When wonkery came to Westminster

After the EU referendum and the resulting political instability there were in the higher education sector who thought this day would never come. Months of work by BIS officials, not to mention pages and pages of consultation responses, commentary, and arguments over the Green Paper and subsequent White Paper; for a brief moment all of this sound and fury really might have signified nothing.

Yet the Higher Education and Research Bill was unexpectedly scheduled for a second reading in this final week of the Parliamentary session. Brexit has not killed the Bill, to the relief of many sector leaders who, whilst concerned about many of the Bill’s more proposals, have been crying out for a coherent regulatory framework for higher education since 2010.

Yet Brexit has still managed to overshadow what otherwise might have been relatively significant public, parliamentary and media interest in the Bill and in higher education more generally. In recent months we’ve gained a real appreciation of how events can simply overtake higher education and push it down the political agenda. And so it was with yesterday’s debate.

First, the debate was delayed due to a series of urgent questions on last weekend’s attempted coup in Turkey. Indeed, during the course of the debate emerged of the Turkish government’s purge of hundreds of university staff. Suddenly, British academics’ qualms about the Office for Students being a threat to academic freedom seemed somewhat trivial.

Secondly, the sparse attendance by MPs reflected just how the finer details of higher education regulation are still low down on parliament’s figurative agenda, if not its formal one. Brexit still overshadows everything, not to mention the coming Labour leadership campaign. In fact, many of the MPs debating the Bill devoted significant time in their speeches not to the Bill’s contents, but to imploring ministers to address the sector’s ongoing worries about EU withdrawal.

There was a sea of green space on the Commons’ benches, but by my rough count there were at least forty MPs present at peak times and well over twenty for most of the five and a half hours of long, hot, and occasionally quite dry debating. Indeed, for even the most keenly interested higher education follower, the contributions were all too often dull and uninteresting, to put it politely. This is not entirely unusual for a Bill of this nature, and the Commons quickly filled up just before 7pm as the whips rounded up members for the vote. The government, as expected, won easily, with the Bill passing on to the committee stage with 294 votes for and 258 votes against.

In the beginning

The new Education Secretary Justine Greening had barely two working days to familiarise herself with the contents of the Bill and White Paper and the broader intricacies of higher education policy. She has had to do this whilst her senior advisors and officials in the Department for Education have also become acquainted with the new legislation as former BIS staffers cross the street to their new offices. Consequently, Greening stuck closely to her prepared script in beginning the debate. When quizzed by intervening MPs, Jo Johnson could be heard whispering answers in Greening’s ear as if he were helping her cheat in an exam. Greening did a very effective job of filling forty-five minutes without saying anything new and steering well clear of some of the more intelligent questions on the Bill’s details, saying these would be a matter for the Bill committee.

Responding for Labour, shadow cabinet survivor Gordon Marsden made a speech quite befitting of a former lecturer. He listed a number of known criticisms of the TEF, and also devoted substantial time to criticising the government’s record on FE and skills, which is known to be his prime passion. Marsden also delivered the only line that Labour MPs appeared to have got organised on: that the uncertainty caused by Brexit should lead to the Bill being paused and revised. This echoed recent calls by UUK for delay of the TEF until Brexit has been negotiated.

Backbench lectures

We were then treated to a succession of fifteen minute speeches from backbenchers. Conservative members appeared to be well whipped and briefed in repeating the government’s top-line arguments, though some took the time to go a little off-piste. Mark Field, MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, and longtime advisor to the private London School of Commerce, decided to take a pop at the “left leaning cadre of vice chancellors” who were opposing market expansion. Left leaning vice chancellors – no, that is not a typo.

Also on the Tory benches, Rebecca Pow and Jo Churchill boasted of their education wonk credentials by invoking their experiences as mothers of recent or current students, though some might have felt that the “as a mother” line would cut a little close to the bone after Andrea Leadsom’s recent faux-pas.

It pains me to say that the most interesting contribution from a Conservative backbencher came from Michael Gove, who clearly enjoyed making a nuisance of himself throughout the afternoon, free of the burdens of government. Gove constantly teased and poked the opposing Labour and SNP members, and took them to task in his speech by bemoaning Labour’s lack of lack of “policy vitality” and the SNP’s record on widening access in Scotland. The former Education Secretary is clearly not short of opinions on higher education – indeed, he is not short of opinions on anything – and whilst clearly regretting that he had not been able to claw universities back into DfE during his own time there, was full of praise for Jo Johnson for being a “listening, pragmatic and empirical steward of his responsibilities”. Gove was full of praise for the TEF, and also expressed his wish that more universities would be involved in setting up new free schools.

