General Election announcement casts uncertainty on future of HE Bill

Tomorrow Parliament will be asked to vote by at least a two-thirds majority to dissolve itself, and so ensure that a General Election takes place on June 8th.

Under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, as amended in 2013, Parliament will be scheduled to formally dissolve on May 3rd, twenty-five working days before the election. We will now enter a period of ‘wash up’, where legislation currently sitting at an advanced stage on Parliament’s books will either be wrapped up and receive Royal Assent, or be lost to the dustbin of legislative history. 

One of these Bills is, of course, the Higher Education and Research Bill, which is still awaiting consideration by the Commons of the amendments made to it by the House of Lords (so-called ‘ping pong’). This debate was expected to take place in the coming two weeks.

There is still time to ensure that the Bill is passed into statute, under the right political conditions:

  • Conservative MPs will need to fall in line for the expected government three-line whip on international students and TEF. There was some speculation over the weekend that a rebellion was on the cards, but this seems much less likely with an election looming and the Prime Minister expected to be triumphant. 
  • The Lords will need to assent to their amendments being rejected by the Commons. This was expected before the election announcement as peers are generally wary of overstepping their mandate. However, they are now in a more powerful position: delaying the Bill under such tight time conditions could lead to its ultimate demise. This would be an incredibly controversial move, particularly with a looming election, and the Lords have not previously shown desire to kill the Bill entirely. 

The government must be confident that neither of the above will happen, and that the Bill’s final legislative passage will be as painless as possible. 

If Conservative MPs don’t break the whip, and the Lords decide not to put up a fight, there is a good chance the Bill will quickly be wrapped up and become the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 in the next few weeks. But that doesn’t mean that other important policy developments in higher education will not be derailed.

Purdah

The pre-election period, known to us all as ‘purdah’, typically begins six weeks before the election so if nothing changes, it could kick in on 27th April. During this period, the civil service shuts down all major policy announcements and releases and other public bodies are restricted in what they can publish. 

The TEF Year 2 results were due to be announced at some time during late May or early June. Under the current timetable, these will either need to be brought forward quickly, or pushed back until after the election.

The Wonkhe offices have also been eagerly anticipating the release of full Longitudinal Education Outcomes data, detailing universities’ and subjects’ graduate’s earnings from one to ten years after study. This will almost certainly be delayed until the Summer.

Also pending is the announcement of the first chief executive of the Office for Students, which will either be imminent or pushed until after the election. 

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