Finally, water is being let through the dam. For months, the government has resisted pressure to amend the Higher Education and Research Bill. Despite attempts to improve the legislation during the Committee phase in the House of Commons, most notably from former NUS president Wes Streeting (now a Labour MP), ministers have shown little willingness to alter their proposals.
A version of the bill with all the alterations to date marked up on it has recently been produced, but it just goes to show how little has changed.
Now, however, the Department for Education has come forward with a list of its own fairly significant changes. It will now ensure that there is a dedicated board member at the new Office for Students with experience in promoting the interests of students. It will protect the autonomy of institutions by barring the prohibition of particular courses and it will also mandate the Office for Students to report on the financial sustainability of universities.
Chris White, who was special adviser to more than one chief whip and more than one leader of the House of Commons during the coalition years, told a Higher Education Policy Institute event in May that every piece of new legislation starts with ministers telling their colleagues that it is perfect and won’t need amending. But, he went on, pretty much all proposed legislation gets changed in significant ways during its passage, thanks to the government’s own amendments – let alone those of other parties.
Indeed, I once met a civil servant who had worked on a bill that had earned the nickname “Boeing” after racking up 747 amendments.
So while I agree with the government that we need a new legal framework for higher education, I welcome its general willingness to make improvements to the bill as part of the normal legislative process. I also welcome the specific amendments, which on first sight seem sensible.
It is difficult to argue that having student representatives on a body called the Office for Students, or introducing more clarity over the autonomy of institutions or improving financial oversight are bad ideas. However, anyone who thinks the new amendments remove all the controversy around the legislation should look again.
The bill is less than halfway through its parliamentary process and it has always been expected to hit a rough patch when it arrives in the House of Lords. The latest changes may buy off a little opposition but they are unlikely to assuage the concerns of those peers who have been the most outspoken on the bill.
Lord Rees, for example, has been fiercely critical of the new mechanisms for research funding. Baroness Wolf is known to dislike attempts to open up the higher education sector to a wider range of providers. Others dislike the idea that the Office for Students could remove royal charters from universities.
They are all urged on by Martin Wolf, the economics editor of the Financial Times, who has called the bill a “disaster”. He is one of the most influential journalists among policymakers and has attacked (somewhat intemperately in my view) the intelligence of those who support the bill: “Anybody who thinks this will end with more diverse, more innovative, more courageous and more independent institutions is, quite simply, a fool.”
Such language may spur some people on, although it may also turn some others off.
Major pieces of new higher education legislation tend to occur only around once every dozen years (1992, 2004, 2016), so there is a strong argument for inserting new clauses to the bill beyond those the government is now proposing. For example, we have recommended a tougher regime for student loan repayments from those who have left the UK, giving consideration to the inclusion of mental health action plans in Access and Participation Agreements and awarding the Office for Students a new public interest duty.
A 19th-century Illinois politician famously once said “the making of laws is like the making of sausages – the less you know about the process the more you respect the result”. It might indeed be a little gruesome, but understanding the process is also the key to influencing the results.
Nick Hillman is director of Hepi, the UK higher education thinktank.