THE BIG INTERVIEW: Sir Alan Langlands

Sir Alan Langlands is the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. He was formerly the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dundee (2000 to 2009) and Chief Executive of the NHS in England (1994 to 2000).

Will HEFCE still be here in ten years, and if so with what role?

Yes, I really do think that HEFCE will still be here. We are an important broker between Government and the higher education sector and, on the whole, trusted by both. The December 2010 grant letter from Government asks that we continue to perform our current role on its existing statutory basis for 2011-12 and 2012-13. Subject to consultation, and legislation, HEFCE will take on a new role as ‘lead independent regulator’ from academic year 2013-14, safeguarding the collective interest of students and the public. Critically, we will continue to provide funding required to support public benefit objectives: to support widening participation and retention, high cost and vulnerable disciplines and small specialist institutions. We will also remain the single biggest research funder in the UK and a key player in promoting innovation and enterprise education. HEFCE has a reputation for cost-effectiveness, openness and impartiality – direct government control of higher education is not a realistic option, even medium or long term.

Given your background as a scientist, what do you think of successive government’s policies in supporting science?

Influential science Ministers – William Waldegrave, David Sainsbury and now David Willetts – have been effective in protecting resources for science and research, and the Treasury (even now) is generally sympathetic to investment in this area. The pre-requisites for success are:

  • sustaining the balance between curiosity-driven research and work targeted on national priorities
  • long-term commitment of funding
  • maintaining the dual-support systeml  investing in infrastructure and good people
  • vibrant postgraduate and postdoctoral communities
  • the Research Excellence Framework.

We could always use more money, but we score pretty well against these criteria and remain highly productive and internationally competitive.

You have some experience of marketisation from your time in the NHS. What do you see as the chief benefits and dangers from the government’s plans to open up competition?

Commenting in 2008 on the 60th anniversary of the NHS, I wrote:

‘The intricate gavotte between the policies of choice, markets, regulation and targets is difficult to follow in the abstract, but there is growing evidence that these policies might be refined , calibrated and applied differentially to tackle quality improvement, the management of chronic illness and the use of the Quality and Outcomes framework to treat risk factors in primary care. The NHS is at its best when it is being pragmatic.’

The specific examples in this quote don’t really matter, but I have many of the same feelings now. It will be important to learn lessons as we implement the policies set out in the White Paper on higher education and make adjustments based on experience. We must not lose sight of the key objective of maintaining excellence and diversity in learning and teaching, world-leading research and our enviable record of knowledge exchange. The higher education sector will also be at its best when it is being pragmatic!

In your speech to April HEFCE’s conference you say that proposed changes to funding need to be ‘carefully handled’ in order to maintain the UK’s academic reputation. To what extent do you think government has followed your advice?

I think that Government is doing all that it can to support higher education in very difficult financial circumstances:

  • total funding for higher education institutions is actually expected to increase by 2014-15 – this will consist of around £2 billion in teaching grant plus around £7 billion in tuition loans, as well as around £1.5 billion in quality-related research grant
  • recognition of quality of research in UK universities as a national asset with ring-fenced science budget until the end of the spending review period.

This will help the UK compete with growing international competition, and help sustain our world-leading and highly efficient research base – with the UK being second in the world for excellence and the most productive country for research in the G8, producing more publications and citations per pound of public funding than any other major country.

I have some anxieties about the possible effect on demand and participation levels

That said, I do not underestimate the impact of higher fees on graduates and their families, and I have some anxieties about the possible effect of the new arrangements on demand and participa•tion levels. As the new arrangements are imple•mented HEFCE will monitor progress, report and prompt action if required. We will track student demand and participation levels; the effect of the new student loan arrangements on widening par•ticipation and part-time students; trends in stu•dents entering postgraduate taught and research programmes; student fee levels; and the impact of increased competition on quality. Our internation•al reputation is also critically dependant on the motivation and expertise of staff in universities and colleges, and we should not underestimate the importance of a coherent approach to employee relations, education and training, pay and reward, and good communications during this period – if anything this need for coherence is more important than ever at this testing time of change and economic restraint.

