The 2014 Grant letter: another epistolary triumph

And the wait was finally over

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has written to HEFCE with the Department’s annual message on funding and helpful bag of instructions. As excitement in the sector reached near fever pitch, the contents were being live-tweeted by @TimesHigherEd while everyone else waited to get hold of a copy.

The much-delayed letter does not contain much of what you might describe as good news although there is some modest improvement on the capital front. Additional student places and the removal of student number controls altogether from 2015-16 are confirmed:

The settlement will mean reductions in funding for higher education institutions in 2014-15 and again in 2015-16 beyond those accounted for by the switch to publicly funded tuition fees. The Government has asked HEFCE to deliver the reductions in ways which protect as far as possible high-cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation (which is funded via the HEFCE Student Opportunity allocation), and small and specialist institutions.

HEFCE is asked to continue its work with the Research Councils and others to support internationally excellent research and the delivery of the impact agenda through the dual-support framework. The ring-fenced settlement for science and research means that recurrent funding is maintained at £1,573 million, the same cash levels as 2013-14.

Overall, the amount of capital funding for teaching and research will increase in 2014-15 to £440 million.

The grant letter confirms the Government’s provision of a maximum of 30,000 additional student places in academic year 2014-15 for HEFCE-funded institutions. The student number control will be removed entirely from 2015-16, and the Government has asked HEFCE to ensure that higher education institutions maintain the quality of the student experience in these circumstances.

Bur enough of the content, what about the important stuff like length? At 22 paragraphs, excluding the covering letter, or 26 if you include the substantive comments in the letter, it is shorter than any of its three predecessors from the BIS duo which have come in at 36, 35 and 28 paragraphs long. It is pleasing though that the Secretary of State’s signature remains as cheerful as ever (see below).

It is far from the shortest on record though which is the initial 10 paragraph punt from back at the start of the Coalition journey. As this utterly pointless graph (now in need of an update) shows, the long term trend is reduced grant letter length.

The length of Grant Letters to HEFCE down the years

The length of Grant Letters to HEFCE down the years

So much for this year then, what of the past?

The earlier post on this topic back in August 2010 noted:

The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:

Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  1. The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
  2. The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  3. The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  4. David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  5. In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  6. January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  7. The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  8. December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  9. The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  10. January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  11. January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  12. January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  13. The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  14. June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).

So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 15 years of funding letters.

Higher education funding letters: another bundle of joy

On government HE funding letters

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has written to HEFCE with the Department’s annual message on funding and helpful bag of instructions.

The letter

sets out Government funding and priorities for HEFCE and for higher education for the second year of the new financial arrangements for higher education in England. The Government’s vision for higher education, outlined in the higher education white paper ‘Students at the heart of the system’, remains, and HEFCE is asked to continue to support learning and teaching activity, quality assurance, widening participation and an enhanced student experience. HEFCE will also continue our support for postgraduate provision.

Super. More instructions.

Not only does it offer even more directions to HEFCE, at 36 paragraphs and eight pages it is the second longest of the four to date issued by the Secretary of State and the Minister and confirms a return to the sterling epistolary efforts made by the previous government.

Last January’s effort really set the standard though – although it contained 35 paragraphs was in fact nine pages long. The December 2010 was somewhat shorter at only 28 paragraphs and can be seen as the BIS duo just getting into their stride.

The earlier post on this topic back in August 2010 noted:

The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:

Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  1. The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
  2. The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  3. The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  4. David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  5. In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  6. January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  7. The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  8. December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  9. The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  10. January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  11. January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  12. January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  13. The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  14. June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).

So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 14 years of funding letters.

Austerity in the USA

Savings needed at US Universities

University World News. carries a piece by William Patrick Leonard, vice dean of SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, Republic of Korea, suggesting that US Higher education institutions need to rein in their costs. The traditional approaches to meeting financial shortfalls, raising tuition fees or increasing student numbers, are, it is suggested no longer justifiable:

The third internal budget balancing tool, cutting costs, has been the least favoured. It can negatively influence programmes and hence careers. I suggest that many institutions, large and small, have found it politically easier to increase revenue rather than control costs.

They have tended to resist seriously questioning the viability of ineffective or inefficient programmes and services. Simultaneously, many have increased their continuing cost burden by enhancing existing programmes and services as well as adding new ones.

