Green Paper, Nurse Review, CSR: Trilogy or awaiting a sequel?

Nicola Owen, Chief Administrative Officer at Lancaster University, looks at how the HE landscape is changing as a result of the November announcements from Government.

So it’s been like watching a TV weekly drama serial for the last three weeks, waiting for each instalment to see where the story ends up. First the (very) Green Paper Fulfilling our Potential. We had 105 pages of ideas and proposals focused on education and students, but not much character development. Then the Nurse Review of Research Councils gave a brief 36 pages on the future plot outline for research funding but still teased us with lots of unanswered questions. Then finally we sat glued to the Comprehensive Spending Review both in the entertaining technicolour and the 154 page full statement (always read the statement, never rely on the trailer)… Whilst you could never describe a 17% cut as an anticlimax, it’s certainly the case that if we had expectations that all would become clear, we’ve been left with as many questions as answers.

So what have we learnt? Well the last three weeks have provided a veritable blogathon and feast of opinions. There is detailed comment elsewhere on each one but if you step back from the detail there are some clear themes coming through about the landscape we are entering.

Firstly, the Government now looks through a different lens at the higher education sector – not as the 132 UUK members but instead as multiple, dynamic, 400+ individual providers. New and existing institutions may come and go – Government’s focus is to protect the students, not the individual institutions themselves.

For those of us who have ‘grown-up’ in the sector this challenges our very values. Whilst we have become used to thinking of other institutions as competitors, in practical terms we still remain very collegial, sharing practice and ideas. Professional associations such as the AHUA promote a sense of shared values and approaches within a conceptual framework of higher education as a public good.

For many institutions it will seem like good news that we are being considered as autonomous organisations who are able and expected to determine our own destinies. The swift volte face from categorization from public to private sector is driven by the desire to expand the market and treat all providers on a level playing field. It also reflects the reality of the resources available from government and the public purse. There are bold statements in the Green Paper about mechanisms which will allow institutions to fail whilst protecting students. But when the first institution which bears the title University fails, what is the wider reputational impact to us all of the headline ‘University goes bankrupt’? And if the University in question is the sole provider in a rural county or in a marginal constituency, will this intention hold true?

Secondly, HE will remain a highly regulated market.

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) produces a whole new set of mechanisms to enable the incentivisation of the latest policy concerns; to control the number of institutions charging at a variety of different levels (which in turn provides some control on the level of loan expenditure); and to provide clearer market segmentation. There are lots of buzzwords in the Green Paper about ‘transparency, reducing bureaucracy, simplifying the architecture’. Yet I’ve not met any HE professional who has quite worked out how TEF will work or practically be implemented. How will our prospective and current students understand it in meaningful terms? The potential metrics are notoriously volatile year on year at a subject level and league table compilers have had to employ increasingly sophisticated statistical methods to differentiate between clusters of outcomes. And the cliff edge effect of moving between one TEF level to another creates further financial distortions in the market which get amplified when applied across a population of thousands of students.

Many expressed relief that the proposed creation of Research UK will still be arms length from government. But we should pause to think about the risks to us all of loss of a body that is able to take an overview of all our core activities – research, teaching, engagement, governance, sustainability etc. The commitment to dual support and the balance between competitive grant funding, QR, HEIF etc may be strong now, but the new architecture will provide lots of opportunities over time for Government to influence priorities more strongly than before. One accountable officer will now negotiate an overall budget that includes research grant funding, HEIF, QR all funded via BIS.

Already in the CSR, whilst being told that the science budget has been protected, £1.2bn within it has already been ringfenced towards the Global Challenges research fund, which relates to the Overseas Development Aid expenditure. The sections in the CSR on regional investment also paint a very interesting picture of how research initiatives and funding are being targeted aligned with Treasury priorities. It will be interesting to see how the first BIS grant letter to RUK plays out.

Finally, whilst some parts of Government are starting to indicate a coherent policy approach to higher education, this is not all joined up yet. We saw lots of interesting announcements in the context of a Spending Review about visa duration, work arrangements and even the maintenance of English Language requirements. Yet the transfer of costs from the Exchequer to the Home Office for overall border and immigration costs will be met by ‘targeted visa fee increases’. Together with possible increases in NHS surcharges, this could have a much more dramatic effect on recruitment of staff and students.

Some of the announcements we have seen over the last three weeks are set in stone, but most of the detail is still up for discussion. The future can still be influenced and it is incumbent on us in the sector [sic] to make sure we are strong authors of it. We want to avoid our future storylines turning into a soap opera.