An integrated tertiary education system?


No. 7 in a series of guest posts by G. R. Evans

figure-for-last-post‘The world of education is not just boxed up into different sections; it is linear’, protested Neil Carmichael in the Second Reading debate. Several speakers drew attention to the move of the ‘teaching’ role of higher education providers into the Department for Education a few days earlier. They pointed to the need this suggested for joined-up thinking about the relationships of the parts of the education system, especially further education and higher education and the new apprenticeships scheme, and also part-time and lifelong education.

Gordon Marsden asked:

If the opportunity for students at 16 and beyond to switch between higher education and vocational routes is to be real, why is the skills plan not linked directly with the HE White Paper?

Margaret Greenwood pointed to a further ‘linear’ need to be met, that of adult learners. ‘Sadly the Bill is very short on anything to do with lifelong learning and part-time education.’

There were several specific calls for a review of the relationship of higher education to ‘technical education’. Liam Byrne called for ‘a holistic review to put in place a single, comprehensive dual-track system for technical education’. Gordon Marsden asked whether the ‘high-level graduate skills’ the UK is agreed to need should ‘include levels of technical professional competence?’

If so, why is there no strong linkage with the skills plan released by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills just two weeks ago? There is an obvious need for crossover between the skills plan and the higher education Bill, but the disconnect between them makes even less sense now that the Department for Education will be taking on skills and further education policy.

The relationship of further to higher education was also mentioned. Liam Byrne called for ‘a new partnership between further education and higher education’, ‘missing from the Bill’:

If we want to grow the number of students on level 5 apprenticeships, we need to transform the level of integration and collaboration that exists between further education and higher education.

He asked why ‘that dual-track system not being encouraged by placing a duty to collaborate at the heart of the Office for Students?’

The reorganisation of the Department for Education to include higher education was felt to throw into sharp relief the need for parliamentary scrutiny of the Higher Education and Research Bill in the context of associated current developments in these other areas of educational provision and legislation.

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The Bill covers only England: are there risks to the reputation of UKHE?

No. 6 in a series of guest posts by G. R. Evans

post-2-uk-plotThe Higher Education and Research Bill applies only to England. Several speakers in the parliamentary debates so far have expressed concerns about the consequences of the proposed changes for the reputation of UKHE as a whole, as well as for the practical difficulties they may create. The risk to the reputation of UKHE of proceeding with England-only changes on the proposed scale without detailed discussion with the devolved administrations seems obvious.

In the House of Lords debate on Queen’s Speech on May 19, Lord Murphy of Torfaen asked the Minister to talk to ‘ministerial counterparts in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales about the implications of this new legislation on our devolved Administrations’, which, as he pointed, out have ‘nearly 11 million people in the United Kingdom’. Several speakers at the Second Reading on July 19 raised the same concern that the Bill would not resolve the agreed need for updating with respect to the devolved administrations and would indeed create problems for their own higher education systems.

Carol Monaghan spoke of ‘the need to consider Scotland’s unique educational provision’. She drew attention to Scotland’s ‘distinct quality assurance system’ and asked for ‘recognition of Scotland’s enhancement-led institutional reviews’, with ‘benchmarking of those reviews against TEF ratings, so as to allow institutions in Scotland to continue to compete on a level playing field when attracting international students.’

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Placing teaching and research in different Departments of State: the funding implications

No. 5 in a series of guest posts by G. R. Evans

One of the most significant regulatory changes introduced by the Bill is the decisive separation of research done by a research-active higher education provider in England from its ‘educational’ or teaching work. This has now been reinforced by the decision to move teaching into the Department for Education. Matters affecting the research activities of those providers involved in research (a proportion of the publicly-funded universities) are to remain in a revised Department for Business, the new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Jo Johnson as Minister of State for Universities and Science will hold his post jointly in the two Departments.


So teaching will be under the control of the Office for Students (OfS) which will also have the power to register or de-register a provider, to grant or remove degree-awarding powers and to grant or remove the right to use ‘university title’. The OfS will be overseen by the Department of Education (DfE).

Research funding will come under the control of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), overseen by the new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).


The Higher Education and Research Bill ss.83-103 will set up a UK Research and Innovation body incorporating the Research Councils currently responsible for project funding. The infrastructure element remaining as block grant direct public funding, will be distributed through a new body ‘Research England’. This will take over the part of the infrastructure function of HEFCE which currently funds research, but it will no longer be a separate entity. It will disburse infrastructure funding within UKRI.

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Consequences for institutional autonomy and academic freedom

No 4 in a series of Guest posts by G. R. Evans

The problem-areas flagged up here are technical but they are also of fundamental importance to academics because they affect academic freedom and the institutional autonomy of providers of higher education. These are topics which have repeatedly engaged Members of Parliament and peers in heated debate in the framing of previous higher education legislation and are likely to do so again.

