A few people have asked me about this Liz Truss “bonfire of the quangos” story, where sources are suggesting our very own Office for Students could be dismantled in the name of efficiency and austerity.
As you’d imagine, I’ve been closely following the intellectual cut-and-thrust of detailed policy formulation and analysis that is a feature of every Conservative leadership campaign – whether it is Truss or the equally impressive Rishi Sunak that becomes our fourth Prime Minister in seven years we need to be ready to map the impact of each proposed idea (no matter how esoteric and wonkish) on the sector.
Light the blue touchpaper and stand well back
The English tongue rejoices in the term “bonfire of the quangos” because of a young Gordon Brown, who promised such measures while shadow chancellor on 8 January 1995. Consciously or not, his words echoed a 1978 Conservative Political Centre pamphlet by MPs Philip Holland and Michael Fallon – The Quango Explosion. Back in the 1970s the arguments were about patronage – cushy sinecures for political allies – as much as about cost.
There is a confusion of arms-length bodies, quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (the original derivation of the term), statutory bodies, and independent regulators – but in political discourse the meaning is usually taken to be (in the words of Holland and Fallon):
A body other than a departmental committee to which a government minister appoints members other than civil servants
The Secretary of State appoints the chair and other board members, the chief executive, the director of fair access – and will shortly be responsible for making the key appointment of director for freedom of speech and academic freedom. On this measure, at least, OfS feels like a (broadly drawn) quango.
Rees-Mogg builds a fire
As of today, the government runs 23 ministerial departments, 20 non-ministerial departments, 14 public corporations, and 417 other public bodies. Jacob Rees-Mogg has recently been responsible for canvassing departments for details of possible organisations for merger or closure – and as a key supporter of Liz Truss it is likely that he would (should Truss become leader) see it through to completion.
We are able to read, as you might expect (unless you are one of the eight university business schools currently under a profoundly opaque investigation by the Office for Students…) a detailed rubric and systematised process for evaluation. It offers “three tests” for arms-length bodies – each must pass at least one test:
(i) Is this a technical function, which needs external expertise to deliver?
(ii) Is this a function which needs to be, and be seen to be, delivered with political impartiality?
(iii) Is this a function that needs to be delivered independently of ministers to establish facts and/or figures with integrity?
Assessing the OfS
It’s illuminating to consider the Office for Students in these terms.
On test one, though there are some rather nifty statistics that underpin elements of OfS work it is difficult to argue that there are no civil servants that could conduct similar calculations. The work of OfS does not appear to have required any special understanding or knowledge that could not be conducted in house at DfE, so it is difficult to argue that this test has been passed.
In contrast, test two is much more compelling. A regulatory function – if conducted under the terms of the Regulators’ Code – benefits from impartiality and transparency. It is fair to argue that an independent OfS could – theoretically, at least – provide an impartial and transparent interface between ministerial policy and implementation within the higher education sector.
Turning to test three – as a producer of Official Statistics, OfS publishes a range of data used in regulation and policy development. However, as DfE also publishes similar statistics for other education sectors – and as the independent Designated Data Body is responsible for the majority of collection and publication activity in higher education, this test feels like a stretch.
So – the future of OfS rests on whether or not it carries out a function that “needs to be, and be seen to be, delivered with political impartiality”.
And although the chair of the Office for Students takes the Conservative whip in the House of Lords, was a key player in the leadership campaign of the former prime minister, and smashed right through the Nolan Principles of public life by appearing at CPC Hungary – and although the OfS recently used statistically insignificant data to further the case for the governments costly and pointless case for regulation on free speech – and although, contrary to the Regulators’ Code, the OfS does not publish detailed data on its performance or survey customers or regulators on their own perspectives on regulation (having recently been criticised for this by the National Audit Office) – and although OfS routinely disregards the results of consultation exercises citing ministerial priorities – and although inspections have been carried out without warning and without a documented basis for action and without a defined rubric – and although ministers appointed a friend of the chair, who had no relevant experience, to the Board – and although OfS persists on publishing major regulatory documentation at 4.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon in late July – it is fair to say that the principle of an independent higher education regulator is a good one.
In other areas of education, all policy making responsibility has been centralised at DfE – with the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) now responsible only for funding allocations in FE. Quality is monitored by Ofsted, and standards by Ofqual. Though it would be unpopular, the same arrangements could be applied to higher education – with some concerted amendments of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.
With the recently confirmed departure of the designated quality body, and the planned merger of the designated data body into an agency that already works across HE and FE, if there was a time to make this happen it would be sooner rather than later.
Ranged against this we need to reflect that the government is also committed (as far as we can be sure of anything) to reducing the core civil service headcount. A classic way to do that is to move functions to arms-length bodies.
In the joined up tertiary landscape of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement we are likely to see a lot more joined up policymaking spanning HE, FE, and the Skills sector.
The thread by which a separate and discrete system for HE hangs is the actual and perceived independence of the Office for Students.
Maybe we won’t ever get a new chief executive.