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At the end of 2016, Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE have launched a review of UK higher education sector agencies. The decision was due to the understanding that UK is facing a period of profound change, especially in the field of higher education, where all stakeholders started to be affected by new and unavoidable challenges during the last five years. In this context, one of the solutions proposed by the review group – chaired by University of Reading vice-chancellor Sir David Bell – was to reform the framework under which UK higher education sector agencies operate, so as to solve most of the issues and concerns identified by university leaders within the sector agency landscape, including a perceived lack of clarity and an effective lack of coordination. To this end, the Bell Review (i.e. the Report of the review group on UK higher education sector agencies, published by UUK in January 2017) recommends to merge into a single body the core functions of the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE). The new body will aim at supporting institutions in challenges related to equality and diversity, learning and teaching, leadership and governance.
Perfectly in line with the timetable arranged in the Bell Review, this month the chief executive for the new higher education agency merging ECU, HEA and LFHE has been appointed. The agency will be headed by Alison Johns, who is currently chief executive of the LFHE. Prior to joining the LFHE, Ms Johns was the head of leadership, governance and management at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).
But this is not the only change for the UK higher education sector. On 8 September 2017, the UK Department of Education has announced the appointment of Chris Millward as the first Director for Fair Success and Participation of the Office for Students (OfS), which is a new public body that will replace the HEFCE from the beginning of 2018. The OfS was established by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, and then enacted into law on 27 April 2017. This law intends to shape a new regulatory framework for higher education, within which universities can increase quality and competitiveness, as well as strengthen the research field.
However, it is still not so clear to what extent this emerging new framework for higher education will enable UK universities to actually prevent some of the damages Brexit is supposed to cause. The concerns regard in particular the research sector, where a failure in cooperating with the EU could result in less funding available for research. This, in turn, could undermine the prestige of UK universities, which are constantly at the top of world rankings based also on research quality.