Avoiding failure: policymaking lessons for the HE reforms

Last week, I tried to assess the White Paper against the criteria for ‘Category Mistakes’ laid out by the late Sir David Watson. Here, I consider the document against another great source of public policy wisdom: Anthony King and Ivor Crewe’s superb The Blunders of Our Governments.

The book is required reading for all policy wonks. With an excellent eye for analysis and insight, two of the UK’s most distinguished political scientists surveyed a series government blunders under Conservative and Labour governments since the 1980s, including the poll tax, ERM, Rural Payments Agency, Individual Learner Accounts, the Millennium Dome, and the New Labour NHS IT project. In the updated 2014 edition, King and Crewe suggested that the frequency of bad policymaking had only accelerated under the Coalition, and included £9,000 fees as a potential blunder alongside the implementation of Universal Credit, police and crime commissioners, restrictions on international students and the confused passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

In their analysis, Crewe and King identified multiple human and systemic failures in British policymaking and delivery. Using the lessons from their research, let’s take a look at what the government might do to give the planned higher education reforms the best chance of being successfully implemented.

Enable proper Parliamentary scrutiny of legislation

The Higher Education and Research Bill is long, detailed and complex. It makes amendments to a wide range of previous legislation, including the 1965 Science and Technology Act, the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, and the 2004 Higher Education Act. Officials at BIS must be congratulated for bringing it all together in a relatively coherent and comprehensible fashion.

It is still a little disappointing that the Bill has not been introduced in draft format for pre-legislative scrutiny. Such a measure is entirely at the government’s discretion, and it would have been unusual for the option to have been taken. Nonetheless, it will be important for the government to be willing to listen to the more thoughtful amendments suggested by MPs and Peers. The House of Lords contains many members with extensive experience of higher education and research. By being willing to listen to tweaks and adjustments after healthy deliberation, the Bill will be in the strongest possible position to provide an effective legal framework for higher education for the next few decades. That point must not be lost on the politicians involved because the final framework enacted may be in place for a long time.

Link up delivery and policy

A retired civil servant once remarked that “there’s a pervasive view in Whitehall that those who do are below the salt, while those who think are above the salt.” Such a view has been compounded by the emergence of semi-autonomous executive agencies, distinct from senior policymakers. As such, ministers and senior officials who make policy decisions often have very little idea about how they might be implemented. In many cases, policies turn out to be far more complicated in practice than they were anticipated in theory.

The Teaching Excellence Framework looks like it could potentially suffer from a similar problem. Many criticisms of the policy, from both the left and right, have focused on the bureaucratic burden that will be presented to both universities and the semi-autonomous agencies responsible for overseeing it. The multiple inputs and outputs that will need to be processed and evaluated, eventually at a subject/course level, will be astonishing. The ONS note that at present even the extensively available HE data will not be substantial enough to run a completely course-level TEF.

From a manifesto afterthought to a delivery reality, the TEF is one of the most unlikely one-liner promises actually to come to life. Its running costs, like the REF, will almost certainly be greater than anticipated. Whether that proves to be a price worth paying for higher fee levels will be up to the sector to decide.

That said, the RAE and subsequently the REF took a few iterations to come together, and is now looked upon more fondly than it was when first introduced. That journey might provide some reassurance for the designers of the TEF, but it also shows that there are many lessons to be learned and hopefully not repeated.

Avoid symbolic policy and legislation

Recent governments have made a habit of legislating symbolically, to prove their political commitment to ideas or principles without any substantive policy implementation, such as Labour’s ‘outlawing’ of child poverty or George Osborne’s ‘budget surplus law’. It would be unfair to describe the White Paper as being an example of this in-and-of-itself. It is a serious and very real set of policy proposals that will fundamentally alter how higher education is delivered in the UK, and this is very much the minister’s intention.

However, the White Paper does have a couple of short references to what might well be legislative afterthoughts that add little policy value but do have a political purpose. The most notable might be the commitment to give “legislative protection” to the dual support system within the umbrella of UKRI, without specifying how. Dual support for research is a long established principle that has not required spelling out in legislation up until now. Promises to now legislate for its ‘protection’ might leave its supporters uneasy.

