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Wicked problems: can we resurrect a truly UK-wide approach to HE?

Political divergence across the UK nations could threaten UK HE's world-class reputation. Harriet Barnes and Kieron Rees call for renewed efforts to save a UK-wide HE system
This article is more than 4 years old

Harriet Barnes is Head of Policy (Higher Education and Skills) at the British Academy.

Kieron Rees is Head of External Affairs and Policy at Universities Wales.

Our global reputation is at stake

Harriet Barnes, British Academy

During the 10 years I worked for QAA, the fact that “UK HE plc” was an important concept was one of our core principles (others including “quality and standards are not the same thing”, and “this meeting will conclude by the advertised time”). The choice of “UK Quality Code” as the official short form title was deliberate, for this very reason.

Even then, maintaining reference points which were UK-wide wasn’t always straightforward when it came to the detail, but there was enough of a shared sense of what a high-quality student experience should look like and how you delivered it that it felt worth the effort.

The recent election has raised questions about the future of the Union at a fundamental level, with the prospect of an independent Scotland and a united Ireland outside the UK becoming far more real. This means we need to think seriously about why we care so much about “UK HE plc” and what it might mean if there is no longer a political basis to underpin it.

Although we have seen increasing divergence in higher education policy between the devolved jurisdictions, many of the mechanisms which are vital to the functioning of the system remain UK-wide – HESA, UCAS, USS – plus the many HE sector bodies, including the one for which I now work. When it comes to research, we almost always think in terms of the whole UK as our frame of reference, whether it be UKRI or REF. How realistic would it be to have four separate versions of each of these institutions?

It isn’t just the economies of scale and practicalities which are at issue here – after all, HEFCE and Research England have run the REF on behalf of the other three jurisdictions since its inception, so it isn’t impossible that a similar arrangement could be made for other functions, complicated and expensive though it might become.

Rather, it is the fact that the global reputation of UK HE plc, and the world leading position of our research base, derive from the richness and diversity of the UK sector taken as a whole. Admittedly, the wider world may well not notice when there are no longer Scottish MPs in Westminster (for instance), but the impact that such a change could have does mean that the global higher education and research community might. We probably do need to start trying to understand the implications and preparing ourselves to deal with the consequences.

The UK government must take seriously its impact on Wales

Kieron Rees, Universities Wales

The sector in Wales certainly hasn’t been shy about emphasising the ways in which decisions taken by the UK government should consider the impact of those decisions on the devolved nations. Most prominently in 2019 the focus of this was on Augar, and a lot of the analysis in the press considered what impact a proposed fee cut in England may have on Wales.

But fees are only one element of where the impact of decisions relating to England can be felt in Wales. Funding decisions by the UK government impact the Welsh government’s overall budget. And the student finance system in England determines what student loans the Welsh government is able to put in place. Needless to say the Augar panel’s impact assessment that the “English system [would retain] enough similarities, and differences, with systems in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales that we do not anticipate any major change in cross-border student behaviour as a result of our proposals” may not capture the complexities involved.

There are matters outside of fees and funding where UK government decisions can have a tangible impact on Wales but where the National Assembly for Wales or Welsh government are not involved in the decision-making. For example, the UK government’s decision to increase employer’s Teacher’s Pension Scheme contributions, which affects Welsh universities and reduces the UK government’s net expenditure in this area from £12.6bn in 2018-19 to £6.7bn in 2019-20.

Beyond finance matters, there continues to be a need for UK-wide higher education infrastructure. In Wales, 41 per cent of our 2019 acceptances to courses in Wales were students from England and around 40 per cent of Welsh 18-year olds were accepted onto courses in England. This cross-border flow means issues such as reciprocal quality assurance and regulation are particularly important and that, should we wish to maintain a UK-wide higher education system, then cooperation between all four constituent nations in the UK on these issues will become crucial.

Leaving aside the larger constitutional issues about federalism in the UK or a possible English parliament, making the UK work for all its nations will require a new approach to decision-making and one which recognises the impact that decisions made by the UK government can have on the devolved nations. This might be through a more formal process for assessing the impact of UK government decisions on the devolved nations or a strengthening of the role of the Joint Ministerial Committee: a forum of the UK and devolved nations.

2 responses to “Wicked problems: can we resurrect a truly UK-wide approach to HE?

  1. As background to this contribution let me draw attention to our chapter on The Impact of Devolved Government: Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Englans in The Governance of British Higher Education–The Impact of Governmental, Financial and Market Pressures, Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, October. This is the first attempt to research the impact of devolution on the previously integrated systems of higher education. On the basis of this research which highlights the increasing divergence of the four systems and some of the benefits which have arisen from it, we would not favour seeking to turn the clock back but to insist that the UK/English Government should consult the devolved governments much more systematically before introducing changes in England which may have far reaching impacts in the other UK nations.England in fact has much to learn itself from reforms introduced in Wales and Scotland which have increased the diversity and distinctiveness of UK higher education as a whole.

  2. ‘increasing divergence in higher education policy between the devolved jurisdictions’

    In recent years, it’s not the devolved nations that have been doing the diverging.

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