The UK government has rejected decoupling the teaching excellence framework from tuition fees or taking students out of the net migration count, but has offered other compromises accepted by Labour as it seeks to rush through the Higher Education and Research Bill.
The government yesterday published a new list of amendments to the bill, following significant amendments made in the House of Lords.
Ministers have been in a race against time to push through the bill before Parliament is dissolved on 3 May, following Theresa May’s announcement of a snap general election on 8 June. The government had to reach a compromise deal with the Labour opposition to pass the bill in the pre-election "wash-up" for outstanding bills.
The bill is expected to return to the House of Commons for consideration of amendments tomorrow. It must then return to the Lords.
Gordon Marsden, Labour's shadow minister for higher education, further education and skills, told Times Higher Education that the party's MPs would be "watching closely" when Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, speaks in the Commons.
If Mr Johnson "maintains the position which we have agreed in the wash-up process, and says what they committed they would say, then we will not be opposing these amendments," he said.
Mr Marsden argued that Labour had forced the government into "major concessions”.
He added: “The most important thing is we have forced the government to pay attention to what so many people across the sector have said about the need to have an independent element in all of these issues like the teaching excellence framework and the award of degree awarding powers.”
A key Lords amendment, defining the purpose of universities and potentially limiting the entry of new for-profit providers, has been rejected by the government. Instead the government offers the prospect of guidance on that subject to be issued by the Secretary of State after consultation.
The Lords amendment that would prevent the TEF from being used to set the tuition fees charged by universities is also rejected.
And the government rejects the amendment, proposed by Lord Hannay and backed by peers, that would have seen international students taken out of the government’s target to reduce net migration.
But there is some trimming of the power of the Office for Students, the new regulator that will be responsible for creating a market in the English sector, in the government amendments.
The original bill said that the OfS would have the power to grant degree awarding powers to new providers from the outset of their operation.
A Lords amendment would have ensured that new providers either had to have their degrees validated by universities for four years – thus maintaining the status quo – or to have a Quality Assessment Committee give assurance they could meet standards. The OfS would also have had to be assured that a new provider operated in the public and student interest to gain degree powers, under the amendment.
The government has rejected the Lords amendment, but proposes its own amendment that would ensure that the OfS “must request advice from the relevant body regarding the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education provided by a provider” before granting degree awarding powers.
Mr Marsden said this was “a really key issue to protect the brand of UK plc. If dodgy new providers get into the system…then that is very damaging to everybody who works in the system.”
The government had “conceded that degree awarding powers can only be granted by a designated independent quality body”, he added.
The government also responds to Lords amendment on the TEF that expressed concerns about its metrics by conceding there should be an “independent person” appointed by the Secretary of State to report on the statistics used in the framework.
Mr Marsden said this meant there "will have to be a legislative commitment to a full independent review before the TEF could be used for differentiating fees".
He said that in correspondence with Labour the government has committed "to a legislative delay in differentiated fees. They can’t now come in until 2020-21.”
And it was “quite possible” the independent review “might conclude the metrics are not fit for purpose...so that keeps that whole area [differentiated fees] in play”, he added.
Fee regulations raising fees in line with inflation would also be “subject to the affirmative procedure” in Parliament, Mr Marsden said. “The government will be forced to defend any of their regulations [to raise fees] in open debate in the House.”
But overseas students and the net migration target was “an issue Theresa May and other people were not prepared to move on”, he continued.