In 2001, as departing chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC), I was charged with tramping around the country to give talks to gatherings of anxious principals and chairs of FE colleges.
This was to reassure them (wrongly as it turned out) that all would be well under the FEFC’s successor – the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). My opening remark was always – “I speak to you a few months before the opening of the LSC, and a few short years before it closes”.
This cynical view of education quangos was indeed borne out. Although the FEFC, created alongside HEFCE as a result of the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992, lasted for nine years, the LSC bumped along for seven, and there has been an alphabet soup of no less than six successor bodies to the FEFC over the last 16 years.
Given the current volatility around the regulation and funding of HE, I am not placing bets on the longevity of the Office for Students.
I recount this because it demonstrates that HEFCE is something of a survivor in the big picture of post-16 funding bodies, given that it will be finally buried next month after 26 years of existence. However, my role is not to bury HEFCE but to mourn its passing. But before doing so, I want to put it into context with its predecessor bodies of which there were only four over a period of 99 years.
I believe that HEFCE has been the promising progeny of its ancestors while its foundling child OfS bears little resemblance to them.
The University Grants Committee, the first recognisable HE funding body, was set up in 1919 by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer. Its role was expressed simply as “to inquire into the financial needs of University Education in the United Kingdom, and to advise the Government as to the application of any grants made by Parliament towards meeting them.”
The UGC was also involved in the preparation and execution of plans for the development of universities and thus took in its stride the ground-breaking post-Robbins expansion in 1964. Governments of the day saw little reason why this description of the role of the UGC should not pass pretty seamlessly in 1988 into the Universities Funding Council (UFC) and the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council (PCFC) when the latter was removed from local authority control in 1988; and subsequently the same held four years later when these two bodies were combined at the birth of HEFCE alongside it siblings SHEFC and HEFCW.
More than a “buffer body”?
I argue that the demise of HEFCE is not just another comma in the last 100-year history of HE. Rather it is a full stop. HEFCE has been the last bastion of a centuries-old compact between governments and universities to provide the funding while leaving the internal operations of the system to the universities. In global comparisons, this has been an undoubted success story. The desire to maintain maximum autonomy led to the idea of HEFCE being regarded by governments and HEIs alike as a “buffer” body between the two.
On the one hand it protected institutions from the whims and excesses of the revolving door of government ministers, and on the other hand, it took the flak and often covered the backs of those same ministers. Indeed I recall a very senior civil servant disparagingly describing the then CEO of HEFCE as “a buffer in both senses of the word which had a tin ear when it came to proposals from government”.
However, this was an acknowledgement that HEFCE was generally to be left alone. On the second point when appointed as CEO of the FEFC in 1996, I was given a list of ministers and civil servants to consult as part of my induction. I had optimistically expected helpful signposts about my role, but instead, the meetings were largely devoted to their describing the part of their backs it was my duty to cover.
A key feature of HEFCE has been that the development of HE policy has resided almost entirely with the council and its executives, rather than with civil servants and ministers. Notably, while it was the general view that in the UGC days of the 1980s and 1990s many “special” funding decisions were made personally on visits by Peter Swynnerton-Dyer, the UFC and HEFCE have developed open and transparent funding models.
Swynnerton-Dyer was previously vice chancellor of Cambridge, and this tradition of former VCs as CEO of HEFCE has been successfully maintained with the six incumbents of that post and an approximate 50:50 mix of university and business council members. Chaired throughout by a business person, this has provided a stable and informed forum for the development of HE policy and guidance. The suggestion that such a body has been “marking its own homework” is as preposterous as it is insulting.
On the contrary, it might be argued that a golden era for HE was when we had an HE minister who was a former Master of Birkbeck working closely with a CEO who was a former VC of Keele. This covered the four years when I was an ex-officio attendee at the HEFCE board and I directly observed that this relationship and the board deliberations were not without challenge, but it was a challenge from the basis of well-informed participants who understood and respected the HE sector.
As time has progressed during the HEFCE era, it must be said that successive governments have forgotten the value of a buffer body and taken an ever closer interest in the minutiae of HE, using powers to interfere at the micro level.
This parallels what has happened in other areas of the public sector in terms of central control, but universities, once having the clout to resist such moves have fragmented into competing mission groups which make it much easier for central government to impose its will. The bypassing of HEFCE on the basis of ministerial anecdote to invent dubious policy initiatives has been progressively more evident and the current almost daily attacks on universities often with the HE minister of the day as cheerleader, exploit an uncertain sector leadership unable to be protected by a dying funding council.
HEFCE in retrospect
So what of the successes of HEFCE? Over the years it has been about as benign a body as the HE sector might hope for with the interests of supporting what is good at its heart. As already noted, it has developed a transparent funding system and generally responded to government pressures in consultation with the sector.
It had supported institutions in difficulty, to maintain provision for students and in the days when it was responsible for funding, successfully negotiated year-on-year increases, generally “maintaining the unit of resource”.
HEFCE also achieved all it did on a running cost budget which has consistently made it the most cost-effective NDPB in terms of funds administered per pound spent. Will the same be said for the expensive-looking Office for Students?
Also now lost are the once-successful funding negotiations behind closed doors on behalf of the sector, replaced now by the shrill public debate around what has become an increasingly toxic political issue. Taking the funding council out of the funding equation was welcomed by many VCs, but it has and will cost them dearly.
Funding incentives for widening participation based on student postcodes have played their part in raising awareness of the issue and helped towards levelling the playing field for the post 92 universities. However more controversial and less successful have been attempts by HEFCE to introduce teaching initiatives. The largest was £350m spent on the Centres of Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLS) over five years, which did not flourish once the funding dried up; and a similar fate was met by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme and the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning.
At times of “peak initiative”, the calls in sector meetings were “forget the top-sliced incentives, just give us the money and trust us to decide what is best for our students”. However, having been on both sides of this debate, I am aware that funding councils are given responsibilities to develop higher education but have mercifully very few levers to influence such a diverse sector.
HEFCE has wisely eschewed punitive sanctions or fines for wrong doing, but instead, ring-fenced a small part of its funding for short-lived initiatives.
So yes, I do mourn the passing of HEFCE, not just because of the flawed and uncertain future, but because of its role in supporting and developing the outstanding higher education sector we have today.