Are Tories ‘ducking debate’ on big higher education policy changes?

John Morgan looks at how scrapping student grants sparked claims of a political fix

January 15, 2016
David Cameron

Yesterday, 18 MPs took part in a 90-minute debate in a Delegated Legislation Committee, held in one of the cramped committee rooms in the Houses of Parliament. You might imagine that such an obscure committee would be discussing bureaucratic arcana – the incorporation into UK law of European Union regulations on paper clip sizes or something like that.

But yesterday, the Third Delegated Legislation Committee had something rather important on its agenda: it passed the government’s plan to scrap maintenance grants for new students as of 2016-17 and to replace them with loans. You can watch the meeting here.

The full grant, awarded to students from households with an annual income of under £25,000, is currently £3,387.

The move has not been debated, or voted on, on the floor of the House of Commons. Labour MPs argue that it should have been.

Gordon Marsden, the shadow higher education, further education and skills minister, led off Labour’s opposition by saying that scrapping grants was “not in their [the Conservatives’] manifesto” and has “not been adequately debated”.

Wes Streeting, the former National Union of Students president who is now Ilford North MP, told the committee that the switching of maintenance grants to loans would leave the poorest students with the highest levels of debt. “How can that possibly be fair?” he asked.

Streeting claimed that the new government already has a “clear track record of ducking scrutiny, avoiding debate and seeming to believe that on a slender majority and on a minority share of the vote they have…the ability to do anything they please”.

This question of the government’s approach to scrutiny will continue to be important for higher education. It looks unlikely that there will be any bill bringing the government’s plans in the Green Paper – including the creation of the teaching excellence framework and several tiers of variable tuition fees, along with the introduction of a new sector regulator – together to be debated and voted on in the Commons as higher education legislation.

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, argued that via the committee, Parliament “is having an opportunity to examine this measure”. The plan “was a manifesto commitment”, he said, pinning it down precisely to page 35.

Wielding his phone, Streeting proclaimed that he was looking at page 35 and that there was “no reference to student maintenance grants whatsoever”.

Johnson replied that there had been a commitment to a “sustainably funded higher education system” in the manifesto – “it’s clear and transparent, it’s in black and white”.

He argued that switching grants to loans with an increased value “in a time of fiscal restraint allows universities to remain well funded” and also allows them to continue to be “engines of social mobility”.

That did not go down well with Megan Dunn, the NUS president:

Opponents pledged that their fight was not over.

The online broadcast continued for a bit longer than it should have done after the meeting and picked up an interesting informal exchange. You can watch it right at the end of the recording.

Streeting approached the Tory chair of the committee, Andrew Percy, to suggest that the government will follow the same committee process to pass its plans to scrap tuition grants for nursing students and replace them with loans. Streeting said that he was planning a backbench motion calling for the nursing plans to be debated in the Commons – might Percy be willing to put his name to it?

“Yeah, I might be, let me think about it,” was his reply.

Does that suggest that some Conservative MPs are becoming uncomfortable with their government’s approach to parliamentary scrutiny?

You might argue that any government with a slender majority, especially one with numbers against it in the Lords, would try to use any means possible to get its policies through without the potential for embarrassing negative publicity or backbench rebellions.

But you might also argue that if all this swells into a narrative about the government avoiding debate and “not playing fair” – and that narrative begins to stick with the public – then that would be a political problem.

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