A Motion of Regret: a constitutional avenue to ensure that fee rises are decoupled from TEF?

Opinion piece by G. R. Evans

On April 4 the Higher Education and Research Bill left the Lords for the Commons after its Third Reading and on the same day the Technical and Further Education Bill also went back to the Commons with some Lords’ amendments.  The following day the Lords debated a Motion of Regret.

This is a rarely used but powerful constitutional device. Because the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 apply only to primary legislation, the House of Lords retains powers of veto (though not powers of amendment) over secondary legislation. It rarely uses those powers, not least because to do so might easily tempt any Government to amend the law to remove them.  But when used they may be ‘fatal’ not only to the specific piece of secondary legislation being vetoed, but with more far-reaching policy consequences.

The Higher Education and Research Bill now faces a period of ping-pong, for it seems unlikely that without some hard nudging, the House of Commons will simply approve the Bill in the radically amended form in which it will now reach the elected House. One of the most contentious of the Lords’ successful Amendments is like to be Lord Kerslake’s Amendment 19 to Clause 11 passed on Division on 6 March,  263 to 211, decoupling the right to charge higher inflation-linked tuition fees to TEF performance.

So Lord Stevenson’s Motion of Regret could prove important as a nudge. It runs as follows:

That this House regrets that the Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 and the Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 together with retrospectively changed loan conditions for existing students are further incremental burdens on students that risk worsening the opportunities for young people from low-income backgrounds, mature students and those undertaking part-time courses; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to report annually to Parliament on the impact on the economy of the increasing quantum of graduate debt, estimates of payback rates, and the estimate of the annual cost to the Exchequer of the present system.

The Motion refers to the  21st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (January 2017), which sets out the various areas of concern in paras.7-14, to which Lord Stevenson spoke in the debate.  As he noted, the Regulations were ‘negative instruments’ – that is legislation which passed unless challenged – and ‘the time for praying against them has long passed’. However, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee had drawn these Instruments to the special attention of the House:

on the ground that they give rise to issues of public policy likely to be of interest to the House.

Lord Stevenson summarised his argument at the beginning of a lengthy speech in which he was able to rehearse, with close reference to the Committee’s detailed concerns, many of the themes which had occupied members of the House of Lords in the debates of the preceding four months while the Higher Education and Research Bill had been before them:

I am going to argue that the neoliberal marketisation of our higher education system is wrong in principle, because higher education is not a market; that it loads students with personal debt; that it will not improve opportunities to study for young people from disadvantaged and low-income backgrounds, mature students and those who wish to undertake part-time courses; and that linking fee rises, thereby increasing the personal debt of students, to only one of the attributes of a good university is a mistake. I will end by arguing that the cost of these polices to the public purse is now so complex and uncertain that it is virtually impossible to challenge what the Government are doing: we need more and more regular information and I call on the Government to provide it.

Baroness Garden spoke next, to endorse what he had said, emphasising ( in line with one of the Lords’ amendments to the Bill) that:

We on these Benches totally reject the idea of linking fees to teaching excellence framework gradings, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, set out. They are an untried and untested form of assessment which should not be used to determine fees. There appears to be no correlation between increased fees and improved teaching quality.

Lord Bew added his support a little later.

Lord Willetts spoke at some length in defence of his own policy-changes and their consequences.  Lord Younger reminded the House that:

the parliamentary process is still ongoing, and I look forward to Peers’ further engagement on this matter. Our policy intention remains to link maximum fees to the quality of provision via the teaching excellence framework as part of our wider reform package, as we are doing through these regulations. It is counter to government policy to see fee caps rise under any other circumstances.

Lord Stevenson, wriggled uncomfortably under the flow of personal compliments he received because he was, as Baroness Garden noted,  with ‘much regret’, ‘stepping down from his Front-Bench role’. Bringing peers back to the matter in hand, he concluded by emphasising the significance of his choice of an unusual constitutional device:

I have now realised, after nearly seven years here, that the way to tackle these issues is by tabling this sort of Motion because in the normal cut and thrust of debate and in the discussion of legislation and questions, one can never get down to a serious debate about serious issues.

He gave notice that it might need to be used again on this topic when the missing supplementary information had been published:

I just want something simple. If we cannot interpret this system on the basis of the DfE’s published accounts, perhaps tabling another Motion at an appropriate time agreed with the Minister, because he is a friend as well, would be the way forward. However, in the interim, we should get things started by testing the opinion of the House on whether it would like to see more information on this interesting area.