It has taken determined resistance over many decades to protect these two things which academics discover to be immensely important when they find them threatened. One is independence from state control for universities. The other is the freedom of individual academics to determine what to teach and how to teach it, and on what to do research.

The history of these protections

When universities first accepted public funding it was with the protection that they should have freedom from Government interference when they chose how to spend it. A ‘Haldane buffer’ was set up, to advise Government, receive the state’s funding in response, and deliver it in the form of a ‘block grant’ to each institution. This protection was maintained for nearly a century, with the University Grants Committee acting as ‘buffer’ from 1919-1989, the Universities Funding Council 1989-1992 and then the four funding councils set up under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 [FHEA]. Each institution has remained free to spend its grant as it chooses, subject to the requirements of FHEA s.65 (2).

It was taken for granted in 1992 that the block grant would cover both teaching and research and the provision of the infrastructure of laboratories and libraries needed for both purposes. The same principle ensured that the ‘teaching and research’ needs of research students would be provided within the infrastructure the grant was to fund.

The tripling of tuition fees for undergraduate students in English universities England from 2012 made a de facto a policy-change designed to transfer the burden of paying for their teaching to the undergraduate students receiving it. The block grant continues to cover both teaching and research in the devolved administrations, but in England only the ‘research’ element of direct public funding and a decreasingly small sum for teaching survives .

Consequence 1: The introduction of new-style ‘regulation’ and the risk to institutional autonomy

The FHEA s.65(4) provided the four UK funding councils with a sanction if an institution was found to be mis-spending its block grant. The funding council could ‘require the repayment, in whole or in part, of sums paid by the council if any of the terms and conditions subject to which the sums were paid is not complied with’, and charge interest if the repayment was not made promptly. This ‘conditions of grant’ sanction was used when it was found in 2008 that London Metropolitan University had been in receipt of funding for more students than it actually had, and it was eventually required to repay £30m.

The change from direct public ‘block grant’ funding to tuition-fee funding for teaching made the ‘conditions of grant’ sanction no longer applicable.

Then came talk of the need to make HEFCE into a ‘regulator’. This first appeared as a proposal in the White Paper of June 2011, Students at the heart of the system. Chapter 6 of this document described ‘a new fit-for-purpose regulatory framework’ for England only, including the statement that:

As the balance of public investment shifts from grants to loans, the Government must maintain control of its financial exposure [emphasis added].

This is in itself a perfectly proper objective for a Government. But in this instance it was taken to be achieved best by ceasing direct public funding of higher education teaching and moving the responsibility for payment to students through their tuition fees. This had the disadvantage of requiring Government to fund those fees through student loans, which might not be repaid for many years, or at all.

Since that time, HEFCE has begun to describe itself on its website as ‘the lead regulator for higher education in England’, and to define its ‘powers’ more fully, extending them to the furthest limits of its statutory duty as in FHEA ss.62-70.

Meeting the need for regulation for ‘alternative’ providers

Bringing the alternative providers into the regulatory system is one of the principal changes proposed in the Higher Education and Research Bill. Meeting this need seems to have had a disproportionate effect on its framing. No direct ‘regulatory’ powers or responsibilities can lie with HEFCE under the FHEA in the case of ‘alternative’ providers, because they are defined as providers not in receipt of direct public funding. The ‘conditions of grant’ sanction therefore cannot apply.

HEFCE has a role in the process by which alternative providers may apply for course ‘designation’. Students on a Designated Course are able to access Student Loan Company funding, though the providers of these courses are not deemed to be in receipt of the direct public funding to which conditions of grant apply. Regulation of alternative providers lies with Government and HEFCE can only, as it puts it, ‘assist’.

The Higher Education and Research Bill proposes to replace HEFCE (though not the other UK funding councils) by an Office for Students (OfS). This is to have extensive regulatory powers, including the de-registration of established higher education providers.

Consequence 2: Awareness of perceived ‘regulatory’ threats to institutional autonomy and academic freedom

In the Second Reading debate the Secretary of State offered a broad reassurance:

Academic autonomy is the bedrock of success for our higher education sector. The Bill introduces measures to safeguard the interests of students and taxpayers, while protecting academic freedom and institutional autonomy. It enables the OfS to be independent of Government and the sector, as a regulator should be. It will be an arm’s length non-departmental public body, just as the Higher Education Funding Council for England is now.

This seems to confuse the new ‘regulator’s’ independence of Government with protection of institutional independence or autonomy.

The limited definitions of ‘academic freedom’ available in current legislation are re-used in the Higher Education and Research Bill without reference to the intention of the legislation in which they were first included.

The Bill includes at s.2 a duty to protect academic freedom of ‘providers’ and at s.35 a duty to protect academic freedom. Both need careful review in Committee.

