Mark Fuller
Associate Director, Higher Education

It’s been a hectic time in the world of higher education, with a flurry of news that looks set to have a transformative impact on the sector. At the center of it all sits the White Paper ‘Success as a knowledge economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’ which sets out the Government’s plans to reform HE. Quickly followed by the Queen’s Speech, which confirmed intentions to legislate for the White Paper’s proposals in a HE Bill, the net impact looks set to be a fundamental repositioning of universities in public life.

While by no means part of the formally-defined public sector, universities have traditionally been very much a part of the public sphere. In both teaching and research they have benefitted from predominantly public funding, and have had a symbiotic relationship with an array of supportive quangos. While the likes of OFFA, HEFCE, and RCUK have monitoring duties, they have been very much part of the sector rather than at arms length from it. The White Paper, and the Bill that will follow it, now looks set to bring about a radical shift: higher education will henceforth be a regulated market.

There are three main elements to this change in status.

First, an influx of new providers. Successive waves of reform have seen new universities established – from the ‘Robins’ institutions of the 60’s to the remodeled polytechnics of the 90’s – but each has shared the same relationship with the state. This looks set to change as the Government paves the way for a host of new institutions that have very different forms of ownership. If the Government’s aspirations for a significant number of private and third sector founded HE institutions is met, the overall relationship the entire sector has with the state will have entered new territory.

Second, and in part to accommodate the newly mixed economy of provision, the regulatory architecture of HE is to be redesigned. The aforementioned bodies are to be subsumed into a powerful new ‘Office for Students’ that will monitor quality and grant funds and compel regulatory compliance accordingly.   The name alone suggests a remit more akin to the likes of Ofcom and Ofgen than to the sector ‘partners’ it will replace.

Finally, the measures of quality are being reset with the long heralded introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Unlike the Research Excellence Framework (REF) that it has often been compared to, the TEF will primarily be a means to ascertain the extent to which basic expectations are being met rather than to asses where funds should be distributed. (There is a funding element to the TEF but the financial difference it makes between institutions is likely to be marginal.) The key aim of the TEF is clearly to set a benchmark for consumer (student) satisfaction.

The changed nature of the sector and the relationship universities have with the state is something communications teams are going to get to grips with. Like it or not, universities are soon to be players in a regulated market rather than educational pillars of the establishment. It might therefore be time to have a look at the reputation management and public affairs successes and failures of energy companies, media conglomerates and, dare one say it, banks.