The sector and its agencies must pull in the same direction

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UK higher education is a world-leader, and sector agencies have played an important role in supporting our universities and other stakeholders to do what we do. They embody the co-ownership and collaborative development that are such an integral and unique part of our higher education landscape.

However, the framework of organisations that exist to support the sector in some way is not static. The roles and functions of agencies – not to mention the number of agencies, or their constitutions – have evolved over many years to meet the changing demands of institutions, of students, and of government. And in recent years, the significant changes to the funding, policy and operating environment in which our universities and the agencies work mean that it was both timely and necessary to take stock of this landscape, and to consider how agencies may need to adapt.

It was in this context that Universities UK and GuildHE – nominally the owners (or joint owners) of most of the sector agencies – set out to review the UK higher education sector agency landscape. Over the past year, the review group that I chaired has undertaken an extensive programme of engagement with university leaders, sector agency chairs and chief executives, and other stakeholders such as funders and government. Our objective throughout has been to work collaboratively to arrive at a set of recommendations that will help to secure the vital functions and services that underpin our universities for the future.

Today, the findings of my review are published by Universities UK. This report makes a number of recommendations around better governance, enhancing the links between UUK and GuildHE boards and those of the sector agencies, and urges a greater focus on (for example) delivering value for money and ensuring that agencies are responsive to the needs of the institutions and stakeholders they serve.

We also call for better oversight and coordination of the landscape as a whole through a new sector agency chairs’ forum. However, the most fundamental reforms are focussed on the overall configuration of the sector agency landscape. If our proposals are fully implemented, the number of agencies taking subscriptions will change from nine to six. There will be a new strategic partnership for agencies focussed on data functions and services. And a new body will be created by bringing together the core functions of Equality Challenge Unit, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Higher Education Academy.

Clearly, this proposal to create a new merged to body with a more refined focus will be extremely sensitive. Each agency has contributed greatly to the higher education landscape. However, over the course of the review, it became clear that there was the potential to deliver a more focussed and streamlined agency that would support institutions to meet specific strategic challenges in a better coordinated and more coherent way.

There is an opportunity to lower subscription costs to institutions and to create a new, more integrated and responsive agency, one that is based on a new business model which relies less on a core subscription and more on paid-for services. And by bringing together the complementary strengths of each agency, the natural synergies between leadership, enhancement of learning and teaching and equality and diversity can be exploited to deliver benefits for all stakeholders – and ensure that critical services and sector frameworks are protected in to the future.

As reported yesterday in Wonkhe’s Monday Morning Briefing, Nigel Carrington has agreed to chair a transition group that will bring together sector agency chairs and members of their boards to begin work on shaping the new agency. While reports that this is a shadow board are a little wide of the mark, the group will certainly have a key role to play. And, as the transition to the new body is agreed, UUK and GuildHE members – and other funders – are strongly urged to maintain their support for the agencies over this transitional period. Stability and certainty are necessary if this transition is to proceed smoothly.

Our report also calls for the creation of a new partnership between HESA, UCAS, Jisc and HECSU that will help coordinate and streamline the data landscape as it relates to agencies, and I am pleased to report that this group has already had a number of meetings. We also propose that HECSU – as a largely commercial body with little reliance on subscriptions – should move towards a zero-subscription model over the next two years.

I believe that these recommendations will help to ensure that the sector agencies – which have played such an important role in helping institutions to deliver the world-class higher education for which the UK is widely recognised – continue to succeed well into the future. The support and engagement of agency leaders has been exemplary throughout the review process, and I urge that they and the UUK and GuildHE boards build on this new start to ensure that the proposals set out in our review are implemented effectively and sensitively in the months ahead.

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