This reflects perhaps the different structural set up and culture of US higher education but the contrasts with the position in the UK do seem rather stark. In particular, after several years of significant financial challenges in this country and in anticipation of many more to come, all institutions have had to make savings. Fees are capped and increasing enrolment is only realistically possible through growing international student recruitment which in itself is more challenging than ever because of visa regulations. So, in the UK we have been dealing with the need for reducing spend for some time.

 

Simplistically, institutional costs may be crudely subdivided into two categories – external and internal.

The external costs are composed of purchased goods and services. Unless the institution has the power to negotiate price, its utility, insurance, contracted services and consumable costs are largely beyond its control. External costs are strongly influenced by the internal costs that institutions should have more control over.

The place to start is internal costs. In American higher education internal costs are governed as much by unquestioned culture as by contractual obligations. Institutions have tended to regard the traditional mix of faculty, curriculum, calendar and infrastructure as immutable. This has been accompanied by an exaggerated sense of entitlement to external support.

The majority of US higher education institutions can no longer rely on the historic levels of government support or philanthropic largesse. Nor can they depend on the continued utility of tuition fees and enrolment increases to align revenue with their immutable culture-driven costs.

I suspect this is a reasonably accurate assessment of the position. Whilst we are now used to the challenges of savings needs in the UK (and indeed are not experiencing them for the first time), it will be a bit harder if there is no prior knowledge of how to respond. Having said that, after many years of growth there is likely to be significant scope for savings.

The Imperfect University: More and more regulation

More Regulatory Woes

A recent speech by the Universities Minister focused on his apparent desire to reduce regulation for institutions: “We are in a government that understands the value of autonomy,” Mr Willetts said.

Mr Willetts talked about the possibility of reducing data collection requirements as well as the likelihood of universities escaping some EU regulation following the shift to majority private funding as a result of the new fees regime.

Both of these would be welcome steps. The burden of excessive regulation is a significant problem for universities. It might be thought that as the size of the public contribution to higher education funding declined this would be reflected in a reduction in red tape. Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric, universities are left with the feeling that the weight of regulation tends to keep growing rather than reducing.

So will the reduction in public funding really mean less government involvement in university affairs? Sadly, no. Rather than cuts in government funding to HE resulting in a bonfire of red tape, there is a whole host of new or augmented regulations, including:

  • The new fee arrangements which institutions are all deeply engaged in preparing for the implementation of at present
  • Changed student number controls, with the uncertainties of AAB+ and bidding for the 20,000 students at the margin
  • The move to more comprehensive annual access agreements with OFFA
  • The changed financial memorandum between institutions and HEFCE
  • New visa arrangements for Tier 2, staff, and Tier 4, students, together with monitoring arrangements for the latter
  • The Key Information Set (KIS) which will require all universities to provide more information to prospective students
  • The proposed introduction of a Student Charter
  • The idea of extended transcript information for all graduates through the Higher Education Achievement Record
  • The revised Quality Assurance Agency institutional review method
  • The increased burden of Freedom of Information requests
  • Developments in the work of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator
  • Charities regulation.

This is only part of the picture. The cost to the sector of compliance with this regulatory framework is significant. And this really is not what universities need right now. Part of the burden is data collection and the Information Landscape Project, announced by the Minister in the same speech, is intended to address this:

The BIS White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ discusses a new regulatory framework for HE in England and explicitly tasks HESA, working with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Better Regulation Group and the Information Standards Board for education and skills, to redesign the information landscape in order to arrive at a new system that meets the needs of a wider group of users; reduces the duplication that currently exists and results in timelier and more relevant data.

Will this make a difference? We will see. Universities have been here before though and have yet to see a real impact on regulation.

Policy, Regulation and Lies?

So, how big is the accountability ‘burden’ on institutions? Looking back over the past dozen years there are several attempts to measure and to reduce or improve regulation. In 2004 PA Consulting, following up an earlier report on accountability costs, investigated changes in accountability costs as perceived by the universities they contacted. The study cited a number of changes since 2000 including the introduction of a revised QAA framework and reduced requirements from HEFCE in terms of bidding, tendering and consultations. The paper concluded, on the basis of its survey, that the accountability cost to the sector had declined over the four year period to the equivalent of £188m (at 2000 prices), a reduction of 25%. However, it is also noted that this was the equivalent to the ‘annual income of two large universities’ (at that time) and therefore ‘a cause for continued attention’. Something of an understatement, especially given the ‘slightly disconcerting’ range of additional accountability requirements identified in the report. These findings were commented on favourably by the (then) Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education in his presentation of the Government response to the Interim Report of the Better Regulation Review Group (in 2004).

