HE bill is needed, says Willetts, but 'who knows' when it will appear

The universities and science minister has said that a higher education bill will be needed to allow "dissolution" for post-1992 universities and to give new powers to the Office for Fair Access.

July 6, 2012

MPs on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee questioned David Willetts, who appeared before them on 4 July, about which elements of his policy programme would require legislation.

The absence of a higher education bill in the Queen's Speech detailing the legislative programme for the 2012 session of Parliament left question marks over key elements of the government’s planned changes to higher education.

Mr Willetts said: "There is a lot that we can do without legislation. There are some things for which we do require legislation."

Asked to identify the main elements requiring legislation, the minister highlighted the "restrictive regime for higher education corporations" – the legal form taken by most post-1992 universities. He said these institutions should be given more freedom in areas of "governance and dissolution".

Some have suggested that the government’s plans for change in this area would allow the takeover of post-1992 universities by for-profit providers.

Mr Willetts also said that a "full-blown level playing field with alternative providers" would need legislation – without it, private providers were "not fully under the ambit of a single regulatory body".

The last element highlighted by Mr Willetts was Offa, which currently has the ultimate sanction of revoking a university's access agreement and thus preventing it from charging annual tuition fees above £6,000.

Without legislation, "what we can't do is change the range of penalties which Offa can impose", Mr Willetts said.

The minister was asked by the committee chair, Adrian Bailey, whether there would be a bill in the 2013 session.

"Who knows? I simply can't say at this stage," Mr Willetts said.

Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central, asked the minister if he was planning to exempt for-profit providers from VAT – a move, suggested by this year's Budget, that would put for-profit providers on a level playing field with universities.

Mr Willetts paused for some time before replying: "The safest thing is to send the committee a note on that point rather than getting into it today."

Questioned about the sale of the student loan book, Mr Willetts said the sale of the "mortgage-style" loans from the 1990s was "looking quite possible", but the "more recent income-contingent loan book is looking like much less of a priority".

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

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