I’ve spent the past five months listening to students and their representatives, universities, parliamentarians, scientists and academics. All of these groups have given me their views about the Higher Education and Research Bill introduced on 18 May.
And now I am responding.
With any new legislation, the scrutiny process as a Bill passes through Parliament is important for good policy making and proper democratic process. It enables legislation to be improved and for the Government to respond to legitimate concerns.
Before I outline the amendments we’re making, I want to reflect on why we’re bringing this Bill in the first place.
The Higher Education and Research Bill delivers important reforms to ensure our world class higher education sector remains amongst our greatest national assets and delivers for everyone.
It will make regulation of the sector fairer whilst protecting its status.
A new independent regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), will have duties to promote quality, competition, value for money, and access and participation. It will make sure that providers are doing all they can to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds throughout their course, helping to tackle drop-out rates and support students in having the skills to progress into employment.
And on the research side, the Bill creates UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and delivers a system which is more agile and able to respond strategically to future challenges and research needs.
I know there is support in the sector for many of these reforms as set out in our May White paper. But I also know that in some areas there is concern about how the Bill has translated these reforms in to legislation. I was therefore grateful for the opportunity, through Committee stage, to put on record my assurances and commitments across the policy areas in the Bill.
During September and October, a cross-party committee of MPs scrutinised the Bill, along with over 300 additional tabled amendments. We heard evidence from a wide range of witnesses from university vice-chancellors and the National Union of Students to the head of Research Councils UK and consumer groups such as Which?.
And now we’re at Report Stage, you will see that we have reflected on these views.
Student groups and the opposition parties stressed the importance of having a student voice at the heart of the new Office for Students. The Bill has always been clear that experience of representing or promoting the interests of students is essential in appointing the OfS Board. But we have listened, and we are strengthening this further. We will ensure that the OfS always has a dedicated Board member with experience of representing or promoting the interests of students. And we know that students deserve to have access to all the right information when making their higher education choices, which is why we will also be mandating that providers publish their student protection plans which explain how students will be protected if, for example, their course closes.
A lot of people I heard from during the passage of the Bill spoke passionately about the importance of institutional autonomy. The Bill not only respects this but enshrines it as a clear principle in how Government will engage with the Office for Students. I want to make it absolutely clear that we have no intention of telling universities how to do their jobs. That is why I’m clarifying in the legislation that the Government will not have the ability to tell institutions to prohibit or require the provision of particular courses. Nor can it try and compel the OfS to do the same.
People also told me that they want the new regulator to take more of a role in monitoring the financial health of the sector, ensuring its reputation can be protected and enhanced. This was our explicit intention for the OfS in our White Paper, and I have now tabled an amendment to enshrine a duty to monitor financial sustainability in law, and require the OfS to report on its findings to the Secretary of State.
UK Research and Innovation will play a key role right across the United Kingdom. I explained at Committee that to deliver our integrated and strategic ambitions for UKRI, the body must have a proper understanding of the systems operating in all parts of the UK. I am pleased to be tabling an amendment to facilitate this. We’re also making it clear that UKRI will play an important role in supporting postgraduate training.
During Committee stage, we had much discussion about the importance of the OfS and UKRI working closely together. The Government views joint working between the OfS and UKRI as vital to ensuring a coordinated and strategic approach to the funding and regulation of the higher education system in England. Today I have also published a factsheet setting out how the two bodies created by our reforms – OfS and UKRI – will work together.
I am very much looking forward to debating these amendments at Report Stage. But the chance for comment and scrutiny doesn’t stop there – the Bill will be read for a third time before entering the House of Lords. This will provide more opportunity for important scrutiny and debate.
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