The Motion of Regret was carried on Division by 174:162.

Update on Amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill

David Midgley has kindly provided this useful summary of recent developments:

The text of the Bill as amended by the Lords in report stage is now available at https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/2016-2017/0112/17112.pdf.

The most significant changes with regard to the regime proposed for higher education are these:

  • Lord Kerslake’s amendment of 6 March to the effect that the TEF “must not be used to rank English higher education providers as to the regulated course fees they charge”, carried by 263 votes to 211, which is now Clause 12;
  • Lord Blunkett’s amendment of 8 March, carried by 280 votes to 186, which requires any “scheme to assess and provide consistent and reliable information about the quality of education and teaching” to be subject to rigorous independent scrutiny, and precludes it from being “used to create a single composite ranking of English higher education providers” – this has become Clause 27;
  • Baroness Wolf’s amendment of 8 March, carried by 201 votes to 186, which makes explicit the role of the Quality Assessment Committee in relation to the authorisation of any new provider and requires such a provider to have been “established for a minimum of four years with satisfactory validation arrangements in place” before authorisation may be issued – this has been incorporated into Clause 47 (as sub-sections 12 and 13); and
  • Lord Judge’s amendment of 8 March, carried by 185 votes to 151, which has the effect of strengthening the power of appeal against a revocation of degree-awarding powers and/or university title – the relevant clause is now Clause 49.
  • Also of considerable importance for the future of universities is Lord Hannay’s amendment of 13 March, carried by a noteworthy 313 votes to 219, which seeks to protect the position of international students in British higher education – this appears as Clause 90 in the latest version of the Bill.
  • Also carried on 6 March, by 200 votes to 189, was Baroness Royall’s amendment, which requires that all eligible students should have “the opportunity to opt in to be added to the electoral register”, which has now been incorporated into Clause 16.

 

Rival sanctions? The Office for Students and the Competition and Markets Authority

Preamble: The Higher Education and Research Bill will reach undergo line-by-line examination in the House of Lords on 6th March, when it reaches the Report Stage. This post is the second in a series of opinion pieces by G. R. Evans, reflecting on the Amendments tabled prior to this stage.

Opinion piece

by G. R. Evans

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is a non-ministerial government department which works ‘to promote competition for the benefit of consumers, both within and outside the UK.’ Its stated aim is ‘to make markets work well for consumers, businesses and the economy.’

It has undertaken consultations on the fairness of student contracts with higher education providers. CMA advice for higher education providers on how to comply with consumer protection law  was published in March 2015, with guidance on consumer rights for students.

In a Press Release on 8 February, the Competition and Markets Authority drew attention to a compliance agreement reached with the University of East Anglia, stating:

‘Students will receive a fairer deal at the University of East Anglia (UEA) after the CMA secured changes to the university’s contract terms.’

The Press release explained that changes to modules at UEA had been found to have:

made significant changes to the content of a course – by introducing compulsory modules thus limiting students’ choice of optional modules – and not adequately informing prospective students who had received course offers about the changes.

The University has cooperated fully in amending its practice.

The CMA gives details on its case page of six agreements with universities reached since November. Not all were in England (one was with Glasgow).

There are, however, unanswered questions about how the CMA will work with the new Office for Students. Under the Higher Education and Research Bill the Office for Students will be able to suspend or de-register providers which are found to be in breach of their general or specific ongoing registration conditions, conditions which may be imposed by the OfS itself. It is far from clear whether these conditions will or may include compliance with CMA guidance. Perhaps it should be.

When he was questioned by the Education Select Committee at a Pre-Appointment Hearing on February 21 Sir Michael Barber was asked how he envisaged the OfS working with the CMA when he became the OfS Chair. He admitted he had not yet given the matter much thought.

Universities UK have begun some work on ‘how to ensure that fair terms and conditions are sufficiently flexible to allow courses to evolve’:

In order to understand this issue from the student perspective we are doing some work with the polling company ComRes.

This is not, however, the only area in which the CMA Guidance expresses concerns. Another became the subject of a finding and an adjustment in 2016. An agreement had been reached with UCL :

UCL will ensure that students are not prevented from graduating or re-enrolling because of non-academic debts, following action by the CMA.

