Major reforms to the university sector will be debated in Parliament today in the second reading of the government's Higher Education and Research Bill.
Measures announced in the 2016 HE White Paper, entitled Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, will be discussed in the House of Commons on 19 July from around lunchtime.
Among the proposals put forward by the Conservative government in the bill include the creation of new all-powerful regulator, known as the Office for Students, and the amalgamation of the research councils into one body, UK Research and Innovation.
The government's plans also pave the way for allowing universities to raise tuition fees in line with inflation in 2017-18 and 2018-19 if they can demonstrate good teaching through the new teaching excellence framework, although legislation is not needed to proceed with the TEF.
However, the bill is likely to face substantial opposition. The National Union of Students is holding a rally in Parliament Square from noon against the reforms, which it believes will use “meaningless market metrics…to raise fees even further”.
Other influential sector voices have called for universities and science minister Jo Johnson to pause his reforms while institutions get to grips with the fallout from last month’s Brexit vote. Others have argued that the bill is more important than ever after the European Union vote.
Writing on the Politics Home website, Gordon Marsden, shadow minister for higher education, said that the bill was “was problematic to begin with, but in the wake of the Brexit referendum result, it is even more so now”.
“Existing concerns have been amplified by dystopian downturns in the wake of funding and stability uncertainties after the Brexit vote,” he explained.
“It’s hardly the time for embarking on three years of ‘creative chaos’, meddling with what the Bill calls the ‘architecture’ of quality assurance, when the sector now is grappling with the immediate consequences, both direct and indirect, of Brexit,” Mr Marsden added.
Any bill should address the issue of the eligibility of EU students to study in the UK and whether they would still be able to receive loan funding, Mr Marsden added – pointing to the fact that some 125,000 EU students made up 6.4 per cent of the entire undergraduate body last year.
“With nothing guaranteed the impact this has on universities' finances could be very serious if they are unable to meet their student targets...and are forced to close,” he said.
Mr Marsden’s comments echo those of David Phoenix, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University and chair of MillionPlus, which represents a number of post-1992 universities, who has called on Mr Johnson to pause the reforms to allow the sector to gain answers on post-Brexit threats to the sector.
Instead, the government was “merrily pressing on with a bill introducing major changes that could cause further massive disruption to it”, said Mr Marsden.
“No wonder people are saying if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he added.