The Government has today finally published their long-delayed, much anticipated higher education White Paper. Its remarkably long gestation has ensured that there has been maximum scrutiny by No.10. A couple of weeks ago I imagined a scenario where No.10 would push for deeper, more radical reforms, allow David Willetts to face any political fallout – in the hope that a compromise could be reached later down the line that would still push reform hard. Just not over the edge. But it seems that a combination of the need to build a delicate consensus in the Coalition, and the effect of highly successful lobbying from HEFCE and universities, has this time trumped that more risky strategy.
During this epic period of internal reflection by the Government over their HE proposals, there has been pulling and pushing in all directions by various different players. A few weeks ago, reliable sources indicated to Wonkhe that shortly after BIS sent a draft to No.10, the core and margin student number control idea was swiftly removed by the Policy Unit. But today we find it back in the mix, possibly due to heavy lobbying from HEFCE. It has also been reported that a veritable cornucopia of ministers had been flying policy proposal kites, in the hope of influencing the White Paper’s direction. Liam Fox is said to have been particularly active in this way, the effect of which is somewhat unclear.
There’s far too much in this document to look at in any real detail today, so this post offers only some initial thoughts.
The focus in much of the press today has been on the proposals to ‘level the playing field’ in HE. There are few surprises here for anyone paying attention to what David Willetts has been saying over the last year. A simplified regulatory framework is proposed which includes three categories – Bodies holding taught degree awarding powers, Institutions designated for student support and Institutions in receipt of teaching grant. Each carries with it different compliance requirements. In practice, the most obvious way to implement this idea is to create some form of ‘HE License’ with these three stages. We’ll get a consultation on this in the ‘summer’ – it will be fascinating to see how the details of this develop and we’ll explore the issues around this in more detail over the coming weeks and months.
HEFCE has been a huge influence on the development of the White Paper, and it shows. Their role will be beefed up in a way that seems extremely palatable to their way of seeing things and much change to the regulatory framework merely builds on what HEFCE already does. Even core and margin student number control looks extremely implementable from Northavon House. Legislation will be introduced to allow HEFCE to attach conditions to receipt of grant access and student loan funding. Introducing this link is the single most important step in establishing any form of real regulatory authority.
HEFCE also gets the ‘consumer champion’ role – the only element of these proposals that might sit uncomfortably with them as this seems very far away indeed from what they were initially designed to do, and no one is quite sure what it really means. Deep thought will need to be given to getting HEFCE fit for purpose in order to deliver on this and other ambitions.
OFFA is another big winner and with a greatly expanded budget, they might even get to move out of HEFCE and have an office all to themselves. What a remarkable comeback a year after some very clear signals were being sent that they were probably for the QUANGO bonfire. However, with a dramatically inflated budget, they will need to show dramatically enhanced functions – particularly in these austere times. All eyes will be on the new WP Framework when it is published.
There will be an ongoing row over the AAB/AAA issue. David Kernohan reckons that the Government has it wrong and even the Russell Group is warning about potential ‘unintended consequences’. It does seem counter-intuitive for institutions that by-and-large, are not seeking to grow substantially. And NUS points out that it may run counter to stated social mobility goals as there is a risk institutions could therefore rationally seek to direct their resources into chasing highly-qualified applications, which are in a significant amount of cases coming from independent/grammar schools. There’s also a question-mark over whether alternative qualifications to A Levels would be suitable at the same tariff-point level for entry into this unrestricted band
This White Paper offers a steer on a number of policy issues, but has very few concrete proposals itself. There is a long road ahead with consultations on many of the meaty issues and the parts that need legislation won’t have a HE Bill until early next year. Those hoping that today would signal the end of this rocky period will be disappointed. Even after the long process of turning ambitions in to workable policies, it will take years to properly understand the effects of most of the changes. As ever with higher education, it’s a long-term game.
A striking feature of the White Paper is its lack of overall vision for higher education. There are many notable absences of issues dealt with for example postgrads and research barely get a look in. This document does not recognise the full complexity of activities related to HE, making it feel somewhat incomplete. Still, it does address the most pressing issues in some way and perhaps these days that’s the best we can hope for.
Full analysis of White Paper issues will be explored here in more detail over coming days, weeks and months.