The seismic shifts in UK higher education policy can be understood through the lenses of federalism, regulation, and isolationism.

To say that higher education in the United Kingdom is undergoing a seismic and historic transformation would be an understatement. Two key changes that are driving this transformation are England’s £9,000 fee cap for universities and the winding down of grants for funding teaching. While most of the country, and many scholars, have focused on the impact of the funding change on students, less attention has been given to the impact of this change on the legal and policy frameworks for UK higher education. In addition to these forces, a changing attitude within the UK toward membership in the European Union and to immigration threaten to further unsettle the higher education sector.

As a former civil servant in Ontario and a student of higher education history, I find this situation fascinating. Working in this changing policy environment for a few years has offered unique insight into these developments. Capturing the many moving parts of the changing UK higher education policy environment is extremely difficult. However, three themes help shed light on current trends: federalism, regulation and isolationism.

Many Canadians and Americans may have noted the growing federal nature of higher education policy making in the UK. The UK is an increasingly fractured policy environment when it comes to higher education. At the moment, three areas continue to tie together higher education policy in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England: research funding, the provision of data on students and higher education providers, and quality assurance. While the former two elements remain relatively stable for the time being, the third is on the precipice as differences develop across the four nations. The interesting question is: how did these divisions evolve?

Higher education has been a matter for the devolved administrations of the UK (this includes the “Home Nations” of Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland) since 1998. However, it really wasn’t until the 2004 Higher Education Act’s introduction of “top up” tuition fees in England in 2004 that a fissure emerged in UK higher education policy-making. This gulf widened following the 2010 publication of the government’s review of undergraduate education in England, the Browne Review, which led to the introduction of a £9,000 (about $18,000 CAD) per year fee cap, the creation of an income contingent loan repayment scheme (ICLRP), and liberalization of the higher education market for England in 2012.

While England pursued a privatization and markets agenda, Scotland has doggedly refused to accept tuition fees for its students (although it does allow universities to charge up to £9,000 to non-Scottish, UK-resident students from England and the other Home Nations) and continues to view private higher education providers with skepticism. However, Scotland also lags behind its English cousin for widening participation in higher education for lower income groups, despite attempts by the Scottish Executive to improve student performance.

Given its close proximity to the growing population of southern England, Welsh higher education policy tends not to stray too far from that in England. However, given the stark economic outlook facing Wales it cannot afford the comparatively laissez-fair market approach pursued by England. The Welsh government needs the policy levers to deploy higher education as an economic development tool. The recent Further and Higher Education Act (Wales) passed by the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff gives greater power to the Welsh government to direct higher education funding, with an option to circumnavigate the Welsh higher education buffer body, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW).

The Welsh government continues to subsidize its students’ tuition fees to alleviate their debt burden post-graduation. Interestingly, this subsidy applies to students who choose to study over the border in England (or the other UK home nations), reducing Welsh students’ £9,000 fees to under £4,000. While excellent for promoting student mobility, the fee subsidy policy essentially allows higher education funding to bleed from Wales to, for the most part, England. Welsh universities complain they are underfunded, as Wales’s higher education funding flows elsewhere and higher education participation rates in Wales languish behind those of England. Furthermore, the fee subsidy almost actively encourages students to leave Wales exacerbating the brain drain from the region.

Northern Ireland suffers similarly to Wales. Like Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland subsidizes Northern Irish students’ fees, but also allows its two universities (Queen’s and Ulster) to charge fees up to £9,000 for students coming from the other Home Nations. Unfortunately, given mounting political instability and an inability to manage public expenditure elsewhere, annual and in-year cuts to the higher education budget have resulted in both Queen’s and Ulster having to reduce the number of Northern Irish students they accept in favour of seeking more English, Welsh, and Scottish students. This is because Northern Irish students are funded at a loss to the university. The perversity of the funding situation created by the Northern Ireland Executive means that those Northern Irish students who can afford it will leave Northern Ireland to study, while less advantaged students are left fighting for a shrinking number of spots.

It remains to be seen how the UK’s increasingly federal higher education sector will play out as England and Scotland appear to excel (for the most part) while Wales and Northern Ireland are left fighting for resources in a shrinking pool.

The newly elected Conservative government, now with a small majority and unhindered by its former partnership with the progressive Liberal Democratic Party, are undertaking a government-wide spending review. The purpose of the review is to reduce overall government expenditure and the budget deficit. All Ministers have been asked to model both a 25 per cent cut in spending and a 40 per cent cut in spending in their respective departments. Numerous reports suggest that the Minister for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), the department with responsibility for higher education, is preparing his department for a 40 per cent reduction to the English higher education budget. If this is true, English universities should be expecting major cuts to what remains of the public grants they receive.

In order to achieve this level of cutbacks, the department would be forced to consider the potential savings of dismantling its many arms-length agencies. This could include the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). England, along with Scotland and Wales, continues to operate with a quasi-independent funding body and statutory authority over granting. However, England’s 2012 move from a grants-based to largely fee-based funding system means that HEFCE’s principal job, the funding of higher education institutions, is being slowly whittled away as a larger and larger percentage of university income is derived from student fees supported by government-backed loans.

