Friday, 23 May 2014

Squaring up

The Higher Education (Wales) Bill 2014 has now been published and introduced at the Senedd, and it seemed like the pre-fight press conference for a heavyweight title fight. Well, maybe that’s bigging it up a little too much, but there was certainly some drawing of lines. Possibly in the sand.

The Bill and an Explanatory Memorandum were published on 19 May. They are both substantial documents: the Bill is 37 pages; the explanatory memorandum 148 pages. So there’ll be more to write and say about these as they make their passage through the Senedd. (A note for English readers: the Senedd is the Welsh parliament. The ‘dd’ in Senedd is pronounced like the ‘th’ in there. Now try saying Senedd – I suspect it’s the same root as Senate.) For now I want to concentrate on an apparent spat between universities and the government.

The Bill seeks to set out a new regulatory framework for higher education in Wales, following the tuition fee reforms introduced following the Browne review. Put simply, HEFCW previously controlled much of the resource for universities in Wales, and so had an effective means to influence universities’ actions. When most of the state funding flows via students instead, through tuition fees, HEFCW has no real means of influencing. And so the Bill seeks to give the government, via HEFCW, some powers which work in the context of fees, rather than those which used to work in the context of the block grant.

To quote from the explanatory memorandum:
35. In summary, as a consequence of the new tuition fee and student support arrangements, the financial relationship between HEFCW and institutions has weakened. Whilst the overall quantum of funding available to HEFCW has decreased the Welsh Government continues to make a significant contribution towards the cost of higher education provision in Wales through the provision of government backed tuition fee grants and loans. This shift in funding means that the current regulatory framework based on HEFCW’s conditions of funding will no longer function in the manner originally intended. The continued regulation of education delivered by or on behalf of institutions providing higher education in Wales is in the public interest. 
It’s important to note a particular difference between Wales and England. OFFA in England is autonomous from HEFCE. English universities’ access agreements were connected to block grant by a more attenuated mechanism than in Wales, where universities submit fee plans to HEFCW; approval of these by HEFCW is a condition of funding.

The Bill allows for automatic designation of providers with charitable status; reserves the most generous student support arrangements for automatically designated providers; requires automatically designated providers to have a fee and access plan agreed by HEFCW; and gives HEFCW powers to not agree such plans. Specific changes to the arrangements are the limitation to charities; making student retention a priority; and providing for monitoring of the proportion of tuition fee income spent on access arrangements (as it has been in England since the word go.)

So what’s the fuss about? Higher Education Wales (HEW) issued a statement which highlighted the need for institutional autonomy; identified a worry that the regime gave HEFCW disproportionate power compared to that exercised by students; and highlighted the use of subsequent regulation (the ‘negative resolution’ procedure) to set out much of the detail of the new system, making a response difficult.

The ‘negative resolution’ procedure is a variety of government regulation, deriving from the so-called Henry VIII clauses, which allow legislation without parliamentary approval. Essentially, they mean that the Bill identified areas where ministers make the regulations, which are valid unless the Senedd votes them down. HEW argued that the regulations should be subject to an affirmative procedure – that is, voted on at the Senedd before implementation.

It’s easy also to see why HEW might be suspicious. The Bill gives those inspecting quality (which will still be the QAA) or adherence to the financial code the right of entry to premises, and the right to inspect documents; and also provides that they should show identification on coming to the premises. (See paragraphs 117 and 150 of the Explanatory Memorandum.) If it looks like the police it’s easy to see why people think that it might be the police.

So what the other side of the argument? Simply put, higher education matters more in Wales than in England, in two senses. Firstly, Wales needs a more skilled population to create economic well-being. The guts of the Welsh economy were ripped out when mining, steel and manufacturing went in the 1980’s. A new economy can be found, but it’ll need a population with more skills than at present. Welsh universities have a job to do for Wales. And secondly, higher education represents a higher proportion of the Welsh Government’s spending and powers than for the Westminster government. Because the Welsh Government has a narrower remit than that of Westminster, then the areas it does control – and HE is a big one – represent a higher proportion of its spend. The RAB charge takes a bigger share of the Welsh cake than it does in Westminster.

And the fighting? Here’s an extract from the Senedd discussion (you can see the whole exchange at 1600 in the report):

Leighton Andrews (the former minister): I do not know whether the Minister has yet had the opportunity to read the very weak and conservative response from the vice-chancellors’ lobby today. To my mind, it borders on the hysterical. If he has not read it, I would urge him not to waste too much time on it. ... So, I would urge him not to pay too much attention to the murmurings of the vice-chancellors.

Huw Lewis (the current minister): I thank the Member for the Rhondda for those insights and comments. Yes, I have read the response of Higher Education Wales, which followed rapidly upon its receipt of today’s news, and I have to say that I was—well, it is almost a euphemism to say that I was disappointed in terms of the tone and the content, especially when you consider that, since the White Paper was published back in 2012, numerous conversations have been held between officials, Ministers and the sector itself. This response today is not worthy of the subject matter, and I would appeal to it to rapidly raise its game in terms of the level of input that we would expect, and that the public would expect. We really need constructive dialogue and engagement in order to get these issues progressed. In many points that HEW made today, it almost seemed to have disregarded all conversations that had gone before, and has suddenly woken up to the situation as it is. We know that it has had a great deal of time to think about this, and we need it, as an active and intelligent partner in the development of this legislation. Let us hope that this particular press release today does not signal the level of engagement that we might be able to expect from HEW.

That’s fighting talk! I’ll keep you posted as the bout begins.

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