The Better Regulation Review Group was succeeded by the Higher Education Regulation Review Group (HERRG). HERRG was established to ‘introduce a stage of informed scrutiny into the policy making process’. The impact of both groups was, arguably, negligible. It is difficult to muster much confidence that the latest incarnations of this kind of task force will be any more beneficial in terms of reducing the bureaucratic burden.

There is always a gap between policy as formulated and as implemented. The simplistic nature of the instrumental interpretation of relationship between policy and evaluation is rational but disconnected from reality. Unfortunately though, evaluation is often seen in this way, as the provision of information to policy makers or stakeholders who prefer simply described and preferably numerical outcomes. The disappointment at the lack of measurable output inevitably leads to a desire for further regulation in order to deliver greater confidence in the results of policy. The consequences of this though can be inimical to the intended ends of the original policy and corrosive of trust.

Victims of our own success

The role of HE in creating the professional labour force of the UK public sector is one example of how successful universities have been and how vital is their role in contemporary society. Given the importance of universities then the desire for intervention should not come as a surprise but the interventionist approach which characterises regulation in HE is also part of wider trends and a diminution of an historical trust which no longer appears to offer adequate reassurance of the quality and standard of HE provision. This decline in trust results in heavy transaction costs and, associated with the move towards controlling institutions via contract and regulation, matters have to become more explicit rather than implicit. It is difficult though to see this reduction in trust in institutions as anything other than a long term and irreversible trend. The very nature of the national quality assurance framework, for example, would seem to reinforce this and it is difficult to imagine that the historical basis of trust can be reconstructed.

Regulations - lots of them

Other angles

Some other interesting views: Martin Wolf [1] has argued that universities are, in effect, a nationalised industry which accepted their financial dependence on the state with the foundation of the UGC in 1919. The government has asked institutions to assure quality without providing the funds needed to ensure it and the less generously the government funds, the more it interferes with the universities. That has certainly been the experience in the last few years. Salter and Tapper [2] suggest that, whereas Robbins saw total institutional freedom as necessary for the efficient operation of universities, in the 1980s the principle of HE regulation was established to ensure the efficient use of public funds and then, having developed this far, specific accountability arrangements were needed.

The costs of regulation of HE outweigh the extremely limited benefits. Indeed the Better Regulation Task Force report says that the HE sector has ‘earned the right to more autonomy’ and that multiple audits, excessive data requirements and over-restrictive funding are ‘symptomatic of a lack of trust between government and the HE sector’.[3] The Chairman of the Task Force observes that ‘there is no evidence that the sector is particularly prone to management or financial failings or failures to deliver on academic performance’. The statement suggests that earned autonomy is a key theme for government which wants to see it applied more in HE. The report refers to the PA Consulting study (quoted above) which estimates the accountability burden for HE to be £250m per annum and notes that the National Audit Office regards HE as a low risk sector in terms of fraud and malpractice.

The changes made in HE regulation in the first decade or so of the 21st Century have not resulted in the reduction in burden and cost which is called for. The claimed 25% reduction in the burden of regulation between 2000 and 2004 seems extremely modest in the light of the above (incomplete) list of regulatory interventions which includes a number of new requirements replacing the eliminated accountability demands.

Private HE institutions, which are expected to increase in number under the new fee regime, will benefit from significantly lighter regulation. However, for everyone else there remains the seemingly iron law that as government funding declines the volume and range of government regulation inevitably increases. So, less money and ever greater constraints on how it can be spent. No matter what the Minister may say.

It could be worse?

