This article is more than 6 years old

Dangerous acts and dogs’ breakfasts

The Higher Education and Research Act - was it really all that? David Kernohan argues that the claims of generational significance are dogging attempts at radical reform.
This article is more than 6 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

“The most important legislation for the sector in 25 years” – that’s how Viscount Younger described the Higher Education and Research Act a few months ago. Universities UK, and many others, concurred – the generational settlement nature of the Act has become a settled truth that commentators have been quick to reach for during the unexpected debates of the summer.

Long-term – even multi-generational – thinking, especially in an area like higher education, is to be welcomed amongst policymakers. All too often we see policy – and legislation – that deals in a knee-jerk fashion with issues in the headlines. The “Dangerous Dogs Act 1991” is the textbook example of rushed, responsive, and ultimately useless legislation.

HERA isn’t that bad. But in all honesty, is isn’t that good either. What does HERA actually do? And why?

HERA – a cynic’s guide

We kick off with the Office for Students. The most innovative thing about the OfS is the name – promising a commitment to students that, alas, was not followed through into actual student representation. It’s essentially HEFCE with the research arm hacked off – an extremity which itself has been attached to the multi-limbed cephalopod that is UKRI. More precisely, the sector regulatory functions that used to sit in one office near Bristol Parkway station will now sit in two.

The guts of the early part of HERA set out things that OfS can and cannot do – a list uncannily similar to the list of things that HEFCE and OFFA already do. The register of institutions – itself a canny HEFCE hotfix for the post-Browne regulatory mess – remains in place. OfS will have the ability to bestow degree awarding powers and university title, but it always effectively did as HEFCE (nominally reporting to the Privy Council, but in reality farming the actual legwork off to the QAA).

The longstanding agreements that HEFCE has had with the QAA and HESA are also written into legislation, potentially giving the latter two the rather superfluous status of “designated bodies” assuming they pass the absurdly unwieldy application and consultation process that seems designed to promote sector confusion.

OfS also gets those hilarious “powers of entry” – dawn raids on the registrar’s office? – and the hugely popular ability to charge subscription fees. TEF is the red herring, even though most discussion during the Bill process centred on the controversial rating scheme it neither needed nor really got any actual legislation devoted to it. It’s even arguable that the link to the fee cap levels could have been handled without an Act.

It’s slightly easier for institutions to change corporate structure, and it is slightly easier (though concessions limited a lot of this) for institutions to enter and leave the sector. It’s slightly harder for Jo Johnson to raise student fee caps.

There’s a final section devoted to UKRI – seven research councils, Innovation UK and HEFCE’s vestigial appendage, all merrily doing the same things they were doing beforehand in broadly the same way, except working more closely together as was already planned within the late and largely unlamented RC2020 strategy. Some parts of of the Act address Haldane principles – which frankly would not have been an issue without the reorganisation and associated pointless power grab, however nice it is to see them on vellum.

La Reyne le Meh

All of which prompts, I must admit, a shrug. HERA did not address any of the issues that are making front pages on a near-daily basis – issues that have been concerns in the sector for long before the bill debates, and often came up during them. Pay and conditions, both for senior leaders and rank-and-file institutional staff, don’t warrant a mention. Institutional autonomy notwithstanding, there was room to do this but the opportunity wasn’t taken. There are no fixes to the already unwieldy fee system, not even a commitment to stick to previous commitments and raise the repayment threshold. It’s taken Spreadsheet Phil at Treasury to step in and address those issues – remarkable given that the opportunity of a major Act of Parliament was missed less than a year ago.

The Research section should have contained the underpinnings that would have allowed timely investment in work addressing key Brexit and Industrial Strategy related concerns – commitments to sustain existing international collaborations and invest in economic priorities have been made, but you’ll look in vain for them on the face of the bill. The organisational changes seem more aimed at tidying up that infamous powerpoint slide than promoting any kind of efficiency.

And although new and innovative entrants to the sector would be welcome, a chance was missed to suggest where these may be needed. A glut of business and law provision does not really address national priorities – perhaps a planned expansion based on national (industrial strategy?) priorities would have been more efficient? Ditto on sector exit – precisely whose interests are served if an institution in an unattractive and economically deprived area is driven to ruin? There’s at least a case for regional and local thinking.

So other than keeping JJ busy for a few months, HERA has achieved very little of lasting value. In both practical and political terms we are in essentially the same place as we were before we started – just with a less powerful government with less time and less capability to make changes.

Back to bare bones?

Both major UK parties will be discussing higher education at conferences over the next few weeks. Stability for the sector – and, frankly, for the national economy – will be a key consideration each time the topic is raised. However there is room for a major rethink of policy and legislation, and this will perhaps be more radical than we have been used to.

But a concern to allow institutions to make – as best they can in this climate – plans for the future should not be conflated with a need to preserve the internal logic of the 2017 system. HERA is not the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. It isn’t even the Higher Education Act 2004. It’s not quite the Dangerous Dogs Act, but if every dog has really has it’s day perhaps HERA needs an exploratory visit to the vet.

One response to “Dangerous acts and dogs’ breakfasts

  1. Excellent and witty, if ultimately deeply depressing, commentary, David. I will treasure “La Reyne le Meh” for a long time!

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