A further area of concern to the CMA is the now very common claiming by higher education providers of the intellectual property of students, that is if the terms of the student contract (or the also common) inclusion in its statutes and regulations to which the contract binds the student) of a provision to ‘assign all intellectual property rights (IP) for any of [the student’s] work to the university, regardless of the circumstances’(3.6) .

Might or should the OfS impose sanctions on a provider the CMA found to be non-compliant? It may be wise to think this through before the Higher Education and Research Bill has reached the end of its journey towards royal assent.

The Haldane principle: remembering Fisher and getting that definition right

Opinion piece by G. R. Evans

It is very welcome news that the Government has decided to include a definition of the Haldane Principle on the face of the Bill. Jo Johnson made a special point of this in his speech to Universities UK on 24 February.  An accompanying document was published jointly by both the Departments of State that will in future be responsible for higher education. It proudly states that:

the amendment that we have tabled will, for the first time in history, enshrine the Haldane Principle in law.

This document did not, however, give more details. The actual Amendment of Clause 99 proposing and containing the definition is to be found in yet another document:

Page 64, line 10, at end insert -

The ‘Haldane principle’ is the principle that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken following an evaluation of the quality and likely impact of the proposals (such as a peer review process).”

Note that this definition does not stipulate an exercise of academic judgement, merely an ‘evaluation’ including ‘likely impact’ of research to be funded. Furthermore, the definition does not mention that infrastucture funding will come from Research England. Rather, an earlier statement merely stipulates the Councils (a sub-set of UKRI) will be responsible for the disbursement of project funding:

Page 64, line 7, at end insert -

“the Haldane principle, where the grant or direction mentioned in subsection (1) is in respect of functions exercisable by one or more of the Councils mentioned in section 91(1) pursuant to arrangements under that section,”

This took me back to the question what Haldane actually called for and the context in which he did so. His thoughts on higher education matters are chiefly to be found in some collected writings put together in a period when he was actively involved in fostering the development of the new ‘redbrick’ universities. He developed a special enthusiasm for technical education but essentially he was interested in the work of a university as a whole, not merely its research.

He recognised that if higher education was going to expand successfully something would have to be done about the funding that would be needed:

‘the truth is that work of this kind must be more largely assisted and fostered by the State than is the tradition of today if it is to succeed’

(Education and Empire: Addresses on certain topics of the day (London, 1902), p.38).

The new universities began to accept state funding but it was not at first expected that Oxford or Cambridge would need to apply. The First World War upset many expectations.

A decisive correspondence followed between November 1918 and May 1919, between the then President of the Board of Education, H. A. L. Fisher, and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. This was published in full in May in the Oxford University Gazette, under the heading Applications for Government Grants (Oxford University Gazette, 49 (1918-9), p.471-8).

A deputation from the universities ‘asking for larger subsidies from the State’ met Fisher on 23 November. Oxford and Cambridge consulted one another and agreed that it would be wise to join in, but without committing themselves. Oxford was understandably nervous about accepting state funding because of the likelihood that it would bring State control.

But the Oxford scientists, scenting money, put in their own bids for specific sums for particular purposes. The heads of departments of the University Museum wrote on 3 March, 1919 with a list of such ‘needs’, identifying sums for capital outlay and salaries and pensions for Heads of Department and scholarships for what would now be called STEM subjects.

It was in this context that Fisher seems to have made his far-reaching policy decision and stated the ‘Fisher Principle’, that the state would not interfere in the allocation of funds within universities. It would not decide directly whether to fund, say, science at Oxford, or History at Manchester. It would give funding in the form of ‘Block Grants’ and allow the universities themselves to decide how to use the money.

He wrote to the Oxford Vice-Chancellor on 16 April:

‘Henceforth…each University which receives aid from the State will receive it in the form of a single inclusive grant, for the expenditure of which the University, as distinguished from any particular Department, will be responsible. Both the Government and, I think, the great majority of the Universities are convinced that such an arrangement is favourable not only to the preservation of University autonomy but also to the efficient administration of the University funds.’

The University’s Council (then the Hebdomadal Council, meeting weekly in term-time) requested an interview with Fisher and on May 15 a deputation of five, led by the Vice-Chancellor, had a meeting with him. The Memorandum of the Interview ‘kindly furnished by Mr. Fisher’s Secretary’ is also published in the Gazette. It repeated the policy principle arrived at in November, that ‘the English Universities in receipt of State-aid favoured …a general Block Grant’. It was explained that a Standing Committee was in process of ‘formation’ and that ‘henceforward, practically all the money for University Education would be borne on the Treasury Vote and would be allocated in annual Block Grants’ as the Standing Committee recommended.

