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.

CDBU launches infographic on student fees

Millenials

As noted in an earlier blogpost, CDBU has a strong interest in student fees.

We are concerned that Fees in England are nearly four times higher than in Ireland and seven times higher than the next most expensive country in the EU, the Netherlands. English students now graduate with over three times more student debt than the average American student. By 2046 collective unpaid student debt will be £330 billion in today’s money.

Students have been told that the state will pick up their unpaid debt, but in thirty years’ time they will be the taxpayers who will have to repay the unpaid balance on their own student loans. So the current fees system shifts the entire funding burden from older people – whose university years cost them comparatively little or nothing – to the next generation.

The current government plans to make matters even worse by selling student debt to banks and pension funds at a knock-down price. The aim? To fund tax cuts that help older people even more.

Most students and parents in Britain, from all backgrounds, agree that the majority of higher education costs should be paid by the state.

In common with many of our academic colleagues, we think that the current system is unfair, irresponsible and unsustainable.

To raise awareness of this issue, we have launched a short infographic that provides the key facts on two A4 pages.

  • The infographic summarising the key points can be downloaded as PNG or PDF: Print-Ready format or Hi-Resolution formatPlease publicise this: print it out, display it, and send it to your friends.
  • A detailed commentary on the facts and figures behind the infographic can be found here (opens link in a new tab).
  • Information about the policies on higher education funding of the different political parties can be found here. (opens link in a new tab)
  • The draft text for a letter that you might like to send to candidates standing for election in your local constituency can be found here (download).

Abolishing fees for STEM subjects

Last October, the Council for Defence of British Universities (CDBU) asked UK political parties for their manifestos on financing of Higher Education. We are still waiting for a reply from Labour and Conservatives. See http://cdbu.org.uk/party-policies-on-fees/

We are grateful to UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the Green party for their prompt responses. However, we are concerned that both UKIP and Plaid Cymru talk of selectively reducing or even abolishing fees for students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM subjects). In the first of two short videos responding to this policy, Howard Hotson notes how it is logically problematic.

UK political parties on fees: A deafening silence

A core concern of CDBU is the funding of higher education in the UK. We are not a party political organisation, but we take an intense interest in policies relevant to our aims. With an impending election, we think it is important that the public be well-informed about the intentions of different political parties. Accordingly, in October 2014, Gordon Campbell, Chair of CDBU, wrote to UK political parties as follows:

I write as chair of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. We hope that higher education will be one of the issues in the forthcoming general election, and to that end we are inviting each of the political parties to send us a statement of their policy with respect to the funding of higher education. We will post these short statements (up to 200 words long) on our website. We would particularly welcome comment on tuition fees, but would also be pleased to publish views on the role of the REF in the funding of research. I would be pleased to receive a statement of your policy by 1 December 2014.


This letter was sent to Conservative, Labour, LibDem, Green, UKIP, SNP, Sinn Féin, Plaid Cymru, SDLP DUP, Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Labour Party*.

We are disappointed to report that to date we have had replies only from the Greens, Plaid Cymru and UKIP.

These are posted here.

We appreciate that the issue of fees is a complicated one, but it is of concern that none of the major parties appears to have worked out a policy that they are prepared to state publicly on this issue.

We will add further replies if and when we receive them.

*There were variants in some letters where appropriate. E.g. ‘I appreciate that Sinn Féin is an all-Ireland party, and that that may complicate your response, but it might help for me to say that we are principally interested in the policies with respect to the UK government in Northern Ireland.’

Australian universities at risk

Although CDBU’s focus is on British Universities, we take a keen interest in developments in other countries. Australia is of particular interest, because the loans system used in Australian higher education was used to help justify the marketisation of English universities. But now, the English example is provoking calls for even more radical change in Australia. As in England, most vice-chancellors are either silent, or actively supporting the deregulation of fees. An exception is Professor Stephen Parker, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, who writes:

I send my greetings to the Council for the Defence of British Universities. We have been going through an extraordinary period in Australian higher education, where a new government, in direct violation of immediate pre-election promises, has proposed to cut funding by 20% whilst allowing universities to charge it back from the students and go further. Except for an artificial ceiling of the equivalent international student fee, there is to be no upper limit on what domestic students can be charged. On 2nd December, the Senate voted down the proposals and the government announced it would re-introduce the Bill. I am the only vice-chancellor to speak out against the proposals and seek to defend the public nature of education and the interests of tomorrow’s students.

 

Read Prof Parker’s trenchant criticism of fee deregulation here in which he describes Australia as ‘sleepwalking towards the privatisation of its universities’.