This post is part of an ongoing series where I intend to develop my full personal (not institutional) response to the HE Green Paper. Comments are welcome to refine this.
The Green Paper asks in Question 18:
a) Do you agree with the proposed changes to the higher education architecture? Please give reasons for your answer.
b) To what extent should the OfS have the power to contract out its functions to separate bodies?
c) If you agree, which functions should the OfS be able to contract out?
d) What are your views on the proposed options for allocating Teaching Grant? Please give reasons for your answer
The proposed changes to the HE architecture strike me as an expensive exercise in re-branding. There does not seem to be any function in the existing system that is not needed in the new setup. HEFCE is, apparently, to be disbanded while all of its functions either end up in the “Office for Students” or under a funding stream of “Research UK”, as per the Nurse review. Although a cost is cited of £40m to oversee these entities as they exist, the acknowledged brilliance of HEFCE’s existing expertise is entirely worth it. If, as a result of this proposal, we lose some of the expertise at HEFCE (which carries the broad confidence of the sector) then it will be a dark day for the future of HE, for the same of saving a relatively small amount of money.
The fundamental downside of the proposed reconfiguration, though, is a separation of teaching and research that does not make sense in the HE system. It is a singular benefit of the current system that research and teaching span multiple organisations that each have expertise in the crossovers between these areas. Losing this link will cause substantial damage to both research and teaching, which mutually inform one another, both epistemologically and economically.
Again, however, I also draw attention to the problems of viewing HE as a consumer good through the eyes of students, outlined in my responses to other questions. For, while it is laudable to seek to “approach higher education regulation through a student lens”, the problem is, as the Paper acknowledges, that the good of HE is not just to students but also “the broader benefits to society”. If HE institutions provide those broader benefits – to society and to employers – but regulation is viewed solely through the student-as-consumer (and the “customer is always right” paradigm) then we risk jeopardizing those very benefits that justify the intervention of government in the HE sector.
If the OfS contracts out its functions, then the simplicity of streamlining the process that is sought is instantly negated as a whole network of independent entities come into play.
I am not convinced that the provision for prioritizing teaching grant is sufficiently arms-length, at present. Although there are nods to institutional autonomy, if a limited number of players are working in a field, then realistically Ministers will be able to directly channel funds to preferred spaces.