Things may be difficult in universities but they could be an awful lot worse according to a recent story in the TES about the appearance of Geoff Russell, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), before the Public Accounts Committee which was considering how bureaucracy should be reduced in the FE sector:

Mr Russell’s retirement may be imminent but, as the hearing made clear, few expect the red tape that has stifled the sector for so long to be untangled any time soon. The committee was informed that, for every £5 that goes to FE, £1 is swallowed up by bureaucracy. The biggest difficulties, MPs heard, are caused by colleges having to deal with very different data obligations and regulations from several agencies simultaneously. A general FE college offering higher education provision, Mr Lang explained, has to accommodate the requirements of four different funding bodies – the Department for Education, the Young People’s Learning Agency, the SFA and the Higher Education Funding Council for England – as well as policy directives from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

That’s pretty expensive and works out at more than £150 per student according to the National Audit Office. Things may be bad for the universities but at least they aren’t this bad. So, should we feel lucky?


What is to be done?

There has been only one substantive change in the last decade to the mass of regulation loaded onto institutions: the ending of subject-based inspection of universities (Subject Review or TQA as it was originally known). Whilst undoubtedly welcome and beneficial, the gain the ending of such inspections represented has more than been replaced by other forms of regulation. So the burden continues to grow. One step forward, two steps back.

What then are universities to do? In order to respond to the ever increasing burden of regulation I would suggest that the following steps are worthy of consideration:

  • Don’t put too much faith in Ministerial rhetoric when it comes to reducing bureaucracy;
  • When working out how to deal with all of the different regulatory demands try to sort what really matters from what is less important – assuring quality and standards, and complying with the demands of the QAA is pretty important as is legal compliance with health and safety, employment and equality legislation but other regulations may be less significant;
  • Protect core activities, ie teaching and research, from the impact of regulation as far as is possible;
  • In most cases, go for minimal compliance rather than ‘gold-plating’ of procedures to respond to regulation – this often means steering away from what may be seen as ‘best practice’;
  • Object to new regulations wherever possible – work with others for greater effect;
  • Don’t be deflected from delivering the agreed university strategy by regulation.

Will we see a reduction in the regulatory burden as Mr Willetts claims? We might, but it is unlikely to make a big difference. My advice? Don’t hold your breath.

________________________________________

[1] Wolf, M (2002), ‘How to save the British Universities’, Singer and Friedlander Lecture, delivered on September 26 2002 at Magdalen College, Oxford

[2] Salter, B and Tapper, T (2000), ‘The politics of Governance in Higher Education: the Case of Quality Assurance’, Political Studies, 48(1), pp66-87.

[3] Better Regulation Task Force (22 July 2002), Press release for Higher Education: Easing the burden, London: Cabinet Office.

Firsts and fees, plagiarism and pay hikes (and the rest)

No dumbing down here – is this the most comprehensive HE piece ever?

Daily Mail online has a terrific piece which manages to conflate a host of different higher education issues within a single kick ass column. On the back of recent HESA data which shows an increase in the number of students achieving first and upper second class degrees the article moves on to plagiarism, league table corruption, commercialisation (not clear if good or bad), the optionality of HEAR (bad?), an ‘expert’ view of classifications, coercion of external examiners, VC pay increases and fee rises in the context of declining HE funding. Unbelievable? Perhaps it would be fairer to let the piece speak for itself:

The number of students awarded first-class degrees has more than doubled over the last decade.

A record one in six graduates obtained the top qualification last year, prompting fresh concerns about grade inflation and the value of degrees.

One expert says that degree classifications are now ‘almost meaningless’.

The trend has fuelled demands for a major overhaul of the system, with the introduction of a ‘starred first’ degree for the brightest graduates.

According to figures released yesterday by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 53,215 graduates gained firsts in 2010/11 compared with 23,700 in 2000/01.

A decade ago, nine per cent of graduates gained the top classification. By 2010/11 the proportion getting firsts had risen to 15.5 per cent.

HESA also provided detailed data covering the period between 2006/7 and 2010/11, when there was a 45 per cent increase in the number of students gaining firsts.

A feast of higher education comments

Sixty-six per cent of degrees obtained by women were firsts or 2.1s in 2010/11 compared with 61 per cent of those achieved  by males.

High scores: More students are graduating and with better grades than in the past, despite accusations of commercialism and anti-intellectualism

Demands for reform of degree classification have increased over recent years amid claims that some lecturers turn a blind eye to plagiarism to help their institutions climb official league tables.

University whistle-blowers have also alleged that external examiners have been ‘leaned on’ to boost grades.

Universities have been asked to adopt a new graduate ‘report card’, providing a detailed breakdown of students’ academic achievements plus information about extra-curricular activities. However, they cannot be forced to.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, said: ‘The inflation in degree classes is rendering them almost meaningless.

