Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 85

Submission from the Higher Education Funding Council for England



  1.  The Higher Education Funding Council for England was pleased to be invited to submit a memorandum to this broad-ranging inquiry. Because there has been a submission from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and also from the Quality Assurance Agency and the Higher Education Academy, both of which we fund to carry out certain tasks on our behalf, we have decided to focus on those elements in the call for evidence on which we have specific things to add. We are happy to provide further comment should the committee wish.


  2.  We make the following key points:

    — Admissions policies are a matter for individual HEIs but we are funding the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions programme in order to support and spread good practice.— We are shortly to ask HEIs to produce a single assessment of their widening participation policies and practice which will include a high level statement on admissions and include the OFFA access agreement as an annex.

    — We have developed 30 Lifelong Learning Networks to enhance progression for learners on vocational programmes.

    — Progress towards the government's participation target is being made. We advise the government on the resources needed in order to continue to make progress.

    — Widening participation in higher education is a strategic aim of the funding council and this commitment is deeply embedded in the HE sector.

    — We are committed to the best possible targeting of the resources dedicated to widening participation and to supporting research and evaluation to ensure the most effective use of funds.

    — We have supported research into the use of compacts. The benefits of compacts to learners are significant.

    — In 2008-09, we are providing £4,632 million recurrent funding for teaching (of which £364 million is for widening participation), £1,460 million for research (distributed on the basis of quality assessment), and £120 million for business and community engagement. In addition we are providing £902 million as earmarked capital grants to support teaching and research.

    — Results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise show that: the UK continues to set a high global watermark, with "world leading" research well distributed throughout the sector, and 87 per cent of research recognised as of international quality.

    — HEFCE is responsible for assuring the quality of the provision it funds. All the evidence suggests that the quality and standards of English HE are fundamentally sound.

    — We recognise that there have been recent concerns about quality and standards expressed in the media and that the committee has itself been concerned. The funding council has established a special sub-committee to investigate the issue and this will report in the summer of 2009.

    — We are funding a study of student engagement in HE, which will report early in 2009, and will then consider what action might be desirable in this area.

    — We have funded, with the Paul Hamlyn foundation, a 3 year programme of studies of good practice in student retention.


  3.  The HEFCE was established by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 as a non-departmental public body operating with a high degree of autonomy within a policy and funding context set by the Government. The Council's main function is to administer grant provided by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. We have distinct statutory duties and are thus free from direct political control; we are often referred to as a "buffer body" between higher education institutions and the Government. We provide independent advice to the Secretary of State on the funding needs and development of higher education. Further information about the role, policies and funding allocations of the HEFCE can be found on our web-site at (HEFCE publications 2007/16, 2008/15, 2008/33 and 2008/40).

4.  HEFCE employs around 240 staff, mostly based at our head office in Bristol with a small secretariat in London. Our running costs for the 2007-08 financial year totalled £18 million, just 0.23% of our total expenditure of £7,360 million. This compares with figures of between 0.5 and 5% for other public bodies.


Admissions processes

  5.  Admissions policy is a matter for individual HE institutions (HEIs) but the HEFCE is concerned to support them in developing and maintaining high standards in their admissions processes. To this end, we have, with the other funding bodies, provided financial support to the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA) programme. We have provided £1.86 million for the period from 2006-2011.

6.  While we and the government fully recognise the importance of HEIs' autonomy in setting their admissions policies and managing the processes, the government has been concerned to ensure that the processes are fully transparent to potential applicants. As the committee will be aware, we have been asked by the Secretary of State to work with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to ask HEIs to bring together a strategic assessment of their widening participation achievements and to link this in a single document to their access agreement submitted to OFFA. This assessment will also ask for a high level statement on admissions policy showing how the institution will ensure transparency, consistency and fairness through its own internal procedures. We will be issuing the call for these documents early in the New Year and they will be submitted to us by the end of June 2009. The access agreement will be attached as an annex to this document.

7.  In addition to supporting SPA, we are keen to open up opportunities for learners with vocational qualifications. While recognising the right of institutions to decide which students to admit, we do note that applications and entry to higher education (HE) are significantly lower for students with vocational qualifications and that those with these qualifications tend to enter some institutions much more than others. We have therefore invested £105 million since 2006 in the development of 30 Lifelong Learning Networks (LLNs), which now cover the nation, and allocated more than 15000 additional student numbers to them. The overall objective for Lifelong Learning Networks (LLNs) is to improve the coherence, clarity and certainty of progression opportunities for vocational learners into and through higher education. The networks now involve approximately 120 HE Institutions (HEIs) and 300 Further Education Colleges (FECs) and the latest monitoring reports indicate that there are nearly 1700 progression agreements and that they are expected to benefit more than 32,000 learners per annum in due course. The work of the LLNs is evidence of real commitment by the sector in wishing to ensure that all level 3 qualifications are recognised for entry and that there are clear progression routes into a wide variety of HEIs for learners with vocational qualifications.

