On Monday afternoon, I spent an hour sat on the back row of the Labour benches in the House of Lords. I had come to listen to, and vote on, the Higher Education and Research Bill.
Having previously been lobbied by Baroness Wolf of Dulwich, I had intended to speak. But the timing of the first debate on the bill meant that I couldn’t take part on that day. Normally Lords don’t then take part in later debates on the bill, so I am now likely to remain a mere observer.
The first thing that struck me was that the chamber was unusually full.
Anyone comparing attendance between the debates in the Lords and in the Commons would clearly see that the appointed House is considerably more interested in this than the elected MPs down the corridor.
Some would say that this reflects the large vested interest in universities in the Lords. Consequently, every speech was preceded by a declaration of interest, and when Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood stood up from the cross benches, he started by saying:
I speak as a lawyer not as an academic. Indeed, until recently I thought that I was the only Member of the House who has not ever been a governor, chancellor or vice-chancellor of one of these institutions.
That said, the core of the function of the Lords is to use expertise to improve legislation. There is considerable expertise on higher education in the House, and the 500-plus amendments to the bill show a constructive attempt to improve the version of the bill approved by the Commons.
It was pleasing, and very unusual, for the Commons minister, Jo Johnson, to observe throughout. This is all the more important as he has much more expertise than his Lords frontman, Viscount Younger of Leckie, who dutifully just read his script.
There was also very little politics.
While former higher education ministers Lord Willetts and Lord Triesman didn’t completely agree, there was clear mutual respect. Equally so between the two academics from King’s College who spoke on opposite sides of the argument.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, the mover of the amendment, was frustrated that Viscount Younger wasn’t nimble enough to simply offer a meeting to discuss the amendment, and therefore pressed the vote. Nevertheless, the two front benches are clearly going to be working together, as best they can, to improve the bill by government concession as much as possible.
I was delighted that the amendment was agreed. It may have flaws in the wording that will have to be resolved before the bill goes into law, but the definition of a university that it enshrines will inform the rest of the debate and give universities important safeguards.
The likes of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean and Lord Cormack don’t like definition in law. They see it as constraining innovation. They probably wouldn’t support a written constitution for the same reasons – grey areas give flexibility.
For me, it is a cause for celebration that for the first time we are putting in law that UK universities are autonomous, and must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedoms of speech, thought and expression. As we see more private universities and other innovations in the sector that may have conflicting commercial interests, these principles give much-needed security for academics.
The vote was won by 27. This is a healthy margin, given how many government Lords have been appointed recently. This suggests that it won’t be easy if the Commons wants to completely overturn it.
Finally, the chatter in the voting lobbies was one that questioned the need for the bill. Many are trying to understand exactly what problem this legislation is trying to fix, or whether it is just an ideological move to advantage the private sector.
There is plenty more to debate, but I wonder whether the time and effort will result in law that actually improves anything.
Lord Knight of Weymouth is a Labour peer, chief education adviser to TES Global, and a visiting professor at the London Knowledge Lab, UCL Institute of Education.