Now with a bang, but with a quietly murmured “content”. The Higher Education and Research Act (2017), as of five minutes past two today, confirmed in all but name.
Later in the afternoon, the grandly titled ‘Royal Assent’ brought a little more fanfare with it, the announcement being made at the prorogation ceremony in Norman French. La Reyne le veult, apparently. Let it never be said that our legislative process doesn’t create indifference by obfuscation.
We are sure there was considerably more excitement (or perhaps just exhaustion) when the Department for Education and BEIS bill team dragged itself to the pub. We wish them well.
“It represents the most important legislation for the sector in 25 years”, opined Viscount Younger, concluding the final sequence of debate in the upper chamber. Given the likely election outcome, the 2017 Act will be the legislative basis for all higher education activity for a long time to come. Let’s remind ourselves of what it does:
- A new regulator and funding council for universities, entitled the Office for Students, will be set up next year. OfS will hold the statutory responsibility for quality and standards, approve new entrants to the sector by managing the Register of Higher Education Providers, and also the awarding of university title and degree awarding powers.
- The OfS will be empowered to make arrangements for assessing of the quality of teaching in universities, in an exercise currently branded as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). TEF is already underway (results to be released in June), and currently will rate universities as Gold, Silver or Bronze. It will be reviewed independently by the end of 2019.
- Until 2020, the government is expected to allow tuition fees to increase by the rate of inflation for universities participating in TEF and meeting minimum eligibility requirements. After 2020, this can be linked to results in the TEF.
- The OfS will be able to designate an independent body to carry out its statutory duties in relation to quality and standards.
- The OfS will incorporate the functions of the Office for Fair Access. Universities will be required to publish information on the fairness of their admissions, and also information that could be considered “helpful to international students”. The OfS will also have powers in relation to monitoring the financial sustainability of higher education providers, and improving their efficiency.
- Universities will now be able to charge higher annual fees for courses that are taught over a shorter period of time, also known as ‘accelerated degrees’. The Student Finance Company will now be enabled to make alternative methods of financing available for those unable to take out students loans, particularly for those who require ‘Sharia-compliant’ finance.
- The seven research councils, Innovate UK, and the research functions of HEFCE, will be brought under a “single strategic research body”: UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The research councils will maintain their existing composition within UKRI, but be subject to a single accounting officer. They will continue their existing duties, with added responsibility for interdisciplinary collaboration. A new body, Research England, will be responsible for quality-related (QR) research funding.
Wonkhe has followed the adventures of this particular legislation through thick and thin, full of legislative drama and drudgery. You can learn more about the Bill, its implications, and its legislative journey in the links below.