For those that follow the changing landscape of higher education, it’s clear that many of the economic, social and regulatory trends are unfolding across a number of OECD countries. Possibly the most dramatic of all changes are unfolding in England. I’ve asked Les Huckfield of Huckfield Research to help me see the big picture.

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KCH. This is a time of great change for the English higher education system. Can you start us off by identifying the changes that you believe are particularly important?  

LH: In opening may I stress that the Westminster Government‘s Higher Education changes only apply to England. Higher Education is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, each with different policies and different systems.

The Government’s Higher Education (HE) White Paper of Tuesday 28 June 2011 “Students at the Heart of the System” gives an answer:

“We are reducing the block grant money that universities and colleges will get from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)

“This will generate £3 billion savings in grant annually by 2014-15 (offset by income from graduate contributions) and will also put more power into the hands of students….”

Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) spending in 2011/2011 of £7.1bn ($11.3bn) will be reduced to £4.2bn ($6.7bn) by 2014/2014. Much teaching funding will be replaced by individual Student Loans.

This represents a massive shift from a Teaching and Learning Government Grant to universities’ income being determined by individual student decisions on fees, loans and courses.

KCH: The recent changes have been described as a move toward a “U.S. model” of higher education. Is this an accurate assessment of the changes? 

Though HE in England will begin to move towards the US system, one major difference is that most HE in England will still be subject to Government Student Number Controls.

These proposals will open 85,000 places to competition – 65,000 for AAB Grade Students and 20,000 for lower cost providers – boundaries to be extended annually to increase competition.

Most HE Fees will now range from £6000 ($9500) to £9000 ($14,300).  HE Institutions charging more than £6000 ($9500) must have an Access Agreement for wider participation agreed with the Office of Fair Access.

In return for fees flexibility, HE Institutions must provide information on course content, employability and drop-out rates under Key Information Statistics.

KCH: How would you characterize the response of the English academic community to the changes? 

This policy is highly controversial. In a well-quoted piece “From Robbins to McKinsey” for the London Review of Books on Thursday 25 August 2011, Stefan Collini, Professor of English Literature and Intellectual History  at Cambridge wrote:

“The decision in the summer of 2010 by George Osborne (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) and the inner circle (as it surely was) to remove public funding for university teaching constitutes a radically different attempt to bring universities into line. The cunning plan is to portray students as the elite commandos of the new assault: with a loan as their weapon, they are to get inside the ivory tower and compel the inmates to do their bidding”

KCH. What do you believe the regulators are hoping to accomplish by fostering more competition between colleges? 

The Government’s competition policy is set against the background of its October 2010 Spending Review which seeks to reduce HE spending by 40% for 2014/2015.

The Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, in London Review of Books on Thursday 14 July 2011 wrote:

“The success of British universities in research has been the result of a system that places intense competition in a wider legal framework. I believe that we can now achieve the same for teaching and the student experience – a change that many academics have wanted to see for quite some time”.

Three Further Education Colleges, BPP (Apollo/University of Phoenix) and Pearson Education (which owns the Financial Times) already have degree awarding powers. Some FE Colleges may consider becoming Community Colleges.

KCH. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that the shift to a less regulated model would, in fact, not be possible if the regulators did not have the power that comes with a centralized, regulated system? 

You are right. For some Government reforms, required regulatory bodies do not yet exist, especially for the private sector.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England will change from a funding body to a regulator. The Office for Fair Access lacks resources or mechanisms to monitor implementation of Access Agreements. The Quality and Assurance Agency for inspection of universities is to move towards a “risk based” approach, which has yet to emerge in detail. A recent Higher Education Policy Institute Report concluded that regulatory elements for the private sector were either missing or unclear.

KCH. How prepared do you think English institutions are for operating successfully in the new higher education landscape? 

LH: These proposals were announced on Tuesday 28 June 2011. 12 HE institutions have already approached the Office for Fair Access to reduce fees.

HE Institutions operate against a background of excess demand. The Universities and Colleges Admission Services (UCAS) currently shows total “accepted applicants” of over 476,000 out of 690,000 applicants. Through fees and demographic change enrolments will decline.

Most English Universities rely primarily on national examination results, whereas US universities and colleges use wider admissions criteria. If HEIs in England are to recruit more effectively, changes in the annual timetable and for wider admissions criteria are needed.

KCH: Does the interest in creating a more diverse range of education institutions include proprietary or online colleges? 

LH: In 2010 in England there were more than 2mn students on HE courses. England has 131 HEIs that award degrees, including 89 Universities. In 2008/2009 112,000 full person equivalents were enroled in HE courses in English FE Colleges, where fees are lower and will expand provision. There were 65 private and for-profit HE providers with around 38,000 students on HE courses across the UK in 2009/10. The online market has hardly developed. BPP, Pearson and Kaplan are significant players. BPP (Apollo Group/University of Phoenix) is offering a 3 year taught degree at £5000 ($8000) per year and 2 year degree at £6000 ($9500) per year.

More information about Huckfield Research

Les Huckfield Bio: 

Leslie Huckfield has extensive experience in UK Higher and Further Education, for which he now provides a range of services.

He has worked in Higher and Further Education in Scotland, the North West and West Midlands. He has also worked for European Union and International Projects in Ghana, the Caribbean, Venezuela, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

As Manager for External Funding at St Helens and Wirral Metropolitan Colleges, he set up the Merseyside Colleges’ European Group at Liverpool’s iconic Albert Dock – the first UK Colleges’ Group to increase their European Union Funding collectively.

Before this he was an active Labour politician – as a Member of the Westminster Parliament, as a UK Government Minister and as a Member of the European Parliament.

In the US, he has lectured at Brown, Duke and Rhode Island Universities, Illinois College and at Summer Schools in South Dakota and at California State College at Long Beach. 

All this provides a unique understanding of funding, project implementation, with a background in policy development.