Catherine is a former Executive Officer at Wonkhe.

Here at Wonkhe, we are proud of our small South West division. Both David Kernohan and I joined the team from local sector agencies and have built our lives around the area. It’s a wonderful part of the world to live in and, if you work in higher education, very useful as such a large amount of HE agencies are based around the area – HEFCE (now OfS and Research England), HESA, QAA, UCAS, Jisc. But how did the sleepy Cotswolds become the hub for English HE activity?

We’ve all heard rumours as to why agencies were established here – from proximity to previous CEOs’ holiday homes, to proximity to previous CEOs’ mistresses! But I’ve been looking back through the paper trail to see if we can understand this migration to the South West.

From London to Bristol

Our story starts with the birth of the HE funding councils. The University Grants Committee (UGC) was founded in 1919 to improve the funding channel to universities following the First World War, with the sector seen as integral to the post-war economy. For the 69 years that the UGC existed, it was based in Park Crescent in London, just by Regent’s Park.

However, in 1988 it was replaced by the University Funding Council (UFC) – and the parallel Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council (PCFC) came into being following the Education Reform Act (1988). Although both these councils would be shortlived (as they would go on to form HEFCE) it was these two funding councils that made the joint decision to share accommodation and move to Bristol in 1989.

At the time of the decision, both the UFC and PCFC were facing rent increases, expensive lease renewals, planned increase in staff and were offering unfavourable pay rates compared to other London companies. Also, in a paper presented to the UFC board in March 1989, we find: “It is government policy to relocate its civil servants away from London where this can reduce cost without reducing effectiveness.”

Although the funding councils were non-governmental department bodies rather than civil service, this appears to be a key reasoning behind the decision making. But what government policy does it mean?

Thatcher’s bloated civil service

In the history of government, there have been numerous attempts to move civil service jobs out of London, from Wilson through to Blair. And Margaret Thatcher was no exception. With a belief that the civil service was bloated and inefficient, she commissioned a report from her new efficiency unit – led by Robin Ibbs – which resulted in the “Next Steps” reforms. These saw the growth of “Executive Agencies” – new arms length agencies, led by senior civil servants, responsible for delivering specific Whitehall functions on behalf of government. These new agencies were often separated out and located away from their “parent” department to emphasise their independence. Thus, the country saw a significant migration of civil service roles.

The aim of the “Next Steps” reforms was to move 75% of civil servants out of Whitehall into these new Executive Agencies. In the board report to UFC it is noted that:

The Councils must make their own decisions. Nevertheless, they should be aware that the government announced recently it intends to move a further 35,000 civil service jobs away from the London and the south east.

Although the funding councils were not – strictly speaking – executive agencies, they were newly created, and widely seen as a move to bring higher education closer to government. The political advantages of moving out of London were great. But they weren’t the only factor that influenced the decision.

What other higher education bodies?

The UFC board paper reported that the PCFC had already located accommodation at Bristol Polytechnic (now the University of the West of England) and some of the stated advantages to this new location included the attractiveness of the city, ease of access to motorway and rail links, and the obvious financial benefits. Interestingly, PCFC had sounded out the idea with their staff who felt it was a good location, due to its vicinity to other higher education bodies. This include many established providers of HE, the research councils in Swindon and the Universities Central Council on Admissions (UCCA) and University Statistical Resource (USR) in Cheltenham.


UCAS was actually the first of the sector agencies to move to the South West through its predecessor, UCCA. This story is beautifully documented in Ronald Kay’s book “UCCA: Its original development 1950-1985”, a thoroughly recommended read. The idea of creating a central application process for higher education was first developed in the 1950s as the post-war “baby boomers” reached 18 and universities saw a “bulge” in applications.

Following extensive discussion and debate about the different processes, UCCA came into being in 1961. Although the committee that formed the organisation had significant concerns about being based in London, such as limited availability of typists, the speed of UCCA’s inception meant other potential office locations were discarded and it quickly opened at 29 Tavistock Square in London.

Due to the advances in technology and high levels of applications UCCA had to deal with, a move to computerise, using a UNIVAC machine on time-hire, came about in 1967. The sizable machine was placed in temporary accommodation rented from University College London. However, the now split premises, cost of running an office, and issues with recruitment made working in London more and more difficult.

As a result, in 1968 UCCA moved offices to Rodney House in Cheltenham. This may appear a random move but back in the 50s Cheltenham had been suggested as one of the potential originals locations by a member of the Executive committee because it was: “full of well-educated ladies from whom office staff could be recruited!” I suspect this was an inferred reference to the famous Cheltenham Ladies College.

Prior to the move in 1968, all UCCA staff arranged a visit to Cheltenham and met with the Mayor who discussed housing, schools and other local facilities. The final decision was swung by the other data-processing facilities – not least GCHQ – being based in the region.

Our Computer,
Which Art in Cheltenham
UCCA be they name,
They acknowledgements come,
They procedure be done,
In school as it is in Cheltenham.
Give us this day an unconditional offer,
And forgive us our results,
As we forgive those who write confidentials.
And lead us not to Redbrick,
But verily to Oxbridge,
For Cheltenham is the Kingdom
And ours is the glory,

Lord’s Prayer received by UCCA written by an English Sixth Form pupil. Cited in Ronald Kay: UCCA: Its original development 1950-1985.

UCCA would go on to merge with Polytechnics Central Admissions System (PCAS) in 1993 to form what is now known as UCAS.

University Statistical Records and HESA

Interestingly, UCCA’s move to Cheltenham goes some way to explain the establishment of HESA in the same spa town. HESA is the official agency for data collection in the sector and inherited the University Statistical Records (USR) function, which was originally based within UCCA.