‘Employers have to look at A-level results and the university at which the degree is being obtained.’

The heads of elite universities are raking in average pay packages of almost £318,000 ahead of the tripling of tuition fees.

Many vice chancellors are enjoying salary rises when higher education has seen its funding slashed and students are being forced to pay up to £9,000 a year in fees.

A veritable smorgasbord of entertaining higher education observations. All in one short piece. Truly the Mail is spoiling us. We may never see the like again.

Regulation, Regulation, Regulation

More Regulatory Woes

In University Governance: Questions for a New Era, Professor Malcolm Gillies looks at a whole set of issues around university governance. A previous post noted his suggestion about a greater involvement of alumni but he suggests that they will become more important than the state, at least in governance terms, because of the change in balance of funding from public to private, ie from government to graduate:

42. State denial:  The withdrawal of the state as chief funding agent of higher education creates new balances in governance authority.  The body which can be most expected to fill that space is the alumni, as they now become the chief funding agent of most English universities in direct replacement of that state interest, through their decades-long repayment of state-provided loans.  The alumni also have the greatest, life-long stake in the institution’s reputation and its protection.  They understand the institution’s symbolic value.

But will the reduction in public funding really mean less government involvement in university affairs? Sadly, no. Rather than cuts in government funding to HE resulting in a bonfire of red tape, there is a whole host of new or augmented regulations, including:

  • The new fee arrangements which institutions are all deeply engaged in considering at present
  • Student number controls, which may well change in the light of fee developments
  • The move to more comprehensive annual access agreements with OFFA
  • The changed financial memorandum between institutions and HEFCE
  • New visa arrangements for Tier 2, staff, and Tier 4, students, together with monitoring arrangements for the latter
  • The Key Information Set (KIS) which will require all universities to provide more information to prospective students
  • The proposed introduction of a Student Charter
  • The idea of extended transcript information for all graduates through the Higher Education Achievement Record
  • The revised Quality Assurance Agency institutional review method
  • The increased burden of Freedom of Information requests
  • Developments in the work of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator

Private HE institutions, which are expected to increase in number under the new fee regime, benefit from significantly lighter  regulation. However, for everyone else there remains the seemingly iron law that as government funding declines the volume and range of government regulation inevitably increases. So, less money and ever greater constraints on how it can be spent.

Should more alumni take governance roles?

A new report on governance: “University governance – questions for a new era”

This is an interesting pamphlet from HEPI written by Professor Malcolm Gillies who has clearly been on the receiving end of a fair bit of governance. One of his core suggestions which is picked up by Times Higher Education is that alumni should play a bigger part in governance.

University governance must be overhauled to address the problem of “dispassionate” independent board members who protect their own interests at times of crisis rather than those of the institutions they serve, according to a new study.

Under changes proposed by the review, alumni would be handed a central role as government reforms necessitate a move towards governors that have a direct interest in their universities’ well-being.

The Higher Education Policy Institute report on the future of governing bodies, authored by Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, says that alumni have the “greatest lifelong stake in the institution’s reputation and its protection”.

Professor Gillies argues that the old arm’s-length “common-sense” approach to governance detailed in sector guides needs to be updated, as independent board members lack the incentive to act in tough times.

One of the arguments in favour of this proposal is that student/alumni funding will, for many institutions, become the single biggest source of their income in the near future and therefore it is right that they play a greater role in the governance of their university. However, there are some possible pitfalls with this approach. Whilst the commitment of alumni to their university undoubtedly ensures they are ready and willing to contribute in all sorts of ways, they may also bring all sorts of baggage with them from their student days which might be unhelpful. In addition, their views on certain policy issues may be excessively coloured by their own student experiences or they may tend to have a slightly rose-tinted view of the past which leads them to be somewhat averse to necessary change. Alumni can though bring a distinctive perspectve and, as always with governance it’s about getting the right balance.

One other particular point in the report is the suggestion that government, because it is providing less funding, will be less interested in university governance and will have a reduced legitimacy. I’m really not sure that this will be the case as, for all of the rhtoric, government inevitably and inexorably seeks to regulate and direct higher education more and more, regardless of the level of funding it provides.

A timely report though.

Art for Art’s sake?

