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New-look HEFCE lays out reform plans

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has published a plan outlining how it will meet the challenges of the government’s higher education reforms.

The HEFCE business plan 2011-2015: Principles, Priorities and Practices, published on 2 November, says the council’s main aim will be to ensure a smooth transition as it takes on new powers.

“This is a time of considerable uncertainty for higher education. HEFCE’s primary aim is to support a smooth transition to the new funding and regulatory arrangements, with minimal disruption to students, universities and colleges,” said the chief executive, Alan Langlands, in a statement.

The government’s White Paper sets up HEFCE to become higher education’s top regulator, as well as a “consumer champion for students and promoter of a competitive system”.

The HEFCE says that during 2012-2013 it will prepare to take over responsibility for deciding institutions’ eligibility for receiving student support and ability to use the university title and award degrees.

This is to allow for bringing private providers into the regulatory framework, for which the council will take responsibility from August 2013.

The business plan also hints at HEFCE’s plans to narrow its allocation of Quality Related research funding.

“By March 2012 we will revise the method for allocating our QR funding to ensure that we invest preferentially in departments, universities and colleges with a strong track record in research of world-leading and international excellent quality (4* and 3* in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise),” reads the plan.

This suggests a further cut to 2* research—rated as “recognised internationally”. In March 2011 HEFCE announced that funding for 2011-12 would be distributed between 2*, 3* and 4* research with a weighting of 0.294:3:9, changed from 1:3:9 the previous year.

HEFCE’s business plan says the council will work to reduce costs within universities, in order to mitigate the risk to the research infrastructure of “pressure to maintain the volume and quality of research output with diminishing resources”.

In partnership with other research funders, the council will encourage universities and colleges to reduce the indirect costs associated with research and explore where collaboration can reduce spending, it says.

Within teaching, the document outlines HEFCE’s plans to monitor and consult on the unintended consequences of reform on postgraduate teaching and important and vulnerable subjects.

Measures to counter any risk in these subjects could include providing information, advice and guidance, and targeting investments to avoid undesirable reductions in provision, it says.

On knowledge exchange—one of the council’s three priorities, alongside research and teaching and learning—HEFCE says it will provide some targeted funding for under-developed areas, notably social entrepreneurship, in spring 2012.

HEFCE admits that continuing uncertainty within the sector means that plans may change.

“We will be forward-looking and flexible, and will review this plan regularly to ensure that it reflects new issues and priorities as they emerge,” it says.