The UK government’s latest defeats on key parts of the Higher Education and Research Bill in the House of Lords will herald a parliamentary "ping pong” period, in which peers may be “emboldened” to insist on their changes if they believe that enough MPs will support them.
Peers last week backed amendments – proposed jointly by Labour, Liberal Democrats and crossbenchers – that would stop the teaching excellence framework (TEF) being used to set tuition fees and to rank universities.
Another amendment would prevent private providers from entering the sector unless they had passed through four years of validation by a university or had been approved by a quality body. The government had wanted new providers to be able to award their own degrees on a probationary basis immediately upon entry.
Lord Blunkett, the former Labour education secretary, was among those who proposed the amendment that would stop the TEF being used “to create a single composite ranking”, as well as ensuring that its data and metrics would be evaluated by the Office for National Statistics.
This amendment would also ensure that such a scheme “must be wholly or mainly based on the systems in place in higher education providers which ensure that the courses offered are taught to a high standard”, making the TEF more akin to the current system of quality assurance.
“This is not a ‘wrecking amendment’," Lord Blunkett told Times Higher Education. "As I said when moving to a vote, it gives the government time and space to think again.”
He added that it was “perfectly possible to move forward on a consensus basis”, achieving “holistic and broad” metrics “which reflect the current concerns” and the review of the TEF that will be conducted in a forthcoming lessons-learned exercise.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “The amendments matter because, for the first time, parliamentarians are winning battles on things [universities minister] Jo Johnson really cares about – like the TEF and probationary degree awarding powers.”
The changes will next return to the House of Commons, where the government has a slim working majority of 17.
MPs will decide whether to accept or reject the Lords’ amendments. If they reject them, matters then return to the Lords, where peers can insist on their original changes, suggest alternative amendments, or back down. The exchanges between the two houses are often referred to as “ping pong”.
Mr Hillman said he believed that the government “will still be able to get most of what they want…parliamentary ping pong is not an evenly matched battle”.
Hannah White, director of research at the Institute for Government, highlighted the government’s slim majority in the Commons. If, since the bill first left the Commons, “there’s been a coalition behind any of the changes the Lords are proposing building up in the Commons, you only need a relatively small number of government MPs to be willing to rebel to mean the government won’t be able to just reverse the amendments in the Commons”, said Dr White.
She continued: “It all comes down to what the Lords thinks the Commons is going to do with its amendments. If they can see there’s just no will in the Commons to go with the amendments they have proposed, then they probably won’t bother to insist.
“But if they think there’s a possibility of getting enough support in the Commons to support what they want to do, then they might be emboldened to insist.”