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.’

Iain Stewart pointed out that the Open University is the only UK-wide university that has a footprint in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as in England’:

Clause 75 defines the meaning of English higher education provider, and I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that definition will apply to the Open University as well as to other English-based universities.

In connection with the future arrangements for UKRI disbursement of public research funding, both infrastructure and project funding, Gordon Marsden asked ‘that we reassure Scotland and Northern Ireland, especially where there remain unresolved tensions over research between UKRI and the new England-only bodies’. Jonathan Edwards expressed similiar concerns on behalf of the Welsh universities:

Would it not be better to create four research councils for the four component parts of the British state and Barnett-ise the funding?

To do so would potentially raise concerns about the fairness of the longstanding Barnett formula for Treasury allocations to the parts of the United Kingdon which has been perceived as favouring Scotland in particular.

Readers of this blog in the devolved administrations will no doubt have corrections and additions to make to the outline which follows.

Divergences so far

Since 1999 the emergence of the devolved administrations, each with its powers over higher education, has fragmented higher education policy and practice in the UK in a number of respects.  Direct public funding goes from the Treasury to all four administrations which then choose how to distribute it. Only in England is the ‘teaching’ element intended to be replaced almost completely by tuition fees. However there is considerable variation in the supervisory and policy-making arrangements arrived at by the devolved administrations.

The separate funding councils set up by the FHEA and its counterparts for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales  have adjusted accordingly.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has tended to go in the same general direction as England in its higher education policy but like the other devolved administrations it has tended to put the concerns and policy-preferences of its own region first in its planning.

Northern Ireland has the smallest number of higher education providers, including only two universities, Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, which has four campuses. These providers are funded directly by the Department for Employment and Learning (DELNI). This acts on the advice of the Northern Ireland Funding Council which was established under the FHEA in 1993 and reconstituted in 2002 under devolution, with responsibility for all higher education providers and not only the universities.

This arrangement differs from that in England in that HEFCE’s funding remit remains narrower and formally speaking HEFCE acts on the guidance of the Secretary of State rather than in an advisory capacity to Government. (In practice of course discussion between HEFCE and Government goes both ways.)

The outcome of the referendum has raised difficult questions about the operation of the border with the Republic of Ireland which will be likely to affect universities too.

Scotland

Scotland’s Funding Council unites what were formerly separate funding bodies for further and higher education and makes active efforts to encourage closer working relationships between the sectors. Scotland is therefore further forward than England in creating a unified education system.

Scotland has a much smaller number of higher education providers than England, funding only 18 universities and 25 colleges. It also has geographical features creating particular needs. The University of the Highlands and Islands began as a ‘Project’ in 1992, and comprises 13 colleges and research institutions, some with long histories. It gained the status of a higher education provider only in 2001, taught degree-awarding powers only in 2008 and university title in 2011. Its constituent institutions are widely dispersed in areas of Scotland where it is desirable to keep young people from having to leave the area in order to obtain a degree.

The Scottish Funding Council receives a ‘letter of guidance’ from the Scottish Government giving it policy objectives, of which the most recent is that of March 2016.

Scotland has its own separate Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework which does not map tidily onto the English one, which could put significant ‘credit transfer’ difficulties in the way of implementing the Bill’s proposed protections for students forced to change provider because of ‘provider exit’, either through enforced or through voluntary ‘de-registration’ by the Office for Students.

Scotland has not followed England in its sequence of imposing and raising tuition fees or removed the direct public funding of teaching.

Wales

In Wales powers over higher education are devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government. The Higher Education Wales Act 2015 which will come fully into force in 2017, has strengthened the powers of the statutory Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), including as a Regulator. Welsh policy on the raising of tuition fees has not been as extreme as that in England.

Being called a university: widening divergence

There is now considerable variation in the requirements for applicants for degree-awarding powers and university title in the devolved administrations:

For Wales, applications are considered under criteria announced in 2004. Applicant organisations in Wales should refer to the criteria and guidance set out in “Applications for the grant of taught degree awarding powers, research degree awarding powers and university title” (August 2004). For Scotland and Northern Ireland, applications are considered under criteria approved by Ministers in October 1999. Separate guidance for applicant organisations in Scotland and Northern Ireland is available on the QAA website.

England allowed holders of only ‘taught-degree awarding powers’ to gain university title from 2004. In England new requirements for making applications for ‘university’ and ‘university college’ title came into force in 2015.

The Public Bills Committee has requested submissions on this topic, which can be emailed to: scrutiny@parliament.uk

Points to raise:

  • The currency of the words ‘degree’ and ‘university’ in particular have so far been protected. If the new legislation for England results in provider failure and ‘provider exit’ the reputational damage is unlikely to be confined to England. International students in search of a degree with the UK ‘brand’ are unlikely to be aware in any detail of the divergences amongst England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The damage is likely to affect UKHE as a whole.