The major higher education event in the UK this month was probably the publication of the UK Government’s plans for English higher education in their Green Paper, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. It is amongst other things a fairly comprehensive statement of the priorities and intentions of the new UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson. In his introduction the Minister sets out his agenda:
‘We will reward excellent teaching with reputational and financial incentives; widen participation of people from disadvantaged backgrounds; provide greater focus on employability; open up the sector to greater competition from new high quality providers; and reform our regulatory structure so that it drives value for money for students and taxpayers.’
Each of these elements has a section within the Green Paper, and I shall return to each of them in due course. On this occasion I want to comment on the Green Paper’s proposals for a new regulatory structure, or as it is put in the document, for ‘simplifying the higher education architecture’. At the heart of this is the UK Government’s proposal to establish a new ‘Office for Students’, which would be a ‘single, light touch regulatory system for all providers of higher education’, and would be both a ‘regulator’ and a ‘student champion’. This new agency would combine many or all of the functions of the current nine public bodies regulating or supporting higher education; but it would also have a particular focus, based on what the government regards as they key reasons for government intervention:
‘(i) information asymmetries between students and institutions and insufficient demand side pressures to ensure quality; (ii) the inability of students, in the quantities desirable for society and the economy, to finance higher education at the point of entry without support; and, (iii) the broader benefits to society of having a highly educated population.’
The frame of reference therefore guiding this reform is that higher education operates in a market which the government needs to regulate to protect the consumer (i.e. the student). This can be compared with the role of the current primary higher education regulator in England, HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England). This is how HEFCE explains its role:
- ‘ensure accountability for funding and be a proportionate regulator
- act in the public interest and be open, fair, impartial and objective
- be an effective broker between Government and the sector and in doing so, ensure that we are implementing government policy effectively.’
The role of HEFCE is to act as an intermediary between universities and government, and in that setting to recognise and protect also the standards of higher education and the interests of students. That is not the same role as the one now being proposed for the Office for Students, and the Green Paper contains little analysis or argument about what this change might imply and how it might change higher education practice. HEFCE is what is generally referred to as an arm’s-length body – this is a body that ‘delivers a public service, is not a ministerial government department, and which operates to a greater or lesser extent at a distance from Ministers.’ In the higher education field such bodies generally channel public money to universities and monitor performance under various headings; but they provide a voice for the sector in the sector’s dealings with government. If the new Office for Students is principally concerned with student interests, a key support function for universities will be lost – not a minor issue at a time when some institutions are thought to be very vulnerable.
But in any case, it must be doubted just a little whether the new agency will in practice primarily work to support students; not least because most student representative bodies are pretty hostile to the system being implemented.
This reform may not be the wrong reform; but it may need a more explicit narrative that recognises and assesses the fairly fundamental shift in higher education assumptions that it is introducing. That is what is missing.