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Can generalist Whitehall match specialist HEFCE?

  • 2 November 2015

Rumours of the demise of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (established in 1992) continue to grow.

HEPI will have more to say about the Government’s overall approach to higher education – pros and cons – once the green paper is published in the next few days.

But, for now, it’s worth noting one important risk if HEFCE does disappear: the potential loss of the enormously valuable institutional memory among the organisation’s staff.

Compared to other bodies that operate at an arm’s length from government, HEFCE has a good record. One reason  is the deep knowledge and experience of its staff, many of whom have  worked in higher education (including at HEFCE itself) for years and years.

In contrast, one consequence of having HE in the Business Department (BIS) is the revolving door between civil servants who work on all the other things BIS does, many of which are not directly related to teaching or research, and those who work on HE.

If you work in BIS and are ambitious, you move around often as promotions occur on starting a new role. So, if you begin in higher education, you do not tend to stick around long enough to become an expert. (BIS officials in Sheffield are an exception to this rule as they have fewer opportunities to jump between policy areas.)

There are benefits in having generalist civil servants who can turn their hand to anything but there are downsides too. It is possible that BIS would not have had such a tricky time over its calculation of student loan default rates or alternative providers if HEFCE had been given a greater and/or earlier role on them.

If HEFCE really is to disappear, then someone in Whitehall urgently needs to ask:

  • how do you keep up morale at an organisation that Ministers are in the middle of closing down; and
  • how do you retain the institutional memory built up in HEFCE if the institution is to be closed down?

After all, whatever the new topography of higher education regulation most of HEFCE’s current functions need to continue in some form.

I can’t help thinking that, as HEFCE is based in Bristol, institutions in the south-west, such as  Bristol University, the University of the West of England and Bath Spa University, have an unprecedented opportunity to recruit some top-notch local talent. But the loss could be felt by the whole university sector.

Anyone who doubts that should speak to the last Bristolian taxi driver I had. After picking me up from HEFCE, he spontaneously bemoaned the loss of HEFCE’s Deputy Chief Executive Steve Egan to the University of Bath…


  1. Mark Leach says:

    Agree completely – made this point here:

    As well as the knowledge they have in house, the research they commission externally to support policy etc. is hugely valuable.

  2. Liz Morrish says:

    Institutional memory ? Morale ? haven’t you ever been on a change management course ? The whole idea is to ensure that the past is rendered unavailable as a position from which to critique the new landscape. We can’t have vested interests standing in the way of progress, or else people might never leave their silos and attain their new stretching objectives. And, no, I’m not looking for a job in BIS.

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