The Higher Education and Research Bill seeks to create a new Office for Students with responsibility to promote a market and also with wide-ranging powers over all English institutions.
The OfS, which would be created from the merger of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access, would have a wider remit than Hefce, taking charge of the granting of degree awarding powers and university title.
The government wants the path to both awards to be eased as it seeks to encourage new private providers to enter the sector to compete with established universities.
That the OfS would still make “grants, loans or other payments to the governing body of an eligible higher education provider”, as Hefce does, is likely to provoke concern among universities at the prospect of a powerful regulatory role being combined with a funding one.
The OfS would have oversight of not just the regime for quality, as Hefce did, but also of standards.
The OfS would also have powers of entry to higher education institutions’ campuses. A section titled “entering and searching premises with a warrant” states that the OfS will have “powers to enter and search premises in England occupied by supported higher education providers”, if they are deemed to have breached the conditions of their registration as higher education institutions.
The OfS would also have the ability to revoke an institution’s right to call itself a university, even if that right was granted by Royal Charter.
The bill, published following the announcement of legislation in the Queen’s Speech, focuses on the creation of the OfS and of United Kingdom Research and Innovation, to oversee the research councils.
The moves follow the publication of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ higher education White Paper on 16 May, which focused on easing access to the sector for new providers and the creation of the teaching excellence framework.
The bill does not deal with the TEF, which does not require legislation to be implemented at institutional level, other than to give the OfS powers over the exercise.
“The OfS may make arrangements for a scheme to give ratings to English higher education providers regarding the quality of, and standards applied to, the higher education that they provide where they apply for such a rating,” says the bill.
On easing access for new private providers, the bill focuses on transferring the authority to grant degree awarding powers and university title from the Privy Council to the OfS.
In its opening clauses, the bill says that the OfS “must have regard to” the “need to promote quality, and greater choice and opportunities for students”; to “the need to encourage competition between English higher education providers…where that competition is in the interests of students and employers”; to “the need to promote value for money in the provision of higher education by English higher education providers”; and to “the need to promote equality of opportunity in connection with access to and participation”.
But the OfS “must have regard to the need to protect academic freedom”, the bill adds.
On quality, the bill gives the OfS a wider role, encompassing standards, than that granted to Hefce in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.
“The OfS may assess, or make arrangements for the assessment of, the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education provided by English higher education providers,” says the bill.
The OfS chair and chief executive, along with the director of fair access, will all be appointed by the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, currently Sajid Javid.
The bill was presented on 19 May in the House of Commons. Although the date of the second reading of the bill was given as the following day, that is in reality a holding date.
A date for the actual second reading of the bill could be given in next week’s Business Statement by the leader of the House.