USR was collected by UCCA from the mid-60s through to the merger with PCAS, when it became UCAS. The original conception for University Statistical Records came off the back of the Robbins Report (1963). Throughout the investigation, the limited statistics available had caused continuous problem for the committee and resulted in initiating their own surveys and statistical inquiries with the help of the Central Statistical Office in government.

Consequently, the report makes the following recommendation:

169. There should be an appropriate organisation of governmental statistical services to ensure that adequate statistics relating to education as a whole are collected and analysed on a uniform basis.

Due to UCCA’s expertise in collating data and established contacts with universities it became the cheaper option for government to develop the University Statistical Records.

UCCA stopped collecting the data in 1993, once HESA was formed. According to Andy Youell in his article on Wonkhe about the history of HE data;

In 1991 the Higher Education Statistics Coordination Working Party, chaired by Professor (later Sir) Michael Sterling, the then Chair of USR, called for a greater coherence in UK higher education statistics. The reconfiguration of the sector that was heralded by the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act made the establishment of a more coherent data framework essential and on 1st January 1993, HESA was born.

Research Councils

The new offices for the funding council also placed them in the vicinity of the research councils based in Swindon. The Research Councils appear a bit of an anomaly in this tale of HE regulation, but they remain an influential location and share a similar story to the funding councils. Today, seven councils are based at Polaris house in Swindon, and each council has its own unique and interesting history (blog pitches welcome). But how did this location come about?

As with Thatcher’s “executive agencies”, the first research councils appeared to move to the Swindon site around the publication of the Hardman Report (1973). The report entitled “Dispersal of Government work from London”, was actually published during Edwards Heath’s premiership but is largely associated with Wilson, who implemented its recommendations. The Science Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council relocated to Swindon in 1973. This decision was made during or slightly prior to the Hardman Report’s publication. This was debated in parliament as it appears the approval to move was given before government had formally discussed the report recommendations.

It’s unclear when the other councils followed suit, but even with the creation of new UKRI offices in London it doesn’t feel like Polaris House is closing anytime soon.

HEFCE and related sector agencies

Following the funding councils’ move to Bristol, the Further and Higher Education Act (1992) joined together universities and polytechnics under one funding council, HEFCE. Many would believe that this became the lynchpin for other sector agencies establishment in the South West – though, as we have already seen, the advantages of the region as a veritable hotbed of HE activity were already well known.


You can trace the roots of Jisc back to the Computer Board in 1966, which was a non-statutory advisory body. The legendary Janet network was created in 1982 following the Wells Report in the 70s, which recommended the creation of a national research network that would connect university computer centres. It was originally set up in Didcot, Oxfordshire, under the auspices of the United Kingdom Education and Research Networking Association (UKERNA) – and located near other major research infrastructure. To this day, Jisc still has an office in Didcot, largely handling Janet-related activity.

However, following a consultation by the University Funding Council in the early 90s, it was decided to establish a sub-committee under UFC called the Informations Systems Committee (ISC). It was decided that the new sub-committee should have a presence in Bristol in order to work more collaboratively with the funding council. With devolution, ISC became the Joint Information Systems Committee – JISC. In latter years, Jisc (as the organisation is now known) became independent and gained charitable status, and established a head office in central Bristol, replacing office space (shared with HEFCE, and rented from the University of Bristol) in two locations in the city. There have also been offices in Newcastle and Nottingham – and Jisc still has a branch office in London.


A few years down the line, QAA was established in April 1997 by the Joint Planning Committee for Quality Assurance in Higher Education to combine the functions of the Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC) and the quality assessment division of HEFCE in the ongoing attempt to reduce burden. The realisation that rent was significantly cheaper outside London, coupled with a desire to establish their independence from predecessor organisations, led QAA to set up shop in an entirely new location – Gloucester. Furthermore, it provided staff from existing HEQC offices in Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff with a reasonable commute.

Interestingly, QAA originally intended to join UCAS in their planned new offices in Cheltenham but the development took too long so they moved into the former Bank of England building on the Gloucester docks.

Higher education is now well established in the South West. With the Office for Students setting up shop in HEFCE’s previous office, UKRI firmly based in Swindon and the formation of the M5 group (HESA, QAA and Jisc sharing back office functions), this show no signs of changing. Yet this blog only tells part of the story. When discussing this article with friends and colleagues so many memories and anecdotes have come out, that paint a fascinating history of higher education. I have no doubt those reading this have more stories to tell…

7 responses to “Why are so many HE agencies in the south west?

  1. Have you not yet heard of the “Golden Triangle” – Thames Valley and GWR + London + Oxbridge – universities, civil service, defence establishments, research establishments, government agencies etc based on the Home Counties pre 1939 academia, railways and the post 1939 former airfields.
    See UK wide subsidised “hidden density” of employment !

  2. PCFC’s relocation to Bristol was not just about road and rail links. Ron Dearing, chair of PCFC/HEFCE, lived in the North East and one crucial consideration was the availability of flights from Newcastle to Bristol, which gave Bristol the edge over some other contenders for PCFC/HEFCE’s relocation.

  3. When I worked at QAA in the early 2000s, the narrative was that the then CEO, John Randall, lived near Gloucester and that was why they ended up there.

    Are you telling me that’s not true? My world is rocked!

  4. When UCCA moved to Cheltenham, additional criteria included (a) the ability of the postal sorting office to handle an extra couple of million letters per year, and (b) the fact that it had no university: they wanted to be on neutral territory.

  5. As another son of LRK, I suspect that Ronald Kay, the founder and CEO of UCCA, was not entirely unmoved by the fact that his original career plan was to become an Opera singe. His love of classical music continued through his long life (he died in 2019 aged 99 and had very close associations with the Cheltenham Bach Choir as a fine tenor) and as Cheltenham has the famous Music Festival …. established 1945… well: this might be coincidence, but who knows 😉

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