Leader: Can we have the bill, please?

Despite the demise of Lords reform, fundamental changes to the academy are still unlikely to receive parliamentary scrutiny

August 9, 2012

Although never admitted by the government, it is widely acknowledged that the decision to shelve the higher education bill earlier this year was made at least in part to clear parliamentary time to debate House of Lords reform - a key item on the Liberal Democrat agenda.

Undoubtedly there were other factors at play: the unforeseen storm over Les Ebdon's appointment as director of the Office for Fair Access and the tortuous progress of the NHS reforms must also have coloured the prime minister's thinking.

The coalition was not up for another scrap or embarrassment, particularly after the damage done to the Lib Dems by the tuition-fee hike.

But this week, it was confirmed that David Cameron had pulled the plug on Lords reform.

Any hopes that the higher education bill will return to the agenda, however, are likely to prove forlorn. Now that reform of the Upper House has been ditched, it is most likely that the room freed up in the legislative programme will be spent on measures to boost economic growth.

David Willetts' position on the shelving of the bill, and on the argument that hugely significant changes are being waved through the back door, has been typically relaxed. Speaking at the recent Quality Assurance Agency conference in London, he insisted that he was "up for scrutiny in whatever forum", adding: "You don't need legislation to secure scrutiny."

Asked explicitly whether the government had shelved the bill to make time for the Lords reforms and to avoid the coalition partners - and the Lib Dems in particular - getting their fingers burned again, the universities and science minister joked that this was "typically mischievous speculation from Times Higher".

"There's always going to be an argument about how you allocate parliamentary time," he said. "The fact is we can achieve a lot of the objectives of the bill without legislation."

Willetts has previously said that legislation is required to allow greater powers for Offa, changes to the legal form of post-1992 universities and a "full-blown" level playing field for private providers.

While he may be relaxed about life without such a bill, there remain real worries within the sector, even beyond those who fundamentally oppose the government's reforms.

One analogy used is that higher education policy is like a racing car and the fudge currently in place is a patched-together engine. The car is still moving but everyone knows there's a problem under the hood: the government is hoping that it will make it over the finish line (or the next general election) without a gasket blowing or the wheels coming off.

It may well be that nothing this dramatic happens, and if a government of whatever colour wins an outright majority in 2015 then it would be better placed than the coalition to cement its preferred approach with legislation.

But while Parliament's focus on the economic situation is understandable, it remains regrettable that fundamental higher education reforms have been denied parliamentary "due process".

When Willetts appeared before a select committee last month, he admitted that a bill was needed, but on the question of when it might be delivered, he said: "Who knows?"

Sooner rather than later would be nice.


to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments