The Higher Education and Research Bill will meet with “substantial opposition” and may not make it through the House of Commons in its current form, one vice-chancellor has predicted.
The government is yet to announce a date for the second reading of the bill, which deals with the creation of the powerful Office for Students in England.
But some believe early or mid-July could be a possibility for the second reading – the first opportunity MPs will have to debate the proposals – although the timing could be affected by the result of the EU referendum.
Meanwhile, documents related to the bill were published last week by the government. An impact assessment says that undergraduate tuition fees, if allowed to rise in line with inflation under the teaching excellence framework as planned, could reach a maximum of £11,697 by 2025-26, provided the institution achieved a rating of excellent or above each year.
The bill would shift responsibility for granting degree awarding powers and university title away from the Privy Council to the OfS, as the government seeks to open the sector to new private providers.
In a UK-wide provision, the bill would also bring together the seven research councils under a new body called UK Research and Innovation, with the government basing its case for this change in the recommendations made by Sir Paul Nurse’s review of the research councils.
Aldwyn Cooper, vice-chancellor of private, non-profit Regent’s University London, said he believed that “certainly there will be substantial opposition in the [House of] Lords” to opening the sector to new providers.
Professor Cooper has warned that the government’s plans to grant degree-awarding powers to new providers from the point that they start teaching (at present a four-year track record is required) and abolish the minimum student threshold for institutions to become universities (currently 1,000) could damage the quality of UK higher education and its standing overseas.
His view is that Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, “is going to have difficulty getting the bill, in current form, through the Commons, let alone the Lords”.
Professor Cooper, chair of the Independent Universities Group, argued that concerns about dramatically increasing the number of private and for-profit providers entering the sector will be “shared by a number of Conservative MPs”, as “an awful lot of them went to fairly top universities”.
Labour has not yet reached a final decision as to what position it will take on the bill.
However, Gordon Marsden, the shadow higher education, further education and skills minister, writing in Times Higher Education after the publication of the White Paper, warned that moves to allow new providers degree-awarding powers from day one could potentially be “very dangerous”.
Lord Rees, a former president of the Royal Society, wrote last week in The Guardian that it was “important that the proposed upheaval in the bodies that fund research receives equal scrutiny” to other parts of the legislation, calling the changes “needlessly drastic”. He said that “when the bill reaches the House of Lords, I hope to be one of those calling on the government to shelve the Nurse proposals”.
Nick Hillman, Higher Education Policy Institute director, noted that the government has been defeated in the House of Lords 60 times since the 2015 general election.
The impact assessment on the bill says the “average annual total cost to all institutions” over the first 10 years of the TEF, which is not part of the legislation itself, is £22.3 million. “This is equivalent to an average annual cost of £53,000 per institution”, says the document.
The government’s business case for the OfS, also published last week, says the organisation – to be part-funded by institutional subscriptions – will cost institutions £16 million in its first year, with an additional £14.9 million coming from government.