  8.  It was only in March 2008 that we completed national coverage for the networks but an interim evaluation of the programme, published in April (, concludes that LLNs are working effectively with institutions to develop curricula and procedures that should, in due course, make a difference to vocational learning. The role of LLNs is recognised as important to developing relationships with partner institutions that enable them to deliver programmes of activity enhancing the coherence, clarity and certainty of opportunities for vocational learners. The report, while recognising the potential in the work already undertaken, makes it clear that it is too soon to make "substantive and well-evidenced statements". In the interim, it outlines a series of conclusions and recommendations for HEFCE and LLNs which we are implementing.

Participation targets

  9.  The targets for participation in higher education are set by government and the role of HEFCE is to advise on the student numbers which are needed to achieve them and then to allocate those numbers to meet priorities. The evidence is that the sector is making progress towards the 50% target for initial participation in HE. Though the government has asked us to reduce the rate of growth in additional student numbers (ASNs) for 2009-10, the sector is continuing to grow and should enable progress towards the target to continue to be made. We will continue to advise government on the resources which we believe are needed to continue to make progress towards whatever target it sets.

Widening participation

10.  Widening participation (WP) in HE has long been one of our key strategic aims and remains an important priority of ours. While we have always recognised that WP is not a task for higher education alone but has to involve collaboration between different sectors of education, we have supported HEIs with funding to support their outreach work in schools, colleges and communities. We welcome the strong and embedded commitment of the sector to supporting this activity.

11.  In late 2006 we undertook a review of widening participation activities in the sector and reported to the Minister of State for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning ( The review contains two main messages:

    a. There is evidence of real progress in embedding widening participation as part of the core mission of all higher education institutions and this commitment should be carefully reinforced and nurtured;

    b. Widening participation practice and the evidence base (what works and why) can be improved. There are lessons about the way widening participation activity is organised and delivered and how it is targeted. There are also lessons about the pattern of engagement that suggest relatively simple steps that can be taken to improve substantially both effectiveness and the evidence for success.

  12.  We have taken the second message seriously. We published guidance in May 2007 on targeting WP activity ( and this has informed the plans of Aimhigher partnerships for the period 2008-2011. We have also undertaken a number of initiatives to support better research in WP and evaluation of the impact of widening participation initiatives (see In particular, we have given specific guidance to Aimhigher partnerships on evaluation and funded the development of an evaluation toolkit to improve the quality of the evidence base for WP activities. Our work in this area is recognised in the 2008 NAO report "Widening participation in higher education" (,

  13.  The committee's call for evidence refers specifically to compact agreements. Jointly with DIUS, we recently sponsored research into the nature of compact schemes ( ).

  14.  Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of compact scheme:

    a. Outreach-type schemes that focus more on raising aspirations and attainment and providing advice and guidance than they do on admissions. Although all must have some link with admissions to be counted as compacts, the emphasis is on aspirations and attainment.

    b. Schemes that rely mainly on the "standard offer" and form part of the wider marketing, recruitment and widening participation strategy of higher education (HE) providers.

    c. Schemes that link achievement, or evidence of potential, in some form of additional learning to variable offers.

  15.  There are known to be 51 institutions offering some form of compact, although many reject the use of this term. Most are offered by single institutions but some are collaborative schemes. They engage up to 60,000 learners in around 1,700 schools and colleges and help at least 8,000 people enter HE every year

  16.  The benefits of compacts to learners are significant. They provide additional support for learners prior to entry: learners are better prepared, make more effective applications and have a familiarity with HE that stands them in good stead on entry. There is little available data, but it appears that learners, on the whole, perform as well or better than other students.

  17.  Compact arrangements are diverse and this is a strength. It reflects the market position and mission of institutions, and the relationships they have negotiated with partner schools and colleges. There is no reason to expect them to conform to a single model, nor any good reason why they should.


