The news on 7 November that 24 universities and three FE colleges had submitted revised access agreements for 2012-13 to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is a deeply depressing statement on the current state of the policy and politics of English HE. Most of these new agreements were submitted close to or on the 4 November cut-off stipulated by OFFA – not surprising given that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) was only able publish information on the bidding process under the government’s new wheeze of a ‘core and margin’ system of funding on 17 October.
Much has been made in the media about the late timing and its impact on this year’s round of UCAS applicants, who are at present having to select their universities for next year on the basis of inaccurate financial information about fees and scholarships. OFFA has promised to publish revised agreements ahead of the UCAS cut-off of 15 January, but it will be interesting to see whether this delay has a further impact on what may already be a wobbly and uncertain year for admissions (see my last post).
For me, what is most depressing about this whole episode is the extent to which policy is simply being made on the hoof, creating even greater uncertainty for not just the students, but the sector and the local economies the universities do much to support. The government’s original great wheeze on fees didn’t work, which, worryingly, surprised no one except the government. Equally worryingly, the herd instinct once again came to the fore amongst university and college senior managers. Few obviously quite vulnerable institutions in the sector seem to have anticipated that the government would respond to force average fees closer to their desired level, or if they did foresee it, they took a rather poorly calculated risk. If nothing else, they will be exposed as the first to blink (though whether that is tactically smarter than waiting a year remains to be seen).
What this whole episode clearly exposes is the hollowness of rhetoric around the fitness and purpose of a modern HE system. This is not about efficiency. This is not about HE quality, it is most certainly not about the students. It is all about the sums. It is not a good way to run an education system.