The delight that is the prorogation ceremony – silly hats, dull speeches, Norman French and all – signals the end of a parliamentary session, and with it formalises Royal Assent for a number of Acts of Parliament.
We’ve covered much of this session’s legislation as it passed through (or failed to pass through, in the case of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill) the various stages of parliamentary scrutiny – but it makes sense to gather in one place the changes to the law made during 2021-22 that affect the higher education sector.
Here’s what the second full parliamentary sitting (well, technically the third, but let’s not get into that particular bit of constitutional vandalism) of the Johnson administration has achieved for students, universities, and the people who work in the sector.
The Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022
Some Acts of Parliament have a single animating purpose or narrative, addressing clearly and succinctly a particular set of policy issues that can clearly be seen as a convincing whole.
The Skills and Post-16 Education Act is not one of these, despite arguments to the contrary. It does not form the centrepiece of a skills revolution – rather it is a grab bag of only very vaguely connected issues and consequential amendments of other acts. The initially promised detail of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement and associated measures will instead form the centrepiece of a new bill following the conclusion of a currently live consultation (deadline: May 6).
So what are we left with? The vestigial remains of the original LLE-focused intention of the Bill – the measures that allow ministers to specify a lifetime limit on the amount of funding available to an individual through the LLE, and a definition of the word “module” for fee limit purposes are inserted into the 1998 Teaching and Higher Education Act, while the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act gains a cap on the ability of the Office for Students to request transparency information on modules of full courses (sections 15 and 16).
The Office for Students gains two important new powers:
- Section 18 amends HERA 2017 to make it clear OfS is allowed to use absolute (non-benchmarked) measures of student outcomes to assess the quality of higher education – language that will underpin the OfS’ response to the B3 consultation that is surely due any day now. This legitimises something the OfS had been doing (and was slapped down in court for doing) anyway.
- Section 24 (added during Commons Consideration of Lords’ Amendments!) allows OfS to publish information – specifically on investigations it is conducting into particular providers – without fear of being done for defamation. The regulator needs to balance student interests in making such declarations, and it is fair to assume that OfS can now freely publish stuff like the fact they are investigating the University of Sussex (for example) rather than having it announced under parliamentary privilege in the House of Lords.
Notably, the Higher Education quality debate has now entered the sphere of criminal law – as of commencement (two months after the day of Royal Assent) an offence (ss26-30) to operate or promote a “cheating service” (read “essay mill” or similar) in England. Skills Minister Alex Burghart has celebrated this forthcoming milestone by taking to the DfE “Education Hub” Blog to ask internet service providers to crack down on advertising “illegal” essay mills.
Other measures of note include the inception of the Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs), skills needs for a defined area (including a definition of what that area is) drawn up by local employers and used to steer the provision of courses from local FE and Skills providers. HE isn’t directly affected – but given that HE providers provide a lot more than just HE these plans will be very carefully examined by universities and others with aspirations to play a civic role.
The passage of the Bill generated a lot of concern about the fate of BTEC qualifications, now out of favour with the new and shiny T levels on the ascendancy.
Wonkhe has written a lot about the passage of this Act – all collected for you here.
The Advanced Research and Invention Agency Act 2022
We got a whole new research funding agency – and although it is well supplied with funding it lacks some of the more traditional accoutrements of such an agency : a chair, a chief executive, board members, staff, a website, a mechanism for people to apply to it.
The idea originally came from the desk of Dominic Cummings, and formed around an idealistic picture of what some people fondly believe (D)ARPA was like in the golden years of the mid to late 1960s. It has been created to fund risky but potentially groundbreaking research with a significant chance of failure, and is not constrained by external priorities or the need to provide detailed information on its activities. The agency is deliberately designed with the minimum of oversight and accountability, with strategic and funding decisions entirely the purview of the expert staff (see above) employed by the agency. Even the ability to close the thing down is subject to a ten year moratorium set out in the Act.
We wrote a lot about this Act as it passed through the Commons and Lords, often employing clever puns due to ARIA sounding a bil like “area”.
Those, along with the ill-starred Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – carried forward to the next session after an unheard-of 7 months without parliamentary progress – constituted the main aspects of legislation we had an eye on this year, but there are a couple of other things to take note of.
Section 90 of this act provides that for “higher-risk” buildings a resident’s engagement strategy (drawing together residents in contributing to decisions about building safety. Every resident of a residential unit in the building (and every owner of such a residential unit) who is aged 16 or over should get a copy of this engagement strategy. Conversely, residents get a duty to behave in ways that do not create a significant building safety risk – in particular interfering with “relevant safety items”.
Residents also get the ability to request information about building safety from the responsible person, and people responsible for high risk buildings need to institute a complaints mechanism for concerns about building safety.
None of this, as you’ve spotted, directly mentions students in halls of residence, but all of this would apply in those circumstances – something that universities that own or run their own halls, and private landlords of halls of residence, will need to be aware of.
Post-Brexit, there was some tidying-up to do about the way professional qualifications from overseas would be recognised for those wishing to practice in the UK. This act gives professional bodies the right to make these determinations (of equivalence to UK requirements) for the purpose of registration or permission to practice where there is a demand for the professions or skills in question.
Professional bodies also got the right to enter into regulator recognition agreements – thus allowing UK qualifications to be recognised overseas. And there will be an “advice centre” to help everyone make sense of all this.
All this is tied to the revocation of the European Union (Recognition of Professional Qualifications) 2015 – this revocation (and those of other retained EU law in this area) are provided for in the Act.
And don’t forget
The Elections Bill means all voters in Britain will be forced to show ID at polling stations from next year, making it harder to get the student vote out, and in student demo news the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill allows police to impose restrictions on marches whose “noise” could cause “serious disruption” to a nearby organisation – while someone “residing on land” while causing noise that damages the environment could be committing an offence.