Ministers such as Vince Cable have said they are ‘relaxed’ about some HEIs going out of business. What would HEFCE do to protect institutions and their staff and students in this situation?

HEFCE will have a statutory responsibility to protect the interests of stu•dents and a clear responsibility to enable them to complete their studies. The employment relationship is between individual members of staff and the institution in which they are employed – HEFCE has no locus in this. I do not expect financial failures in the next few years: despite the effects of early public funding cuts in the period of recession, total income in higher education continued to grow in 2009-10, with an overall increase of 5.7% on the previous year. Universities are also taking tough decisions to reduce costs, and I expect strong financial results in 2010-11. Looking forward – and of course subject to reasonable patterns of demand and student par•ticipation – universities are in pretty good financial health over the next few years. The responsibility for good financial stewardship rests squarely within governing bodies: by adopting a risk-based approach to financial regulation, HEFCE will work in partnership with university managers and governing bodies to promptly address any problems that might arise.

Government seems to see students as primarily consumers rather than as learners. What is your view of this?

I don’t agree with the central premise of the question. Ministers understand the difference between consumers and the importance of engaging students as part of a learning community. I believe that, at its best, higher education changes lives. It is enriching and inspiring for students and it is vital to social mobility, future economic growth and the international standing of the country. The contribution that knowledge makes to society as a whole, and to the intellectual development of individuals, must stand proud above the inevitable discussion about return on investment. This is a time of significant change and we all have a clear responsibility to explain the new arrangements to existing and prospective students, their advisers in schools, parents, employers and the wider public. Prospective students from all age ranges and backgrounds should have ready access to the information they need to help decide what, where and how they want to study. And, of course, they also need to understand the importance of actively engaging in the learning process.

Private operator BPP have said they are worried about HEFCE’s regulatory role following your report which warned that the goals of private providers ‘may not match the national interest’. How would you respond to that?

The HEFCE report you refer to was prepared prior to the publication of the White Paper and in a very different political and economic context. The proposal to establish HEFCE as the ‘lead independent regulator’ is subject to consultation and legislation – I am taking nothing for granted in the meantime. The intention is to put new arrangements in place from 2013 that will safeguard the interests of students and taxpayers while keeping bureaucracy to a minimum and ensuring that universities, colleges and other providers of higher education have the freedom and incentives they need to deliver a high quality student experience. The new framework will require a more integrated approach to assuring quality, access, financial sustainability and information reporting. I am not ideologically opposed to the greater involvement of the private sector: greater plurality that injects innovation, expertise and high quality in the future provision of higher education will be a welcome feature of the new arrangements.

HEFCE has pioneered substantial research into widening participation. What is your view of the net effect of the reforms of recent years up to and including the White Paper on the goal of achieving fair access to our universities?

The 2010 HEFCE publication, ‘Trends in young participation in higher education: core results for England’ showed that the proportion of young people living in the most disadvantaged areas who enter higher education had increased by around 30 per cent over the previous five years. However, our analysis also showed the full extent of participation inequalities, with young people living in the most advantaged 20 per cent of areas being more than five times more likely to enter higher education than those living in the least advantaged. At the same time, the proportion of young people from the most advantaged areas who enter higher education has increased by 5 per cent over the past five years.

As we made clear in that report, we attribute the increased participation to policies and investments across all educational sectors. There is a continu•ing need to take a much broader view of reforms both within and outside higher education when considering issues of participation. We pick this up in HEFCE’s strategy statement that we published in July 2011.

We do have to recognise that public funding reductions, the introduction of higher fees and student number controls may present new challenges. But we have always been of the view that widening participation in higher education should not be dependent on increasing the number of students. Rather it is about ensuring that there is a level playing field in terms of the opportunity to participate. Both the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) and HEFCE have a role to play here, and we will continue to work with OFFA to secure the commitments we need from universities and colleges to promote progress across the whole life cycle of higher education: from pre-entry, through admission, study support, successful completion at undergraduate level and progress on to employment or future study.

One final thought on this – whilst I recognise and acknowledge the challenges, I also know that there is a huge commitment in universities to build on the progress that has been made to date. I share this commitment and will continue to give priority to this area.

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