UK: Buffer body should clarify international role

An independent review of the funding body for universities and other higher education institutions in England has concluded it is a high-performing organisation that has the confidence of the sector and government.

While most areas of operations of the Higher Education Funding Council for England were found to be meeting or exceeding requirements, some improvements were needed and its international strategy required clarification.

The council ceased to be actively engaged with the international higher education collaboration and development agenda in 2006 when the role was handed over to the International Unit, based at Universities UK. Hefce, as an England-only organisation, was felt to be less well-placed to act on behalf of universities across the country.

It has cut its international budget from about £1 million (US$1.5 million) to half that amount, and cut staffing from around eight full-time equivalents to two.

Its current international 'strategy' is unpublished but the report identifies it as concentrating "on those parts of the world where we can learn of developments that will help inform our policy formulation".

It has selected a set of strategic countries to match its aims: Anglophone countries, Bologna signatory countries and emergent economies.

Hefce told the review team that senior managers remained actively engaged in international issues as part of their day-to-day work and also support specific programmes.

For example, chief executive Sir Alan Langlands is a member of the 'Wellington' group of Anglophone countries that looks at major policy issues while Steve Egan, his deputy, is vice-chair of the OECD Institutional Management in Higher Education programme.

In their report, the consultants identified concerns over whether the internationalisation of the activities of English higher education institutions was being adequately addressed within Hefce's approach to policy formulation and assurance.

They reported they had "seen evidence of board members engaging on the subject of internationalisation on such matters as the Bologna process, widening participation, learning and teaching, enterprise and skills and employer engagement, and research, including international practice in respect of research bibliometrics".

The European and International units hosted by UUK have just been independently reviewed and the report suggests it would appear timely for Hefce "to clearly express (through publication of its strategy) how it sees its role in this area both now and in the future".

The consultants' report, which informed the review by a group chaired by Dame Sandra Burslem, former vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, involved consultations with more than 200 representatives from 47 higher education providers and 30 other organisations.

The review found the English higher education sector, consisting of some 130 autonomous and heterogeneous institutions, values Hefce for its crucial role in managing the interface between government and individual institutions and that it is generally judged to have contributed to a climate in which higher education institutions of all characters have been able to thrive and grow.

But "many" institutional leaders and other sector representatives told the consultants they felt there was an "increasing risk" that Hefce's effectiveness as a broker could be eroded through the actions of government.

Some (a small minority and including no institutional leaders) said Hefce's role as a broker had already been materially eroded and had little real value.

A majority of institutional leaders questioned whether Hefce had the necessary capacity at senior levels to engage consistently and effectively with the highest levels of government. As the consultants point out, this activity is not carried out in the "public eye" and a clear evidential basis for their concerns could not be produced.

"Rather, they were derived from perceptions concerning the underlying dynamic of the sector's relationship with government coupled with a desire for Hefce to be alert and responsive to this preoccupation."

Burslem said the consultants' report made clear that Hefce "is a well established agency that in several respects could be judged to exemplify the best of what can be achieved in the public sector".

Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, said: "Over the years, Hefce has built up an enviable reputation for effectiveness and efficiency in distributing large sums of public money. All of this stands Hefce in a strong position to handle those difficult decisions as we ask the sector for some modest belt tightening."

Langlands said there was no room for complacency and promised to consider carefully the recommendations.

* See Review of the effectiveness and efficiency of HEFCE by Oakleigh Consulting Ltd.