Prudence and privilege in the HE Bill debate

Source: Hansard Society

Recent commentary on the Higher Education and Research Bill has been as contradictory as it has been confusing. Critics of the legislative project have found themselves claiming that universities are being both “nationalised by stealth” and also “privatised” and “commercialised“. The Bill will at once make universities cave in to “snowflake” student demands and simultaneously create mass student discontent by increasing their fees.

Our pages have not been empty of criticism of the Higher Education and Research Bill – there is a great deal about the legislation that needs to be properly scrutinised and critiqued from as many different voices as possible. Wonkhe contributors have called the new regulatory framework “big, bossy and bureaucratic“, a “chain“, and reflective of an “astonishing level of resentment against the history and autonomy of the established sector”. Critics of the Bill have both defended universities’ existing autonomy and criticised it.

Several aspects of the Bill show worrying features of badly thought-out policy (using the framework of the late, great Anthony King) and the White Paper and subsequent policy announcements are based upon multiple category errors (using the framework of the late, great David Watson). TEF in particular looks like a solution looking for a problem and is unclear about what it is trying to achieve: student choice or improved quality? Further expansion of poorly regulated private providers with public funds looks like a National Audit Office investigation waiting to happen, and the risks involved in the private sector’s rapid expansion seem to far outweigh the likely gains from a small number of innovative new providers in London teaching a very small number of students.

Nonetheless, some of the commentary is clearly running away with itself.

Realpolitik

After defeat in the Lords a fortnight ago Jo Johnson was doubtlessly feeling frustrated. Johnson, for his own part, has stumbled into a potential political omnishambles and appears to have alienated independent-minded commentators and peers on both his right and left, including some who have been long-time advisors to his department (such as Baroness Wolf), and we can even detect some reticence from one of his predecessors (Lord Willetts).

The minister appears to have done himself few favours by refusing to consider opposition amendments (at least without any form of backdoor government revision). As Lord Stevenson, Labour’s HE lead in the House of Lords told Wonkhe: “I think everyone involved, apart from the Minister, is disappointed but not surprised at the lack of willingness on the part of the government to signal areas where they are prepared to make changes to improve the Bill”.

His colleague Lord Watson agrees: “[T]he Lords Minister will find a way to dismiss [these] in much the same entrenched manner as he has done with many of the 200 amendments considered so far in Committee”.

Of course, much of the criticism of the Bill is merely the stuff of politics. There are those who simply want to derail any government legislative project whatever the cost, for perfectly intelligible political – rather than policy – reasons. The Labour Lords will have liaised with some of their colleagues from the back benches of the Commons who were frustrated in their own amendment attempts when the Bill was in the Commons. And with the current government looking electorally secure for the foreseeable future, there are those who simply wish to check its power.

Yet to say that Jo Johnson wants to either nationalise or privatise universities is absurd, and perhaps underlines just how useless these terms are for describing the Bill. If Johnson and Viscount Younger work hard to bring forward a set of compromise amendments and can still not satisfy the sector’s representative peers, then things could get difficult for the government.

There is a very real risk that the way the sector has ‘rolled out’ it’s heavyweights in the Lords to protect its privilege will only backfire in the long-run. Private Eye’s coverage of the Lord’s debate was instructive, highlighting the extensive connections that many peers have with the universities they are trying to preserve: it is not a good look. Parallels could be drawn with the Lords who repeatedly blocked the wishes of the lower house over the Hunting Act in 2004.

Prudence and privilege

It has become too easy for the government to declare that it is fighting a ‘cartel’ of privilege that will not accept any reform. The Conservatives look set to be lords of Whitehall for some time, and Jo Johnson and Justine Greening are rising stars who could find themselves in even greater positions of power in years to come. So for universities’ own sake, the Bill should not be completely derailed by virtue of the sector’s excellent connections in the House of Lords; Ministers would not forget such intransigence.

The leaders of the peers’ revolt now carry a great deal of responsibility and would do well to find a compromise solution with Johnson and Younger. The aim should be to amend the legislation by keeping the best and removing the most problematic clauses. Steeling for a fight in a dramatic Report stage, with the government concerned about losing momentum or running out of parliamentary time, could result in a disproportionately ugly fight for the issues that are at stake.

Claiming ‘nationalisation’ and constantly picking at ‘autonomy’ may have won universities the current battle, but it is vital they now turn their thoughts to an acceptable resolution to the war.

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