The Higher Education and Research Bill has received Royal Assent, meaning that what has been described as “the most significant sector legislation in 25 years” is now law.
The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 passed after the government accepted a number of concessions.
Ministers had a race against time to push the bill through in the pre-election “wash-up”, and they accepted changes to its plans to open the sector to new providers and agreed to delay the introduction of measures that would link the new teaching excellence framework to tuition fee levels.
The act, which met significant opposition in the House of Lords, creates the Office for Students as a market-style regulator for English higher education, and also contains major changes to the structure of the UK-wide research system.
The government did, however, reject a Lords amendment calling for students to be removed from the target to reduce net migration.
This is how figures from the world of higher education reacted to the news.
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK:
“We are pleased the bill has now passed providing new legislation, and stability during a time of uncertainty, for our world-class university sector. We agreed there was a need for new legislation, but we had concerns about the original draft bill. Thanks to MPs and peers, and the willingness of ministers and officials to engage and listen, the final bill has been significantly improved.
“In particular, we’re pleased with changes which protect university independence and standards and set a high bar for giving degree-awarding powers and university title. We are also encouraged by the minister’s statement today that there will be a refreshed international engagement strategy to promote our universities overseas, but we will continue our efforts to secure a more progressive immigration regime for staff and students.”
Jo Johnson, universities and science minister:
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union:
“Following hours of detailed scrutiny at earlier stages in the Lords, a bad bill had been much improved with a series of helpful amendments. These included moves to define what constitutes a university; ensure international students continue to be welcomed; and protect students from unscrupulous ‘for profit’ colleges. How sad then that, yesterday, the government chose to throw out most of these changes and press ahead with plans that seriously risk damaging the global reputation of our universities.
“One might argue that government concessions wrung from inter-party negotiations in recent days make the bill palatable. In my view, they don’t. Rather, they ask the government to make a minor detour while allowing them to keep their long-term plans to marketise the sector firmly on track.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute:
“This is a big personal achievement for Jo Johnson, who – despite all the toing and froing – gets all that he originally wanted. Notwithstanding the controversies during the bill’s passage, we have needed a new legal framework for higher education since at least 2012 and it is, on balance, good that we finally have one. Whether the new system works smoothly, however, will depend on who becomes the CEO of the Office for Students, the shape of the secondary legislation on the back of the act, and also the volume of cash available to lubricate it all.”
Alex Proudfoot, chief executive of Study UK:
Douglas Blackstock, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency:
“Government and parliamentarians have worked tirelessly to provide an effective new framework for the benefit of students and institutions alike. The act delivers protection plans for students, embeds fair access in regulation, creates a single register of providers and safeguards university autonomy in relation to academic standards. The key role of an independent quality body will further protect students, ensuring that standards are maintained in all institutions and that only high-quality providers can award degrees. QAA intends to put itself forward to be that body.”