Institutional autonomy: course design

At s.2 (2) of the new legislation, OfS will be required to have regard to guidance given it by the Secretary of State. He or she is in turn required to have regard to the need to ‘protect academic freedom’. The specifics which follow all relate to institutional ‘academic freedom’, which would be more conveniently and less confusingly described as ‘institutional autonomy’.

The Secretary of State is not to interfere with a provider’s freedom ‘to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed’; the appointment of academic staff or the admission of students. The Robbins Report of 1963 identified as fundamental the right of a university to determine on academic grounds who may teach, who may be taught, what may be taught and how it should be taught’ (Report of the Committee on Higher Education (1963), 702.). These four essentials have been respected ever since.

At the time of the passing of the FHEA there was significant Parliamentary challenge to the inclusion of powers for a Secretary of State to set conditions of grant framed by reference to particular courses of study. The result was FHEA s.68(3) which states that such terms and conditions:

may not be framed by reference to particular courses of study or programmes of research (including the contents of such courses or programmes and the manner in which they are taught, supervised or assessed) or to the criteria for the selection and appointment of academic staff and for the admission of students.

However, the Higher Education and Research Bill s.2 (4) enlarges the powers of a Secretary of State to offer ‘guidance’ ‘framed by reference to particular courses of study’. If the Bill is to modify this protection there must be a clear statement of the justification for doing so and the intention of the change.

Assessing degree ‘standards’ and the protection of institutional autonomy                                                      

In the Second Reading debate, Andrew Smith drew attention to Clause 23 of the Bill, which provides for the assessment of ‘standards’ as well as ‘quality’. This, he pointed out, ‘is an extension of regulatory power that infringes institutional autonomy. The Government need to tell us what its purpose is and how it will be used.’ That purpose, it emerges, is connected with the new OfS powers to register or deregister providers.

The Bill’s s.23 states that ‘“Standards” has the same meaning as in section 13(1)(a)’. That section occurs among the provisions about provider registration. Initial or ongoing registration conditions ‘may, in particular include:

a condition relating to the quality of, or the standards applied to, the higher education provided by the provider (including requiring the quality to be of a particular level or particular standards to be applied).

  1. 23 continues on the ‘registration’ theme by requiring the OfS to:

assess, or make arrangements for the assessment of, the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education provided by—

(a) institutions who have applied to be registered in the register for the purposes of determining whether they satisfy any initial registration condition applicable to them relating to the quality of, or standards applied to, higher education provided by them (see section 13(1)(a)),


(b) registered higher education providers for the purposes of determining whether they satisfy any ongoing registration condition of theirs relating to the quality of, or standards applied to, higher education provided by them (see section 13(1)(a)).

Academic freedom: the need for better wording

The Bill includes a separate clause 35 importing a ‘duty to protect academic freedom’. This repeats in different wording points made in s.2 and seems to refer to institutional autonomy. ‘Academic freedom’ insofar as it applies to individual academics appears only in s.14 (7) of the Bill among the ‘public interest governance conditions’ with which a provider’s governing documents must be ‘consistent’ , ‘so far as applicable to the provider’. S. 14 (7) contains the provision that the list must include the principle that:

academic staff at an English higher education provider have freedom within the law:

(a) to question and test received wisdom, and

(b) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at the provider.

This wording is taken from Education Reform Act 1988 s.202 and has hitherto applied only to academic staff at universities then existing.

Its original purpose was to provide a protection against dismissal of academic staff for ‘managerial’ reasons when academic tenure was removed by the same Act. This, like the provision that the Secretary of State must not seek directly to control particular courses, was hard fought for in Parliamentary debate.

It seems clear that much more careful review of definitions and legislative provisions and their purposes is now needed in the case of both ‘institutional autonomy’ and ‘academic freeom’.  This is a part of the Bill which bears the marks of drafting in haste. These matters are too important to be left unrevised.

The Public Bills Committee has requested submissions on the Bill, which can be emailed to:

Points to raise:

  • Drafting review seems to be a main need, to ensure that it is as clear as possible what is protected under the headings of ‘institutional autonomy’ and ‘academic freedom’.
  • The proposed admission to the higher education sector of a variety of alternative providers, the vast majority without even taught degree-awarding powers, demands review and definition of the characteristics of a provider entitled to the protection of its institutional autonomy.

Speedy entrances and sharp exits: letting in more alternative providers

No. 3 in a series of Guest posts by G. R. Evans


Alternative providers from Key: Blue have University Title; Brown have Degree-Awarding Powers; Pink offer designated courses; Violet deliver HE as a franchise only.

One of the most controversial suggestions in the White Paper of May 16 is a change to the long-standing policy that on the rare occasion higher education providers get into difficulties the funding council will support them to put right what has gone wrong, in order that students may complete their courses and obtain degrees of lasting repute and value. The White Paper sees new providers as ‘challenger’ institutions and approves of ‘provider exit’, provided there are protections for students affected. The Higher Education and Research Bill includes detailed provisions for the future OfS to register and de-register providers.