Levels of funding for teaching and research

  18.  The total funding of £7,476 million available for 2008-09 includes £4,632 million recurrent grant for teaching (of which £364 million is for widening participation), £1,460 million for research, and £120 million for business and community engagement through the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), which together comprise the £6,212 million funding for recurrent grant available for 2008-09.

19.  The funding for research includes:

    — £62 million to support business-related research

    — £185 million to support charity-funded research

    — £199 million to support postgraduate research.

  20.  The total grant includes £337 million for special funding representing a reduction of 25 per cent on 2007-08. This decrease is largely the result of transferring the HEIF to formula recurrent funding, in order to reduce the accountability burden on institutions.

  21.  £902 million of the total funding has been allocated separately as earmarked capital grants to support teaching and research.

  22.  Results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise show that:

    a. The UK continues to set a high global watermark, with "world leading" research well distributed throughout the sector, and 87% of submitted research recognised as of international quality.

    b. 54% of UK research activity falls into the top two grades of "world leading" or "internationally excellent".

Responsibility for assuring the quality of teaching

  23.  HEFCE has a statutory duty to secure provision for assessing the quality of education provided by the institutions that it funds. Prior to 1997 the HEFCE undertook the task of quality assurance itself. Since 1997, HEFCE has discharged its duty for quality assessment under the 1992 Act by commissioning the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) to undertake teaching quality assessments on its behalf. The HEFCE Board is still ultimately responsible for the quality of the provision it funds, and in this it is advised by its strategic committee on Teaching, Quality, and the Student Experience (TQSE). The QAA are observers on the TQSE Committee.

24.  The QAA is an independent body funded by subscriptions from UK universities and colleges of higher education, and through contracts with the main UK higher education funding bodies (HEFCE, the Scottish Funding Council, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the Department of Education and Learning in Northern Ireland).

  25.  As the QAA carries out work on HEFCE's behalf, the HEFCE monitors the QAA's work closely. We receive regular reports from the QAA on the activities we fund and the TQSE Committee oversees the QAA's performance and receives regular updates. Officers produce an annual report to the committee, which gives a summary of audit results for the year but also includes wider issues such as an analysis of the QAA's work and of the relationship between the two organisations. This report provides the basis for TQSE's annual report to the HEFCE Board.

  26.  All the evidence available suggests that the HE Quality Assurance Framework is working well and the reports of the QAA and the review of the Framework, carried out between 2005 and 2008 confirms this. We recognise, however, that recent concerns expressed in the media have raised some questions about both quality and standards. The HEFCE Board, on the advice of the Chief Executive, therefore decided to ask QAA to carry out reviews of key areas of concern and also to establish a sub-committee of TQSE to advise the committee and the Board.

  27.  The QAA is reviewing the following areas

    a. Student workload and contact hours

    b. Language requirements for international students

    c. Recruitment practices for international students

    d. The use of external examiners

    e. Institutional assessment practices

  28.  The QAA will produce an initial report by the end of December 2008.

  29.  The overall purpose of the sub-committee is to advise the HEFCE Board on how best to fulfil its statutory duty with regards to the quality of HE provision, as set out in section 70 (1) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. In order to achieve this, the sub-committee will:

    a. Consider evidence from the sector (commissioning research where appropriate) on quality and standards, and will advise HEFCE as to whether action is necessary.

    b. Establish what information HEFCE needs to maintain confidence in the quality of publicly funded higher education.

    c. Advise the Board, via TQSE, on the form of reporting that should be requested from the Quality Assurance Agency.

    d. Advise HEFCE on implementing policy on quality assurance in England.

    e. Contribute to discussions on the structure of the next Quality Assurance Framework (QAF) which will apply from 2011-12.

  30.  The sub-committee will report In June 2009 and the TQSE committee and the Board will consider what action is needed, if any, to secure continuing confidence in the quality and standards of English HE.


Student engagement

  31.  The funding council is committed to supporting DIUS in its work with the National Student Forum and to working with the National Union of Students to support the enhancement of student learning opportunities. We have funded a study of student engagement which will report early in 2009 and will consider what further action might be desirable in response.


32.  We have for some time been concerned to ensure that best practice in supporting students in completing their studies should be as widely spread as possible. We have recently funded, with the Paul Hamlyn foundation, a three year programme from 2008-2011 which evaluates practice in student retention, with a view to becoming much clearer about what works most effectively and to spread good practice across the sector.


  33.  In our submission, we have decided to focus on those elements in the call for evidence on which we have specific things to add. We are happy to provide further comment should the committee wish.

December 2008

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