This Standing Committee developed into the University Grants Committee, which was replaced a quarter of a century ago by first one then four Funding Councils. One of those, HEFCE, is now to be replaced as distributor of the remnant of that Block Grant mainly by Research England within UKRI, with only a vestige of the element previously used to fund teaching still remaining.

So there seem to be features of the Government Amendment to Clause 99 which would bear further thought if a definition of the ‘Haldane Principle’ is to enter statute.

The Haldane Principle arguably needs to be understood as it was developed in the ‘Fisher Principle’ and has been maintained for a century since. That placed a ‘buffer’ body between State and university and protected the freedom of the university to choose how to use its block grant on academic not political principles. That is not quite the thrust of the definition as it stands at present.

Nor did the ‘Fisher-Haldane Principle’ apply to the buffer body itself. The buffer stood between academic freedom and state control. It was not itself subject to that principle. It merely ensured that it was respected.

It is to be hoped that the legal draftsmen working on the Bill will try again. The version in the current Amendment, if it passes into law, will fail to protect the autonomy of the providers receiving funding from UKRI. Nor will it require funding decisions to be taken by academics or by autonomous institutions. The ‘peer review process’ is given as a mere example. There seems nothing to prevent a Minister or Secretary of State conducting ‘an evaluation of the quality and likely impact of the proposals’. Haldane and Fisher could both be turning in their graves.

 

 

 

The mysterious letters in the library

Opinion Piece

by G. R. Evans

The Higher Education and Research Bill has now had seven sessions before the Lords in Committee, ending on 30 January. As Lord Willetts acknowledged, it has become ‘famous’ for the sheer number of ‘letters’ promised to various Peers at the Committee stage, by those tasked with undertaking the role of the Minister in the Commons: Lord Younger (Spokesperson on Higher Education in the Lords), Baroness Goldie (who stood in for him from time to time) or Lord Prior. Lord Prior was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy only on 21 December 2016 and he too found himself unable to provide answers on 30 January when the Lords were discussing UKRI, which is to be the responsibility of his own Department of State. (‘Rather than ad lib on this, I had better consult officials and write to the noble Lord’).

These ‘letters’ occupy an anomalous place in the legislative process. The steps by which a Bill passes into an Act of Parliament ready for Royal Assent are fully transparent in every respect but this. First the Commons then the Lords have their First and Second Readings and their Committee stages, the debates are now broadcast live and a verbatim account may be read in Hansard the next morning. But when a Minister cannot give an adequate response to a question raised in debate he may simply offer to write one of these clarificatory ‘letters’ which, unlike Written Answers to Questions put by MPs or peers, do not appear in Hansard.

The assiduous reader of Hansard may want to know what the promised letter says. Even Lord MacKay of Clashfern, who has been a member of the House of Lords since 1979, declared himself not sure in the debate on 30 January:

My noble friend mentioned a letter. I was at a meeting last week with a number of people interested in the Bill and its progress [the CDBU Annual Lecture given by Martin Wolf]. They mentioned the letters referred to in Hansard. They asked where they could see them. I was not certain, but I assume they are in the Library.

It is possible to find out. Such letters may indeed be deposited in the Library of the House of Commons or the House of Lords by a Minister or by the Speaker. However, the online search for a deposited letter is a slow business because one may search under only limited fixed headings. There seems no systematic linkage of a given letter with the exact passage in the debate to which it refers, though it would surely be easy enough to provide that link.

It all looks rather a muddle. In the case of the letters so far written to Lords during the Committee stage some appear in duplicate with more than one number; some with the same text are written separately to different Lords by name. Appendices said in a letter to be attached to it are often not there.

There seems no easy way for Lords to discover what has been deposited, no routine notification of deposit of a particular letter, no listing of letters outstanding and not yet written (as there is for Questions requiring Written Answers). Deposited papers are not ‘presented or laid formally before Parliament’ though the public may access them and members of either House may now ask to have a particular letter by email. So there is some degree of transparency and orderliness. But at the crucial final stages of the Bill it will be hard work for Commons, Lords or general public to be confident that all the Government’s arguments including those in the letters are marshalled together for detailed review. The ‘all Bill documents’ link on the Bill’s website does not include them. It should.

