New federalism and UK higher education

In my first piece in this series on regulation, I looked at creating a single, unified regulatory system for an expanded higher education sector in England. I then considered the concept of ‘uncertainty based’ regulation and the need for intelligence versus data on HE. Our attention now turns to the growing challenge of HE regulation and devolution.

The United Kingdom has four distinct higher education systems, each with its own regulatory goals and structures: the Welsh, the English, the Scottish and the Northern Irish. Many will be well aware of the changes taking place in England. The recent Scottish independence referendum has brought attention to the policy issues facing Scottish higher education and the prospect of increased devolved powers that will impact the sector.

However, fewer may appreciate the significance of the Higher Education (Wales) Bill proposed by the Welsh government. Each nation is moving in a different trajectory than the others. While similarities exist, it will become increasingly challenging for the HE communities of each nation to understand how the other three operate and how changes in one may impact the others.

This all begs the question: is there a future for the concept of UK higher education?

I think there is, but it requires a change in attitude. A Canadian attitude, if I may. Despite popular misconceptions, there is no ‘Canadian’ higher education system. Education, including higher education, is constitutionally the purview of the provincial governments. Consequently, there are (at least) 10 separate systems – one for each province. While some provinces appear quite alike, others are very different.

Although agreeing with some basic principles, all have different financing regimes. British university leaders, students and policy makers would recognise these provincial HE sectors – largely publicly supported, careful control of private provision and, notably, rife with territorial battles between provinces and between provinces and the federal government.

UK higher education policy makers, students and higher education providers must acknowledge the new federalism of UK higher education and the challenges it presents. Each devolved sector is going to be different and students, universities and policy makers (especially in England) must be prepared to deal with the differences.

There are a number of ongoing developments which may pose challenges for UK HE maintaining some coherence. These include:

  1. The proposed Higher Education (Wales) Bill points toward an increasingly centralised and directed regulatory regime. Furthermore, other signals suggest the funding Welsh students receive to study in England will be curtailed if not entirely shut off. This presents issues for student mobility.
  2. Scotland maintains a policy of no upfront fees for Scottish students (and by extension, European students) but assesses potential ‘fee refugees’ from other home nations student fees comparable to England (not unlike Quebec’s out-of-province fee regime).
  3. Neither Wales nor Scotland supports an expansion of new, independent providers as seen in England.  This may create problems with collaborative provision and the management of public funding flowing between home nations and between institutions. Furthermore, once approved for operations in England, what real controls will Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have over new providers in England?

The UK does have the means of ensuring that the underlying quality of higher education is consistent across the country. In fact, it is important that the UK retain a semblance of a UK higher education brand, anchored in a reputation for inventive, engaging student experiences and influential research. For the international higher education community – including overseas students – there is little reputational distinction between the home nations. Failure of proper regulation in one nation will threaten the reputation of all – higher education providers in each home nation have a vested interest in the effective management of providers across the UK.

It will be a struggle to protect aspects of unity but it will serve higher education institutions to do so. UK-wide organisations such as the Quality Assurance Agency and the Higher Education Statistics Agency help provide consistency across the home nations through the collection and maintenance of important databases and assurance of quality processes.

One only has to look to the United States for how a lack of national objectives leads to federalism working against the interest of higher education. The plethora of accrediting bodies and multiple levels of governmental regulation not only confuse the public and students; they put legitimate higher education providers in a regulatory gridlock while ‘fly by night’ providers abuse the system.

Canada provides lessons on regulatory issues the UK can avoid with sufficient forward planning. For example:

  1. It took many years to consolidate and harmonise student financial assistance regulations of federal and provincial governments, forcing students to follow multiple application and repayment processes and institutional staff to negotiate two sets of rules for a single domestic student.
  2. Canada has no national quality assurance body guaranteeing employers and higher education institutions outside Canada of the strength and quality of individual providers or the value of degrees. This poses a challenge for some institutions trying to build partnerships or recruit internationally.
  3. Political power struggles between the federal government (providing research grants and part of publicly subsidised student assistance) and provincial governments (providing student aid, operating grants and research funding) have led to regulatory knots and an inability to effectively coordinate the Canadian higher education brand.

The UK has an opportunity to leverage its UK-wide higher education interests, including research, data and quality assurance, to help avoid the pitfalls of a federal system while reaping the benefits of more localised decision-making. One means of ensuring consistency would be for each of the home nations’ lead regulators to commit to core principles to which will guide their activities and help reduce regulatory burden on higher education providers. The principles could include:

  • A commitment to student mobility;
  • Unified research councils and promotion of research collaboration; and
  • Coordinated quality assurance and mutual recognition of credentials.

Writing on the result of the Scottish independence referendum a fellow British-Canadian, Dr Steve Hewitt of the University of Birmingham, observed that despite the many similarities between the Scottish and Quebecois independence debates the British media failed to recognise the useful lessons of Canada’s three decades of constitutional angst. UK higher education may lead the way where constitutional politics failed to learn.

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6 responses to “New federalism and UK higher education

  1. Excellent post Andrew. Wouldn’t you say that a commitment to improve regulatory coherence at a UK-wide level would also yield an efficiency benefit to the sector, in terms of reduced administrative complexity?

  2. I would have to agree with you, Ian, provided the regulatory systems involved are suitably flexible to account for providers of different missions, sizes and makes. Otherwise, institutions and students suffer from over (or under) regulation. All home nations need to be able to trust the regulatory apparatus of the other three.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Great description of the Canadian situation, Andrew! The way you put it, I guess there is some merit in our (Canada’s) crazy arrangement after all.

  4. A great post Andrew, though somewhat concerningly recent announcements militate against a joined-up approach to QA in the UK. See HEFCE’s intention to marketize QA at Also, QAA’s announcement in response ( meaning (potentially) a fragmentation of the current national settlement. A little piece of context from the Russell Group in favour of a shake-up also speaks volumes about the drivers behind this: (

    As you point out there is real advantage in a national system, and it would be a shame to lose the advantages the UK has already secured – I should like to hear a HEFCE view on this!

  5. Great points, Daniel. The announcement is definitely on my radar and you are certainly correct to point out the threat the announcement poses to (at least the appearance of) a consistent standard of quality and expectation of enhancement across the UK.

    I think there could be a couple advantages to HEFCE’s announcement, however, not the least of which is demonstrating to the Competition and Markets Authority that English higher education is not a cozy club closed to new providers and new thinking.

    Also, the announced review of quality assurance in Northern Ireland, Wales and England obviously gives the QAA an opportunity to rethink and retool how it operates in an increasingly complex sector (bearing in mind the QAA’s ongoing contracts with BIS and the Home Office, as well as the Scottish Funding Council, and work on transnational education).

    There have been many transformative points in UK higher education history (1992 Act, the post-war expansion, 19th century secularization and the Red Bricks, the foundation of the Scottish universities, and the emergence of Oxford University followed by an unnamed second university in East Anglia) but this is undoubtedly one them – it’s a privilege to be here for it and contributing in some small way.

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