On the Labour benches, we got an insight into where interested MPs might seek to make amendments to the Bill in the coming committee stage. David Lammy tore into several Russell Group institutions for their record on widening access, whilst Stella Creasy argued for faster progress on Sharia compliant student loans and a ‘Student Bill of Rights’. Both Creasy and Wes Streeting argued for reserved student representation in the Office for Students, and Streeting was joined by the SNP’s Carol Monaghan in calling for new transparency duties to be extended beyond access to student outcomes and attainment. Liam Byrne has grown a beard since we last saw him in HE – leaving the shadow universities brief can’t have been that bad surely? – and took us all back a year by invoking the “fragility of the Ponzi scheme that now underpins” student loans.

The respective MPs for Oxford East and Cambridge, Labour’s Andrew Smith and Daniel Zeichner, were clearly well briefed by their constituencies’ ancient institutions. Smith argued for UKRI to be given specific responsibility to “provide for postgraduate research education and training” and expressed alarm at the OfS being given responsibility for assessment of standards and the ability to revoke established universities’ status. Both Zeichner and Smith expressed concerns about the integration of the research councils into UKRI, whilst Zeichner advocated a “stronger commitment” to preserving dual funding than that current in the Bill. Expect to hear similar arguments from Oxbridge alumni in the Lords.

Meanwhile, Conservative’s Iain Stewart, MP for Milton Keynes South and thoroughly briefed by the Open University, spoke extensively about part-time and adult higher education. Indeed, listening to MPs contributions, one could be fooled into thinking that the whole of Westminster has made part-time, flexible and adult higher and further education a top political priority, and that the Bill and White Paper dealt extensively with such issues. We can only dream. Still, Stewart made two suggestions for amendments in committee: that the OfS be given a statutory duty to commit to part-time and adult higher education, and that such providers be represented on the OfS board.

To the other place

The debate was concluded by Labour’s Angela Rayner, who tried to rouse her somewhat reluctant backbenchers with a rousing speech straight off the UCU-NUS copybook, bemoaning privatisation, casual contracts and the coming tuition fees increases. Finally, after a long, hot afternoon, Jo Johnson could claim credit for two things: sitting alone on the government front bench throughout the whole thing, and safely manoeuvring his Bill beneath the Brexit turmoil before the summer recess. Whatever one thinks of Johnson’s reforms, here’s hoping he treated himself to a cold drink in the evening.

So what did we learn? In one sense, not a great deal. If Labour continues to be tied up by internal battles, the party will muster little effective opposition to the Bill. Marsden and Rayner, despite nominally being on the same team, looked completely uncoordinated in their lines, whilst individual backbenchers have taken it upon themselves to identify opportunities for amendment and lines of attack.

Nonetheless, with opposition to the Bill no longer the opportunity for picking a political fight that it was before Brexit, sector lobbyists might find some openings at the committee stage to make sensible amendments. Mark Field indicated a willingness to reexamine the relaxing of criteria for degree awarding powers and university status, and several Labour MPs look set to take this forward also. Despite not commanding much public attention, there is a small band of MPs from both sides of the house who take a deep interest in higher education whom the sector can rely upon.

Still, as expected, most of the real action will probably take place in what MPs like to call “the other place”, where higher education’s old guard look set to take the Bill much more thoroughly to task.

The full text of the debate can be read in Hansard here.

The following MPs spoke during the debate (40 total):

Conservative: Justine Greening (Putney); Michael Gove (Surrey Heath); Rebecca Pow (Taunton Dean); Jo Churchill (Bury St Edmunds); Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster); Mike Wood (Dudley South); Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase); James Cleverly (Braintree); Neil Carmichael (Stroud); Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South); Hugo Swire (East Devon); Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford); Michelle Donelan (Chippenham); Ben Howlett (Bath); Jo Johnson (Orpington).

Labour: Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South); Gloria De Piero (Ashfield); Wes Streeting (Ilford North); Liam Byrne (Birmingham Hodge Hill); Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish); Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central); Stella Creasy (Walthamstow); Jim Cunningham (Coventry South); Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West); Andrew Smith (Oxford East); David Lammy (Tottenham); Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield); Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central); Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge); Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton); Angela Rayner (Ashton-under-Lyne); Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central).

SNP: Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West); Roger Mullin (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath); Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire); Patrick Grady (Glasgow North).

Liberal Democrat: John Pugh (Southport).

Plaid Cymru: Jonathan Edwards (Camarthen East and Dinefwr).

Ulster Unionist Party: Tom Elliott (Fermanagh and South Tyrone).

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