These letters on points which baffled Government spokesmen in debate are surely too important to be treated so casually in the legislative process. If as appears to be acknowledged, the number promised in the committee stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill is quite exceptional, the need to examine the role of such letters in an otherwise transparent legislative process seems clear.

It is especially important in the case of the Higher Education and Research Bill, of which Baroness Deech said at the end of the final Committee session that it ‘is not much more than a framework, albeit a very heavy framework, on which later policy is to be hung’:

Now that we have reached the end of the Committee with so many gaps in the Bill, can the Minister assure us that there will be some process of post-legislative scrutiny to ensure that this experiment is working?

Those gaps might indeed be filled by the promised letters, of which comparatively few appear yet to be available, but where they are so numerous and extensive they should surely be provided, online, in a consolidated set. Lord Watson put his fear frankly:

the Minister sought to reassure noble Lords that he will reflect on all amendments. That will be of very limited value if, at a later date, he simply comes back on Report or in letters to say that, having reflected, he is not minded to accept the amendments’ (Lord Watson, 11 January).

Those letters surely ought to set out the process of ‘reflection’ in giving their promised answers or Government will have failed shamefully to explain itself.

 

Uses and Abuses of Economics in the Debate on Universities

Report on CDBU Annual Lecture 2017

by Dorothy Bishop

Last night, Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, delivered a splendid lecture with the title “Uses and Abuses of Economics in the Debate on Universities”. It is not possible to do this justice in a brief report, but I aim here to give a synopsis of the main arguments, which are highly relevant to our concerns over the Higher Education and Research Bill, currently under discussion in the House of Lords.

Wolf drew a distinction between three aspects of economics relevant to higher education:

  • The ends to be served by higher education
  • The means used to serve these ends
  • The resources that the government should invest in higher education

The principal point he made about the ends concerned the government’s conceptualisation of what higher education is for. A stated goal of the Higher Education and Research Bill is to achieve a successful ‘knowledge-driven economy’. This, said Wolf, is entirely reasonable, insofar as we need highly-skilled citizens to maintain our prosperity. The problem, however, is that the government’s plans appear to see this as the predominant goal of Higher Education. A point that was clearly understood by the CDBU members in the audience, but by few in government, was that higher education also serves the goal of creating enlightened citizens, capable of rational argument and evaluation of evidence, who will influence society not only in the UK but in the wider world. Yes, government as a funder has a right to ensure its money is properly spent, but our universities are threatened if this is taken to mean that the sole criterion for success is an economic one.

The means proposed to achieve the government’s ends is market competition. Wolf noted that the word ‘competition’ occurred in the White Paper introducing the Bill fifty times. Yet he pointed out that the notion of a market for higher education was deeply flawed on several counts: one simply cannot treat universities like businesses selling goods, because what they provide cannot be evaluated in advance. Failure of universities has dire consequences for students, for example, as would encouraging for-profit providers to enter the sector without adequate scrutiny or a substantial track record. Perhaps even more important, a profit-seeking institution cannot be a university in the full meaning of the term: if incentives for providers are solely financial, then we risk losing the very quality that makes our universities so well-respected internationally: the focus on innovative research and intellectual inquiry for its own sake.

Of course, the government is aware of some of these difficulties, but their attempt to deal with them, by creating the Office for Students, creates more problems than it solves. Wolf expressed concern about the sweeping powers proposed for the OfS, in what he termed ‘a fully-fledged government takeover of the UK’s university sector’. He added that ‘Anybody who thinks this will end with more diverse, more innovative, more courageous and more independent institutions is surely a fool.’

Wolf then turned to consider the financial resources available for Higher Education, noting that although the UK spends a slightly higher proportion of GDP on tertiary education than other European countries, a relatively high proportion of this now comes from private sources.  However, UK universities have been remarkably successful producers of high-quality research, and Wolf linked this to the way in which government has funded research. Without this public funding, we would not be able to continue as a global superpower in higher education. Wolf did not discuss student loans in any detail, but he agreed with the view that it was more equitable to rely partly on loans than entirely on tax-funding, although it is certain that a part of this debt, possibly a substantial part, will ultimately be picked up by the taxpayer because not all fees will be repaid.

