The Higher Education and Research Bill is dead. If it isn’t, then it should be sent off the parliamentary equivalent of Dignitas. Here’s why.
The turbulence we’re experiencing following the Brexit vote has caused the near implosion of our political system. The Labour Party is in the process of attempting to eject its leader and the election to the leadership of the Tory party – and therefore Prime Minister – is now ramping up. Meanwhile, a massive vacuum exists where political leadership should be in the very moment that our economy is tanking, and the world is screaming at us to get our house in order and to limit the damage of last week’s disastrous vote.
To debate legislation in Parliament now is at best futile and at worst grossly irresponsible depending on which scenario of future events you subscribe to.
Fiddling while Rome burns
There’s a now familiar scenario – a newly elected Tory leader calls a snap election in the Autumn to seek their own mandate. No matter how much work on the Bill will have been done by then, it will not be anywhere close to passing. At time of writing, there are now just 17 more days until Parliament breaks for summer recess and if an election called by 9th September when the leadership announcement is made, this parliament will only return for 5 days in September. All things being equal, the government had hoped to pass the Bill by Spring of 2017, and that was optimistic: it was rightly going to take its time under scrutiny. 22 days is simply not enough time to get the Bill passed in its current form.
After a General Election, there will be a new government and parliament and the legislative clock will be entirely reset. The Higher Education and Research Bill, along with the entire legislative agenda of this government, will be dead. If a future government wants to take an HE Bill forward, they will have to re-introduce it all over again. The new Prime Minister would have to make it a renewed priority which seems unlikely given the future of the United Kingdom itself depends on that government’s ability to navigate the waters of Brexit. Parliament and every ounce of our political apparatus will be set to this task. So having a second reading over the coming few weeks is futile in this scenario as it will never lead anywhere.
Remember, the Fixed Term Parliament Act binds this government for another four years’ work, so they have no choice but to pretend that it’s business as usual until that Act is repealed, a two thirds majority of parliament call a General Election or the government lose a confidence vote. But in these circumstances, business-as-usual just means government-as-pantomime and I think the important issues in the Higher Education and Research Bill deserve something more fulsome from our political leaders.
The accidental Higher Education and Research Act?
Let’s say there’s no snap General Election; there will certainly be a new Prime Minister and government whose singular mission will be – as above – to navigate the waters of Brexit. The next few months will still see the same turmoil: no functioning opposition and a lame-duck executive. At time of writing, the Labour Party does not have a Shadow Business Secretary to hold the government accountable on existing business.
Meanwhile, the public and media are entirely distracted by Brexit and its fallout. In this chaotic time, it would be irresponsible to push forward with the Bill because it cannot hope to have anything like the scrutiny it deserves. The issues within it are simply too important for it to get anything less than a full, frank and open debate in Parliament, the media and public. This of course, could be the calculation of the government, who could now press ahead with their legislative agenda faster than they previously thought they’d be able to. All’s fair in love and politics, they’d argue.
But in this instance, the sector would struggle to mount an effective lobbying effort on the many different clauses that it wants to change or influence, with weak or non-existent opposition and MPs distracted by wider political concerns. The Lords could intervene in such circumstances and slow things down, but this will all be happening away from public view as the Bill will never be able to compete with the colossal Brexit question and the steamroller of legislation that will need to make its way through Parliament to enable it.
The official line from the government is that the Higher Education and Research Bill will carry on regardless. But they have no idea if or when a General Election will be called and how the political situation will shift the agenda. BIS itself will be likely to be tightly bound-up in Brexit questions for years, and it’s impossible to predict where Jo Johnson and Sajid Javid will end up on the political map.
The Bill must not be allowed to pass simply as a question of procedure. It is too important for that. So it should be put on hold, at least for now. I know you were just getting used to the Office for Students, UKRI and all the rest of it – but we might have to wait a bit longer to see these come to fruition in the precise forms described in the White Paper. Shelving the Bill doesn’t mean an end to reform, or a halt to the trajectory of renewed enthusiasm for teaching excellence, greater marketisation or quango reorganisation. These themes – whether you like them or not – will continue to be central to higher education policy unless there is another seismic shift in UK politics.
And the sector will muddle on – as it always has. In 2011, legislation was promised, but politics made it too difficult for the government of the day to deliver. The sector was marched up a hill, where colleagues perched neatly and had a picnic while wonks across the country papered over regulatory gaps. Government proposals that didn’t need legislation were chewed over, killed with kindness or put neatly back in the hamper for another day. There’s plenty in the White Paper that could carry on without Parliament’s approval, including a version of the TEF perhaps without the controversial link to fees.
While it’s not what we’ve been working towards, precisely, the muddling will give us plenty to think about as we search for the best bits of the proposals to work on as we wait patiently for yet another go at the statutory reform.
Updated at 18.32 on 28th July to reflect the final timetable for electing the new Tory leader.