David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Before the Office for Students there was HEFCE.

And before Nicholson House, there was Northavon House, now an administration building on the Frenchay campus of the University of the West of England.

Now, to the untrained eye, Northavon House looked like it had air conditioning. It did, but only for the server room (which you couldn’t get in to without a really good reason) and the design team in what was clearly the old executive suite. The rest of us put up with a ventilation system, which took in air via a fan intake in the car park and pumped it through a set of ceiling pipes that promised much cool conditioned air but failed to deliver. The smell of regret and recycled exhaust fumes is one of my strongest memories of HEFCE, and I often wondered if that Proustian combination of carbon monoxide and heat had a bearing on some of the less defensible decisions made back in the day.

I don’t know for sure how Nicholson House is cooled and aired, but there’s clearly something in the atmosphere as we’re two for two on daily major announcements during the hottest and least comfortable week of the decade, all while SFC and HEFCW take in some rays and candyfloss at Ayr and Barry Island respectively.

Today’s effort brings confirmation of the funding announcements trailed – and consulted on – in the spring. We’ve got reports on consultation responses covering recurrent and capital funding (the latter with a bidding competition attached), and a missive from Gavin Williamson (who is now allowed – under careful supervision – to use big boy stationary rather than crayon).

Sorry, must be the heat

OfS calculate the average reduction in the funding they allocate per student FTE as 19.3 per cent, taking into account the large increase in student numbers alongside a real terms funding increase of 0.8 per cent. So it is possible to argue that this isn’t a cut in the strictest “handing out less money” sense. Nearly 20 per cent sounds like a big difference, but bear in mind that even for the highest of high-cost subjects the majority of funding comes from tuition fees – and most subjects at most providers don’t attract any OfS funding at all.

The big news is a reprieve for archeology. I’m glad to see OfS dug some money up for them (blame Mick Norman for that line) but for everyone else the situation is as it was earlier in the year. Jarvis Cocker and those social media campaigns are to blame for an “unprecedented” 8,000+ responses to a funding consultation – but most used a template response about the plight of the arts (don’t do this, campaigners, template responses don’t work!) and were disregarded.

The official OfS line on this decision is that the secretary of state determined the line so that’s what will be done. The consultation, such as it was, appears to be on fine detail regarding the use of a reduced allocation from DfE along with ministerial guidance on how it is spent. I’d ask why we need to consult – but clearly something changed for archeology.

Again we need to be clear about what is actually happening here. The subjects in price group C1.2 (creative arts, performing arts, media studies, and a few others – including Footwear Production) will see “strategic subject” (formerly “high cost subject”) payments of £121.50 per FTE in 2021-22 – down from £243 this year which remains the rate for price group C1.1 (pre-registration nursing, computing and IT, and now archeology). Probably of greater impact will be the removal of targeted allocations and weightings in other grands with respect to students studying in London.

Emergency synthesisers for all

Those 7,771 individual responses (including those using the template) tended unsurprisingly negative on every question. Providers were evenly split overall on the proposal to focus on high-cost subject funding as the main means of allocating funding, but negative on freezing the less favoured subjects in C1 out of half of their expected funding. Those in favour here were “reluctantly” (in the words of OfS) supporting the focus of funding on the most costly programmes. Others queried the severity of the 50 per cent cut – most seeing the impact (particularly on the provision of arts courses) as reducing student choice and concentrating provision in a smaller number of providers, with the inevitable result of less artists and less arts teachers.

The arguments about archeology focused on the impact on the construction industry – as a recognised part of the supply chain less archeologists would mean less building of infrastructure and housing, especially with archaeology already on the UK shortage occupation list. You’d think this would be the kind of thing DfE would have an eye on, but never mind. On all the proposed cuts, there would also be a Competition and Markets Authority problem if providers were unable to pay for elements of a course or resource offer already made to students – one respondent suggested a 12-18 month lead time to deal with this issue.

Again the OfS response is, basically, that a big boy did it and ran away – the terms and conditions set by the Secretary of State mean that these cuts need to happen, and although the ineffable Gavin has undergone a Damascene conversion to the virtues of archeology (did Matt Hancock’s local pub have an archeologist as a barmaid? Was it the powerful antique fireplace lobby?) these strictures – on the irreversible decisions on proscribed C1.2 subjects and London-related allocations – remain. Again, why consult if this is the case?

A diversion into the HECOS/CaH weeds notes that “forensic archeology” (101219) and “archeological sciences” (101219) sit in price group B anyway, but because of historical differences in data provision on arts therapy to other allied health subjects these remain in C1.2.

The additional costs that artists and musicians face in materials and instrument costs? – apparently that’s what the hardship funds are for (another one for Jim’s £256m magic money twig?). How do you balance my subject based need for a 76-key Nord Stage 3 with the needs of students struggling with rent and food costs? How are the two even comparable?