Given his criticisms of the Higher Education and Research Bill, it is interesting to consider what alternative approach Wolf would like to adopt. Here, he argued, the problem was that the government’s proposals were not radical enough. They persist with the traditional approach of equating higher education with the university sector and ignoring the rest of tertiary education. What about the high proportion of the population for whom university is not a desirable goal? They have long been neglected, both in terms of funding and in terms of post-school educational options. Wolf argued that we should extend the loans system, so that people could access different types of education throughout adult life, and that a much wider range of tertiary education options should be made available.

Wolf started his lecture with a quote from H. L. Mencken “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. He made a compelling case that the funding and organisation of our system of higher education system is a complex problem that requires a complex solution. By seeking to frame the issue in terms of simple-minded market economics, the government had got it badly wrong. They need, he concluded, to think again.

 

 

 

 

 

The definition of a university: how many new providers fit the bill?

Rapid reaction to the House of Lords debate on the Higher Education and Research Bill

by

G.R. Evans

The headline-grabbing result of the first session of the House of Lords in Committee on 9 January was a vote which defeated the Government. By a majority of 248-221 the Lords approved Amendment 1, which was to provide a first Clause defining ‘university’. The Amendment assumes that higher education teaching must have the support of scholarship and research. This is high stakes: many of those wanting to enter the market would not meet these criteria.

The Amendment by the House of Lords: functions of a University

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 18.00.16Were the Lords wise to seek a definition? In a blogpost in Times Higher Education, Nick Hillman thought not. Agreeing with some of those in the debate, he argued that there never had been a definition of university in English law, and that to have one would tend to prevent improvement and innovation.

However, Lord Krebs was voicing the majority opinion when he called on the Government two days later when debate resumed, to ‘define your terms’. More defining of terms was already in prospect when on Wednesday, the Lords tackled Clause 2.

What is a regulator?

There was a call to define ‘regulator’. Lord Stevenson of Balcamara said ‘it would be useful and comforting if the Minister could write to us explaining exactly what the term regulator implies. That would give reassurance to some of us who have been worrying about this issue’. Baroness Wolf noted a particular difficulty:

we are not quite clear whether [OfS] is a regulator or not, and we also have the Competition and Markets Authority. One question that I have is whether there are incipient conflicts between these two important and powerful bodies.

What is the meaning of higher education?

In framing Amendment 72, Lords called for another definition. This was to be a new Clause headed ‘Meaning of higher education’. It would come at the end of Clause 2, setting out the ‘general duties’ of the OFS, and say:

For the purposes of this Act, the provision of higher education by English higher education providers comprises higher education provision by—

(a) universities,

(b) colleges of further education, and

(c ) other higher education providers, both registered and unregistered.

It was in the list of Amendments (34-59 )‘not moved’ that evening.

The importance of research for universities

Where does this leave the definition of a university as approved by the Lords on 9 January? On 11 January, discussing the importance of ensuring that the new Office for Students (OfS) and the new UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) bodies would work together, speaker after speaker stressed the importance of the research element in higher education teaching, the stimulus it offered to students, the edge it gave to have the content of what was taught visibly touching the boundaries where knowledge was being expanded.

But two days earlier, Lord Younger, responding to the debate so far, took a different view:

while I agree that teaching should be informed and supported by scholarship and research, I have to agree with the changes made under the Labour Government in 2004. As my noble friend Lord Willetts explained, those changes to the criteria for university title removed the requirement for universities to need to award research degrees …. The amendment would be a regressive step. The changes were rightly made … and recognised that teaching is a legitimate primary activity for a university. If we place barriers in the way of new and innovative universities, we risk diminishing the relevance and value of our higher education sector to changing student and employer needs—becoming a relic of the 20th century while the rest of the world moves on.

This is a significant speech, whose implications should not be lost sight of. It contrasts ‘must’ and ‘may’, a distinction which was made much of on 11 January in the attempts of peers to persuade the Government to make OfS’s duties expressly into ‘musts’. While the Lords’ Amendment speaks of UK universities, Lord Younger defended a change which applies only to those in England and Wales. There have been calls for more attention to be paid to ‘national differences’. This was the decision of 2004 to allow providers with only taught-degree-awarding powers to gain university title. This, he argued on 9 January, meant that teaching was recognised as ‘a legitimate primary activity for a university’. In reality it amounted to something more, a recognition that teaching might be the only defining activity of a university.

Neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland has so far seen advantage in moving in the same direction and removing the requirement for a provider to obtain powers to award research degrees before becoming eligible to call itself a university.

