Tomorrow afternoon twenty rather exhausted MPs will complete the work of the Higher Education and Research Bill Public Bill Committee – the most detailed phase so far of the Bill’s legislative journey.
After many hours and what will have been fourteen sessions considering roughly 250 amendments, the Bill will move onto the Report stage and a Third Reading in the full Commons Chamber. With two sessions to go tomorrow, the MPs have currently waded their way through 82 of the Bill’s 113 clauses. They might just make it through all of them!
So what has all this investment of time and effort of not only MPs, but their staff, parliamentary and governmental officials, and those organisations who submitted evidence to the committee achieved? On the face of it, not a great deal.
The Bill will make its way out of Committee looking very similar to how it did upon entering. Aside from a small number of technical and drafting amendments proposed by Jo Johnson himself, nothing has changed in the text of the Bill as yet. The Labour opposition, led by Gordon Marsden, Angela Rayner, Roberta Blackman-Woods, Wes Streeting and Paul Blomfield, quickly found themselves up against a tight Conservative whip. Forcing divisions on their amendments proved to be futile.
For some, this has been very frustrating. Streeting went as far to describe the Committee as a “supreme waste of time” at a conference a few weeks ago. Others have felt similar, given the government’s apparent refusal to consider accepting those opposition amendments that many across the political spectrum would consider reasonable and concurrent with the government’s aims. Few seriously believed that Labour members might stop the government’s headline policies, such as TEF, increasing tuition fees, and opening up entry into the sector. Nonetheless, Johnson has risked appearing reluctant to accept even rather constructive feedback.
Yet this is hardly unusual in Public Bill Committees. The nature of the UK’s adversarial and ancient parliamentary system makes it difficult, and rare, for governments to take any backward steps on legislation. To accept an opposition amendment is to accept defeat. Furthermore, Johnson’s total domination of the debate from the Conservative side underlined how Tory MPs have relatively little interest in troubling the government on the dry matter of higher education regulation.
Despite the whetted interests of us at Wonkhe in the broader scheme of UK political life, and especially right now, the Higher Education and Research Bill is pretty boring. The dry nature of the Committee discussions and the opposition’s struggle for any traction was always likely due to the nature of the legislation, which is primarily a reform to a regulatory framework.
Many of Labour’s ‘constructive’ proposals were evidently presented at the behest of universities, learned societies, UCU and NUS. They represented the pockets of the sector that are nervous about how the new regulatory environment will operate and fear that the Bill’s language will enable the government to run roughshod over the sector’s much cherished ‘autonomy’, or that a Conservative administration cannot possibly be serious about widening access and therefore more legislation is required to make it so. Proposed amendments included tweaking or refining the roles and responsibilities of the OfS, UKRI, and the government, or ensuring that various interests are going to be represented, including students, higher education staff, and different disciplines. Such tweaks are unlikely to provoke a governing party’s backbenchers to irk their superiors by breaking the whip.
Johnson’s objections to many of Labour’s amendments was primarily based on the wish to avoid being “prescriptive” in the legislation. The minister argued that “the Bill as drafted will deliver the policy intent that the hon. Gentleman [Marsden] wants” and that he would take on board some of the concerns raised by MPs across the aisle. Johnson’s objections to being prescriptive were perhaps influenced just as much by his officials, who may have been relieved that the legislation would burden them or their colleagues with further duties to “consult”, “report”, “ensure” in various ways.
Leading for the opposition, Marsden occasionally seemed exasperated by Johnson’s approach, arguing that “the minister has a slightly more expansive view of what the Bill allows or expects to do than perhaps we do”, and that he was being asked “yet again to trust in the sentiment of what his department has done”.
That “trust”, or lack thereof, in the “sentiment” of the government is precisely the cause of some of the sector’s nervousness – fundamental objections to the TEF, fees, and other matters notwithstanding – about some of the finer points of the Bill’s language.
Johnson and his officials will need to go out of their way to earn such trust from across the sector following the assurances that the minister tried to give in committee, which were at least enough to satisfy the Labour MPs opposite him. On OfS subscription fees, academic freedom, the independence of the research councils, and the position of the Director for Fair Access, the minister is asking stakeholders to believe the government is acting in good faith, and that the sector’s concerns will be better dealt with through non-legislative means.
A document outlining the governing principles for UKRI, released last week by BEIS and DfE, might be an example of such non-legislative means, and as the details emerge of how the new regulatory system will function, the sector may find that far less is actually changing than they originally feared.
However, for the next few years at least, higher education organisations are in a nervous regulatory limbo, aware that the comfortable old ways will change but not quite sure how. In many ways, the government’s position is reasonable: not everything can simply be legislated for, and if a matter is to be etched in law, perhaps it is better than government lawyers run through it first.
So if the Johnson does return with new tweaks to the Bill that take on the best of the opposition’s submissions, perhaps the Commons Committee stage will not have been such a waste of time after all. But the ball is very much in the minister’s court. And with the Lords’ scrutiny looking like it’ll be a far rougher ride for the government, where it faces a minority and some anxious eminences grise of universities, he may have little choice but to be more conciliatory in the weeks and months ahead.