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Higher education postcard: HEFCE

This week’s card from Hugh Jones’s postbag takes us to London, home of Mammon
This article is more than 1 year old

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

Greetings from London!

And no, I haven’t chosen a tawdry tourist postcard with pillar boxes, buses or smut. The dominant tower block you can see is Centrepoint, London, at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, and a one-time London base of the Higher Education Funding Council for England – HEFCE to its friends.

HEFCE used to be the funder of higher education in England (the clue’s in the name, really).

The first specific funder of higher education was the University Grants Committee. Since 1889 universities had received direct grants from the Treasury. A 1904 committee chaired by Richard Haldane (who we have met previously) recommended the establishment of an arms-length body to fund universities, but it was not created until after the first world war. In 1919 the University Grants Committee (UGC) was established.

Initially, the UGC simply advised the Treasury on the funds needed by universities. After the second world war it gained a planning function. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, when money got more scarce as the scale of higher education grew, the planning function gained teeth. There were forced mergers, subject closures, rationalisations and the like.

In 1989 it was all change – out with the University Grants Committee, in with the Universities Funding Council (and its parallel, the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council). This followed the 1988 Education Reform Act, which took polytechnics out of local authority control, and made them more like universities.

But the UFC and the PCFC didn’t last long at all – by 1992 they were history. With the abolition of the binary divide, the separate funding arrangements for universities and polytechnics were brought together. And there was also a degree of devolution – separate bodies for England, Scotland and Wales. So HEFCE was born.

It had a decent run for its money – 1992 until 2018. This spanned most of my career within higher education. At times the sector may have moaned about its intrusion into universities’ business. And to be fair, HEFCE mastered the art of making universities do amazing things for tiny amounts of additional money. But it was also clearly a steward of the sector, seeing a healthy English higher education sector as a thing to be treasured. O tempora, o mores.

In 2018 it was wound up, its functions split between the Office for Students, which occupies a peculiar role as funder and regulator of consumer interests, and Research England.

Centrepoint was a London base – Bristol was where a lot of the HEFCE folk hung out. But Centrepoint was far more glamorous. I went to Centrepoint a few times. Once you got past the security (HEFCE only had a coupe of floors out of the whole block) the lift swooshed you up for your meeting. Some found the views fabulous – personally the height terrified me!

4 responses to “Higher education postcard: HEFCE

  1. In the earlier days HEFCE had a superb suite on the 28th floor – commanding views across London and a real highlight for visitors. You even got to use the express lift.

    The later move to the 12th floor was emblematic of the loss of regulatory confidence that characteristed the Madeline Atkins years. Of course, the story goes that a refusal to move the whole kit and caboodle to Swindon led to the dismantling of HEFCE.

    The current OfS London office, at Finlaison House on Furnival Street, is shared with the National Infrastructure Commission, the department of the Government Actuary, and the MOD Single Source Regulations Office.

  2. Yes, I recall going to a press conference with David Eastwood (when he was CEO of HEFCE) on a very high floor! Great view over London though.

  3. I loved those views! Though a trip to the loo was not advisable if you suffered from vertigo thanks to the narrow corridor and extra long windows.

  4. HEFCE’s London base in the 1990s was a few minutes north in a block in Percy street, London (now rebranded as the Met building), inherited from PCFC.

    There were several education organisations in Centrepoint in the early 2000s (when HEFCE moved to the 28th floor) including the Learning and Skills Council occupying 3 floors (taking over from the London Central Training and Enteprise Council) and AoC. The CBI had a lot of space on the lowest floors. Not actually a great place to work because it was sometimes quicker to walk up stairs than wait for a lift that never came. Commercial rents were relatively cheap at turn of millennium but started rising (reason why AoC moved in 2007). This is presumably why HEFCE moved from 28th (with its stunning views across to Kensington Palace) to the 12th.

    Centrepoint still has a role in education. Some of the flats rented at £7,000 a month are described as being perfect for students. UCL is down the road, taking in half a billion a year in international fees.

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