Before I saw the advertisement for the post of HEFCE Regional Consultant, I had only read one HEFCE circular and had not had any other contact with the organisation, so really had very little idea what it did and how it worked.

In this, I was not unusual among academics, even though I had an outward- facing and policy-oriented role at the university. I had been working at Coventry University for 26 years, initially having been appointed as a sociology lecturer, then moving on to be a degree course leader for a number of years, briefly as head of the Department of Applied Social Studies and ending up as Head of Educational Partnerships, with responsibility for the university’s links with other educational institutions, primarily with local FE Colleges.

First impressions

When I joined on 1 February 1999, a number of things struck me. First, the job titles were interesting – people who worked in the institutional teams (the largest single group in the organisation) were called advisers and consultants, not officers, heads or directors. The organisation was explicitly not there to run English higher education but to fund and support it.

Second, the people responsible for the F-word in the HEFCE acronym – funding – its key function, were a very small group within the analytical services team. Significant resources were allocated to policy development but advice to institutions and assurance that public money was being safely used were much more significant.

Third, I was very impressed with the intellectual calibre of the staff; I had spent more than 30 years in the company of academics, sometimes eminent academics from prestigious universities, but the intellectual quality of the analysis and policy development within HEFCE was equal to any of them.

Fourth, compared to the often stifling snobberies and patronising assertion of hierarchy and prestige within academia, HEFCE was much less hierarchical. Of course, there was hierarchy and HEFCE was as white and male-dominated as you would expect of any English organisation of its type, but quite junior staff were given the authority to advise senior staff in universities (and sometimes advised me when I hadn’t read the documents carefully enough!). This was truly refreshing.

I also had to get used to the very large sums of money involved, with figures expressed typically in millions of pounds, whereas I was used to expressing them in pounds or at most thousands.

Interesting times

It was a very exciting time to join HEFCE, just after the publication of the Dearing report and the election of a new, reformist government. Policy was being developed very rapidly; a small indicator of this can be seen in the table below, which analyses the numbers of HEFCE circulars published between 1994 and 2016.

Total HEFCE circulars published 1994-20161025
Mean (all years)45
Total (1998-2001)273
Mean (1998-2001)68
Mean (all years excluding 1998-2001)40

Initially, I was appointed as Regional Consultant for the East Midlands, transferring after three years to cover the West Midlands. During this time, I read all the strategic plans of every HE institution in the two regions, visited them all to meet with the senior management teams, visited many FE colleges, the local Learning and Skills Councils, and the regional Government offices.

I used to claim that I probably knew more than anyone else about what has happening in HE in the Midlands, or what was planned to happen or, at least, what was claimed to be planned to happen. During this time, I met with large numbers of highly educated and intelligent people, many of whom, though not all, were very impressive in their understanding of the purposes of higher education, how their institutions were contributing to those purposes, and what they needed to do to make them more effective. Of the small number of exceptions, I will only state that they demonstrated that there is no necessary connection between intelligence, education and wisdom.

The early days of widening participation policy

In 2006, I was appointed as Director (Widening Participation), initially in an acting role, later permanently and, later again, with the responsibilities expanded to include Teaching and Learning. As I mentioned earlier, the period around the turn of the century was a time of great development in HEFCE policy, most particularly in the area of widening participation, but also in the development of policy towards HE in Further Education Colleges, which, partly because the numbers were small, had been developed without much attention from HEFCE. The first HEIFES (Higher Education in Further Education: Students Survey) was issued in 1998 and the first explicit policy consultations on this area were issued in the same year. It was exciting to be involved, at least peripherally in the development of policy in this area and how it might relate to wider issues.

The big development was in widening participation policy and funding. The first special funding programme was announced in June 1998 via Circular 98/35 (Widening Participation: Special Funding Programme 1998-9). This was the circular I had read before applying to work at HEFCE and it allocated small sums of money for regional initiatives (for example, £206,000 in the West Midlands), with a national total of £1.5 million. This initiative followed a classic HEFCE approach to policy-making in an area in which there was little prior knowledge – identify a problem, offer some financial opportunities, with the parameters broadly defined, and seek proposals from HEIs. This was a pilot programme, expanded in 1999.