Summer in the city

London, then. Providers were evenly split on the issue (53-51), others tended negative – the usual arguments were made about the evidenced cost of operating in London, the impact on participation and diversity among under-represented groups, and the double impact on the many tiny, private, arts and music providers in the capital. Again there were calls for a phased introduction (apparently not allowed). The view that London providers enjoyed an advantage in recruiting international students was given short shrift – a few can, many cannot, and the data backs this up (especially during the continuing pandemic).

The regulator notes the arguments and again appeals to a higher power – what Gavin says goes, under section 74 of HERA. And if it doesn’t, OfS can’t hand out any of the money. Curiously, the terms and conditions applied prevent OfS from varying grant levels on the basis of regional location, something that doesn’t feel closely aligned to the levelling up agenda.

OfS can’t use this approach on cuts to Uni Connect – the response there, in response to concerns about partially defunding a programme that is doing exactly what it was designed to do. Instead it reckons that less funding will produce the same results – “increase efficiency and a focus on the most effective interventions”.

In contrast to the other questions an extra £5m on hardship appeared popular, though there were many concerns that this level of funding was too long especially given the level of student need during an ongoing pandemic. Little did they know it was a means to pay for top notch oil paints and professional standard musical instruments in lieu of the arts cuts. Ditto the £15m on mental health – providers were glad the funds were there and would be distributed simply (no support for competition based funding, which “creates significant overheads for institutions and favours large institutions with central bidding teams”).

Capital Laundry Services

What’s everyone reading over the summer? It’s mainly been consultation reports from OfS for me, but I’ve also been enjoying Charles Stross’ “Laundry Files” series – which kind of combine the civil service procedural with HP Lovecraft. Later volumes see the government being taken over by a human manifestation of an undead elder god, and I’ve been intrigued by the way public servants have had to make questionable decisions in the light of unclear “direction of policy” hints from an unknowable and unpredictable superior that very much has them on the menu for later. I’m not sure why I mention that here – my apologies, must be the heat.

Without the former Pulp frontperson’s star power in effect, just 108 responses came in for the consultation on capital funding – but the response resulted in good news. The initial proposal proposed the questionable idea of a bidding competition for capital funding – something that would creates significant overheads for institutions and favours large institutions with central bidding teams.

We’ve not managed to disown the idea entirely, for some unknowable reason it appears to be the set direction of travel, but a small formulaic allocation of capital (£7.4m) would be distributed to all eligible providers, capped at £30,000 per provider and with a £10,000 threshold. This makes sure all but the tiniest providers get at least something, and allows some smaller providers to get what would have been their full allocation under the current system. All funding (be it formulaic or bidding competition) needs to comply with the OfS priorities, which remain unchanged.

Sixty-eight of those 108 responses were against the idea of a bidding process, on the usual grounds of burden, favouring large providers, loss of autonomy, unpredictability, and the difficulty of spending capital in a single financial year. Those arguments got the hybrid model, such as it is, that gets capital (in small amounts) to 280 providers. The use of most of the money for funding bids of between £50,000 and £3m is to deliver large scale projects addressing priorities, which OfS reckons makes for better value for money.

There was some disquiet about the priority areas – graduate employability and skills was fine, as was part-time and flexible, but people were unhappy about the high-cost subject element. Though OfS was, and continues to be clear, that these three areas are independent (although providers are encouraged to submit projects addressing “one or more”) – high-cost subjects now includes primarily providers that offer STEM courses that may have capital needs.

Here, the OfS line is about the availability of the other two categories. It doesn’t address the issue that there is a whole category that is not open to arts based providers who may well have significant need for capital funding. We also learn that the need to supply evidence of current and planned growth remains, but the need to demonstrate value for money is clarified to include project and risk management. There will, however, be no criteria for environmentally sustainable plans – requirements here remain in the standard terms and conditions for funding. But, unforgivably for an old project funding hand like me, there is no external panel – decisions on funding will be made by OfS staff only. Just count yourselves lucky that spelling and grammar isn’t one of the criteria.

4 responses to “A reprieve for archaeology, but cuts confirmed for London and the arts

  1. The capex decision is incomprehensible, leading to far more bureaucracy within HEIs and OFS, and has near unworkable timescales. Bids in by 10th September (7 weeks away, in a very busy period), spend by 31st March, having complied with procurement rules.

    1. apparently our Finance team will be working on something called “year end”…
      TBF, the original timeline had this consultation being settled at the end of May. but I’m assuming the weight of T funding responses delayed the outcome.
      I’m sure there could be a future FOI on the value/volume/length of submissions, and burden to create, and score.

    2. Correction, David (and an important one I’m sure you’ll agree): the big open-plan corner office on the 2nd floor of Northavon House also had/has AC.

      1. I think that was what was once the design office (where the super-talented Roland Spyer lived) – the one with arched windows that overlooked the atrium? It was always the best office in the building.

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