A few further thoughts on the delayed HE bill and the final appearance of the HEFCE Grant letter yesterday… Reactions and comments to the reported postponing of the bill are still coming thick and fast, but it is clear that either way it is unlikely to stop the pace of reform or change. There is still plenty that ministers can do – and the private sector for that matter – without legislation. Two further thoughts to bear in mind when governments want to deliver reform; first the words of Gus O’Donnell, the retiring cabinet secretary, when he said that there should be a lot less legislation and a lot more focus on changing things in other ways. He’s right of course, but most politicians tend to assume that legislative equals actual change on the ground.

Second, is a lesson from recent history. By and large, both New Labour and the Conservatives have believed in similar principles for public sector reform, namely more competition, more funding through user demand and more choice driving efficiency, standards and innovation. But neither has been quite as good at working out how such changes are actually managed and delivered on the ground, underestimating issues around capacity and speed. Arguably Whitehall hasn’t been much good at this either and both senior civil servants and ministers always expect delivery agencies and quangos to just get on with it.

In Labour’s early reforms Individual Learning Accounts (a pledge from their time in opposition) were introduced to stimulate demand and to channel public funding through their ‘purchasing’ decisions. At the same time, a large number of new providers – largely, but not exclusively, from the private sector – were also allowed to compete for the ILA funds.

It didn’t work. In fact it went horribly, horribly wrong. It was just too ambitious to deliver both demand led funding and expanded provider competition at the same time. And it was just too much for the newly formed Learning and Skills Council to manage. It’s easy to see where I’m going with this – fast forward a decade and we see similar principles driving the Coalition’s HE reforms. However, a delay in the HE bill might mean that expanded competition is developed on a slightly slower timescale. That would be no bad thing given the changes already in place and given the pressures on the SLC and HEFCE to get it right quickly.

Which takes us neatly to the HEFCE grant letter. There’s a lot in it about managing a ‘smooth transition’ and several suggestions of continuity – in funds for widening participation, postgraduate teaching and for supporting strategic and specialist subjects and institutions. All good news of course that the Government wants HEFCE to play this role and even better if they are taking their advice about how to manage major change successfully.  Of course the letter also suggests that there are still decisions to be made – on AAB and ‘Core and Margin’ – and that cost pressures on the loan book are still a real and present threat. But as the decision on a Bill is made and the white paper response emerges, ministers would do well to take the advice of Gus O’Donnell and Alan Langlands – as well as to learn that lesson from ILAs.
Andy Westwood – CEO