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A closer look at the HE white paper

17 May 2016

Deputy Director Naomi Weir takes a closer look at the announcements in the HE White Paper.

Yesterday’s White Paper sets out some major changes to the research and innovation landscape that have been welcomed by many, but there will also be a lot of nervousness across the sector about the scale of change as well as specific concerns about some proposals.

I do sympathise with policy makers who face constant requests for improvements on the status quo, coupled with resistance to change when it is introduced. Similarly as a sector we call for join up in policy making rather than piecemeal proposals, but we also throw our arms up at the prospect of lots of change happening all at once. But if history is anything to go by, and it often is, we might have this structure or similar for decades to come, meaning individuals, universities, research charities and companies, and the Government, all have an interest in making a success of the changes.

So, what is changing?

The headlines:

  • A suite of measures will be introduced to speed up and simplify new higher education providers entering UK higher education, including changes around university title and degree awarding powers.
  • Creating a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) that “will link funding of teaching in higher education to quality and not simply quantity” with ability to raise fees in line with inflation above the current £9k cap linked to meeting TEF requirements.
  • The Office for Students (OfS), a new market regulator, will be created and absorb the majority of the function of Hefce and OFFA, which will both be closed.
  • The Research Councils, Innovate UK and the research and knowledge exchange bit of Hefce will become nine constituent Councils of a new non-departmental public body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
  • In addition to creating UKRI and the OfS, plans for new legislation include cementing the dual support system in England, the distinctive focus and remit of UKRI’s constituent Councils, and a duty for OfS and UKRI to work together and share information so that both organisations have sufficient visibility of the overall health of the sector.
  • The Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology (CST) will have refreshed terms of reference giving them responsibility for carrying out horizon scanning and periodical evaluation of what Government’s overarching priorities for science and technology should be, with the idea of a Ministerial Committee pushed into the long grass

Much of the 85 pages of the White Paper, as well as column inches so far, focus on the question of new providers and, as anticipated, the lifting of the already controversial £9k fee cap – albeit only in line with inflation. There will inevitably be questions and knock on effects that specifically relate to science and engineering such as provision for ensuring high cost subjects can be sustainably funded and  how ‘high quality’ provision in these subjects is recognised in the TEF. Some of these questions and concerns are considered in our submission to the Green Paper consultation earlier this year.

Turning to look at some of the other headline announcements

Although the 600 plus responses to the Green Paper consultation were far from uniform, clearly some messages reached the Government loud and clear. In the section on delivering a world class research and innovation system, paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 are quick to cover upholding Haldane, maintaining dual-support, and recognising the distinct business-facing focus of Innovate UK.  


UKRI is the newest acronym in the crowded landscape of higher education and research nomenclature and the new name is one of the changes in the transition from Green to White. One of the key areas of disagreement with the Green Paper was the proposal to move Innovate UK into the same body as the Research Councils. Critics cite that although join up across research and innovation structures is to be encouraged, the very different remit, methods and primary stakeholders of Innovate UK compared to its Research Council neighbours mean it should remain separate.

Perhaps the name change from Research UK to UK Research and Innovation is an attempt to assuage fears that Innovation will get swallowed up in Research. The White Paper also stated that, as now, the Secretary of State will allocate a hypothecated budget to Innovate UK, ensuring continued separation between research and innovation budgets. It does certainly show a signal of intent from Government to support innovation over the long-term, something that many weren’t confident of ahead of last year’s Spending Review.

There are still some questions around innovation to be answered though. The White Paper confirms that Professor Dame Ann Dowling’s review has been instrumental in shaping the approach to business-university collaboration, and implementation has already begun which will be further developed in the National Innovation Plan. So we await the National Innovation Plan which was expected earlier in the year but BIS appears to be back to the drawing board with a citizen space consultation currently open inviting ideas to feed into the creation of the plan. The consultation is open until the end of this month, so do take a look and respond.

There are also ongoing questions about this Government’s industrial ‘approach’, with Nicola Blackwood MP raising the issue of developing and industrial strategy approach for research-intensive sectors – beyond automotive and aerospace – in her latest letter to Business Secretary Sajid Javid last week.


