Lots of commentary and speculation in the sector today with the news that the HE Bill may be shelved – either for a year or two or possibly even beyond the next General Election. There are two sets of issues that need thinking about if such a delay is true. First is the reforms themselves and what requires a bill and what can be done without one? Second comes the politics – who wins and who loses as a bill winds its way through parliament?
The answer to the first question is ‘relatively little’ – most of the reforms (higher fees, number control reforms around AAB and ‘core and margin’, Access Agreements) are already in place for this year. There are some rough bits around the edges – most notably the need to clarify the lead regulatory role of HEFCE – but most would say that this is a function that has worked reasonably well over recent years. Ambitions for greater competition and diversity don’t rest on a bill with FE growing numbers and private providers already with access to the loan book and further growth is possible through an expanded core and margin competition. Furthermore it appears that some ‘for profits’ are highly likely to gain market entry through the purchase of existing providers.
So this takes us to the second question and the politics of a bill. As we have seen with welfare this week, there is never a guarantee of a safe passage, particularly with unpredictable and still wounded Lib Dems in the process. Worse, a bill offers the opportunity for every critic in parliament, the media and the sector, to dig up the whole reform story again and to scrutinise every detailed change going back to Browne. And all this for relatively few further changes to higher education. On top of that it threatens what is looking like David Willetts and Vince Cable’s ‘told you so’ moment – as latest UCAS figures show that applications for 2012 haven’t really been affected that much. The coalition’s precious political capital is also a key factor and with health, welfare and schools, it is clear that there are bigger battles to fight where legislation can’t be avoided.
But perhaps there is one further reason to hesitate and that is the realisation that HE really does form a major part of the UK’s economic growth story and that further or more rapid change in the next two years may distract universities when economic impact is more important than ever.
Andy Westwood – CEO