Teaching-only ‘universities’

In England university or ‘university college’ title has been bestowed on seven alternative providers, all – except the longstanding University of Buckingham which had gained its title decades earlier and before this change – with only taught degree-awarding powers. Arden University; BPP University Ltd.; University College of Estate Management; the University of Law Ltd; the London Institute of Banking and Finance’; Regent’s University, London.

Several of these fulfil another desideratum expressed by Lord Younger in the same speech, that ‘specialist’ universities should be encouraged. The Bill envisages even single-subject universities. Yet none of them can be said to be strikingly ‘innovative’. Apart from the long established College of Estate Management, which does what its name suggests, they all concentrate mainly on business and management, law, accounting and finance, sometimes with tourism, health and social care. This is exactly the range of subjects mainly offered at Level 4 and 5 in the hundreds of alternative providers which run Pearson-Edexcel courses.

Where do we draw the line?

The Minister’s claim that that the Lords’ Amendment represents merely the vested interest of a ‘cartel’ of publicly-funded research-active universities should not be taken seriously until the Government can provide a coherent and evidence-based account of the present reality and the acceptable range of future inclusion of novelties.

Where does Jo Johnson think the boundaries of higher education diversity should be set? Hamburger University is real enough, and McDonalds offers a Foundation Degree in the UK, ‘certified by Manchester Metropolitan University’, but that presumably counts as one of the ‘cartel’ keeping innovative specialist providers from moving straight to their own probationary degree-awarding powers and then to university title. The Faculty of Astrological Studies published its examination results at the recent Winter Solstice when ‘Saturn its lord and god of the harvest, is elevated in the sky together with the Sun in the ingress chart for London’. If this provider would not be eligible to seek degree-awarding powers and university title should the Government be able to explain why not?

Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 17.52.03

Universities as cartels?

Opinion piece

by James Ladyman

It is said that trust in institutions is in short supply these days. Sadly the government doesn’t trust universities. According to the Minister, the Higher Education and Research Bill is necessary to “break open a closed shop that for too long has set the rules of the game in its own interests”. He does not believe that academics who act as external examiners and universities that oversee the provision of teaching make and apply rules in the interests of academic standards and education, nor that their deliberations are informed by the wider political and social good. According to the minister, and one must presume the entire government and many MPs and peers, universities have been acting in their own interests all this time. This makes sense to them because they also insist that universities are businesses and encourage them to behave as such. Businesses’ primary interest is in maximizing their revenues. Since, universities are businesses their primary interest must be in maximising their revenues.

The new providers that are allegedly needed to drive up teaching standards – the minister is disparaging about the latter – do indeed include businesses interested only in making a profit. They contrast with universities that hitherto have hosted academics who collaborate across institutions for the good of their disciplines. Yet the minister thinks of the sector as ‘cartel-like’.

We all know how effective cartels allow prices to be kept artificially high from the way that energy market has functioned. The measures in the Bill are supposed to protect students from a similar cartel-like scam in HE. It will supposedly do this by allowing fees to be raised. Yes, that’s right folks, the market will save students from being ripped off by the existing university system, by allowing universities to raise prices.

Despite the disastrous effects of marketisation on the health service and the penal system, and with no regard to the outstanding international reputation of British higher education, the HE Bill proposes to treat the healthy patient with bad medicine.

On the subject of the closed shop, one might as well ask why we let the medical profession control who becomes a doctor rather than the market. We don’t expect patient choice to set standards in clinical care, and we should no more expect student choice to set standards in higher education.

We have not been given any explanation for why the idea of the self-critical academic community enshrined in established thinking about academic and educational standards has been set aside so completely.

Students are entitled to know that their fees are paying for a decent standard of education, but this government is determined to sacrifice them in the interests of the profits that the new providers will make out of their tax-payer funded loans.

 

Perils of ignoring consultation on the Higher Education and Research Bill

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop

Earlier this week, Lord Patten, former Conservative chairman, published a searing attack on the government’s Higher Education and Research Bill in the Observer, stating:

“It seems ham-fisted to turn the academic world upside down when universities face so much turbulence and uncertainty after the Brexit vote and the rhetoric surrounding immigration.”