Another feature of the White Paper’s research and innovation section is the great care that has been taken to underline and repeat the Government’s commitment to dual support and the Haldane principle. In fact, each is given a heading in the contents page and in the summary of key decisions it states,

“There would be a new legislative protection for the dual support system in England and we are formally restating the Government’s commitment to the Haldane principle.”

Join up

In our response to the Green Paper we voiced a concern shared by many that the proposals remove any structural join up between teaching and research, and no organisation would have a duty to consider the health of the whole higher education sector, or indeed the health of disciplines. Although, how this fits with a sector fully driven by competition, student demand and choice is difficult to unpick. The summary of measures in the White Paper, below, also pulls out a few elcome measures to support join up across the sector in the new architecture.

We’re pleased to see that the OfS will be given oversight of the sustainability, efficiency and health of the higher education sector, and as part of its role will monitor the sustainability of individual institutions. Although, the White Paper is clear that it envisages that certainly courses and perhaps institutions will close, and that the Government wouldn’t intervene to support failing courses – supposing that low demand is a mark of poor quality. That raises some interesting questions such as what would happen if some strategic but small-volume provision ie in niche STEM areas was not sustainable, or if geographic availability was limited due to course closure?

Vision and success

A question from an international colleague at an event a few months ago discussing recent reviews of UK research and innovation (including Dowling, Nurse, Stern) has stuck in my mind. His question was along the lines of “internationally the UK system is highly regarded, what is the problem you are trying to fix?” Essentially, what’s the point? It is possible to find the ‘point’ of individual Reviews – for instance, the Nurse Review was initially a response to a suggestion in the Triennial Review of the Research Councils to consider ways of improving inter-disciplinary research.

But I think it is reasonable to say that there hasn’t always been clarity from Government and from BIS about the overarching aims or vision driving the substantial changes we see right across higher education, research and innovation – and how it will all fit together.  

The foreword to the White Paper states that through it the Government is making good on two of its manifesto commitments – introducing a Teaching Excellence Framework and implementing the recommendations from the Nurse Review. So on one level, that is the reason for the changes – they said they’d do it.

The Paper also states

 “By introducing more competition and informed choice into higher education, we will deliver better outcomes and value for students, employers and the taxpayers who underwrite the system.”


“We will also create a stronger voice for the UK’s research and innovation funding system. The creation of UK Research and Innovation will make possible the strategic approach to future challenges and maximise value from Government’s investment of over £6bn in research and innovation”


“Our ambition is to ensure that our research and innovation system is sufficiently integrated, strategic and agile to meet these challenges, and to deliver national capability for the future that drives discovery and growth”

As such, there is probably some work to do in articulating, monitoring and measuring what good outcomes and value looks like. In the CaSE response to the publication of the White Paper yesterday, Dr Sarah Main alluded to this saying,

“How will we know if his changes have worked? I hope his emphasis on widening access to higher education will mean we see more people from all walks of life entering science and engineering careers. I hope we will see great teaching at universities, informed by thriving research and innovation. I hope we will see science and research become a strategic priority for Government at the highest level. As with any change, we will have to look out for early warning signs where elements of the new system may need to be fine tuned or addressed.”

The success of any changes will also depend on leadership. So it was interesting to learn that John Kingman has been given the role of interim Chair of UKRI and will lead and oversee the creation of the new body. A Treasury heavy-weight, he will bring a lot of experience into the role. Who else is attracted into the various executive and non-exec roles the new structure creates will be a key factor, not least in getting buy-in from the research and innovation sectors. More details on the nuts and bolts of the structures of UKRI from the White Paper are set out below.

There is much more not included here which I haven’t had the chance to digest, yet. We also hope to publish a number of blogs in the next few days from a range of view points across the sector.

Others have begun to digest how the changes will impact on HE more broadly. So our breakdown below particularly looks at the changes more specifically on the funding and regulatory landscape for research and innovation.

