Thursday, 25 August 2016

The House Divided – The Higher Education Bill

The Higher Education Bill has passed its second reading in Parliament, writes Emma Pritchard, but the changing political context lends uncertainty. 

Regardless of the ambiguity that the higher education sector faces in the wake of Brexit, it seemed like business as usual in Parliament as the Higher Education Bill passed its second reading in July, just in time for the summer recess. 

The Bill passed by 294 to 258 votes but the debate was not well attended by MPs. In amongst the sparse rows of very green seats sat a few interested politicians, pursing their lips ready to fire up their arguments. I suppose the lack of attendance can perhaps be excused, there is an awful lot going on at the moment. Perhaps this would have been better attended if we weren’t all dealing with the aftershock – yes, literal shock – of the Brexit earthquake.  

Another possibility is that the whole higher education sector has slipped down to the bottom of the list of priorities for MPs. Besides, it looks like they might have had other things on their mind – what with the Labour party on the brink of a major split, accusations of bullying being thrown about in both of our major political parties. All while the new Prime Minister goes on holiday leaving Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, the new Foreign Secretary, in charge. 

The debate itself was highly entertaining, a tennis match of words (Westminster-don? Wimble-minster?), with some interesting points made from both sides. Gordon Marsden, one of the few members of the Labour front bench who has not resigned, urged the House to vote against the Bill but he did not succeed and with his party in disarray it was not really a surprise. He had a bit of help from the new Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner MP, who defended him against the criticisms of Conservative MP Michael Gove, quipping, “He did not like the length of the speech made by Mr Marsden, but perhaps that was because it lasted longer than his leadership bid.” 

Rayner raised concerns over the EU research funding programme, Horizon 2020, arguing that the government needed to ensure confidence in the research sector. She also argued that the bill would set back the cause of equal access rather than advancing it and questioned the potential increase in smaller private institutions. Rayner challenged the Government on what safeguards it would set up to ensure corners are not cut when it comes to resources, student support, and academic staff. 

The debate came at an awkward time for the Labour party. Just two days before Parliament broke for summer recess, many had expected work on the Bill to be put off until the autumn. The aftermath of the Brexit vote, the appointments to the new Government, and the turmoil on the Labour front bench were all dominating the political agenda. With no clear party line to take on the proposals in the Bill, and no chance to overturn the Government’s majority, most Opposition MPs without a specialist interest will have felt it wiser to focus their hard-pressed time elsewhere. Arguably the timing of this debate meant that the Bill really did not get the kind of attention and analysis needed and that really is a shame. But perhaps we can forgive the politicians, after all, they are just a little bit preoccupied. 

An exciting time for politics, but a hectic time for journalists.

Photo of The Rt Hon Justine Greening MP
AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by The Prime Minister's Office

You also have to feel really quite sorry for the new Education Secretary, The Rt Hon Justine Greening MP; landing the job just a few days before the debate and ended up fighting off arguments on a Bill that had only just landed on her desk. Unfortunate timing to say the least. Luckily Jo Johnson was there to whisper answers in her ear and ensure that the Bill, widely seen as his baby, survived to pass its second reading. 

The Higher Education and Research Bill raises a lot of ideas; it is supposed to increase competition and choice so as to promote social mobility. It also lays out plans to allow for more freedom in granting smaller and newer institutions university-status and degree-awarding powers without the minimum student number restrictions. Institutions will be subject to rigorous testing but the end goal is to drive up competition and make sure that students are receiving value for money after the hike up of tuition fees in 2012. The Bill also plans to create one single regulator, the Office for Students, a combination of the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access, with the stated aim of putting students at the heart of the system. 

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been one of the highest profile parts of the Government’s higher education reforms. While not explicitly part of this Bill it is intrinsic to the Government’s plans and, if it goes ahead as proposed, then successful institutions will be able to raise their tuition fees in line with inflation. Some institutions have already started advertising their fees for 2017/18 as £9,250 to ensure that they are meeting the requirements of the Consumer Markets Authority with plenty of time, yet they face criticism in the press for pre-empting the authority of Parliament. Not for the first time universities are having to walk a tricky line as reforms happen around them and to them.

So it is safe to say that we are not sure of the implications of the passing of the Bill just yet, nor do we know what changes will be made in the following stages. Up next is the Committee stage and hopefully a time to iron out potential problems with the Bill. It looks like there will be some great changes within the sector but with great change comes great opportunity – a slight paraphrase here, but you get the gist. Whatever the changes, we should look for the opportunities and make the most of the situation. 

Good luck to the sector – we might just need it. 

Emma Pritchard
Placement Student
Office of the Vice-Chancellor

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