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Government responds to HE White Paper consultations

June 11, 2012

Months late but here it is, the government has finally published a formal response to the consultations it ran off the back of last June’s Higher Education White Paper.

I had planned a quick blog post but what I was drafting soon ballooned as I started to try to cover what was missing from today’s response. There really were very few new concrete announcements, whilst the proposed single regulatory framework for HE in England seems to have taken a battering from respondents. We knew there was to be no HE Bill in 2012 but the plans are in a weaker state than thought.

This might seem an exaggeration, but when you read Part 3 relating to the Technical Consultation it is striking that the summaries provided spell out the half-baked nature of that document, whilst concrete response to the many objections is absent. ‘Too rushed and too little detail’ is the consistent theme.

A parliamentary statement from Willetts repeats a paragraph from the Introduction:

Many responses to the White Paper stressed that we do not yet know the full effect of the new funding arrangements, which will come into effect for academic year 2012-13. Hence, it cannot be clear what form of regulatory framework will be appropriate.

So, the ‘single regulatory framework’ has been put to one side and while there is a promise to ‘move our reform agenda forward primarily through non-legislative means’, today was the opportunity to do precisely that with, for example, the proposed reforms to degree awarding powers. Instead the strong commitment to expand such powers to non-teaching institutions, such as Pearson, has been sidelined.

Over the next week, I will look at the implications for those plans, along with the sale of loan book and proposals to make it easier for universities to change legal form ‘the better to attract private finance’. All receive a mention but none has progressed.

Willetts and co managed to find one positive announcement in a bid for tomorrow’s headlines.

The press release leads with the trailed changes to regulation governing the legally protected ‘university’ title. The normal ‘red tape’ cant confirms a dramatic reduction around the minimum size for a university – from 4000 to 1000 fulltime equivalent HE students.

1.5 We will further stimulate competition in the sector by reducing the ‘numbers’ criterion for university title from 4,000 higher education students to 1,000. This will widen access to university title for smaller, high quality providers.

The change will come into effect immediately and will make a significant difference to a number of smaller institutions operating with the publicly funded framework.

Without the raft of other changes promised, it amounts to very little new competition. GuildHE estimates that ten of its members would now qualify for the title, while ‘new providers’ remain excluded.

The other announcement in the press release deals with a problem generated by yet more delay.

With no  ‘single regulatory framework’, the government has to work out what to do with courses run by private providers but ‘designated’ for student support.  Students on these courses can access the student loan company to cover fees and maintenance (and are also eligible for maintenance grants).

BIS has seen this shadow scheme expand beyond its capability to manage: its ‘review’ will introduce number controls and try to bring some quality assurance to bear. As private providers, these institutions are currently outside the aegis of Hefce and QAA – doing this without legislation may present a conundrum.

So, more consultation and review, I counted at least another eight, but in sum an admission by government that its original plans are floundering. I expect it to redouble its efforts via alternative means, but more on that over the course of the week.

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