Yesterday, Mark Leach argued that the Higher Education and Research Bill should be put on ice for some time, if not killed off completely. He noted that the new political and administrative context created by Brexit has made it almost impossible to give the Bill the due scrutiny and attention that it deserves. However, his argument failed to address why many of the changes in the Bill are a matter of some urgency for many in the sector, and why it is very possible for the government to stay the course.
The fundamental reasons why the regulatory changes in the Bill are needed remain. The result of the EU referendum has not magically given HEFCE the powers to regulate the whole HE sector. It has not changed the underlying reality that prompted the Public Accounts Committee to conclude that “[BIS] pressed ahead with the expansion of the alternative provider sector without a robust legislative framework to protect public money” and that BIS had “failed to protect the interests of legitimate students, the taxpayer and the reputation of those alternative providers who may be performing well.” Financial, reputational and student protection risks remain. So does the unfairness that different rules apply to institutions and their students simply because of a higher education provider’s history.
Knowing that regulatory risks exist and doing nothing about them is simply bad policy. It was a bad policy under the Coalition and it would be a bad – perhaps an even worse – policy now. Pausing on the Bill and risking further damage to our international reputation for quality through regulatory failure would be a mistake, particularly when the referendum result makes the UK look a less welcoming place to anyone “other”, including overseas students. At the very least, we must be able to point to a safe, high quality and improving product.
But what about the practicalities? Mark argued that the Bill could not complete its parliamentary stages in time if the new prime minister called a snap election. I agree, it could not. But there is a very big “if” in this scenario. Lord Norton has argued convincingly on his blog that calling a snap election is not straightforward, nor is it within the Prime Minister’s gift: the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 saw to that.
I agree with Mark that the issues in the Bill are too important not to be given the fullest parliamentary scrutiny. But at present, the distractions of Brexit aren’t distractions to parliamentary business; they are noise in the system. We don’t yet know precisely what Parliament will have to do to effect Brexit and we won’t begin to know until some time after Article 50 is invoked. So what is so unreasonable about expecting members of Parliament to get on with this aspect of the day job while there is work to be done?
Momentum matters. When the managers of parliamentary business understand what Brexit requires, they may well ensure that some of those Queen’s Speech proposals still in writing do not see the light of day. But the Higher Education and Research Bill is a living document aiming to do an essential job – why deliberately kill it off? Higher education is one of those areas that was never within the “competence” (in the jargon) of the EU. It would be willfully odd to decide to stop the Bill because we’re too busy worrying about leaving the EU.
Finally, Mark suggests the government should put the Bill on hold and that the sector should wait a bit longer for the legislative bits of the reform package. I wouldn’t recommend it. Higher education bills are unlike buses and more like successful England football teams: you can’t decide to wait a short time for the next one; you can only decide to wait.