HEFCE does have an increasing role in the regulation of universities in England. However, it does not have statutory authority to oversee the growing number of private higher education providers in England. Furthermore, its authority over universities extends from its funding relationship—less funding means less control. Under current statutes and regulations, HEFCE is becoming surplus to requirements.

One area in which HEFCE is exerting its influence is quality assurance in higher education. In May 2015, HEFCE announced a comprehensive review of existing quality assurance arrangements for universities and its other funded higher education providers. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and Northern Ireland’s Department for Employment and Learning joined the review but,

importantly, the Scottish Funding Council for higher education did not. A consultation arising from the review has hinted at eliminating the need for the sector-owned Quality Assurance Agency in favour of individual university boards signing-off on individual university quality reports to their respective funding council, and putting a regulatory expectation on academic peer review of individual courses. The suggestions coming from the funding councils, while putting greater responsibility on individual university boards, could also result in much greater direct oversight of universities by the funding councils—assuming, of course, HEFCE is not abolished in the meantime.

To further complicate things, the new Minister with responsibility for higher education has announced the government will introduce a “teaching excellence framework,” or TEF. The TEF is intended to mirror the existing UK Research Excellence Framework (REF). The Minister and his Cabinet colleagues feel that universities have been incentivized to prioritize research at the expense of teaching. Institutions whose teaching is deemed to be excellent through the TEF will be allowed to apply an inflationary tuition fee increase, thus creating the incentive to focus efforts on teaching (presumably provided that inflation eventually rises above 0.1 per cent).

On November 6, 2015, BIS released a consultation on revamping the entire regulatory architecture for higher education. The consultation green paper, Fulfilling our potential: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice, includes recommendations on implementing TEF; addressing issues around widening participation in higher education; and creating a new primary regulatory framework for all higher education, including the publicly supported universities and the growing private sector of higher education provision. Furthermore, it calls for a liberalization of rules governing entry to the higher education market for new providers and the creation of student protections in the event of institutional failure. These proposals would necessitate a new Higher Education Act for England, something many commentators (including myself) have been arguing for over the last three years given the fundamental changes to funding for higher education in England. The consultation also signals that regulation of English higher education will move from a supply-side, sector focus to a demand-driven, market focus.

The UK appears to be on a path toward increasing isolationism, at least from a higher education perspective. This is driven by two separate, but related, policy debates: immigration and membership in the European Union (EU).

There is a desire in England for greater control over the UK’s borders. The May 2015 general election highlighted concern over immigration as a major issue for campaigning candidates, and both the UK Conservative and Labour parties made commitments to clamp down on immigration. Despite the freedom of movement enjoyed by British citizens across the rest of Europe, there is a widespread perception that the UK is unable to accommodate European immigration. It is important to note that these feelings do not apply equally across the UK—the Scottish government has clearly articulated that it does not agree with the UK government’s views on immigration and the EU.

The new Conservative government has committed to having a referendum on the UK’s continued membership in the EU by the end of 2017, if not earlier. It has been suggested that a decision to withdraw from the EU should require approval in each of Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England. In the absence of a clear constitution, it is not certain how a EU referendum decision will be interpreted. Furthermore, given the Scottish government’s desire to remain within the EU, an EU referendum result which directs the UK to withdraw may play a role in any future independence referenda in Scotland.

The UK government’s approach to immigration and the EU impacts universities directly. It is increasingly difficult for non-EU students to secure visas to study at UK universities. The UK government has been downloading responsibilities for the policing of student and staff visas to universities. It has also implemented additional penalties on universities, as visa sponsors, when there are problems with visa students. The most serious of these penalties, losing the ability to sponsor visas for students and staff, is not an empty threat. The UK government has already stripped or suspended a few universities’ visa sponsorship powers with serious implications for those institutions. Losing visa sponsorship, even for a short time, translates into lost tuition fee income (deregulated for international students) and signals that a university is a risky choice for students from abroad. Making it more difficult to sponsor international students and staff has a direct impact on the budgets of UK universities and the cultural diversity of UK university campuses.

Less well known are the losses UK university researchers are likely to experience if the UK withdraws from EU, including losing up to €£2 billion ($2.8 billion CAD) in research funds the UK universities are expected to attract from European research agencies. Restrictions on staff movement and recruitment will also undoubtedly have a negative impact on the research capacity of the UK higher education sector. It is hard to imagine UK higher education coming through this period of increasing British isolationism not bruised and battered.

UK higher education is undergoing tremendous change. Increasing federalism provides new opportunities for policy lessons to be learned from other UK Home Nations, including how to design outreach programs, improve completion rates, and student enrichment. However, federalism could also present a threat to the existence of a UK higher education “brand” if measures are not taken to protect some aspects of a UK-wide higher education sector, rather than breaking up into Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, and English systems of higher education provision. Re-writing the regulation of higher education in England could lead to an increasingly diverse sector, creating more choice for students. Or, it could lead to chaos, failed universities, and students unsure of the future value of their credentials. AM

Andrew Boggs is a visiting fellow at the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies