The Higher Education Funding Council for England, the funder and regulator of the higher education sector, has overseen the financial sustainability of the sector through a period of growth in income and student numbers, according to a report published today by the National Audit Office. The Funding Council has taken a cost-efficient approach and has delivered value for money in the context in which it has operated to date. However, the sector is facing a period of transition to a very different financial environment.
The Funding Council has contained the cost of its own regulatory activities and has sought to minimise the burden of its activities on higher education institutions. It has focused on supporting those institutions at highest risk, whilst managing to maintain the confidence of the sector.
The new funding framework for the sector is, however, likely to increase the level of risk. There is already wide variation in the financial performance of institutions.
The Funding Council’s current assessment of financial sustainability of institutions provides effective coverage of medium-term risks. To detect short term risks the Funding Council draws upon its contacts with the sector but it also relies on universities themselves reporting potential problems – something which the Funding Council needs to reinforce.
The Funding Council does not routinely publish its assessments of individual institutions as part of its annual assessment of risk within the sector, and delays its naming of “at higher risk” institutions by at least three years to give them time to rectify their problems. As a greater proportion of funding begins to follow the student, the Funding Council needs to consider the balance between protecting institutions and their students and enabling prospective students to take more informed decisions on where to study.
Some institutions in difficulty can take a long time to resolve their weaknesses, even with close support from the Funding Council.