Although normal UK politics stopped in late June, things are quickly returning to something resembling a new normality. After this week’s second reading, there is time enough in the next two terms to take the Higher Education and Research Bill through all the necessary legislative stages to secure Royal Assent by Easter 2017.
By then the new prime minister, chancellor and cabinet will be grappling with the full aftermath of the referendum vote: not just recession, rising unemployment, falling tax revenues and the calls for government action, but also the run-up to another set of local elections (counties, city region mayors etc), not to mention the long list of issues connected with the EU. There will be little space for new domestic initiatives, but there will also be a case for pushing ahead with pre-prepared policy such as HE reform, to demonstrate the government’s reforming credentials.
Over the last few months, Wonkhe writers and readers have done an pretty good demolition job on the Bill and on the complexities of the TEF. Whilst many in the sector may have misgivings, it is now time to adjust to the new reality: the Bill will be passed into law. The Conservative party has a majority in Parliament and, while it is clearly deeply divided, it will enter the winter wanting to move ahead with its manifesto programme.
The government’s main aim with the Bill is the unification of higher education regulation. All institutions from long standing universities to private institutions focused on teaching international students are due to come under the same regime run by the new Office for Students. There are several departments who have an interest in making the control regime stronger. HM Treasury wants better control of the student loan book. The Home Office wants more effective scrutiny of international student sponsorship. BIS (before it was folded into BEIS) just wanted to get the HE quango landscape fixed once and for all. The £30 million saved by funding OfS from licence fees will also come in handy in the forthcoming spending round.
A second objective is the implementation of TEF. Uncomfortable though it might be, there is something alluring for the media, politicians and all of us about league tables. The idea of an official league table bringing together survey and destination data into one place is too big a temptation. Government doesn’t need legislation to introduce the TEF, but it provides a useful argument for pushing ahead regardless.
And then there’s widening participation. David Cameron’s specific pledges are less significant now he has left Number 10, but the need to widen the sector’s reach has become even more important, and Theresa May will have to follow up on her promises to focus on social justice. The small towns in HEFCE’s cold spots provided some of the largest Leave majorities, while university cities voted solidly for Remain. MPs hoping to re-unite the country may see the opening up of new universities as a way to accomplish this.
Power to the OfS
So even if the Bill gets changed in its passage through Parliament, ministers are likely to hold fast to the key elements. The most significant reform, one the has perhaps been overlooked, is the new register of higher education providers. HEFCE already run a register but the new one will be something different. This won’t be a Universities UK membership list or a Privy Council scroll of those empowered to award degrees, but a collection of every single HE provider. Universities, FE colleges, private institutions and new challengers will all need to be on the register to operate and all will be equal members of it. Their licence fees will pay for the OfS but, in return, provide the keys to teaching grants, student loans and visas (including, inevitably, EU student visas).
Like other regulators (OFWAT, OFCOM, FCA), the OfS will have the power to use its licence fee to change behaviour. To take one example, over the past forty years, the financial sector has moved from a world where a gentleman’s word was his bond to one where rules are policed by lawyers, compliance teams and big fines. Higher education is very different and has much more effective self-regulation, but it could be moving down a similar road.
Colleges in the new regulatory landscape
The prospect of a single system of HE regulation raises several issues for FE colleges, particularly if the costs and rules are not proportionate. There are 220 FE colleges involved in higher education. The current wave of college mergers will take some time to be completed. Colleges are the original challenger institutions (offering higher education alternatives since the 1920s) and generally focus on the professional and technical subjects where the English system is weakest. This, combined with the fact that many of them operate in towns without a university, means that student numbers are relatively low. 70 colleges have more than 500 HE students but 150 have much smaller numbers.
There is a risk that the OfS will have a one-size-fits-all attitude and charge the £60,000 fixed licence fee mentioned in the Bill documentation. This is small change in a university but a big sum to a small college. High costs and onerous rules could drive smaller providers out of the sector. Again, this is no problem if these are high street visa shops, but a different matter if there are employer focused colleges. Given the urgent need to rebalance the economy and regenerate HE ‘cold spots’, it would be seriously retrograde step.
Finally, a quick thought about names. There are one million undergraduate students in England and a few hundred thousand postgraduates. An Office for Students is being set up to look after their interests but isn’t it misdescribed? There are two million adult FE students and 750,000 in sixth forms – also students. Is the OfS really just the Office for Full-Time Degree-Level Students, or will it end up with a wider scope and remit in the fullness of time?