“In an Era of Campus Cutbacks, Performing-Arts Centers Keep Going Up”

A hugely encouraging story in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the fact that institutions are still building arts centres, depsite the financial climate:

It’s an irony Shakespeare could write a play around: Officials of California State University at Northridge spent 10 years planning a $125-million performing-arts center and figuring out how to pay for it—securing more than $60-million in capital-projects money from the state and raising millions more from gifts and grants. They pleaded with donors and local politicians to make up shortfalls and promised anxious students that none of the money would come from their pockets. It wouldn’t be a surprise to hear that the project’s biggest backer, President Jolene M. Koester, had checked between the sofa cushions in her office for loose change.

Finally Northridge scheduled the opening gala for late January, only to have it take place just two weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown proposed slashing $1.4-billion from state support for higher education. This month Joan Rivers, Kiri Te Kanawa, Ed Asner, and Roseanne Cash are performing in the 1,700-seat main hall, and a student production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is running in the black-box theater—while across the campus, students stage protests against fee increases and program cuts that the university says will be necessary because of the state’s revenue shortfall.

It might be argued that perhaps the example quoted here represented a slightly unwise investment at a time of significant cuts. On the other hand the value of the venue to campus and community life will be significant and it represents a long term benefit to the institution. Let’s hope everyone sees it that way.

World Education: The New Powerhouse – Going Global 2011 §1

Some comments on Going Global 2011 – World Education: The New Powerhouse?

I was fortunate to be present at the British Council’s Going Global Conference in Hong Kong earlier in March. There were about 1,000 delegates there and as might be expected for this kind of event many of the presentations were high level and whilst some were pretty strategic others felt rather abstract.

There was a distinct UK flavour to some of the discussions and the particular current domestic issues relating to the new English fees regime and Tier 4 student immigration did intrude in a number of sessions. Despite this there was a lot which was of interest including some really good perspectives from other nations.

The opening session on “world education, the new powerhouse” (does this really mean anything?) had a number of set piece presentations from Ministers and then contributions from Hong Kong to Brazil to Africa:

Donald Tsang Yam-Kuen, Chief Executive of Hong Kong spoke about the idea of HK as a regional higher education hub. However, you get the real impression that they won’t be just another regional hub, but rather that they have the foundations, the location, the money, strong institutions and the real vision to do make this happen. Two other points of note here: first, education is the Hong Kong government’s single biggest spending priority and accounts for 25% of annual expenditure (25%!); second, Harrow School (yes that Harrow) is intending to open a branch campus in HK.

Professor Tony Chan, President of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Convener of the Hong Kong Heads of Universities Committee, spoke about the changing patterns of international HE and reinforced the commitment to the idea of a regional hub. Hong Kong universities are offering a real international education not the more traditional Eastern model. And, lest anyone doubt the intent here, he noted that HKUST was aiming for 20% international students, increasing international study opportunities for its own undergraduates and more collaboration with universities in mainland China. HKUST is still a young institution but is an impressive one and hugely ambitious: “We are in aggressive recruitment mode for international staff and students”.

Three other international perspectives of note here. Professor Olugbemiro Jegede, Secretary-General and Chief Executive, Association of African Universities, Ghana spoke about the challenges for Africa. It was a very long list and the challenges exist across the board. Collaboration and a continent-wide academic framework including mobility and mutual recognition is the way forward. He also noted the importance of using ICT to help the growth of HE in Africa. Ultimately this was an optimistic prospectus but the massive scale of challenges here remains rather daunting.

Dr Javaid Laghari, Chair of the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan, reported that Pakistan still has a long way to go to achieve its ambitions for having two universities in the world top 100. Pakistan was seeking to grow PhD numbers significantly, including through split PhDs with foreign universities. And all of this was happening in the context of being in the ‘frontline of the war on terror’. Again we were given an optimistic outlook but these are really challenging circumstances in which to be growing and strengthening HE.

Dr Carlos Alexandre Netto. President of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, gave a sense of the huge scale of HE in his country. With over 2,000 institutions but only a 15% age participation rate there is ongoing major growth in public university enrolments. Most HE students are at private universities though and growth in student numbers is actually being funded through loans for private university study. A major quality assurance operation now been through its first cycle. Overall, left with the impression of a system of extraordinary scale.

