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by GK Strategy 5th November, 2015
3 min read

University sector set for shakeup – or is it simply an excuse to cull?

While the Spending Review remains a few weeks away, the knives appear to be sharpening at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). A Government Green Paper on Higher Education will be released imminently, and there is growing speculation that the proposals will have a significant impact not only on Universities, but on BIS itself.

According to leaked reports, the Green Paper is expected to suggest abolishing the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the sector’s primary funding body since 1992. Removing the main body for Higher Education could present a significant challenge for the functioning of the sector, with any new organisation likely expected to encompass a range of other regulatory and quality assurance duties at a time of spending restraint. While on paper scrapping HEFCE may fulfil plans set out by Sajid Javid and the chancellor to merge parts of the department, its removal could prove more costly than many civil servants have envisaged.

It could also spell the beginning of the end for a number of partner organisations across BIS. In a sector all too often criticised for its inefficiencies, a consultancy firm was hired in early July to undertake a review of spending on external bodies. As such, a further leaked report outlined that by 2020, the department’s sites will be consolidated and partners reduced by more than half.  With 25-40% cuts at BIS on the cards when the Chancellor delivers his Spending Review on November 25th, the question on everyone’s lips is, where else will the axe fall?

The cull of organisations is unlikely to stop at HEFCE. The Coalition’s Office for Fair Access, which works to further widening participation in higher education, also looks set for structural change. The Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson, previously hinted at a new regulatory framework for new and existing providers in his keynote speech to the sector in July.  However, his flagship policy of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been met with serious reservations.  There is also fierce criticism over a proposed reward system whereby institutions that have excelled in certain criteria relating to teaching and widening participation may be allowed an inflationary rise in tuition fees – not least because inflation currently stands at -0.1%. Observers can but hope for in-depth detail regarding the controversial reward system in the Green Paper.

Universities have been beholden to the same underlying structure for over twenty years, and despite some scepticism, many are welcoming changes to the system, with priorities focusing on greater competition, quality of teaching and encouraging more disadvantaged young people into entering higher education. However, cuts to BIS may impact on the new plans for the university sector, with renewed pressure on student opportunity funding and the conversion of maintenance grants to loans. The Chancellor may be inadvertently raining on Jo Johnson’s parade.

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