Warning: changes will 'happen under the radar'

Reports that the government is to shelve its higher education bill raise the prospect of the coalition sneaking controversial changes through not only by ministerial directives that avoid parliamentary scrutiny, but also in other unrelated bills, an academic has claimed.

February 2, 2012

It was reported last week that the higher education bill that was due out this spring had been delayed "indefinitely", although the government insists that no decision has yet been made.

According to Gillian Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, this raises a number of new possibilities.

If the government had truly turned against the reforms, she said, it "would have been trying to make political capital out of it", as it did when it announced a "pause" to the proposed reorganisation of the NHS in order to "listen" to concerns.

The fact that it had not done so suggested that its intention was to press ahead, but to make changes by other means, she argued.

Professor Evans pointed to last year's Education Act, the vast majority of which deals with schools, but which contains a clause allowing the government to raise interest rates on student loans in line with those that are "commercially available".

"That's university stuff - what's it doing in a bill about schools?" she asked.

She added that the 2003 higher education White Paper had contained proposals about creating "stronger links with business and economy".

These aims were not included in legislation passed the following year, but instead the government channelled money into Higher Education Innovation Funding, which supports knowledge exchange, something that did not require legislation.

Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, has also argued that the "most damaging" of the government's proposals will be able to "happen under the radar, without scrutiny from either the House of Commons or the House of Lords" if the higher education bill is shelved.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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