Between them Professor Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of Exeter and President, Universities UK, and David Willetts, UK Minister for Universities and Science, sought to paint a positive picture of UKHE. The THE report on the event notes the following:

Claims that the UK government is cutting funding for higher education are “not factually accurate” and gloomy media coverage is damaging the sector’s reputation overseas, according to the president of Universities UK.
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, told an audience of international higher education leaders at the Going Global conference in Hong Kong last week that the reality of the government’s funding changes in England was “rather different to the headlines”.
He also countered suggestions that fees for overseas students would triple and described the UK as still being “welcoming” to international students despite visa restrictions.
Professor Smith’s message on funding echoed that from David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who told the conference: “We expect universities to get the same amount of cash, if not more than they have received up to now.”

Both were therefore arguing there would be more money in the system, international fees would not be tripled (although the contrast with David Cameron’s assertion in China last year that international fees would actually be reduced to bring them in line with domestic fees was noted by the anoraks) and international students would continue to be extremely welcome in the UK (although this is somewhat at odds with the Government’s proposed Tier 4 visa changes). Willetts said he was embarrassed by small number of UK students going abroad and says Government was trying to help with this (but it was far from clear how this help would be offered). Steve Smith meanwhile added that the revised visa proposals which would be published soon would be good news for universities and international students. We’ll see.

World education may or may not be the new powerhouse but the challenges in some parts of the globe remain huge and in other areas the difficulties are self-imposed. Overall though there seems to be a strong degree of consensus that the future of HE is global.

WikiLeaks for Higher Education

Because you can never have too many distractions…

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a report on the launch of “UniLeaks”:

WikiLeaks, scourge of governments worldwide, now has a copycat for academe. And the new group is itching to publish your university’s deepest secrets.

Its Web site, UniLeaks, debuted this month with a pair of open letters to university leaders in Australia and Britain. The Australian activists who run UniLeaks are pushing for openness in the face of what they see as the corporatization of higher education. They complain of unprofitable courses abolished, employees made less secure, and students reduced “to mere customers or clients of the university.”

But are there any more open public authorities than universities? In the UK there are many ways for staff or students to voice their concerns within institutions without fear. There is also the Freedom of Information Act which makes it possible to get just about anything you want. And the fact that, by their very nature, universities are very open organisations.

At a time of significant financial challenge though what universities really don’t need is to spend more time and money engaged in pointless diversionary activity (FOI compliance costs enough as it is thank you) – responding to this kind of thing merely adds to the burden.

Universities forging ‘strategic alliance’

More significant university collaborations

Following the recent announcement about the collaboration between the University of Nottingham and the University of Birmingham there have been some interesting developments in Wales. WalesOnline carries a piece about a new ‘strategic alliance’ between Bangor and Aberystwyth:

Bangor vice-chancellor Professor John Hughes said the university would continue to develop its “trusting relationship” with Aberystwyth, but there were no plans to merge.

“The geographical implications of merging two institutions 2½ hours apart are just not sensible,” he said.

The development follows recent news that three higher education institutions in South Wales are to merge, forming a new “super university”.

Perhaps not that exciting and interesting to note that the first question which is always asked is about whether this is the first step to merger.

The so called super university mentioned here is described, according to the BBC,  as a “radical” move which “bridges educational boundaries”. It will comprise the University of Wales Institute Cardiff (Uwic), Swansea Metropolitan University and Trinity Saint David in Carmarthen which will merge as The University of Wales. Others may be encouraged to join in the fun later.

Meanwhile Newport University is reported to be looking to merge with an English institution. It’s all kicking off in Wales where HEFCW has certainly taken on a much more directive role than its English or Scottish counterparts in relation to university mergers.

Tuition fees: Minister warns universities

More than just sabre-rattling?

The BBC reports on a warning from the Universities Minister concerning fee setting plans. Speaking at the Dearing Conference at the University of Nottingham on 17 February he warned that, because the government had assumed that the average fee would be £7,500, if most universities charged higher than this the additional cost of student finance would have to be met from elsewhere in the HE budget. Thus, higher fees will result in more cuts:

David Willetts has warned that there will be more cuts to higher education if too many universities opt to charge maximum tuition fees. The government wants most universities to pitch their fees lower – because it faces costs from supporting students’ loans. The universities minister said savings would “reluctantly” have to be found.

