The Higher Education and Research Bill: The need to stop and think

Guest post by G.R. Evans

The Higher Education and Research Bill is now on its way to the Committee stage. The Public Bills Committee has requested submissions, which should be emailed to scrutiny@parliament.uk.

The Bill is not a speedy read. In an earlier blogpost I sketched its proposed changes to the English higher education system. This set of new short blogposts may, I hope, be useful to those in search of a convenient aid to picking up points which are now emerging more clearly, and on some of which concerns have already been raised in both Houses of Parliament. Where MPs or peers are quoted or mentioned links are provided to their contact details.

Where we are

The Bill was drafted against the clock, in order to be ready to publish on 19 May 2016. Publication came immediately after the Queen’s Speech on 18 May, and only three days after the publication of the White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy.

Weeks of political campaigning before the Referendum on 23 June followed, during which normal political business was largely set aside. Several weeks came after that during which a new Government was formed, Departments of State reorganised and new Ministers appointed or existing ones moved.

There was extensive early press coverage of concerns about the implications of the Brexit vote for higher education, especially the future of research funding arrangements, the freedom of European academics to work in the UK and of UK academics to work in Europe, and student numbers from the EU. The House of Lords discussed these concerns on 20 July, with half a dozen members giving detailed examples of problems already arising and seeking reassurances. There were requests for a rethink about the Bill’s planned changes. Nevertheless, just before the summer recess began, a Second Reading of the Bill was timetabled on 19 July.

An Act of Parliament normally goes through a series of stages, handily set out for the Higher Education and Research Bill on the parliament.uk website. A Green Paper is not a requirement. A Green Paper was published in November 2015 and a consultation followed. A summary of responses was published with the White Paper on May 16, but the concerns expressed did not appear to be reflected in its content. A White Paper followed by consultation is usual. A White Paper not followed by consultation is very unusual, as is the publication of a Bill quite so hot on the heels of a White Paper.

As shown in Figure 1, what is happening now contrasts strongly with the pace of legislative change since the White Paper of 2003, The Future of Higher Education. The proposals in that White Paper were cut down to a much smaller set of topics in the ensuing legislation in the Higher Education Act of 2004.

post-1-timeline-for-GE2

There has been one further White Paper, in 2011, Students at the Heart of the System. This began the important shift away from direct public funding of teaching to the policy of funding teaching almost entirely by students’ tuition fees. That White Paper did not lead to the comprehensive new legislation which became necessary as a result. The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 remains the chief governing legislation for higher education, though it is generally agreed was now seriously out of date and no longer fit for purpose.

Thus the principal policy change that has prompted the call for radically new legislative proposals was set out in the 2011 White Paper at 1.5:

The public money that supports higher education courses should come predominantly in the form of loans to first-time undergraduate students, to take to the institution of their choice, rather than as grants distributed by a central funding council.

In order that tuition fee income should be sufficient to replace the element of the block grant funding intended to cover teaching, the upper limit of tuition fees for first degrees in England tripled from 2012, with a new limit of £9,000 to rise in line with inflation. This did not require primary legislation. The majority of providers immediately set their fees at the maximum allowed, with complaints soon arising that this was not enough to enable them to cover their actual costs of undergraduate teaching.

The 2011 White Paper presented this change from direct public funding to indirect funding under which students would take repayable taxpayer-funded loans from the Student Loans Company, as part of its policy of ‘putting students at the heart of the system’.

By contrast the White Paper of 2016 and the Higher Education and Research Bill give the management of providers of Higher Education a far more significant place in a radically revised legislative framework.

A number of questions about emerging risks have been raised in both Houses, including the debate of the House of Lords on the Queen’s Speech. In that debate, on 19 May, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara pointed out that Parliament had not had the opportunity to discuss the policy implications of the changes of the previous few years when they were made:

‘The Higher Education and Research Bill is, to my mind, six years too late. Since 2010, we have been passive witnesses to a radical experiment across our higher education system. In that time, it has been transformed out of all recognition with…None of the policy implications of this was ever exposed to full scrutiny in Parliament.’

