What people mean when they say “bring back HEFCE”

People often compare the Office for Students to its predecessor - Brooke Storer-Church asks what it is they are missing, and whether it can return

Brooke Storer-Church is Director of Strategic Academic Engagement at Birmingham City University. She formerly worked for the Office for Students and HEFCE.

At Wonkhe’s Festival of Higher Education conference I was struck by several calls made over the course of those two days for a return of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

It got me wondering what people were really crying out for when they called for HEFCE’s return.

Everything looks better in the rear-view mirror

I joined HEFCE in 2012 as a policy advisor, eventually working my way up to Head of Skills around the time HEFCE morphed into the Office for Students (OfS). I left OfS in late 2022 to join Birmingham City University. Poacher turned gamekeeper, indeed.

During my 10 years at HEFCE and OfS, I designed, delivered or managed most of the funding body’s competitive funding programmes. To do that, I worked closely with universities and colleges across England. I look back at that time very fondly, remembering how much I valued those engagements and the insights they provided to the development of those programmes.

I also remember universities and colleges complaining that we didn’t listen to them well enough–that their feedback didn’t result in the changes they’d indicated were necessary. Many hours were spent justifying decisions before I learned to publish clear sets of FAQs alongside any new call for input in order to manage everyone’s expectations about how much influence could be had.

While this level of engagement didn’t always result in consensual satisfaction, it did provide a useful route through which to give confidence. My team could give confidence to providers that we were interested in and ready to incorporate their views into our developing positions. We gained confidence in what we were building—that it addressed the issues at hand because we were helped to understand them better by those working most closely to them.

While there is no doubt many reading this could name things that HEFCE didn’t do brilliantly – we were only human, after all – there are three things I think we did really well.


We were fundamentally curious about the sector. Institutional teams were responsible for a set of institutions, about which they were expected to learn as much as possible. This often culminated in an annual or semi-annual meeting with the senior team at a university or college. The relationship was supplemented by more frequent catch-ups by email and phone, by informal visits from policy officers, and by examination of provider data throughout the year.

Internally, institutional teams met with HEFCE accountants to better understand not only the financial picture of the university or college in question, but also the sector more broadly. This context was invaluable in determining the relative risks around any given provider.


To develop the Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund in 2015, we invited universities and colleges to come along to a workshop to talk through what they felt was possible and what the barriers would be to them building this provision.

We then worked with ESFA and the burgeoning IFATE to address those barriers. The feedback from that work and from providers culminated in the funding guidance. The fund was exceptionally successful, growing a base of three university providers to more than 100 offering degree apprenticeships within a few years.

When we launched the Postgraduate Support Scheme in 2014, the Institute of Coding in 2016 or the Local Graduates Challenge competition in 2018, we ran similar early engagements to better shape the guidance before we published it. We then worked closely with funded providers to retain a close understanding of how the projects developed throughout the course of the funded programmes.

All of this collaboration lent to more effective interventions that delivered positive change across the sector, much of which has been captured in the evaluations that followed.


As the Head of Skills, I welcomed direct communications from colleagues working across the sector. I also encouraged my team to respond to each query with a unique and personable response even when delivering consistent policy lines.

I regularly wrote out to the 30-50 providers participating in our various programmes to share reflections or provide updates. I did this through my team and also by myself, knowing it was an important part of ensuring providers felt we were accessible and available.

The value of this approach was made clear when project leads would get in touch to discuss potential delays or other emerging risks. Feedback from providers suggested that because we spent time in the early stages building a healthy communication channel, it was easier for them to get in touch when something was starting to look a bit problematic. Forewarned is forearmed! And it gave us the chance to intervene as early as possible to ensure objectives were met regardless of hurdles springing up along the way.

OfS isn’t HEFCE – but it could learn

As the funding council, we were able to exercise some discretion and flexibility in the advice we gave and the positions we took. This is something the regulator is unable to do under the current interpretation of the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) it deploys. We weren’t bound by the same regulatory framework, but were prescribed by legislation in the same way the regulator has been.

Certainly, there are limitations to what OfS can do—we’ve all read HERA by now (right?). But there are opportunities for it to evolve its approach to the 425 providers currently on its register in order to ensure itself that it knows well the sector it’s regulating.

After all, how can it be sure it truly understands the challenges providers are facing in 2023 if it doesn’t really know them beyond their outcomes data? As Mike Ratcliffe noted on Wonkhe last year, OfS gathers a lot of information about the providers on its register—financial forecasts, student data, reportable events, and so on.

But does that information mean the OfS really knows the providers it regulates? How can it be sure the data tells the full story?

As those of us working to address gaps in student outcomes are learning and relearning, the data tells you where you’ve ended up but not how you got there. Any intervention to improve has to understand the root cause of the issue.

OfS’ chief executive Susan Lapworth recently announced a refreshed approach to provider engagement. Here’s hoping that delivers more than what I like to call “performative engagement.” If OfS is truly interested in securing success for students across the sector, it has to work harder to understand the issues within and across providers that enable or hinder that success. It can only do that by getting to know providers better.

2 responses to “What people mean when they say “bring back HEFCE”

  1. The problem with both HEFCE and OFS is they were/are awfully posh – in any meeting with either I thought I’d wandered into the grounds of a public school. Any reconfiguration needs to be coupled with bringing in a wider spread of society.

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