He was supported by a cross-party group of peers, including Labour’s shadow higher education minister Lord Stevenson, who stated:

“This bill is an attempt from the Government to run a market experiment through the bloodstream of our university system, and a classic case of understanding the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”

These comments are closely aligned with the CDBU’s evaluation of the Bill, and we are pleased to see a list of 516 Amendments to the Bill has now been proposed by the Lords.

We have to ask how on earth the situation has arisen whereby a Bill is not only being comprehensively revised at this late stage in its progress, but is also receiving criticism from heavyweight Conservatives who might have been expected to support the Government.

The problem appears to be the intransigence of the Minister, Jo Johnson, who has  ignored serious arguments against his Bill, which have been flagged up many times over the last year.

Let’s start by looking at the responses to the Green Paper which outlined the main proposals in the Bill. The volume of responses to the consultation was quite remarkable: there were 618 respondees in all, including 136 Higher Education Institutions, 26 alternative providers, 22 further education colleges, 78 student unions, and a large number of individuals and organisations with a stake in the sector.

These responses were summarised in a report by BIS. In addition, many institutions posted their response on the web, including the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford: I’ve singled these out because they are our most ancient universities, and might be expected to represent an establishment view. Critical comments in their feedback anticipated the points now being raised in the House of Lords, and might have been seen as a canary in the mine by a Minister less self-assured than Jo Johnson. Consider this comment from the preamble to the response by the University of Cambridge:

“The Green Paper fails to demonstrate an understanding of the purpose of our universities and the reasons for the sector’s international standing. Universities exist to pursue knowledge for the benefit of society, through education (teaching and learning), scholarship and research.”

Are such objections restricted to the Russell Group? It would appear not. The summary of the consultation findings by BIS does not break down responses according to their origins, but it does provide quantitative data for several items where respondents were asked to state Agree/Not Sure/Disagree. These had a worrying high level of Not Sure responses, suggesting that the proposals in the Green Paper were too vague or unclear to evaluate; in addition, the rates of Disagree were higher than Agree for many items – only 6 of 24 items attracted more than 50% agreement. And where Agree outnumbered Disagree, it tended to be for questions concerning general ideals, such as the desirability of improving access for disadvantaged groups; questions about specifics of implementation of proposals received a higher rate of negative responses.  The two items marked with * concerned the link between TEF results and fees, and were among those with lowest levels of endorsement.

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-09-11-40Figure 1: Proportions of Agree/Not Sure/Disagree to items included in the Green Paper consultation (See report for details of items; number in bracket refers to consultation question number).

There was also a technical consultation on the TEF, which fared no better. The Office of National Statistics expressed concern about the suitability of the metrics to be used to evaluate teaching quality, and the Royal Statistical Society witheringly noted:

“It is concerning that Figure 4 equates student satisfaction as measured by the National Student Survey (NSS) with Teaching Quality. We are not aware that there is any evidence of a statistical association between the two concepts.”

Given this level of concern, one might have expected some radical revisions between the Green and White Papers. In fact, there were few changes, except that the TEF, which had been a major (and much-criticised) feature of the Green Paper was removed from the White Paper. Because it does not require legislation to introduce the TEF, it was possible to keep its implementation separate from the rest of the Bill, so it could be steamrollered through ready for introduction in 2017.

There were further opportunities for the Bill to be amended as it proceeded through the Committee stage in Parliament. And Jo Johnson described himself as listening to feedback, saying:

During September and October, a cross-party committee of MPs scrutinised the Bill, along with over 300 additional tabled amendments. We heard evidence from a wide range of witnesses from university vice-chancellors and the National Union of Students to the head of Research Councils UK and consumer groups such as Which? And now we’re at Report Stage, you will see that we have reflected on these views.

Except that none of the 300 tabled amendments were included! A handful of modifications were made to some statements to increase clarity and avoid ambiguity, but the core plans remained unchanged.

The House of Lords includes peers of all political stripes, but a key point is that many of them have extensive experience of the HE sector. They have run universities, sat on Councils, and they understand about all kinds of higher and further education, not just Oxbridge. Similarly, the CDBU has members covering a wide political spectrum, who are not always in agreement about issues affecting universities. The Higher Education and Research Bill has, however, created a united front: left- and right-leaning academics agree that the Bill shows little understanding of the nature and purpose of Higher Education and risks damaging the reputation and autonomy of our universities.

In future, if a Minister invites comments on a consultation document, he might be well advised to take notice of the responses, to avoid the kind of embarrassment that Johnson is now confronted with.