2016)
      Senior/Principal Fellowship strengthen self-efficacy, institution culture and academic leadership (Bradley & Eccles, 2014)
      Early data shows positive relationship between number of HEA Fellows & student engagement (UKES) (Zaitseva, 2015) which Gibbs (2012) relates to teaching quality.
      Analysis of 90 HEA-accredited CPD schemes show impact at sector, institutional & individual levels (Pilkington, 2016)
      Then there’s also the independent review of the HEA National Teaching Fellowship Scheme.
      Etc, etc.
      And before anyone says, “You’re only spouting this stuff because you’re on the HEA Board”, on the contrary, it’s the other way around: I only serve on the HEA Board because of this stuff.

  6. Andy says:

    As a staff member at one of the agencies, I feel sorry for my colleagues and the uncertainty this causes for us all. But staff at some Institutions are in similar positions….

    Merry Christmas.

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