Similarly, as with the Green Paper, the White Paper contains little on part-time and lifelong study, apart from consideration of credit transfer and accumulation for “student switching”. The plan to hold a government review of this area needs more substance, particularly when any thorough review might prove to be rather unflattering about policymaking in this area since 2010.

Minimise turnover of officials

Effective policymaking and delivery has been severely hampered over the past few decades by constant reshuffling of ministers and the officials who work for them. Whilst Cameron’s term as PM has largely stabilised the ministerial merry-go-round, the civil service has undergone substantial instability. King and Crewe argue that there has been a serious loss of expertise and experience in the civil service and that such qualities are not valued as they once were. Instead, officials are expected to be ‘all-rounders’, and might quickly move between different roles and departments to gain a wide-range of experience. One result of this is an inability, and perhaps unwillingness, of officials to tell ministers things they don’t want to hear.

Last week’s confirmation of the closure of the BIS Sheffield office is the epitome of this problem in two ways. Firstly, BIS is willingly dispensing of a large number of experienced and respected officials in higher education policy, right before implementing the largest reforms to higher education for two decades. Secondly, the move of these functions to London, despite no hard-evidence to prove its value, is likely to centralise policy-making and bring officials more directly under the control of ministers. Both are causes for concern. Sajid Javid appears to be at least as interested in cutting BIS expenditure, staff, and associated bodies as he is with the effective delivery of policy; perhaps more so.

Don’t try too much too quickly

While a lot of the media and opposition narrative over the past weeks has focused on the perceived lack of activity in government, BIS are positively hyperactive. At the same moment that structural reforms are taking place in the department, a number of flagship government policies are entering the delivery stage.

The new apprenticeship levy system is stacking up to be incomprehensibly complicated and carries all the signs of another government IT project fiasco. If you thought higher education was undergoing fundamental reforms, just look at further education, where BIS are leading area-by-area reviews of all FE colleges in a (possibly futile) bid to make savings. A Skills White Paper is also in the pipeline, with vocational qualification pathways set to be redrawn from scratch. The fight to save the British steel industry is high on the agenda, with Sajid Javid travelling to India last week to negotiate with Tata. And the recently passed Trade Union Act will introduce new regulations that need to be overseen by the TU Certification Officer. Finally, if the country votes for Brexit, BIS will be at the centre of reassuring anxious investors and businesses, as well as renegotiating Britain’s international trade deals.

Quite how the department will cope with all this while jobs are being cut or moved is hard to grasp. King and Crewe have noted how governments and ministers who have tended towards hyperactivity have ultimately become barriers to effective administration. Let’s hope the same fate does not befall BIS.

Break down cultural disconnection

In many government blunders, ministers and officials projected their middle-class assumptions about families and personal finances onto the delivery of policies that affected people very different to them, with disastrous results. This cultural disconnect, it is argued, can be countered by effective consultation and engagement with key stakeholders when preparing and delivering policy.

One possible cultural disconnect that has been picked up by some sector commentators is the remoteness of the Office for Students from those whose interests it is supposed to act in. A lot of the White Paper’s initiatives are based upon assumptions about student behaviour. In some cases, these assumptions do not appear to be supported by research, such as the question of whether students will make use of the TEF. In others, we simply don’t have the available data, as in the case of students who attend (or may be open to attending) ‘challenger institutions’. Such disconnect was somewhat exposed when Newsnight’s James O’Brien asked Jo Johnson “Would you send your children to one of these colleges?”

Nonetheless, higher education policy has not suffered from the kind of cultural disconnect that has blighted further and vocational education policy for decades. Ministers and their officials are all university educated and send their children to universities. However, as our own Mark Leach has argued, in the run up to the White Paper, BIS seem to have gone out of their way to stay detached from the traditional higher education establishment. There appears to be a prevailing view of sector leaders as complacent, out-of-touch, and not in vogue to a more dynamic sector that government wants to instigate.

While this is possibly a result of intellectual prejudice, it remains to be seen whether this deliberate cultural disconnect will give the sector the effective shake-up the minister believes it needs, or instead leads to chaos and confusion.

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