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“There will, of course, be an overriding need to manage within public expenditure constraints, given that the student finance regime will continue to be subsidised from public funds. This will require developing a new approach to constraining Government financial exposure at the sector level, without restricting student choice of institutions. Lord Browne offered one imaginative solution; we are considering other possibilities and will say more in the White Paper. Meanwhile, we would welcome the Council’s active engagement and ideas for how our policy goal can be achieved in 2012/13 and beyond.”
(Paragraph 16, Grant Letter from BIS to HEFCE, December 2010)
When I first went to work at HEFCE in 2003, my Dad sent me an amazing present: The Complete “Yes, Minister”. I still would (and do) recommend this to anyone working in policy in whatever field or whatever level.
Many of you will have spotted why I thought of Yes Minister when reading the above paragraph of the recent HEFCE grant letter, and may be wondering precisely how far Lord Browne’s stock must have sunk to have an idea described as “imaginative” in a public document! At least they didn’t say “courageous”…
Anyway, for both Sir Humphrey and HEFCE, all the power is in the drafting. I don’t think anyone outside the organisation appreciates quite how much drafting goes on; but in order to understand any of what is published it is vitally important that you understand what isn’t. Something like a funding circular will have at least 10 drafts behind it before it sees the light of day, if you are looking at a policy document, at the very least double that. It’s a very “old school” civil service way of working, and it leads to very strange documents indeed.
I’m increasingly beginning to believe that such documents are not written to be read; rather, they are written to have been written. When you read a HEFCE document, the sound of the words in your head is not important. Imagine it instead as a series of quotes in a news item.
“HEFCE have said that…”
“HEFCE maintain that…”
“HEFCE are in favour of…”
and so on. Thought of like this, every word and phrase count because they can all be used in a variety of contexts. Like an x factor finalist, HEFCE are almost touchingly aware of their own media profile. The individual words and phrases in a funding council document are far more important than the overall sense of the document.
So why am I writing about HEFCE documents in a post about a letter they got from BIS? Well, it’s a pretty open secret that HEFCE will have seen this document a long time before any of us did. They’ve been involved in the drafting of the letter for weeks, if not months. So every word, every phrase, every inference of the letter is in there very, very deliberately. And some of the odder things may be evidence of discussion and compromise between BIS and HEFCE.
Let’s take an example, from paragraph 16, note “we are considering other possibilities and will say more in the White Paper. Meanwhile, we would welcome the Council’s active engagement [...]“ and compare:
paragraph 3: “We will set out our overall thinking and plans for HE in more detail in a White Paper, and will value your advice in preparing it.”
paragraph 18 “We will say more in the White Paper about our priorities for targeted funding and would welcome the Council’s advice“
At first glance, these three quotes seem to be saying the same thing. BIS are writing a White Paper, they would like HEFCE’s input. But if you look deeper, there is more in there.
Paragraphs 3 and 18 use the “we will say more in the White Paper” construction. This implies that HEFCE will be told more about the governments plans for those particular areas of policy in the White Paper, and that in the meantime they will be asked for advice when needed. Given that we are expecting a White Paper in January you would hope that BIS have already sought all or most of the advice they need from HEFCE by this point. But the words are important – BIS are actively “setting out their thinking”, HEFCE are passively giving “advice”.
In paragraph 16 both participants are actively engaged, HEFCE emphatically so! This is the paragraph regarding how to constrain the overall government cash exposure to a market-based system. Clearly, BIS are much keener to get advice here, quite possibly because they haven’t got a clue how they are going to do it. So, this particular hot potato has landed in HEFCE’s court, as Jim Hacker may have said.
But Government departments don’t ask quangos for advice unless they are pretty sure what they want to hear. What other clues are in paragraph 16?
“There will, of course, be an overriding need to manage within public expenditure constraints, given that the student finance regime will continue to be subsidised from public funds. This will require developing a new approach to constraining Government financial exposure at the sector level, without restricting student choice of institutions”
Notice what is not being said here: student numbers. The government can’t afford to be seen to be calling for constraints on student numbers – the whole idea of the market system is to let the market decide the size and shape of the sector. So we get the euphemistic “constraining Government financial exposure”, with a little extra tag on the end making sure we know that this isn’t restricting student choice (I’ll come back to “of institutions” presently).
There would only really be one way of doing this… setting an upper limit to the total government cash commitment to HE, and bringing in some kind of a system to keep spending under this cap.
Here’s one way of constructing such a system (which won’t work): allocate funding to institutions in respect of students sequentially from the cheapest to the most expensive, firstly for “core” numbers (based on current intake) and then for “additional” numbers (new intake)
So if you charge lower fees you are more likely to get all the students that you want to enroll, if you have more expensive courses may be subject to not getting all of the students they’d like. The positive side effect of this is that it would drive prices down, the negative would be the perception that the most able students (applying to “the best”/most expensive) universities) would be less likely to get places than students with less good A-level grades. It’s pretty rough, but you could sort it out into something tidier fairly easily, maybe adding regional or subject elements.
[I'll work this out further in future blog posts if anyone would be interested. If HEFCE are interested, I'll work this out in a research report for £50,000 :-)]
But “of institutions” is the killer – one of the most out-of-place aspects of the Browne Report was the idea that no institution should go out of business… even though everything else in the report seems designed to make exactly this happen. HEFCE even got the promise of a small budget to prevent this from happening (“The Council will have powers to provide targeted funding to prevent institutional failure from taking place“, Browne, p47) which greatly upset the poor darlings as they felt they were doing an excellent job of this anyway (they are, as it happens). So HEFCE, is here, for the first time, instructed to work against the effects of the shiny new market – not to support wider subject choice, or a choice of mode of delivery, but to protect actual institutions.
At least some heartening news for an increasingly bleak midwinder.
[This is my last post this year, I'd like to end by saying thanks all for reading, commenting, retweeting and disagreeing, so:
"I wonder if I might crave your momentary indulgence in order to discharge a by no means disagreeable obligation which has, over the years, become more or less established practice in government service as we approach the terminal period of the year — calendar, of course, not financial — in fact, not to put too fine a point on it, Week Fifty-One — and submit to you, with all appropriate deference, for your consideration at a convenient juncture, a sincere and sanguine expectation — indeed confidence — indeed one might go so far as to say hope — that the aforementioned period may be, at the end of the day, when all relevant factors have been taken into consideration, susceptible to being deemed to be such as to merit a final verdict of having been by no means unsatisfactory in its overall outcome and, in the final analysis, to give grounds for being judged, on mature reflection, to have been conducive to generating a degree of gratification which will be seen in retrospect to have been significantly higher than the general average."
Thanks, Sir Humphrey]