The government has said it wants the top fee to be charged only in “exceptional circumstances” but as independent bodies, universities are free to charge fees they want. Imperial College, London has become the first to opt to charge the top rate and Oxford and Cambridge appear to be moving that way.

The government says if too many universities charge higher fees, the costs to it will be too high.

The key point here is the independence of universities. Without further legislation on fees the government is not able to dictate what universities will charge. So, the exhortations to pitch low and the assertion that £9,000 will be exceptional represent helpful advice from the Minister but it will be up to universities to decide. And, if we have the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, as reported in The Times (£), saying that his institution probably needs to charge around £8,000 in order to survive, then we will soon see whether this means that even more cuts will be on the way for higher education or if this was just sabre-rattling.

HEFCE “fears government’s controlling hand”

Government control issues for HEFCE

According to a recent report in Times Higher Education HEFCE still fears government’s controlling hand over its budget despite its status as an “arm’s-length” public body:

Newly published Hefce board papers reveal internal fears about its ability to “maintain the standard of its work” and its relative independence given the pressure from ministers to cut its running costs. Hefce is making efficiency reductions of £2 million – amounting to a real-terms cut to its administration costs of 11 per cent this year – to help the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills save £836 million in 2010-11.

During a meeting on 25 November, the body’s audit committee said it was worried that the “continued pressure” to reduce running costs would have a serious effect as it helps universities manage the changes to funding and the introduction of higher fees.

“We expressed our concern about the capacity and capability of Hefce to maintain its standard of work over the medium term when faced with continued pressure to reduce administration costs,” a report of the meeting says.

“We also noted with concern the level of control imposed by BIS over Hefce and the potential impact on its governance and management.”

Whilst it is important that the Funding Council is not protected from the cuts facing the sector, nevertheless it is a reasonably lean and efficient organisation already. So the Council’s ability to maintain its capacity is something to be watched. However, the real concern here is that government uses the opportunity of funding reductions as a lever for greater direction and control over the business of HEFCE and the sector. It would perhaps be surprising if BIS did not seek to exert greater control in the current climate with the significant changes and challenges facing the sector. However, this environment means that, perhaps more than ever, the sector needs a helpful funding council to support an intelligent approach to 2012 and beyond, whatever government thinks.

So, the fear is not misplaced but there will be big challenges ahead, for HEFCE as well as universities. Part of the response has to be to minimise the unnecessary intervention and direction from government both at HEFCE itself but also more across institutions.

Universities ‘scared of private sector’

Oh no we’re not

Some festive cheer from politics.co.uk.

The analysis here is somewhat overstating the case though:

Massive efficiency savings which could drive down costs in higher education are only possible if university managers get over their suspicion of the private sector, Policy Exchange has claimed. A report by the centre-right thinktank’s Alex Massey published today argues that significant benefits are possible from “productive collaborative arrangements”.

Up to 30% of the total cost of university administration could be saved if more services were shared, the report claims. Across the total higher education sector this amounts to £2.7 billion.

There really is nothing much new in this report from Policy Exchange, the full text of which can be found here.

Four brief points to note:

  1. Universities really do need the VAT changes we have argued for for many years in order to create real incentives for sharing services (the report endorses this).
  2. Simply outsourcing lots of services does not necessarily deliver a better service for students or guarantee savings: it works in certain areas in certain contexts at certain times but is no panacea.
  3. The report rightly acknowledges significant examples of sector wide shared services which already exist, including UCAS, but also what about JANET and jobs.ac.uk? Not sure would really argue that QAA is a shared service in the same sense although there is a case for HESA.
  4. The savings figures quoted here are just fantasy.

So, overall a modest contribution to the very real challenges facing universities. Yes, we should collaborate more on services but only where it will both deliver savings and improve the quality of the service we provide. But the idea that universities are ‘scared’ of the private sector is very wide of the mark.

Higher education funding letters: 14 years of joy

On government HE funding letters

(Arguably the dullest post ever to appear on this blog. And that’s saying something. I’ve been wanting to do this for ages but apologies in advance for any distress caused.)

The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:

Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  1. The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
  2. The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  3. The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  4. David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  5. In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  6. January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  7. The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  8. December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  9. The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  10. January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  11. January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  12. January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  13. The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  14. June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).

So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 14 years of funding letters.