A briefing for universities on the White Paper

The recent White Paper from the Welsh Government is further evidence of that Government’s distinctive approach to tackling issues facing higher education. Many of the issues are similar to those identified in last year's Higher Education White Paper in England but they are set within the very different context within which Welsh institutions operate.

Central to this section of the White Paper is the principle that all providers whose courses receive public support, whether directly through HEFCW or indirectly through students paying fees with the benefit of student loans or grants, should be subject to the same regulation to protect students and tax payers. This will mean private providers that want their students to access publicly funded support being subject to the OIA, to quality assurance measures and access (fee plan) arrangements. It is proposed that the number of publicly supported places will be capped; consultation on this is promised. HEFCW's powers are to be widened accordingly. These are steps which the English White Paper envisaged being taken by a Higher Education Bill, now deferred until probably after the next election, with as many changes as possible being achieved under current legislation.

The differences in underlying policy of the two governments also come into play in the section on supporting collaboration. This stresses the need for a coherently planned system and in particular the proposal for a section in the Bill to enable the Welsh Government to fund provision directly where this is strategically important. This would erode the long established Haldane Principle that government should not interfere directly in university funding. The change is said to be justified in that it would allow the creation of a single funding stream which would enhance partnership working, "reducing competitive behaviour".  This contrasts with BIS's continuing concern to ensure competition between providers on the basis that it is considered to be a key driver of quality improvement.

Similarly, the Welsh White Paper eschews competition and learner choice as drivers of quality and looks to HEFCW to develop a process to ensure quality assurance and enhancement. Welsh HEIs may be concerned, however, that the Welsh Government is proposing that it should be able to give HEFCW guidance on quality matters. To what extent does the Welsh Government have, or can obtain, the necessary expertise for this purpose?

The White Paper stresses the importance of the learner voice. HEFCW has already issued guidance on the proper functions of students' unions and on the need for HEIs and students’ unions to develop student charters. As mentioned above, private providers will have to accept the jurisdiction of the OIA and will have to develop fee plans if they want to charge fees over £4,000 for full time undergraduate courses. HEFCW's powers as fair access regulator are to be strengthened -in ways broadly similar to those mooted for OFFA in England, although HEFCW, unlike OFFA, will both set and enforce fair access targets. It therefore looks as though Wales will get ahead of England in modernising the regulation of HE and in particular extending it to some private sector HE providers.

Finally, it must be noted that the Welsh Government will be consulting on possible changes in relation to HE governance in the light of the McCormick report in 2013/14. This is to allow time for the re-configuration agenda changes to embed.

The Further and Higher Education (Wales) Bill is to be introduced in autumn 2013 with the aim of the changes coming into force in 2014/15. Welsh HEIs can therefore look forward to continued change for the next three years at least.  We will be issuing further briefings as more information on the legislative changes becomes available.

The consultation remains open until 24 September.