Making it easier and quicker for new providers to gain degree-awarding powers or university title

In the House of Lords debate on the Queen’s speech on May 19, Baroness Brinton expressed a concern about the proposal to make it easier to gain degree-awarding powers or university title:

The White Paper relaxes much of the protective structure to ensure quality that has been one of the key reasons the UK’s institutions have an enviable reputation. The new degree-awarding powers mechanism must maintain that protection. We await the detail, to see how this will operate, but I have concerns that allowing start-up universities to set up quickly might not provide the security that students deserve.’

That ‘detail’ was partly provided with the publication of the Bill. One speaker on 19 July had personal experience of the development of a private provider. Mark Field explained that he had spent the past eleven years on the advisory board of the London School of Commerce. It had been a positive experience, he said. However, he argued strongly for ‘the proposals to relax the criteria for validating degree-awarding powers’ to ‘be examined thoroughly’. ‘I have some sympathy with the view that because the title of a university is much respected, it should be clearly protected and defined,’ he added.

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TEF and tuition-fee rises are not in the Higher Education and Research Bill. Why?

No.  2 in a series of guest posts by G.R. Evans


The Secretary of State, introducing the Higher Education and Research Bill at the Second Reading, urged that ‘the teaching excellence framework is such an important part of the Bill’. But the Bill does not mention it. The new legislation will not directly affect the plans to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework, or decisions about raising tuition fees, both of which are being taken forward down separate tracks.

The Teaching Excellence Framework began as an announcement by Jo Johnson as the new Minister for Higher Education in a speech in July 2015, to Universities UK. It had a prominent place in the Green Paper published in November 2015 and again in the White Paper published on May 16 2016, which explained how it was to be ‘designed’ and ‘implemented’ in straightforward ‘it’s going to happen’ language of ‘will’ and ‘shall’ and a timetable making it clear that it did not depend on the coming into force of new legislation.

The TEF does not form part of the Bill because it requires no legislative change except possibly ensuring that the new Office for Students (OfS) will have powers to ‘rate’ English higher education providers ‘regarding the quality of, and the standards applied to, the higher education they provide’ (Bill s.25), with provision for ensuing adjustment of fees under Bill Schedule 2 (The Fee Limit).

Gordon Marsden pointed out in the Second Reading debate that Parliament will have no opportunity to debate the plans to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). He added that ‘the University and College Union and others are deeply concerned by the lack of parliamentary scrutiny built into the TEF’.

Nor does the Bill involve further consideration or review of the operation of the student loan system, which Liam Byrne described in the debate of 19 July as underpinned by a ‘Ponzi scheme’. It does not need to do so in order to achieve its purposes.

The press was quick to remark on the Ministerial Announcement days after the debate that an inflation-related increase above the previous maximum of £9,000 was to be allowed. Universities, including Manchester and Durham, were quick to advertise the new higher fees. Continue reading

The Higher Education and Research Bill: The need to stop and think

Guest post by G.R. Evans

The Higher Education and Research Bill is now on its way to the Committee stage. The Public Bills Committee has requested submissions, which should be emailed to

The Bill is not a speedy read. In an earlier blogpost I sketched its proposed changes to the English higher education system. This set of new short blogposts may, I hope, be useful to those in search of a convenient aid to picking up points which are now emerging more clearly, and on some of which concerns have already been raised in both Houses of Parliament. Where MPs or peers are quoted or mentioned links are provided to their contact details.

Where we are

The Bill was drafted against the clock, in order to be ready to publish on 19 May 2016. Publication came immediately after the Queen’s Speech on 18 May, and only three days after the publication of the White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy.

Weeks of political campaigning before the Referendum on 23 June followed, during which normal political business was largely set aside. Several weeks came after that during which a new Government was formed, Departments of State reorganised and new Ministers appointed or existing ones moved.

There was extensive early press coverage of concerns about the implications of the Brexit vote for higher education, especially the future of research funding arrangements, the freedom of European academics to work in the UK and of UK academics to work in Europe, and student numbers from the EU. The House of Lords discussed these concerns on 20 July, with half a dozen members giving detailed examples of problems already arising and seeking reassurances. There were requests for a rethink about the Bill’s planned changes. Nevertheless, just before the summer recess began, a Second Reading of the Bill was timetabled on 19 July.

An Act of Parliament normally goes through a series of stages, handily set out for the Higher Education and Research Bill on the website. A Green Paper is not a requirement. A Green Paper was published in November 2015 and a consultation followed. A summary of responses was published with the White Paper on May 16, but the concerns expressed did not appear to be reflected in its content. A White Paper followed by consultation is usual. A White Paper not followed by consultation is very unusual, as is the publication of a Bill quite so hot on the heels of a White Paper.

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