As the minutes count down to the White Paper release and then to the Bill that is expected in the Queen’s Speech, what are the issues to look for? The Green Paper presaged the biggest reforms since 1992 on the HE side, so will the government deliver on that ambition or rein back in response to the Green Paper consultation?
No longer are we looking at the relatively homogeneous and stable sector we have had since 1992. Recent government rhetoric has been about competition, deregulation, market entry and indeed market exit. We have to recognise that the White Paper addresses all providers, not just those who have a substantial track record.
So what would should we look for?
A) Will the White Paper maintain a traditional approach to the autonomy of institutions? Given recent failures in new providers, will there be any ability for government to intervene in the operation of HE providers, both traditional and new? Given the expected easing of the route to Degree Awarding Powers, will they be something that can be withdrawn? (this is not currently the case).
B) The Office for Students is expected to be created following the dissolution of HEFCE. The Green Paper suggested that many functions would transfer from HEFCE to the OfS but that the powers and duties would be driven by the student interest. Does that mean that the OfS will no longer be an advocate for the sector and what does that mean for the Mission groups, UUK and GuildHE? Will they step up their advocacy role? What specific powers will the OfS have to pursue the student interest, and particularly provide student protection should institutions fail?
C) OFFA is also expected to be merged into the OfS. What does that mean for the post of the Director of Fair Access? How will HEFCE’s continuing Student Opportunity funding align with OFFA’s approach?
D) Who will have the responsibility for quality? HEFCE’s unexpected announcement on Friday of the outcomes of their QA tender exercise rather suggest that the QAA has a significant continuing role into the future, despite the recent challenges it has faced from HEFCE. Will the QAA be enshrined in the White Paper/Bill or will the possibility of future tender remain? If the QAA is mentioned, will it take over the statutory responsibility for quality? There has been recent talk from HEFCE about their interest in ‘standards’, long something which has been the responsibility of providers. Will the responsibility for both quality and standards now be together?
E) It is unlikely that the TEF will be abandoned, but what will happen with the timescale and the much-derided link to fees? If the Minister establishes his ministerial credentials by taking a bill through the House will he be more relaxed about taking more time to develop a rigorous framework for assessing teaching excellence?
F) Will the sector have to pay for the OfS? How will this sit with UUK whose members are visibly unhappy about the number and size of the subscriptions they already have to pay?
G) As widely expected, will the OfS retain the responsibility for teaching funding which is currently the ‘F’ in HEFCE? Can regulation and funding remain in the same body? Will the OfS remain in Bristol given the BIS2020 ambition to reduce the number of BIS locations?
H) Will the ambition be realised to have a single research body with only one Accounting Officer? The government has been very vocal about protecting dual support, but how will that be done within a single research body? Will the seven Research Council Chief Executive Officer posts remain? Will HEFCE’s Research and Knowledge Exchange function be subsumed within Research UK (or is it UK Research and Innovation as mooted on Friday?) and will Innovate UK also be included? What kind of governance arrangements will allow such a large and complex organisation to function?
I) How much power will the Minister claim over the research function? Will Haldane be endorsed again, and will the balance of funding across different disciplinary areas be the province of government or of Research UK? Will research funding be open to alternative providers as well as traditional research bodies? And, if so, will there be the possibility of Oxbridge and the LSE ‘going private’ to escape the fee cap within the new arrangements while retaining research funding?
We should know answers to all of these questions within hours, although legislation has to pass through Parliament and there is plenty here for the Commons and Lords to be excited about. During the course of the bill there be many amendments which change the intent which will be revealed shortly.