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The Higher Education White Paper – all you need to know

White paper cover

Following what feels like a period of extended radio silence since the higher education Green Paper consultation closed, we now have the government’s response in the form of a higher education White Paper – Success as a Knowledge Economy.

It is a long and fairly dense document, with a lot to digest. The detail will be critical, particularly in relation to how the objectives of the White Paper are reflected in the wording of a Higher Education Bill, but a first reading would suggest that there are no really significant surprises around the core issues.

Many of the core elements in the Green Paper have now been cemented as policy intent. Some ideas have been dropped, such as changing who allocates remaining teaching funding, but that does not dilute the primary policy focus we now see in the White Paper.

Summary

The government clearly intends to move forward on market entry reform in England, changes to sector infrastructure and changes to the research funding landscape. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) technical consultation has also been published, demonstrating a strong commitment to its delivery.

In maintaining its focus on these areas, the views of the sector have not been ignored by government. The responses to the Green Paper have clearly helped shape the way these core objectives will be taken forward. For example, a revised timetable for the TEF has been put forward, called for by the sector, which will facilitate a more measured implementation.

Market reform

Although teaching excellence continues to be a priority, it is interesting to note the increased emphasis given to market reform. The Green Paper signalled the intent to further open up the market, but the White Paper now places this very much as a centre piece of these reforms.

In this context, the narrative of the sector ‘standing still’ feels like an excessively subjective description. New entrants (or challenger institutions as they are called in the White Paper) and competition are already a common feature and institutions that are currently part of the so called established sector have emerged from a rich history and are extremely diverse.

The narrative of standing still also feels like it plays down the exceptional success of those institutions already in the system (including many alternative and private providers) and reinforces the rather glib distinction between ‘incumbents’ and those that are waiting on the side lines to shake things up. The higher education landscape is inevitably richer than the limits of that description. Many institutions within Universities UK are also balancing the demands of the market against wider civic and public good roles, contributing to the success and prosperity of the country at national and local levels. Achieving that balancing act simply cannot and has not been done by standing still – it requires responsive and dynamic institutions.

New providers and maintaining quality

As higher education has changed and adapted, the quality and reputation of UK higher education has been maintained, and this is where close scrutiny of the government’s proposals will be extremely important. Track record on market entry is not a there to protect incumbency. It is there to maintain the quality and the international reputation of the system, and above all to protect the interests of students. This should be the priority of any reforms.

Creating flexibility in track record requirements and probationary approach to Degree Awarding Powers (DAP) will no doubt allow providers swifter access to these powers, but the critical issue is that this needs to serve the student interest, not that of the challenger institutions. The requirement for a student protection plan may help mitigate some of the potential risks of opening up the market, but again, student protection is probably best served by maintaining rigorous entry requirements.

One specific area to watch is the proposal to remove the Privy Council from the DAPs process. It could be argued that this is an anachronism, but it does provide some external scrutiny. These powers will now sit with Office for Students (OfS) and, although it is going to be arm’s length from government, it will be important that the absolute independence of this process is upheld.

The proposals for university title carry forward those set out in the Green Paper, notably to remove the minimum student numbers criterion. As now, there will be a requirement that more than 55% of a provider’s full time equivalent students are studying higher education, but these changes miss the need to ensure the essential characteristics of a university are reflected in the award of university title. Recognising the reputation significance of this title, a public interest test would provide a better approach.

Office for Students (OfS)

The White Paper brings the creation of OfS a (very large) step closer. The idea of a merged OfS and OFFA with a greater regulatory and student focus was floated by the sector in Universities UK’s report on regulatory reform over a year ago. However, the concern we had with the Green Paper proposals was that in casting this as an Office for Students, combined with a removal of research funds, the holistic role that HEFCE has played in supporting the sector and promoting the interests of students could be lost.

The government appears to have listened – at least in part – to our concerns, and although there is no shift in the proposed name for the new body (we had proposed calling it the Office for Students and Higher Education), OfS could in practice look and feel a lot like HEFCE under the bonnet, with proposals for it to take on roles in relation to sustainability, efficiency and health of the higher education sector.

There will of course still be much to play for as OfS’s creation pans out. Many of the powers and duties OfS will have, such as those for quality and data, will be similar to HEFCE (and it is notable that the reforms of quality assessment will be carried forward by OfS), but there are some changes that will need careful scrutiny in any Bill that follows.

For example, the role of the Secretary of State in designating the bodies that discharge quality and data duties is a significant change to the way current powers are structured. The move has the potential to create greater stability and enshrine co-regulation, and the White Paper stresses the consultative nature of the designation process and the continued role of OfS as an arm’s length body, but any Bill will need to carefully circumscribe the powers of the Secretary of State in this area.

With the proposed shift of block grant research funding out of OfS, oversight and responsibility for post graduate education will also be an important issue and the White Paper is fairly silent on this. Effective coordination between UK Research and Innovation and OfS will be critical in avoiding a piecemeal approach. The government has stated that legislation will require that the two bodies to work together across a range of areas, but the culture of the new organisations and effective day to day working will be key, not least to ensure wider concerns about driving a wedge between teaching and research do not materialise.

UK Research and Innovation

The White Paper also sees the creation of another new body – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Although not featured heavily in the Green Paper, this picks up many of the proposals in the Nurse Review. A big concern for the sector has been the proposed shift of block grant research funding out of OfS to sit under UKRI, and any knock on impacts on the integrity of the dual support system under this new arrangement.

To address this concern, we see the creation of Research England under UKRI and the government is promising future legislation that would strengthen the commitment to the dual funding system by requiring the Secretary of State to consider the balance between the two arms of dual support. At face value we will see for the first time dual support enshrined in a legislative arrangement (to date dual support has been largely a matter of convention), but the critical question is does this go far enough? While the Secretary of State may have to consider the balance under this new duty, this provision does not necessarily secure the health and dynamism of dual support. This is one to watch carefully and there may be scope to strengthen this in the Bill.

Conclusion

These are just some initial thoughts on the main themes in the White Paper. Given the scope of the document it inevitably misses a lot. I’ve not gone into detail on the TEF as my colleague William Hammonds will post a separate blog on the Technical Consultation.

We will provide further analysis of the White Paper and TEF consultation over the coming days and weeks. On the 18 May it is also very likely that a HE Bill will be included in the Queen’s Speech. We may not see the HE Bill straight away, but once we do have it its contents will be critical. The powers of OfS, the role of the Secretary of State, market reforms and UKRI will be set out in detail and this is where the real significance of these proposals will be fully understood. As this passes through the houses of Parliament, this is also where we have a real opportunity to shape it.

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