Lords defeat UK government again on TEF and private providers

Peers back further amendments to Higher Education and Research Bill

March 8, 2017
Houses of Parliament, Westminster
Source: iStock

The government has suffered further defeats in the House of Lords on plans in England for the teaching excellence framework (TEF) and the opening up of the sector to new private providers.

Earlier in the week, peers defeated the government by passing an amendment that ensures the results of the TEF should not be used to determine the fees that an institution can charge.

On 8 March, the House of Lords – where the government does not have a majority – inflicted further defeats.

The government now has the choice of accepting the amendments, or bidding to force through its proposals with the backing of MPs.

An amendment, proposed by crossbencher Baroness Wolf, Labour peer Lord Stevenson and Liberal Democrat Lord Storey, was passed that would severely limit the government’s flagship plans to bring in new providers to compete with universities. Critics backing the amendment had warned of risks from for-profit providers gaining degree awarding powers and university status.

The amendment would ensure new providers either remain subject to the same requirement to pass through four years of validation before they can gain their own degree awarding powers, or had been granted permission to use such powers by a quality assessment committee.

The government had wanted private providers to be able to award degrees on a probationary basis from the start of their operation and for England’s new regulator, the Office for Students, to take over the granting of degree awarding powers.

The OfS would also have to be “assured that the provider operated in the public interest and in the interest of students” to gain degree powers, says the amendment, passed by 201 votes to 186.

On the TEF, peers also backed an amendment that would ensure the government still creates “a scheme to assess and provide consistent and reliable information about the quality of education and teaching”, but prevents such an exercise from being used “to create a single composite ranking of English higher education providers”, as well as ensuring that its data and metrics would be evaluated by the Office for National Statistics.

This amendment, which was backed by 280 votes to 186, would also ensure such a scheme “must be wholly or mainly based on the systems in place in higher education providers which ensure that the courses offered are taught to a high standard”. Critics have attacked the metrics to be used in the TEF, which include graduate earnings and employment outcomes as well as the National Student Survey.

The amendment was proposed by Labour peer Lord Blunkett, Liberal Democrat Baroness Garden and crossbencher Baroness Wolf.

The government had planned that the TEF would not just dictate which universities were allowed to raise fees in line with inflation, but would also drive competition between universities by showing students which were the best quality.

But critics in the House of Lords have rallied around concerns about the reliability of TEF metrics and that the exercise will damage UK universities overseas by rating them “gold”, “silver” and “bronze”.

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, last week unveiled amendments aimed at ensuring that the bill could make it through the House of Lords unscathed.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said on the latest TEF amendment that it "would not achieve a stated government manifesto commitment to introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality. 

"Whilst today’s result is disappointing, the Parliamentary process is ongoing."

john.morgan@tesglobal.com

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