University's Response to HEFCE's Draft Strategic Plan 2003-8

Supplement (2) to Gazette No. 4661 To Gazette No. 4662 (5 June 2003)

Wednesday, 4 June 2003

  • Prefatory note
  • Introduction
  • The role of HEFCE
  • Widening Participation and Fair Access
  • Enhancing Excellence in Research
  • Developing Leadership, Governance, and Management

Following publication of the Government's White Paper, The Future of Higher Education, in January, HEFCE has now produced a draft strategic plan covering its proposed activity over the period 2003–8. The plan is available on the HEFCE Web site at www.hefce.ac.uk/aboutus/stratplan. The plan has been prepared following consultation with higher education institutions and other bodies. HEFCE intends to finalise the plan in July this year. Many of the policies and proposals within the draft overlap with those contained in the Government's White Paper, and HEFCE itself states that `the plan fully reflects the Government's vision and plans for action set out in the recent White Paper'.

The opening section of the plan on pp. 9–11 sets out HEFCE's new `strategic vision and role'. Having identified changing `customer and stakeholder needs' the text makes a number of statements which are likely to have an impact on the Funding Council's relationship with individual institutions. The stress is on the way in which `the generation of new knowledge can bring economic and social benefits to the whole community' (para. 7), the importance of `effective dissemination' of research findings (para. 8), and the importance of meeting the needs of `customers and stakeholders...and growing expectations from Government and society as a whole' (para. 9).

The next paragraphs of the plan state that `there are some things that certain institutions can do better than others', and `that limited resources could be better concentrated where they can be put to best advantage'. Thus `higher education institutions should work to build on their strengths, and will also need to collaborate more...'. Institutions must also be `efficiently run', and `this will place heavy demands upon the university and college managers and leaders'.

Against this background, HEFCE states that `we are already rebalancing our priorities...and in the coming five years we will do more to identify and meet the needs of students, business and other stakeholders'.

The main body of the strategic plan identifies four core strategic aims for the Funding Council. These are:

—widening participation and fair access;

—enhancing excellence in learning and teaching;

—enhancing excellence in research;

—enhancing the contribution of HE to the economy and society.

In addition, underpinning these are three `cross cutting supporting aims'. These are:

—building on the institutions' strengths;

—developing leadership, governance, and management;

—excellence in delivery: the organisational development within HEFCE.

In respect of each of the strategic aims, HEFCE is setting key performance targets. It is emphasised that these are presently draft targets, `by which we plan to demonstrate, in measurable terms, our progress towards the aims and objectives [in the plan]'. It is also stated that `all the key performance targets in this document are provisional until formally approved by the Secretary of State' [italics added]. This indicates, perhaps more clearly than ever before, the extent to which HEFCE is viewed by Government as an agent through which Government policy is to be implemented.

As regards the cross cutting aim of building on institutions' strengths (pp. 29–31), one of the key performance targets is that `by 2006, all HEI corporate plans [are] to identify clearly both how the institution will develop and sustain distinctive excellence in one or more of its areas of relative strengths, and its plans for collaboration relating to its mission'.

As regards developing leadership, governance, and management (pp. 33–5), this section of the draft plan indicates HEFCE's growing interest in this area, and in the development and dissemination of good management and governance practice within the HE sector. It proposes that HEFCE's `main means of investing in governance and good practice will be through the integration of the Value for Money initiative and the Fund for Development of Good Management Practice, to create an enhanced leadership, governance and management fund'. Taken in the context of the Government's current review of business–HE interactions, conducted under the chairmanship of Richard Lambert, the emphasis on governance and management can be expected to increase.

Paragraph 11 of the covering document circulated by HEFCE with the draft makes clear that not all of the material in the plan is new, and HEFCE is also proposing to conduct detailed consultations on specific areas covered by the plan. These are:

(i) action to support widening participation and quality enhancement in teaching and learning;

(ii) a review of research assessment;

(iii) a new integrated programme of support for leadership, governance, and management, including human resource management;

(iv) allocation of funding for `third stream' activities, and to improve links between HE and business, etc.; and

(v) a review of the Funding Council's approach to funding for teaching and learning.

The University has just submitted a detailed response to the Government's own White Paper, which was published recently in the Gazette (Supplement (1) to No. 4660, 28 May 2003), and has in that response raised a number of issues which are also relevant to the draft HEFCE plan. Given also that UUK has prepared a detailed response to the HEFCE strategic plan, and that there will be an opportunity of commenting on many of the substantive issues raised in the plan in due course, the University's response has been kept brief.

It may also be noted that each element of the draft embodies an assessment of the risks and dependencies associated with the achievement of each aim. Considerations of risk assessment and risk management will need to feature in the work which will need to begin soon on the development of a new corporate plan for Oxford, which is due to be submitted to the Funding Council by next July (2004).


Response on behalf of the University of Oxford to HEFCE's draft strategic plan 2003–8

Introduction

This response on behalf of the University of Oxford is brief, taking into account (i) that much of the content of the strategic plan has already been the subject of discussion within the sector, and reflects the outcome of that discussion; (ii) that much of it also reflects the Government's priorities as set out in the January White Paper, The Future of Higher Education, to which the University has recently submitted a detailed response; (iii) the fact that there will be an opportunity (as stated in para. 11 of the covering document) for more detailed consultation on a number of the most important policy areas; and (iv) the fact that UUK has prepared its own detailed response.


