Now we have a new government; it should get on with running the country. Among all the other important questions that have to be decided, the sooner we establish how our researchers can engage with EU programmes and routes for EU students and staff to come to our universities, the better for the sector. Uncertainty is destabilising and damaging, and frankly unfair, to the staff and students affected.
But the fact that this negotiation will be difficult shouldn’t be used as an excuse to shelve or delay the HE & Research Bill. It is important for democracy that the laws governing an issue should be set out clearly and (more or less) in a single place. The wonkiest of wonks might be comfortable with legislation scattered here and there among various acts, statutory instruments, guidance and fudge but most people would find it easier to understand if as much of it as possible were easy to find – in a Higher Education and Research Act 2017.
Secondly, as Gordon McKenzie argued recently, the current legislation is not only scattered but no longer fit for purpose. Hefce was set up to be a funding council distributing money to a smallish, established sector. Now that so little grant funding is left, and new providers are entering the sector, we need a different system. On the research side, the UK – now more than ever – needs a stronger and more unified voice for advocacy both within the UK and overseas. It also needs better systems for supporting inter- and multi-disciplinary research.
Thirdly, there is a great deal that’s good about the Bill: equality of opportunity is to be put at the heart of the Office for Students (OfS) and the access agenda widened to include participation; a mechanism has been identified to halt the erosion to the value of tuition fees – challenging in a period of increasing concern about the level of student debt; there will be greater recognition and reward for teaching excellence; and the dual support system will be put on a statutory footing for the first time.
Amending and improving the Bill
These reasons for supporting the proposed legislation were true before the referendum result and remain true now. Nevertheless, there are parts of the Bill that should be amended – and others that may need to be strengthened. There isn’t room to set them all out here so I have limited myself to the three most important.
The first relates to the general duties of the OfS. While we recognise that the government strongly believes that competition will drive up quality and so benefit students, we also know that the university market is different from many others. The evidence that higher education benefits the whole of society as well as individual students is well established. These benefits can sometimes best be achieved by encouraging collaboration rather than competition. Examples include outreach activity (which should prioritise raising attainment and aspiration rather than act as a recruitment tool), universities in the same region working together for local growth and local and national sharing of expensive research kit.
Similarly, while each higher education institution should offer a high-quality education to its own students, the shape of the sector as a whole also matters. The OfS should address cold spots where there is little or no local provision, identify risks to subjects such as chemistry or foreign language where some universities are closing departments and monitor the financial sustainability of the sector as a whole. As the clause setting out the general duties of the OfS will be the foundation stone on which the whole edifice is built, it is not enough that there is nothing to stop the OfS from undertaking these activities – they should have a positive obligation to do them.
Even before the latest machinery of government changes, many in the sector were concerned that the proposed regulatory landscape would mean that university teaching and research – activities that are mutually beneficial when integrated – would be overseen by two different organisations that might pull in different policy directions. This risk is magnified now that the Office for Students and UK Research & Innovation will each sit within a different department. Mitigating this risk may not require a change to the legislation – which already contains permissions and duties for OfS and UKRI to cooperate – but the sooner that DfE and the new Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy can set out convincing plans for ensuring this cooperation will work in practice, the better.
While the remit of the OfS should be expanded in these regards, in others it should be carefully limited. The Bill states that the Secretary of State should, when setting out guidance, have regard to academic freedom in matters such as the content of particular courses, the appointment of academics and the admission of students. Our second request is that the OfS itself should have the same regard to academic freedom – especially as it is likely to be at a greater distance from the sector than Hefce. For the same reason, it should be the “designated body” run by people who “represent a broad range of registered higher education providers” rather than the OfS that determine appropriate levels for both standards and quality. There are also various other places where the OfS should be reasonable in the amount of information it requests and careful that well-functioning providers are not picking up the bill for regulating underperformers.
The Bill provides an opportunity – which may not come again soon – to consider greater funding flexibility where this would be good for students. For example, compressed courses (three-year courses offered over two years) could be much better for students who work or have caring responsibilities and don’t particularly want long university holidays. The current funding regime limits fees to £9,000 per academic year. Since teaching in holidays incurs additional expense, this deters universities from running compressed courses. Our third request is that the Bill could include a carefully worded exception to the fee limit. Depending on political wriggle room, this could provide the foundation for further funding flexibilities to support higher education for people who can’t do a three-year degree in one go further down the line.
Rather than putting it on ice, in the current maelstrom of political upheaval and fast-paced reform, the Bill should instead be used as a raft to take us to calmer waters.