A little later, in August 1998, a more general consultation Circular 98/39 (Widening participation in higher education: funding proposals) was produced, reflecting both the very rapid pace of development and the funding council’s and ultimately Government’s combination of funding approaches: the bulk of funding for widening participation was allocated to institutions through the mainstream teaching funding method with various premiums and the allocation of additional student numbers, with initially a request for and later a requirement for institutional widening participation strategies. Alongside this, there was a series of special funding programmes for regional and later sub-regional collaborative initiatives.

This multi-track approach developed during the first half of the decade, through increased institutional funding and more collaborative initiatives, initially jointly funded with the FEFC, later with the LSC, also incorporating a parallel government programme (Excellence Challenge) . There was a further change in government policy in 2006 when variable fees were introduced and OFFA was established and institutions were required to produce access agreements alongside the HEFCE strategies as a condition of charging higher fees. The initial focus of OFFA was to encourage fair access but its remit was changed in 2011 to include widening participation and success for students from disadvantaged backgrounds more generally.

The HEFCE approach

The tensions between all these approaches – funding for institutions, based largely on their proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds (variously measured) to recognise the costs of recruiting and supporting such students versus collaborative initiatives; fair access versus wider access; regulation versus incentivisation – reflected a number of countervailing factors. There were significant shifts in political direction; developments in measurement; disagreements both among institutional managers and widening participation practitioners about what the issues were and how they were best addressed; and, probably above all, the great complexity of the issues involved.

All in all, this demonstrates that is a fairly typical area of contested social policy – more complex than some, less than others. It looks messy and it was messy and continues to be so but whether it could have been less messy is an open question. No doubt it could have been better managed but the most striking thing about the early publications is how little was known about what the issues in widening participation were, how to measure disadvantage, and how to identify good practice in achieving it.

There were many institutions, typically post-92 universities, which claimed to be good at widening participation but their claimed success in recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds derived as much from their market position and location as from any great effort of their own and was often matched by low student success. When you add into the mix, the excess focus by politicians on fair access to the most selective institutions and the propensity of the most selective institutions to blame the schools, I would argue that HEFCE steered a reasonable path through the jungle.

Are there more general lessons to be learnt?  I wish politicians and civil servants would expunge the phrase “policy levers” from their vocabulary.  The image of someone in Whitehall pulling a lever and something happening in Durham or Plymouth as a direct result is insufferably crude.   The call for more “evidence-based” policy, usually evoked by people who are opposed to the policy, is , of course, desirable in principle but, very difficult to apply prospectively in areas where the policy is emerging and always difficult to apply even retrospectively in answering the kind of questions which policy-makers need answering – for example, are the interests of widening participation best served by allocating more money to institutional funding or to collaborative provision?  (See, for example, the difficulty OFFA had in trying to assess how effective bursaries were.)  One final (nightmare) learning point for both social scientists and policy-makers  was made to me by an especially frank Vice-Chancellor: “While social scientists and policy-makers may prefer to use consistent measures in order to measure the effects of policies over time, you need to keep changing them to stop people like me gaming the system.”

2 responses to “HEFCE history: The early days of widening participation

  1. A wonderful commentary of those halcyon days John. It was a great pleasure to have been part of the development of student opportunity in the West Midlands.

  2. Thanks for this comment, Carl. I’m sure you will recognise that a large amount of work and, incidentally, a big part of my life, had been concerned with outreach by both HEIs and FECs but aimed mainly at adult returners. This built on the long-standing adult education movement. It was the post-Dearing focus on young people that was distinctive. The tragedy is the way in which the definition of Widening Access and Participation has been so narrowed by so many commentators and the earlier work largely forgotten and undermined.

    But that’s another article and not what I was asked to write about!

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