Major reforms to higher education will reward high-quality institutions and open up the sector to new providers, the new education secretary has said.
Her speech preceded several hours of debate in the House of Commons, which ended in a relatively close vote to pass the bill on to its next stage: by 294 votes to 258.
Among the proposals in the White Paper, entitled Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, is the creation of a regulator, known as the Office for Students, which is expected to give more institutions university status and degree-awarding powers.
In her first Commons appearance as education secretary since she was appointed on 14 July, Ms Greening said the “creation of new universities is an added force for good” and the “current system…can feel highly restricted”.
While she was keen to “open up the sector to allow new providers to enter”, Ms Greening said she “recognised there have been concerns about the quality of new providers” and there would be “rigorous tests” to ensure standards did not slip.
Ms Greening also spoke at length about how the government’s plans would 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.
In a sparsely attended Commons chamber, Labour’s shadow higher education minister Gordon Marsden welcomed elements of the bill, including a new Sharia-compliant loans system and a new transparency duty for universities.
However, Mr Marsden described the TEF as a “Trojan horse for removing the fee cap” and criticised the government’s “obsession with untried and untested providers”, saying it was “blasé” about institutional failure and the effect on students, graduates and the UK economy.
In light of the financial uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote, the government should pause its legislative plans to ensure they addressed crucial issues, such as the status of non-UK EU nationals and whether they would be eligible for student loans, Mr Marsden added.
“Instead, they are going hell for leather with a bill that is obsessed with a toxic combination of market- and competition-driven ideology.”
The transfer of higher education into the Department for Education under Ms Greening, with research held by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, also presented new problems because universities could lose out to schools on funding, Mr Marsden added. With less money available, the “loans will cure all philosophy” may be misguided, as shown by the failure of the recent further education loans system, he said.
Other MPs also hit out against elements of the bill. Shadow skills minister Liam Byrne said the bill was “written for a very different time” and that, after the Brexit result, ministers risked “having to come back to address the big strategic questions and finish the job”.
It also did not address the “fragility of the Ponzi scheme that underpins the student loan system” which was “not fit for purpose” and would require a “wholesale overhaul”.
Ex-higher education minister David Lammy claimed the bill would do little to address fair access to universities, which he said had seen the proportion of low-income students fall at seven out of 24 Russell Group universities, including the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, in recent times.
Removing the student numbers cap had done little to improve access and had simply “helped more chinless wonders from public schools to get in [to elite universities]”, said Mr Lammy.
Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner also raised concerns about the reputational damage the bill might cause if small untested providers were given university status.
“Cambridge University and Anglia Ruskin University are respected for what they do,” he said. “We can’t have johnny-come-latelies, turning up and potentially wrecking hard-won reputations”.
Research: Greening offers assurance on funding streams
The debate focused more on teaching than research, but Justine Greening did offer a line of reassurance for those that fear the new structure will create a damaging split between research and teaching funding, leading to poor coordination between the two.
There would be a “coordinated, strategic approach to the fund of teaching and research”, she told MPs.
Innovate UK, which is being rolled into the new UK Research and Innovation body alongside the research councils, will have its “own independent funding stream”, she added, after concerns that it could eat into the research budget.
Meanwhile at a hearing of the Lords Science and Technology committee earlier in the day, Lord Stern, president of the British Academy, who is currently leading a review into the research excellence framework, said he was “concerned” about the relationship between this exercise and the proposed teaching assessment, the teaching excellence framework.
In light of the departmental split of teaching and research funding, they need to “support each other” and be “complementary”, he said.
Alex Halliday, physical secretary of the Royal Society, said there was a “need to worry” about the split between teaching and research, and added that there “was not much detail on that and how it will work".