The Haldane principle: remembering Fisher and getting that definition right

Opinion piece by G. R. Evans

It is very welcome news that the Government has decided to include a definition of the Haldane Principle on the face of the Bill. Jo Johnson made a special point of this in his speech to Universities UK on 24 February.  An accompanying document was published jointly by both the Departments of State that will in future be responsible for higher education. It proudly states that:

the amendment that we have tabled will, for the first time in history, enshrine the Haldane Principle in law.

This document did not, however, give more details. The actual Amendment of Clause 99 proposing and containing the definition is to be found in yet another document:

Page 64, line 10, at end insert -

The ‘Haldane principle’ is the principle that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken following an evaluation of the quality and likely impact of the proposals (such as a peer review process).”

Note that this definition does not stipulate an exercise of academic judgement, merely an ‘evaluation’ including ‘likely impact’ of research to be funded. Furthermore, the definition does not mention that infrastucture funding will come from Research England. Rather, an earlier statement merely stipulates the Councils (a sub-set of UKRI) will be responsible for the disbursement of project funding:

Page 64, line 7, at end insert -

“the Haldane principle, where the grant or direction mentioned in subsection (1) is in respect of functions exercisable by one or more of the Councils mentioned in section 91(1) pursuant to arrangements under that section,”

This took me back to the question what Haldane actually called for and the context in which he did so. His thoughts on higher education matters are chiefly to be found in some collected writings put together in a period when he was actively involved in fostering the development of the new ‘redbrick’ universities. He developed a special enthusiasm for technical education but essentially he was interested in the work of a university as a whole, not merely its research.

He recognised that if higher education was going to expand successfully something would have to be done about the funding that would be needed:

‘the truth is that work of this kind must be more largely assisted and fostered by the State than is the tradition of today if it is to succeed’

(Education and Empire: Addresses on certain topics of the day (London, 1902), p.38).

The new universities began to accept state funding but it was not at first expected that Oxford or Cambridge would need to apply. The First World War upset many expectations.

A decisive correspondence followed between November 1918 and May 1919, between the then President of the Board of Education, H. A. L. Fisher, and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. This was published in full in May in the Oxford University Gazette, under the heading Applications for Government Grants (Oxford University Gazette, 49 (1918-9), p.471-8).

A deputation from the universities ‘asking for larger subsidies from the State’ met Fisher on 23 November. Oxford and Cambridge consulted one another and agreed that it would be wise to join in, but without committing themselves. Oxford was understandably nervous about accepting state funding because of the likelihood that it would bring State control.

But the Oxford scientists, scenting money, put in their own bids for specific sums for particular purposes. The heads of departments of the University Museum wrote on 3 March, 1919 with a list of such ‘needs’, identifying sums for capital outlay and salaries and pensions for Heads of Department and scholarships for what would now be called STEM subjects.

It was in this context that Fisher seems to have made his far-reaching policy decision and stated the ‘Fisher Principle’, that the state would not interfere in the allocation of funds within universities. It would not decide directly whether to fund, say, science at Oxford, or History at Manchester. It would give funding in the form of ‘Block Grants’ and allow the universities themselves to decide how to use the money.

He wrote to the Oxford Vice-Chancellor on 16 April:

‘Henceforth…each University which receives aid from the State will receive it in the form of a single inclusive grant, for the expenditure of which the University, as distinguished from any particular Department, will be responsible. Both the Government and, I think, the great majority of the Universities are convinced that such an arrangement is favourable not only to the preservation of University autonomy but also to the efficient administration of the University funds.’

The University’s Council (then the Hebdomadal Council, meeting weekly in term-time) requested an interview with Fisher and on May 15 a deputation of five, led by the Vice-Chancellor, had a meeting with him. The Memorandum of the Interview ‘kindly furnished by Mr. Fisher’s Secretary’ is also published in the Gazette. It repeated the policy principle arrived at in November, that ‘the English Universities in receipt of State-aid favoured …a general Block Grant’. It was explained that a Standing Committee was in process of ‘formation’ and that ‘henceforward, practically all the money for University Education would be borne on the Treasury Vote and would be allocated in annual Block Grants’ as the Standing Committee recommended.

This Standing Committee developed into the University Grants Committee, which was replaced a quarter of a century ago by first one then four Funding Councils. One of those, HEFCE, is now to be replaced as distributor of the remnant of that Block Grant mainly by Research England within UKRI, with only a vestige of the element previously used to fund teaching still remaining.

So there seem to be features of the Government Amendment to Clause 99 which would bear further thought if a definition of the ‘Haldane Principle’ is to enter statute.

The Haldane Principle arguably needs to be understood as it was developed in the ‘Fisher Principle’ and has been maintained for a century since. That placed a ‘buffer’ body between State and university and protected the freedom of the university to choose how to use its block grant on academic not political principles. That is not quite the thrust of the definition as it stands at present.

Nor did the ‘Fisher-Haldane Principle’ apply to the buffer body itself. The buffer stood between academic freedom and state control. It was not itself subject to that principle. It merely ensured that it was respected.

It is to be hoped that the legal draftsmen working on the Bill will try again. The version in the current Amendment, if it passes into law, will fail to protect the autonomy of the providers receiving funding from UKRI. Nor will it require funding decisions to be taken by academics or by autonomous institutions. The ‘peer review process’ is given as a mere example. There seems nothing to prevent a Minister or Secretary of State conducting ‘an evaluation of the quality and likely impact of the proposals’. Haldane and Fisher could both be turning in their graves.




‘Comply or explain’ – or just ‘comply’: a regulatory shift to monitor?

