The Higher Education and Research Bill began its Lords committee stage this week after a difficult second reading for the government before Christmas, when the proposals received a pretty rough ride – mainly from the politically independent cross-benchers.
Peers across the Lords respect the fact that the bill has already been through the Commons, and that many of its provisions were in the Conservatives’ 2015 election manifesto. So it is a question of improving rather than killing the bill. The Lords not only has a constitutional duty to carefully scrutinise legislation placed before it, but also has the power to ask the government to think again if matters of public interest could benefit from further consideration.
One such issue was the opening Labour-led amendment debated yesterday. Many who spoke at the second reading felt that, as drafted, the bill fails to understand the purposes of higher education. And without a clear definition of what a university is, the proposals are like Hamlet without the prince.
Our aim was to give the legislation a proper focus and to let UK universities be the true star of the show. Otherwise, there is a real danger that the new regulatory architecture, the new bodies and the revised research organisation set out on the face of the bill could do permanent damage.
Universities across the world have multiple and complex roles in society – something from which we all gain. They are at their best when they are autonomous independent bodies, with the freedom to develop a range of missions and practices. While at the same time being public institutions, although not in the public sector, they serve both the knowledge economy and the knowledge society, and are tools of economic progress and social mobility.
Universities also use the precious safe harbour of academic freedom to seek for truth wherever it is to be found, and publish it for all to see and discuss. They transmit and project the values of openness, tolerance, enquiry and a respect for diversity that are key to civilisation in our increasingly globalised world.
The point of our amendment, which received formal support from cross-bench peers and the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson, was simple: the bill does not define a university, and we think it is important that it does.
We hoped that the government would accept the amendment, having been urged to do so by the majority of speakers, including several senior Conservative peers. With the minister refusing – under the watchful gaze of the architect of the bill, Jo Johnson – we had no choice but to press a vote, which we won 248 to 221.
Going forward, it is hard to gauge what strategy the government will adopt for the rest of this bill. In the Commons, it refused all opposition amendments before belatedly bringing forward weaker versions. That tactic won’t wash in our chamber. With so many concerns expressed from all sides, the minister would have been better heading off the defeat by agreeing to come back with a new amendment at the report stage.
As it stands, this defeat will encourage a more bullish approach from those who want changes made across the entire bill. And with a working expectation of some 700 committee-stage amendments alone, and a tighter parliamentary timetable – with business also including forthcoming Brexit matters – it will be increasingly difficult for the government to retain control.
And as for that missing star of the show: Hamlet, of course, doesn’t finish the play in a very good state…
Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is shadow higher education minister in the House of Lords.