The fear that the further radical changes the Higher Education and Research Bill proposes might be approved without sufficient published detail to make it possible to assess their benefits or disadvantage also ran through the speeches in the Commons on 19 July.

A Second Reading provides an opportunity for the House of Commons to take overall stock of a Bill before voting to take it forward or to stop it in its tracks. On 19 July, the vote allowing the Higher Education and Research Bill to proceed was quite close at 294-258, which may hint at challenge to come.

The speeches at the Second Reading included expressions of both detailed and overarching concern. Paul Blomfield was concerned about the lack of information on the way the new ‘Office for Students’ framework was going to work in practice:

‘the problem is that we do not know what it will look like. I have asked written questions about it, but we still do not know.’

Gordon Marsden was ‘alarmed that under clause 84, research councils could be abolished or merged by order. That could affect whole areas of research, so surely it is sufficiently serious that Parliament should have proper oversight. On the ‘teaching’ side he added, ‘the Government have produced mechanisms which dodge Parliament’s ability to judge and regulate them’.

The general concern expressed was that Bill was not fit for its purpose. Mark Field, in the Second Reading debate, was frank about the need for new legislation ‘No one can deny that the regulatory system in this sector has evolved into a bafflingly complex framework of organisations and an alphabet spaghetti of acronyms’. New legislation is undeniably, as Liam Byrne put it ‘long overdue’. But he did not think that justified going on with legislation which will not do the necessary job of updating:

The risk is that the Minister is presenting to the House a halfway house that will leave us with the task of having to come back to some big strategic questions to finish the job.

Andrew Smith made a further point, that the Bill is ‘spectacularly ill timed’ in the light of the outcome of the Referendum on British membership of the European Union and the uncertainty about the way providers of higher education will be affected. Margaret Greenwood was one of those who had pointed to the new ‘landscape’ created by the outcome of the referendum:

why is there a rush to do this? Should we not look at the new landscape, think very carefully and then decide what we should do?

Daniel Zeichner had the same concern that:

now might not be the time for undertaking more major reforms… now is the time for safeguards and support for our higher education providers and research councils—not for further disruption. Let us not rock the boat when we are already faced with such unsteady waters. Plenty of people are making this point.

So did Gordon Marsden, who suggested that ‘Now is hardly the time for embarking on three years of creative chaos’:

This is not the Bill that this Parliament needs. It is not the Bill that universities and HE institutions needed. It is not the Bill that our country needs—that our countries need. It is a Bill that is currently not fit for purpose. Especially post-Brexit, we need a Bill that will provide direction and structure, and tackle and settle the needs of a crucial part of our national life for the next generation.

Jo Johnson, winding up the debate on July 19, resisted the calls not to proceed with the Bill in its present form or in a hurry:

This afternoon, we have often heard concerns that now is not the time to proceed with the Bill and that we should press the pause button. That is wrong: the time is right to press ahead.

A Ministerial Statement on 21 July, two days after the Second Reading debate announced that the fee cap from 2017-8 would be £9,250.

It is not in dispute that changes in the higher education landscape since 1992 have left the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 in need of review. It is now out of date and not fit for purpose in several respects on which speakers commented in the Second Reading debate.

There are several points that need to be considered carefully by the Committee now responsible for the next stage of this hastily-drafted Bill. The Public Bills Committee has requested submissions.

Your submission should be emailed to scrutiny@parliament.uk. The first meeting of the Committee is expected to be on 6 September but the sooner submissions are received the better.

In a series of blogposts over the next few days I will cover the following:

Post 2. TEF and tuition-fee rises are not in the Higher Education and Research Bill. Why?

Post 3 Speedy entrances and sharp exits: letting in more alternative providers

Post 4.  Consequences?

Post 5. Placing teaching and research in different Departments of State: the funding implications

Post 6. The Bill covers only England: are there risks to the reputation of UKHE?

Post 7 An integrated tertiary education system?

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