The role of HEFCE

The draft strategic plan for 2003–8 marks a further step in the evolution of HEFCE's role away from being a body principally concerned with providing one stream of public funding to higher education, towards being a body responsible for the planning of higher education, including its overall size and shape, and future strategic development. This reflects the development of Government policy, which is increasingly concerned with intervening in higher education in order to achieve political objectives. While many of the aims covered in the plan may be laudable in themselves, and indeed are supported by this University, we are very concerned at the overall implications of these developments for the future autonomy of the sector.

There is an ambiguity running through the document as to whether higher education is part of the public sector (like, for example, the NHS), or whether HEFCE does indeed, as stated in the plan, `recognise that universities and colleges are autonomous institutions and should decide for themselves how best to lead and manage their activities' (p. 3, para. 1). We note for example that the draft plan proposes key performance targets through which the Funding Council can `demonstrate, in measurable terms, our progress towards the aims and objectives [in the plan]'. These performance targets are provisional until formally approved by the Secretary of State. In many respects, therefore, the plan seems to imply that higher education is to become an intensively managed part of the public sector.

This does not reflect the position of this institution, which is an independent self-governing organisation, responsible for its own management and development. Whilst Oxford is in receipt of substantial public funding and is keen to account fully for the use of such funds and to demonstrate that they provide an excellent investment, it does not believe that Government and its agencies should assume responsibility for the future strategic direction of this university.

The trend towards greater interventionism is also reflected in some of the proposals in the section of the draft covering `developing leadership, governance, and management'. Again, whilst many of the individual objectives are sensible, and whilst it is clearly desirable to spread good practice throughout the sector, drawing on good practice in other areas of society, the initiative should rest with HEIs themselves, acting both individually and collectively. Particular patterns of management and governance should not be imposed by the Government and HEFCE. We shall be commenting in more detail on these issues in our response to the Lambert Review.

Clearly, there is a vital role for HEFCE as a statutory funding body. However, we emphasise that higher education institutions are autonomous bodies and many areas of their activity, including academic planning and their internal governance and management, are the proper responsibility of the institutions themselves. HEFCE is one of only several funders of higher education institutions, and in some cases (including this institution) it is a minority funder. This point does not seem to be reflected in the draft plan.

Finally, the section in the plan on HEFCE's strategic vision and role (pp. 9–11) envisages greater specialisation and diversity of mission between HEIs, but also greater collaboration through partnerships and sharing expertise to help the sector as a whole achieve the Government's objectives. This institution, and the individuals who work within it, collaborate extensively with other HEIs both nationally and internationally, with other organisations, such as research charities, industry, and also with the wider community. However, collaboration is not a panacea, and will not overcome the sector's deep-seated financial problems. In addition, it is clear that almost all of the additional funding which has been identified in the White Paper is earmarked for specific Government-led initiatives, and is unlikely to translate into core funding for institutions. Nor is it realistic to expect universities (especially in the short to medium term) to attract large sums of other funding to pay for core costs. These fundamental problems relating to the long term funding of the sector are not addressed in the draft plan.


Widening Participation and Fair Access

Much has already been achieved in this area by universities and colleges, and Oxford will continue to put every effort into ensuring that all young people who have the ability and potential to benefit from its educational provision have the opportunity to do so. However, we cannot endorse the draft key performance targets in this section. However, increased and widened participation in HE is fundamentally concerned with increasing demand in schools and FE colleges, and encouraging young people to apply to HE, and with improving the quality of state primary and secondary education. Given the interest in more sophisticated quantitative access indicators, we are also concerned about how robust the data are going to be behind these targets and indicators of performance.

The second key draft performance target envisages that `by 2004–05 there will be no more than two institutions with 5% less than their benchmark of students from social classes IIIm, IV, V'. How has this target been arrived at and what is its rationale?

As regards the proposed Office for Fair Access (OfFA), this should focus on monitoring, advising, and facilitating rather than target setting and imposing penalties. We would draw attention to the comments on this area which we have made in our response to the White Paper.


Enhancing Excellence in Research

Underlying this section seems to be an assumption that research can be planned and managed at a national level. Certainly, co-ordination of public funding streams for research, the continuation of the dual support system, and the identification of common priorities for public funders of research are extremely important for HEIs (see para. 4, p. 24). However, the plan gives insufficient weight to the institutional perspective, and to the perspective of the individual department and the individual researcher, whose role in pulling together and managing funding from different sources to promote key research strands is vital. Research in higher education cannot be treated as if it were part of a command economy.

The first of the key performance targets in this section refers to research excellence `as demonstrated by citation and publication indicators and other traditional measures of output'. Quantitative indicators of research performance are important, especially in some subjects, but they should not be taken in isolation, and we would be concerned if they dominated future research assessment methods. We assume that we will have the opportunity to comment more fully on this area once the outcome of Sir Gareth Roberts' review of research assessment is known.


Developing Leadership, Governance, and Management

The draft plan refers to the importance of the Leadership Foundation, and of the Academy for the Advancement of Learning, for the development of excellence in leadership, governance, and management. These bodies will have to be seen as genuinely independent of pressures from the Funding Council if the higher education sector is to trust and value the work they do. What mechanisms will HEFCE put in place to ensure the independence of these bodies (both of which will receive funding from HEFCE)?

We particularly welcome the emphasis in this section on equal opportunities, reducing bureaucracy, and supporting institutions to achieve their own missions in the face of future challenges.