Farewell HEFCE – A Bonfire of the Acronyms?

Nicola Owen, Chief Administrative Officer at Lancaster University and AHUA Blog Editor, reflects on HEFCE's work and role as the sector bids the organisation farewell, and looks to the future under OfS.

The reflection of dimming sunlight amid gathering clouds over the Thames reflected the atmosphere in the HEFCE farewell bash yesterday (27 March), hosted by Lord Willetts in the House of Lords.  Current and former staff, Chairs and Chief Executives gathered amongst other ‘friends’ who had played a part in HEFCE over the last 25 years.  There was an end of an era feel to the discussions and speeches over afternoon tea.

Lord Willetts reflected on the 100 years history of funding councils (UGC, UFC, PCFC and HEFCE) and added the hope that the move to a regulator would still carry through many of the values of those bodies, particularly recognition and respect for autonomy of higher education institutions.  Madeleine Atkins reflected on the contributions and reflections of her staff and predecessors and the positive initiatives and challenges HEFCE had navigated over the years.  Tim Melville-Ross reflected on his hopes for the future – for an OfS that balanced the regulatory requirements of protecting students’ interests and ensuring sustainability with that of being a supporter and adviser to the sector and government on how to get the best policy outcomes for higher education. He hoped for a regulator that would keep a focus on widening participation and keep low walls with Research England. But most of all for a regulator to keep focused on the long term strategy and vision for the sector, avoiding being too buffeted by shorter term newsworthy issues of the day.

That nostalgic tone resonated for me too. HEFCE has been part of many milestones of my own career – my very first piece of work given to me as a junior administrator was to draft a response to a consultation on HE in FECs. There started the building of my professional lexicon. Navigating these became a way of life – ASNs, MASNs, HESES, CETLs, LTSNs, NNCOs, HEIF, RPIF, RCIF, TCIF, TQA, RAE.  So many bids carefully crafted, returns made and consultations responded to. It’s my professional equivalent of an academic publication record.

And let’s not forget ‘The Letter’ – that annual salutation from the Minister that set out ‘priorities’ for HEFCE for the forthcoming year. It used to be a November treat, moved to Christmas and got later and later until it arrived in Lent.  The number I have poured over, looking to foretell the future funding implications and second guessing the next big initiative to come out of HEFCE the following year. It became a big event – swapping thoughts between colleagues and aiming to be the first to identify the hidden bomb within.

There have been difficult times of cuts and darker times where some institutions have been in crisis. Issues of sustainability, poor governance and student satisfaction in a relatively small number of institutions resulted in a gradual creep of bureaucracy and regulation for the sector overall. New terminology and acronyms arose – the Memorandum of Assurance and Accountability; the Single Conversation, TRAC, FEC, FSSG, KIS, Unistats, APR, HER. As institutions we moaned and groaned at times but generally came into line and HEFCE sought to work with the grain of the sector, easing us through, selling us the benefits and listening to practical issues about implementation.

There have been attempts to push back on that creep of regulation at times, recalling the Better Regulation Task Force (BRTF), its successor in the Higher Education Regulation Review Group (HERRG) which morphed into the Higher Education Better Regulation Group (HEBRG) and culminated in the Bell Review. But when the writing on the wall for HEFCE came with the change in the fee regime in 2012 (whither a funding council without the funding?) the inevitability of a new kind of regulation could not be resisted.

So looking to the future, what should we expect? OfS is already inheriting terminology of the ‘EF’ Framework, T, R and K (we await an acronym for subject level TEF). And they’ve already had ‘The Letter’ (which looks very much like the HEFCE ones but longer and more prescriptive).  But a new lexicon is emerging – ‘level playing field’; lead indicators; designated bodies (DQB, DDB); public interest principles; and most significantly ‘conditions’, ‘breach’, and ‘sanctions’.

We can look forward with some hope – it is in the interest of the OfS to have a healthy, thriving, world-leading sector and it is in universities’ interests to look after students’ interests, manage sensibly and ensure diversity and innovation in provision.  We will need to find a way to work together, find common synergies, incentivise and motivate not just regulate, comply and react.  Whilst we might experience a period of developing the dance, as AHUA we will continue to seek to work with OfS to explain and explore the practical, the implications and the possible.  And for the OfS we hope to build a relationship where they will listen, test and explore as they lay their foundations.

So thank you and goodbye HEFCE colleagues, thank you for your patience and professionalism over what has got to have been a challenging period of transition. Thank you for getting to know us as individuals and institutions and listening over the years.

Avoiding the potential metaphors about OfS creation on Easter Sunday, let’s just hope for a phoenix emerging from the ashes.

For the moment, as Churchill said, we’ll just KBO.