HE Bill: amendments do not mean government is out of the woods just yet

Changes could mean HE and Research Bill receives Royal Assent in the spring, writes Nick Hillman

February 27, 2017
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There are two perceptions of the House of Lords. One, articulated by Lord Dobbs in a TV documentary to be shown tonight, is that peers selflessly push for the public good: "Like a composting machine, whatever comes out the other end is always more fragrant and more fertile than what went in."

An alternative view, pressed by Private Eye in its coverage of the Higher Education and Research Bill, is that the Lords is stuffed with self-interested lobbyists fighting for their own cause: "During the bill’s second reading, almost every peer who spoke had to declare connections to some cloister or other of state-funded academia.’ 

Both factors have been shaping the HE Bill. As there is no Conservative majority in the Lords, less respect for democracy and numerous current and former academics spoiling for a fight, the bill has had a bumpy ride

The fiercest opponents have conjured up a picture of Jo Johnson rampaging through our existing universities wiping out autonomy by shackling everything that moves to the state, while simultaneously showering degree-awarding powers and university titles upon any cowboy he stumbles across. Perhaps this is how a second chamber is meant to work, yet at times it has all seemed a little unedifying and over the top, and it has probably revealed more about the nature of some of the Lords than it has about Jo Johnson.

After all, the bill had a long genesis and was built on top of many separate consultation exercises. But such tactics have been undeniably effective and the minister has himself admitted that the legislation will almost certainly come out better as a result. 

Among the many new government amendments are more generous arrangements for funding two-year degrees, a strengthening of institutional autonomy and more support for credit transfer arrangements. Such measures are hard to oppose – a recent HEPI paper described the lack of support for accelerated degrees as an "intractable" problem – and they will satisfy much of the opposition.

Of course, some people will be tempted to portray the changes as an embarrassing u-turn, but attacking someone for responding to real concerns never has much resonance. Moreover, none of the things Jo Johnson really cares about – like the Office for Students, the teaching excellence framework and UK Research and Innovation – are radically altered by the amendments. 

Personally, I wonder whether the best way to protect institutional independence is to enshrine it in law rather than just to leave independent institutions alone to get on with their business. But that is the sort of issue on which reasonable minds can differ. Time will tell. 

The important question in terms of the future is what happens now. The government is not out of the woods and on the sunny uplands just yet. For example, they are planning on the basis that the rebellious peers will respond to the new amendments by scrubbing out New Clause 1, defining what a university is. Ministers are also planning on the basis that Labour supports a (much) higher fee cap for two-year degrees when it is hard to imagine lifelong opponents of fees giving it too easy a ride.

Most significantly of all, it is not within Jo Johnson’s power to change Home Office policy on international students and there are some fruity amendments and no sign of any agreement on that issue. If the Lords vote to roll out the red carpet for international students, many MPs on all sides of the House of Commons will be reluctant to roll it back up again. 

But, whatever happens next, it now seems even more likely the HE and Research Bill will receive Royal Assent in the spring. That will be a massive political achievement for Jo Johnson, who is in his first ministerial post, at a time of such wider political upheaval.

Hopefully, it will put the higher education sector in a stronger position to face the challenges ahead, although that will also depend on the secondary legislation that rides on the back of the Bill, the actions of the new arms-length bodies set up by the Bill and numerous other factors that none of us can yet foresee.

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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