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From the desk of the Secretary of State: another letter of note

Paul Greatrix delves into the history of ministerial letters to the funder (or now, regulator) of the sector
This article is more than 5 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them.” Goethe

The new era of Ministerial letters is definitely with us. The second missive of the Office for Students regime has a different character to most of it predecessors. Jim Dickinson has already covered the content and noted the ‘keep up the good work’ tenor of the letter but it is certainly all about the ongoing delivery of the deliverables.

It’s a proper letter, too. Last time there was some criticism of the Minister, Sam Gyimah, for not signing the first letter to the OfS and it all therefore seeming a little impersonal. This year the Secretary of State is on the ball and has made sure he signed it in time, adding another signature to our gallery.

There remain some significant uncertainties mentioned in the letter including, of course, the post-18 review and Brexit but you would be forgiven for thinking these were only minor ripples in the stream of ongoing HERA delivery:

Going beyond the priorities set out in last year’s guidance, I have outlined below the specific areas where I would like the OfS to further develop its progress, noting the possibility that additional priorities warranting further supplementary guidance may emerge through 2019/20, including, but not limited to, improving the quality of higher education and the implications for the sector of EU Exit.

I’m not sure what further quality improvement advice may be forthcoming but there are certainly plenty of other things going on.
And anyway, the Secretary of State is certainly keeping it snappy and it’s a fairly light hand on the tiller from Damien Hinds but with some clear direction on those key deliverables in the following areas:

  • The Review of Post-18 Education and Funding
  • Development of the OfS’s regulatory role
  • Access and participation
  • Quality and value
  • Student Experience
  • Provider market and financial sustainability
  • Strategic priorities for funding

Hardy Annual

In terms of length, at 20 paragraphs it is among the shortest on record, equal to its predecessor from 2004. Unlike last year and indeed most years it has only the briefest of attachments, two annexes over two brief pages, the first being a mere four paragraphs on funding and the second simply a table highlighting superseded matters from previous guidance. Will it be remembered as a classic among its forerunners? Only time will tell. Brevity is usually to be applauded though and it is interesting to note that the trend remains downwards if we ignore the silly suggestion I made last year of counting all the related documents.


From our own correspondents

Just for reference, here is the commentary on all the previous correspondence. This saves all that tedious searching for stuff about grant letters in previous posts and you may find this especially handy if you are new to this niche area or just don’t want to try too hard.

The new OfS regime, while feeling a world away from the mythical golden age of brief grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) of old, which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement, does at least share the merit of brevity. That’s pretty much where the similarities end though and we now have a much more directive regulator, following clear instructions to deliver from the Secretary of State rather than an organisation which saw itself as a buffer between the state and the universities.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters is limited to English funding allocations, unfortunately. Whilst I’m sure the Welsh and Scottish funding councils and their Northern Ireland counterpart receive similar missives from their respective governments,  it is beyond our scope to cover them here. Sorry.

So, let’s take the opportunity to look at nearly a quarter of a century of history of (English) higher education funding letters…

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last couple of decades: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE. A decline which matched the general trend of public funding for higher education perhaps until that is we got to 2016 when we shot back up to 42 paragraphs.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  • The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%.
  • The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  • The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  • David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  • In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  • January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  • The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  • December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  • The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  • January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  • January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  • January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  • The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  • June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings). It was the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. It was also the first outing for Vince Cable’s smiley signature.
  • There was a bit of a steep change with the 2013 letter. Not only does it offer even more directions to HEFCE, at 36 paragraphs and eight pages it is the second longest of the four to date issued by the coalition Secretary of State and the Minister and confirms a return to the sterling epistolary efforts made by the previous government.
  • More recently in 2014 it was back to a more perfunctory 22 paragraphs, excluding the covering letter, or 26 if you include the substantive comments in the letter.
  • 2015 saw the final letter of the coalition era – a rather snappy 27 paragraphs spread over five pages of a 12 page package. But, as with previous years, there was quite a lot of the self-congratulation contained in a three page covering letter.
  • At 42 paragraphs the 2016 note was significantly longer than recent examples of this kind of missive and was the longest since the beginning of 2003. It almost takes us back to the 41 paragraphs of the opening one of the series in 1996.
  • And then we have the final one, the last letter ever to HEFCE. At 46 paragraphs it was significantly longer than the average of just under 32 paragraphs and in fact came in as equal third longest of all time.
  • 2018 then brought the first letter of the new era which confirmed this was the ‘first annual statement of Government priorities for the OfS’ under ‘the new regime’ before talking about the need for the new agency to demonstrate ambition, to champion students and to operate as a new market regulator with a new mission.This year, at 19 paragraphs it’s significantly shorter than typical examples of this kind of letter which is currently running at an average of just over 32 paragraphs. Indeed it equals the fourth shortest of all time. The trend is still downwards and the upturn of the last few years has now been reversed. The missive itself is barely 4 pages long but includes a bonus 15 pages of appendices, 9 pages of which are the detailed ‘deliverables’

Only time will tell the extent to which this letter is a lasting memorial to anyone but there will certainly be more missives to come in future. We hope.

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