Breakdown of announcements

Create UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a new research and innovation body that will allocate funding for research and innovation and act as a champion for the UK’s world class system

  • will incorporate the functions of the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK, and HEFCE’s research funding functions while retaining the names, brands and symbolic properties of the Research Councils and Innovate UK,
  • will maintain hypothecated funding streams for the constituent bodies and strengthen the existing protections for the dual support system in England
  • will lead on overall strategic direction, cross-cutting decision making and advising the Secretary of State on the balance of funding between research disciplines. The board will manage funds with cross-disciplinary impact and a ‘common research fund’ as proposed by Paul Nurse
  • will have a greater focus on cross-cutting issues that are outside the core remits of the current funding bodies, such as multi- and inter-disciplinary research
  • will deliver improved quality of evidence on the UK’s research and innovation landscape through the pooling of multiple datasets and information sources, underpinning effective funding decisions
  • There will be a legislative requirement for the Secretary of State to consider the need for both academic and business representation and expertise on the Board

Nuts and bolts of UKRI

  • Seven of the Councils will reflect the functions of the existing Research Councils, one will reflect the functions of Innovate UK and one, Research England, will be established to undertake the England only functions in relation to research and knowledge exchange that are currently performed by HEFCE. The distinctive focus and remit of the Councils will be enshrined in future legislation, mirroring the functions that are currently set out in the royal charters of the Research Councils and Innovate UK, as well as HEFCE’s research functions under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.
  • The Councils will be responsible for the strategic leadership of their disciplines and scientific, research and innovation matters. The Secretary of State will set budgets for the nine Councils through an annual grant letter
  • There will be a new legislative protection for the dual support system in England
  • The Councils will be led by Executive Chairs; high profile positions appointed by Ministers on the advice of UKRI’s board and reporting to UKRI’s CEO.
  • Each council will have 5-9 other experienced independent members drawn from the relevant community and appointed by the UKRI Board on the recommendation of the relevant Executive Chair, with the Secretary of State having power to appoint 1 Council member if they wish.
  • This will reduce the number of Ministerial appointments as, at present, Ministers appoint every Board member of the 9 bodies that will form UKRI.
  • UKRI Board will be majority non-executive public appointments with experience across research and business and will have responsibility for leading on overall strategic direction, cross-cutting decision making, and providing advice to the Secretary of State on the balance of funding between research disciplines. The board will manage funds with cross-disciplinary impact and a ‘common research fund’ as proposed by Nurse.
  • Day-to-day UKRI will be led by a CEO and a central team of staff with responsibility for administrative and back office functions across UKRI
  • Ministers will retain the ability to provide high-level direction for funding allocation including setting hypothecated budgets for UKRI’s nine autonomous Councils

The Office for Students (OfS), a new market regulator, in place of HEFCE and OFFA

  • will have an explicit duty to promote choice and competition
  • will work closely with the new Institute for Apprenticeships and other regulatory bodies to maintain a joined up approach on quality across academic and technical education
  • HEFCE and OFFA will be closed and the majority of their functions will transfer to the OfS, with the exception of HEFCE’s research funding function. To ensure that the longstanding expertise of HEFCE and OFFA’s staff is not lost, appropriate transitional arrangements will be put in place for staff from both organisations, and normal legal protections will apply
  • Will run the TEF process
  • The detailed operational remit of the OfS will be set out in a framework document, which will be drawn up in conjunction with OfS in shadow form

Join up across sector

  • UKRI CEO will have an ex officio post on a Council for Science and Technology (CST) which will have refreshed terms of reference in line with ambitions set out in Nurse Review, giving them responsibility or carrying out horizon scanning to identify and advise on risks and opportunities relating to science, technology and disruptive innovation, as well as periodically evaluating what Government’s overarching priorities for science and technology should be.
  • will monitor how the new arrangements with the establishment of UKRI and a reformed CST take shape and will consider if further reforms are needed, including a possible Ministerial committee, informed by advice from the Cabinet Secretary
  • OfS will have oversight of the sustainability, efficiency and health of the higher education sector, and as part of its role will monitor the sustainability of individual institutions
  • Future legislation would ensure that OfS and UKRI work together and share information so that both organisations have sufficient visibility of the overall health of the sector
  • Research Councils will continue to work with BIS and the Government Office for Science (GO Science) to strengthen collaborative working with Government departments

Consultations to expect


  • Subject to Parliamentary approval, the OfS will come into operation for the 2018/19 academic year
  • UKRI is expected to exist in a shadow form from April 2017 for a year before being fully launched in 2018/19
  • TEF year one will be 2016/17 and phased in over 4 years – with details on p44
  • The Institute of Apprenticeships will be up and running for April 2017

To be published

  • The Intellectual Property Office will also publish and promote an update of the Lambert IP toolkits that will help universities and businesses to conduct research collaboratively