The chances of a higher education bill in the next Parliament appear to be receding, with the government now said to be looking at “non-legislative” options or secondary legislation to implement the recent Green Paper.
The Cabinet Office had scheduled time in the 2016-17 Parliament for a higher education bill, but this arrangement now appears to have been cancelled, sector sources told Times Higher Education.
And according to a report in the Independent on Sunday, Oliver Letwin, minister for government policy in the Cabinet Office, “thinks reforms could be introduced as secondary legislation rather than as a fresh Act of Parliament”.
This would mean Green Paper plans, such as allowing tuition fees to rise in line with inflation, passing “with little parliamentary debate and no [opposition] amendments, such as reducing or abolishing tuition fees, that could embarrass the government”, it added. Mr Letwin’s proposal has “angered” Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, the newspaper said.
The teaching excellence framework could launch without primary legislation and the Green Paper’s plan to allow inflationary fee rises in line with TEF results could be implemented by secondary legislation.
But the lack of a bill would appear likely to leave Mr Johnson unable to proceed on the Green Paper’s plans to merge the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access, creating a new student and market-focused regulator called the Office for Students. Both Hefce and Offa were established by legislation.
There are suggestions that if the government wished to implement the TEF and vary fees on a course-by-course level, rather than on institutional level, legislation would be needed.
Mr Johnson was vague on the prospects for a course-by-course TEF when he appeared before the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee last week. He told MPs that the government was “not fixing ourselves to a particular date at this time” on when the TEF could be implemented at course level.
Some in the sector suggest that the government may now be considering a White Paper, which could develop the Green Paper’s plans further and act as a holding position in the absence of a bill.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former special adviser to David Willetts in his time as universities minister, said that it was “wise of the government to consider non-legislative options because no one wants unnecessary laws”. However, he noted that while “you can do the teaching excellence framework without legislation, you can’t replace Hefce without it”.
On the reasons why plans for a bill might have been dropped, Mr Hillman said: “The obstacles in the way of legislation include deregulatory Conservatives, fears that Labour might table anti-fees amendments and the mathematics of the House of Lords, which means the government is not guaranteed to get its way.”
The coalition government’s 2011 White Paper never resulted in a bill, as the Liberal Democrats were reluctant to become involved in higher education legislation following their politically disastrous experience on tuition fees.
Mr Hillman said: “Oliver Letwin risks becoming known as a modern Grand Old Duke of York. If we don’t get legislation on the back of the Green Paper, it will be the second time ministers have marched the higher education sector to the top of the hill only to march them back down again.
“It is a slightly unedifying spectacle because the underlying need for a new legal framework has not disappeared.”