Bill's rough ride to get on the statute books

July 9, 2004

In just six months, Parliament has approved fundamental changes to English higher education that, depending on the view taken, will save or doom universities and students.

Many in the sector find it hard to believe that the contentious Higher Education Bill, which partially exposes the sector to market forces by allowing universities to charge fees of up to £3,000 a year, was published only last January. The fact that the debate about top-up fees had raged for well over a year made it seem a far more protracted process.

The Bill's publication came amid grave warnings that it could bring down Tony Blair's Government. The crunch point certainly came with the House of Commons vote at the Bill's second reading on January . More than 70 Labour backbenchers voted alongside Conservatives and Liberal Democrats against the Government.

Despite the rebellion, the Government managed to scrape home by five votes.

The rebels had gambled all on this showdown and, when the vote failed, the threat they posed largely melted away.

The baton was passed to the House of Lords. Peers gave the legislation a thorough going over and amended key sections including proposals for the Office for Fair Access. The Lords also amended the Bill to exempt students taking a gap year in 2004-05 from the new fees.

The Government overturned most of the Lords' amendments (barring that on gap years) but, on its return to the upper chamber last Thursday, peers decided they had got as much as they were going to get out of the Government and made no further amendments. The Bill passed on to the statute books immediately.

According to Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, the Higher Education Act 2004 "secures the future of universities", providing them with the additional investment and the ability to compete with the best in the world. The sentiment was echoed by Universities UK, the umbrella body representing vice-chancellors.

But the two main opposition parties, higher education trade unions and the National Union of Students called the Act a "disaster". They said it would create a multi-tier university system based on the ability to pay and would block access for poor students.

Speaking to The Times Higher last week, Mandy Telford, past president of the NUS who led the fight against top-up fees, said: "The NUS will be proved right about the market in higher education. There will be a whole generation of students choosing their courses based on cost."


* Gap years: the Government backed down and agreed to an amendment by the House of Lords that will waive all top-up fees for students taking a gap year in 2004-05

* The Office for Fair Access: Offa will explicitly have no remit over any aspect of university admissions - standards, policies, procedures and decisions. It will have to protect universities' academic freedom, with no remit over any aspect of individual courses or the delivery of teaching. It will not be able to punish an institution for failing to widen access, as long as the institution has taken all reasonable steps to conform to its access agreement

* The visitor: the Government agreed to abolish the jurisdiction of the visitor over staff as well as over student complaints.

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