English HE policy must be devolved to regions – Times Higher Education

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It is 30 years since the governance of UK higher education was decentralised to funding councils in England, Scotland and Wales: six years before full-scale devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There were many doubters. Would decentralisation lead to excessive political control? Would universities suffer a loss of international identity? Were Wales and, even more so, Northern Ireland too small to have their own effective higher education systems?
These doubts were unfounded, however. Closer proximity to government has greatly improved communication (though not always to universities’ advantage). Institutional autonomy has been respected. Parochialism has been avoided. And universities have developed robust mechanisms to represent their interests – which, as a by-product, have generated better in-country collaboration.
Most importantly, system-wide policies are becoming better adapted to local circumstances. Wales moved to a tertiary rather than a higher education system, for instance, which would have been impossible without decentralisation. Scotland is moving in the same direction.
England, however, remains highly centralised. And since it makes up 85 per cent of the UK population and has the widest inter-regional inequalities in Europe, this is a problem. Demography tells us that the larger the system, the more distant the centre becomes from its institutional components. The latter are seen as manifestations of central direction rather than as responsive to their own particular environments. That is especially true in England’s quasi-market.

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The year 1992 also saw the transfer of responsibility for further education (FE) colleges away from local authorities to central government. Indeed, the Department for Education has only recently strengthened its grip on FE, entirely contrary to the principles of the Levelling Up White Paper. But the two sectors remain isolated from each other in policy terms, doing each a disservice.
On the ground, collaboration between FE colleges and universities is widespread. One study that I co-authored last year suggests that nearly 90 per cent of UK colleges have programme-based partnerships with more than half of universities. Many universities have well-established collaborative partnerships with networks of colleges in their region. These are critical for their own recruitment of local students – and, relatedly, for regional retention of skills.
But these partnerships need to be extended, particularly in areas of social deprivation. Colleges are better placed than universities to reach into these communities thanks to their flexible menu of course offerings, from apprenticeships to university-accredited degrees. This situation cries out for the abolition of the sectoral division and the adoption of a locally or regionally based tertiary education approach, under the authority of metropolitan mayors and combined authorities.

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None of this needs to conflict with universities’ traditional role in research: it was the University of Cambridge, after all, that pioneered the extramural movement in the mid-19th century. Responsibility for research would also remain a central UK function, as it currently is under devolution arrangements.
A national regulator would still be required, too, for quality assurance and for elements of coordination, while institutional autonomy would need to be reinforced by well-balanced, legally defined regional bodies intermediary between the institutions and the political authorities.
Such a big break with the past could not be undertaken overnight. Although the White Paper promises a speedy development of combined authorities (groups of neighbouring local authorities with pooled responsibilities and certain centrally delegated powers) only 10 have so far been established. But a staged transfer to a new structure would give time to iron out the inevitable problems of adjustment. And, after all, no combined authority grouping is likely to be smaller than Northern Ireland’s (the population of Greater Manchester, for instance, is comparable to that of Wales).
However long the transition, a decision to start the process would encourage new thinking in regions and institutions immediately. Many, if not most, universities already have positive programmes for regional engagement, but these tend to focus on technology transfer and capital developments, such as science parks, innovation hubs and cultural outreach centres. Most vice-chancellors underestimate the contribution that human capital – the returning graduate – can make to disadvantaged communities. This is where partnerships with FE colleges can be so valuable, especially when integrated with regional economic and social planning. And there is nothing to stop these being expanded right away.
Centralisation has been with us in England for more than a century. But while the 1919 decision to establish the University Grants Committee was sensible and necessary at the time, direction from London has now become a constraint on innovation and progress.
We have reached the end of the road for effective policymaking from the centre. The vitality of English higher education should be restored and enhanced by realignment with FE – and by entrenching regions as a key component of their governance architecture.
Michael Shattock is a visiting professor at UCL Institute of Education and honorary research fellow in the Centre for Global Higher Education at the University of Oxford. His book, with Aniko Horvath, Universities and Regions: The impact of localities and regions on university governance and strategies, is due to be published in March 2023. The research was supported by the ESRC and Research England.
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