Late amendments to HE Bill unveiled by UK government

Jo Johnson amends OfS powers over universities and new providers, but key plans remain in place

February 24, 2017

The UK government has made a host of amendments to its Higher Education and Research Bill following fierce opposition from peers in the House of Lords, although most key elements of its drive to create a market via a powerful new regulator remain in place.

Jo Johnson, the universities minister, unveiled the changes in a speech to vice-chancellors at Universities UK on 24 February, ahead of the bill’s report stage in the House of Lords on 6 March. The government appears to have feared that, without amendments, the legislation was unlikely to make it through the Lords, where it does not have a majority.

Perhaps seeking to deflect attention from the raft of amendments, the government had earlier briefed to the media an announcement about altering the bill to allow the creation of two-year “fast-track” degrees, for which institutions could charge higher tuition fees of £13,000 a year.

The government had tabled, with Labour Lords higher education spokesman Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, an amendment to ensure that England’s new regulator, the Office for Students, must “have regard to institutional autonomy in everything it does”, said Mr Johnson. This, he added, “should replace” the amendment successfully inserted at the opening of the bill by Labour, Liberal Democrat and cross-bench critics in the Lords, which defined universities in a way that could have limited the extension of university title to new providers.

Another amendment, he continued, would ensure that the academic standards against which universities were judged will be “determined by” the higher education sector, reflecting UUK’s concerns about the bill in effect giving the government a role in standards.

Mr Johnson said that the OfS’ powers to revoke degree-awarding powers and university title “as a last resort” would be clarified in the bill, as being available only in relation to “specific conditions” such as “serious quality concerns”.

He said that another change to the bill clarifies that OfS powers to “amend” a university’s Royal Charter when revoking degree-awarding powers “could not be used to revoke that Royal Charter in full”.

On the government’s teaching excellence framework to measure teaching quality, Mr Johnson said that the “trial year” would be used as a “genuine lessons-learned exercise”.

He said that the government “will be reviewing…the balance between metrics and provider submissions, and the number of names of the ratings”. Universities had voiced concerns about plans to rate them “gold”, “silver” and “bronze”.

Mr Johnson added that developing the TEF to subject level was “complex”, so the pilot phase of subject-level TEF would be extended by a year, meaning assessments would start in “TEF year five”.

On the bill’s plans for the OfS to take over from the Privy Council the regime for entry of new providers, which critics fear could usher poor-quality for-profit providers, Mr Johnson said that an amendment would ensure that the regulator “must take expert advice into account when awarding, varying or revoking degree-awarding powers”.

On the creation of UK Research and Innovation to oversee research, the minister said that an amendment would ensure that future governments must have regard to the Haldane principle – which protects research funding decisions from political interference – when making grants or directing UKRI.

Dame Julia Goodfellow, UUK president and University of Kent vice-chancellor, called the amendments a “very positive step” that shows that “the government has listened to the concerns of the higher education sector around academic standards and the independence of universities”.

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