Yesterday the Government published its long awaited response to the HE White Paper and technical consultations. Smashing straight through the three-month deadline that Departments have to publish these, there were many who thought the long wait indicated that they were cooking up something big. It’s the classic policy wonk trap – you see big schemes, plots and grand strategies wherever you look because that’s how you think. But in politics – particularly in the Coalition, the truth is always much simpler. The Government’s response this week did a pretty good job of kicking issues into the long-grass and not committing to much at all. But it’s hardly a surprise when you consider the state of the White Paper itself when it was published last June – an equally thin document – and the political difficulties that HE has caused the Coalition to date.
The one big thing that the White Paper ‘did’ was announce the big change in student number control policies and the Government didn’t even need a White Paper to do it. That change, along with the changes to fees & funding and the cut in the teaching grant are still the Governments only major contributions to higher education policy to date. All three are generally unpopular (though there are supporters for each in different quarters), but taken together actually represent something quite radical. And it will be many years before we fully understand the consequences of these important changes.
If there was one message that came through clearly in the consultations, it was that these dramatic changes have been made without much supporting evidence, so we need time to work it all out before a further radical programme of reform begins. To a lot of people’s surprise, the Government appears to agree with this assessment.
It also suits them to put the brakes on at this stage. An HE Bill would put a problematic policy area on a grand political platform that would reignite old debates and give the Government’s opponents inside and outside Parliament a moment that could allow real resistance to their plans. So it appears that for the remaining reforms, the Government would prefer to use ‘non-legislative means’.
That means multiple consultations – at least seven were announced in this response – and much more ‘working in partnership with the sector’ and ‘developing ideas alongside sector agencies’. Also known as business as usual for HE policy. Also known as the path of least resistance.
No big Parliamentary debates, no big crunch votes sucking in air time and expending political capital. But ultimately, the Government gets roughly what it set out to do in the first place. Framed this way, and keeping in mind the Coalition’s own deep divisions on higher education, it’s easy to understand why this is the only sensible course of action. If we look at the big changes already enacted, and look at what will come up through ‘non legislative means’ e.g. the ‘levelling the playing field’ reform measures such as the announcement to shift the threshold required to get University Title from 4,000 FTE students to 1,000 (which immediately benefits small and specialist GuildHE institutions more than it does the private sector), then by 2015 David Willetts will have successfully completed almost everything he set out to do. Perhaps not going quite as far as he originally planned (the ‘Pearson law’ is still on the cutting room floor). But given how difficult HE is for the Coalition as a policy area, and how much opposition his plans have faced, it’s not a bad attempt.
However there is one issue that may make this new approach difficult to see through. Ever since the Government slashed the teaching grant, to maintain the regulatory framework HEFCE was going to need to transition to a regulatory body as it ceases to be the primary funder of HE in England. Some of its authority comes from the 1992 Further & Higher Education Act, but mostly it comes from its statutory responsibility as funder. In a couple of years after the teaching grant is wound right down, it is difficult to see how they can maintain authority over measures such as student number controls, without being explicitly empowered to by primary legislation. This is not a new issue, but the Government’s failure to answer this question in its response this week is extraordinary and leaves the shape of future regulatory system in some doubt.
And they are the same doubts that we’ve had for some time. One year since the White Paper was published and nothing much has really changed at all. It makes you wonder why they even bothered with it in the first place, particularly as it didn’t end up being a prelude to a Bill (see? there’s really no grand plan). But as ever, there is much to occupy Government and HE sector wonks behind the scenes (DAPs, loan book monetisation, off-quota places etc etc). Anyone hoping for HE policy as public spectacle any time soon will be sorely disappointed.
It’s also just possible that the ‘path of least resistance’ might prove rockier for the Coalition than it did for previous governments – after all, the last two years has seen a lot of good will in the sector evaporate. But now we’re heading down that path, the next move is ours to make. Let’s not have any regrets in 2015.