UK HE and Research Bill: third reading and report stage debrief

Pam Tatlow on the recent parliamentary debate of the Higher Education Bill

November 23, 2016
tarantula, spider
Source: istock

Maybe it was the spectre of Cronus, the UK government chief whip’s pet tarantula, but time was certainly not on the side of those hoping for a feisty report stage and third reading debate of the Higher Education and Research Bill this week.  

Given its significance, the "one day" debate allowed by the government (in reality all of five and a half hours) was less than both the bill deserved and many expected.

There is little doubt that the current bill is seen as one less likely to cause trouble among government backbenchers and ministers, whose differing views about the terms on which the UK leaves the European Union are an obvious source of disagreement. The bill has been sold to Conservative MPs as one that enables more providers to enter the sector and gives students more choice.

Unlike the 1992 FE and HE Act, and the 2003 HE White Paper and 2004 HE Act of the Labour government, there has been little obvious interest in challenging the executive’s version of what the bill will deliver. Other than ministers, only four Conservative MPs spoke at report stage, with the contributions of two of these MPs limited to one-liners. 

Ministers tabled amendments that provide for the board of the new Office for Students to include someone with experience of representing students (no guarantee, of course, that this will be an NUS representative) and belatedly clarified that the secretary of state will not have the power to direct the opening or closure of courses.

Other than that, there was nothing doing, even on amendments supported by Universities UK.  

In one sense none of this is unusual – the job of any government is to get its legislation through – but in the long term, ministers may regret giving such short shrift to opposition amendments which challenged the retrospective changes to the conditions of student loans (a George Osborne wheeze). Regrettably, government whips ensured their MPs voted against a Labour amendment that would have provided access to student finance for those who are qualified to enter university but whose status in the UK has yet to be settled.

Very small numbers of potential students are involved and many of them have studied for Level 3 qualifications in the UK. Bearing in mind the size of the student loan book (£30 billion and rising), the funding required is negligible. MPs from all sides are likely to have hoped that the government would be more supportive. 

Other opposition amendments included a challenge to the TEF ratings (and by implication their use by the Home Office to progress a differentiated visa regime), the addition of public interest to the OfS’ remit, a joint committee to ensure that the OfS and UK Research and Innovation work together, a degree-awarding committee to reflect current arrangements, a life-long learning commission, and a strengthening of the bill to ensure that the interests of the devolved administrations are reflected in the new sector landscape.

Unsurprisingly, none were voted through. 

But just as significant for universities and students is what the bill does not say. Provisional degree-awarding powers, a lowering of the current criteria for university title, single course providers being awarded university title, will all be dealt with via regulations.

An architecture that separates teaching and research, the future status of the research councils and the failure to reference "enterprise" in the remit of UKRI, all deserved more debate than report stage in the House of Commons allowed. 

These issues, and the points raised in the opposition’s amendments, are not necessarily done and dusted. Second reading of the bill has been timetabled in the House of Lords for 6 December. Peers from all parties are likely to be a lot more circumspect – unless, of course, Cronus has his way there as well.

Pam Tatlow is chief executive of MillionPlus.

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