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So where are we?

December 17, 2011

As 2011 comes to a close it is worth gathering together the various developing strands of the government’s strategy for higher education.  Despite the brevity of the white paper, the plans are wide-ranging: dispersed, piecemeal and already underway.  The coalition is implementing its plans using a variety of instruments in order to rush through change by the end of this parliament in 2015. 

In the pressing haste and political compromises, some things like the loan system have been botched, but that doesn’t necessarily aid those campaigning against the reforms.

  1. Block grants for undergraduate teaching were reduced by 80% by a budgetary measure – November 2010’s Comprehensive Spending Review.
  2. The maximum tuition fee level that universities can charge from 2012/13 was raised in a snap vote last December.  Using a piece of secondary legislation, the government was able to engineer the vote without publishing clear plans and with only a brief window of a few hours for debate.
  3. The Secretary of State can now set up to market rates of interest on student loans.  Clauses tucked away at the end of the 2011 Education Act, which received Royal Assent last month, removed the current legislative protection and turned the decision on interest rates into an administrative matter that can be adjusted using statutory instruments.
  4. The new numbers controls that make use of an artificial supply-side mechanism to control recruitment were introduced by giving an instruction to a quango, Hefce.  The Browne review recommended the creation of a new superquango, HE Council, to replace Hefce, Offa, QAA and OIA.  One reason why the government chose not to adopt this idea is that it would have required new primary legislation – the passage of such measures through parliament can take months and this would have slowed up change as well as providing a focus for campaigning.
  5. Students studying at ‘designated’ courses offered by private providers (some of them for-profit) already have access to the publicly backed student loan scheme and maintenance grants on the same terms as those within the established sector.  Although the numbers were small they are expanding with no control on recruitment besides the approval of courses on a case by case basis by nominally, Vince Cable.  From 2012/13 those students will be able to borrow up to £6 000 per year to cover fees. 
  6. George Osborne announced in the Autumn Spending review that the proposals to exempt universities from VAT on shared services will be included in a new Finance Bill to appear in 2012.

All these measures are already happening and so those waiting for a parliamentary vote on the white paper will be waiting in vain. 

Here we have something of a democratic deficit given the lack of concerted scrutiny and oversight.  Even articulating the nature of the plans is a task – it is still not clear quite what the government is proposing in some areas out for consultation.

There will be primary legislation in 2012 on universities and it will be likely that it appears as a Higher Education Bill rather than smuggling changes within other legislation.  Parliamentary observers expect new legislation to appear in April or May and work its way through both houses over the rest of the year.

Key measures here will be:

  1. Changes to degree awarding powers and the restrictions on the use of the ‘university’ title including the possibility of allowing bodies that do no teaching, such as Pearson plc, to award degrees.
  2. Introducing a single regulatory framework to create a ‘level playing field’ for private and for-profit providers to compete against the established HE institutions.
  3. Allowing universities to change their corporate form more easily so as to be better able to access private finance.  This will involve legislation governing the charitable status of public universities.  This is most likely to allow ex-Polytechnics which are ‘higher education corporations’ to change to forms, such as ‘company limited by guarantee’, that would allow them to issue bonds.

These might simply appear to be purely technical matters about rationalising or tidying up.  But they extend the new market in undergraduate recruitment by allowing more operations, while tight controls on the overall numbers of students are to be retained.  More outfits fighting for the same students.

Any campaigning in 2012 has to be aware of these points of leverage.  It will be a protracted passage through parliament but it is important to take these issues to a general public – and they lack the headline impact of fees.

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  1. So where are we? Update « Critical Education

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