Guest blog by G.R.Evans

Rudd forced to rethink work visa plans for foreign students (The Times, 23 November), ‘Vice-chancellors warn there could be a legal challenge if metrics designed to assess teaching quality were used for immigration purposes.’ The article had attracted 76 online comments by the next morning.  The Home Secretary had had the bright idea of linking student visa availability to the quality of the provider of the course and there had been an outcry.

It had, however, taken a while for the indignation to prompt any ‘rethink’. The underlying policy had been summed up succinctly by Jo Johnson in the Third Reading Debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill two days earlier when the topic stirred some impassioned exchanges.

‘High-quality institutions are compliant institutions. We want compliance to be a strong feature of our system,’ he insisted. Challenged that the Home Secretary had not mentioned compliance, he said she had ‘mentioned compliance and quality. He went further. ‘High-quality institutions are compliant institutions; they are one and the same.’  Asked to unpack this statement he assured the House that it would be possible  ‘to assess the Government’s proposals in due course when the Home Office is ready to publish them’.

The context of this exchange was the part of the Debate which dealt with student visas. ‘Compliance’ did not come up again elsewhere in the Third Reading debate. But the statement that ‘high-quality institutions are compliant institutions; they are one and the same’, can hardly be allowed to stand in the record unmodified without comment.

The principle could well be extended more widely, well beyond Amber Rudd’s controversial suggestion in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference:

We will also look for the first time at whether our student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution.

Though in fact Amber Rudd had not used the word ‘compliance’, she spoke of ‘sticking to the rules’:

our consultation will ask what more can we do to support our best universities – and those that stick to the rules – to attract the best talent.

In recent years the policy during HEFCE’s operation of the Financial Memorandum requirements has been to require universities to ‘comply or explain’:

The Committee of University Chairs has published detailed guidance about audit committees (HEFCE 2008/06). This reflects best governance practice, and HEFCE expects HEIs to take account of such guidance in meeting the required standards …or explain why the guidance is not being applied and good practice is not being followed.

The HEI’s arrangements for ‘risk management, control and governance’ are included in the specified ‘comply or explain’ areas, but the Memorandum of assurance and accountability between HEFCE and institutions treads extremely carefully when it speaks of requirements about ‘quality’.  It does not intrude upon academic freedom or academic autonomy and if it was felt to threaten to do so the institution would be free to ‘explain’ what it was doing.

The crude compacting together of ‘quality’ and ‘compliance’ in the Minister’s extraordinary statement to Parliament that compliance and ‘high quality’ are ‘one and the same’ clearly needs watching.

Universities ‘R’ Us

Guest blog by G. R. Evans

If you are a higher education provider, HEFCE’s Blog brings you ‘three ways to reach out with good advice’ on offer from the Higher Education Outreach Network (HEON).  The four providers in the Network have designed ‘Quick Guides’ to make the key information accessible to would-be students at school and mature students who want to understand the basics of ‘what is a university?’ As a ‘widening access’ initiative this is clear, friendly and well-designed. But does it really answer the question it poses? It offers ‘facts about each campus and its facilities, extracurricular activities and a student profile.’

Present marketing information concentrates mainly on such features, as expected to enhance the student experience.  But aren’t these just the externals?  Where and what is the inwardness of a university? What is it in itself?  It is more than or different from an ‘institution’?

Jo Johnson had an answer to that on 13 October during the  Committee stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill deliberations:

‘a university is also expected to be an institution that brings together a body of scholars to form a cohesive and self-critical academic community.’

He had not made that up on the hoof. He had taken it from the current Guidance for applicants (in England) seeking degree-awarding powers which was published in September 2015.

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Lobbying on behalf of alternative providers: what is going on?

Guest blogpost by G. R. Evans


Original photo by James Boyes from UK - Brighton v Spurs Amex Opening 30/7/11 Uploaded by Kafuffle, CC BY 2.0,

Original photo by James Boyes from UK – Brighton v Spurs Amex Opening 30/7/11 Uploaded by Kafuffle, CC BY 2.0,


Who ‘represents’ providers of UK higher education?

Alex Proudfoot, the CEO of an organization called Independent Higher Education, was invited as a witness to the Committee evaluating the Higher Education and Research Bill. His views were taken seriously and were quoted in prepared statements by the Minister during the discussion. So who exactly does Alex Proudfoot represent? Is Independent Higher Education the voice of the ‘alternative providers’? The evidence suggests there are reasons for doubt, not least of which is that it appears to have no significant membership among the 117 alternative providers listed on the HEFCE Register.

The Higher Education and Research Act is intended to create a single system of higher education provision in England. In the evidence session held at the Committee stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill on 6 September, witnesses appeared on behalf of three ‘interest groups’ representing existing providers, Universities UK, GuildHE and Million Plus.  In addition, there was Alex Proudfoot  its CEO and Paul Kirkham its Vice-Chair, representing a newcomer called ‘Independent Higher Education’.

The other witnesses represent well-established interest groups. Universities UK (formerly the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals) is the Vice-Chancellors’ longstanding membership organisation. The Vice-Chancellors elect a 24-person Board and a President from among themselves. UUK does not exclude alternative providers which have university title. For example, Regent’s University may be found there. GuildHE, founded in the 1970s as the Standing Conference of Principals, now has about three dozen full and associate members, some now with university title. Million Plus describes itself as the ‘association for modern universities’. It lists about 20 members, all post-1992 universities, none of them alternative providers.

A first attempt to create an interest group for alternative providers was led by Aldwyn Cooper, Vice-Chancellor of Regent’s University in January 2015, initially representing eight providers with degree-awarding powers or university title. This took the loose title of the Independent Universities Group, but has encountered difficulties in defining a common cause. IfS did not join it and it became uncomfortable about including the University of Law after that was taken over by Global University Systems. It was not invited to give evidence to the Committee in September 2016.

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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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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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