An actual Higher Education Bill is just the main feature in a cavalcade of legislative delights we can look forward to in the 2022-23 Westminster parliamentary session.
Higher Education Bill
It was hardly a secret that aspects of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), and some of the proposals in the funding reform consultation, would need (or benefit strongly from) primary legislation to implement. I’m not sure anyone was expecting the resulting plans to bear the Higher Education Bill name (familiar to the sector from the 2003-04 session as the bill that brought us the scaffolding for variable student fees and OFFA, and as the bill that wasn’t in 2012), but it does tell us very clearly where to look.
Wonkhe covered the LLE consultation and HE reform consultation when they came out, and because both closed to responses as recently as 6 May we are not likely to be looking at draft legislation (or impact assessments) for a while yet. It is possible other measures could be added (in the same way that the Skills and Post-16 Education Act grew clauses on essay mills and OfS defamation immunity during passage) as a result of the post-legislative review of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.
Expect plenty of heat in the chamber over the regressive impact of lengthening repayment terms and scrapping interest rates, mixed in (hopefully) with some pointed questions on LLE implementation and eligibility. There’s some pointed language in the briefing document about:
[tackling] uncontrolled growth of low-quality courses by taking specific powers to control numbers of students entering higher education at specific providers in England
…that sounds a lot like powers OfS already has (though that require OfS to have regard to institutional autonomy on admissions).
And, as with all higher education related bills, the depth of experience on the red benches of the Lords will be more likely to result in meaningful changes than debate in the Commons.
Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions Bill
The government feels strongly that public bodies should not be running their own foreign policy – a manifesto commitment that is addressed via this proposal. This narrowly defined legislation is aimed primarily at bodies that decided to boycott countries for ethical or moral reasons that go beyond government policy – noting that such actions “overwhelmingly” target the state of Israel and could constitute antisemitism.
Public bodies would be prohibited from independent boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against countries or territories, addressing the sale of goods from such countries or territories, and against firms that trade with such countries or territories.
One example given is of a students union holding a vote on blocking the formation of a Jewish student society – despite the fact that the vote was a standard approval ballot on a proposal to form a Jewish society at the University of Essex SU, and it was duly approved (though some students voted against). An unnerving example of a complex chain of democratic events being incorrectly represented to justify legislation.
Draft Digital Markets, Competition, and Consumers Bill
It’s a stretch, but this draft legislation – promising to make markets for consumer goods and services more competitive and dynamic – may end up being what long running campaigners about the costs of ebooks to universities were waiting for. The long trailed advent of the Digital Markets Unit (DMU) means that there will be a regulator able to take actions to ensure that participants in “strategic markets” cannot abuse monopoly and near monopoly positions “at the expense of consumers and other businesses.” There’s nothing here specifically on ebooks, but this draft bill represents a new campaigning and lobbying opportunity that could result in real change.
Bill of Rights
Before the unexpected sparing of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill it was widely anticipated (a feeling backed up by Dominic Raab’s comments on the possible content of this bill) that sector-centric measures to secure freedom of speech on campus would be rolled into a wider public duty that would apply in all aspects of life.
The briefing (which, again, is all we have to go on at the moment) is full of language about “promoting greater confidence in society to express views freely” and “curbing the incremental expansion of a rights culture without proper democratic oversight,” though quite how this meshes with “guaranteeing spurious cases do not undermine public confidence in human rights” remains to be seen.
If the name of this bill is familiar, that’s because a “British Bill of Rights” has been under active discussion since Theresa May was in the Home Office. It didn’t happen then, and there has to be at least a fair-to-middling case for suspecting it won’t happen now.
Renters Reform Bill and Social Housing Regulation Bill
Two bills aimed at addressing the mess that is the rented accommodation market, and although neither directly address student renters based on the briefing note we have the path is clear, should the government be so minded, to extend the protections in either bill to sort out student accommodation too.
The Social Housing Regulation Bill strengthens the case for regulatory intervention with landlords who are performing poorly on providing decent homes and handling complaints, including an inspection regime and a tenant satisfaction survey, and the ability to levy uncapped fines.
The Renters Reform Bill abolishes “no-fault” evictions, establishes a “decent homes” standard, and makes it easier for renters to challenge landlords on rent increases and poor practice. In return, landlords get stronger rights to repossession in the case of rent arrears and anti-social behaviour. Both will benefit from an ombuds service.
There’s a white paper to come for reforms to the private rented sector, which strikes us as a golden opportunity to lobby to ensure that student renters (both in the private and institutionally run sectors) can also benefit from these new rights.
Public Order Bill
Students who get involved in demonstrations could face a raft of new offences under this proposed legislation – including the action of or intention to “lock on” to others, objects, or buildings to cause disruption, and getting in the way of major transport works or key national infrastructure (such as airports, railways, and – oddly – printing presses). Police would gain new stop and search powers and Serious Disruption Prevention Orders aimed at frequent protestors.
Draft Protect Duty Bill
This bill deals with reducing the risk from terrorism in public places, and seems designed to address instances like the attack at the Manchester Arena. Universities and students’ unions own and operate indoor spaces that are often open to the public, and during the passage of this bill we should be alive to the possibility that new duties could be placed on the way these spaces are run.
Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill
A local levy on industry will support developments that communities need, with the examples of schools, GP surgeries, and roads given. It’s not clear how liability for this levy will be established – or whether local further or higher education provision could be one of the beneficiaries.
Local authorities will be given powers to bring empty premises back into use via rental auctions of empty properties in town centres and high streets – something that may give universities contemplating expanding campuses in these areas some thought.
And residents will get a say in changing street names. In all honesty this is rather thin stuff given even the limited nature of the levelling up white paper.
Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill
Sitting uncomfortably in the section of the speech on “Providing the leadership needed in challenging times” the bill looks to remain as it was in September 2021 following the Commons committee stage.
In a packed legislative programme, and alongside an actual Higher Education Bill that will require some serious bill team resources, it would be entirely possible to see a world in which a bill without buy-in from the Secretary of State fails to pass again. With the exception of the new tort (the David Irving Bus Fare Levy) and the messy proposed complaints regime the entire content of the bill would be possible to implement via instructions to the Office for Students – so we have to conclude that this legislation has totemic power far in advance of the limited changes to the law it would bring about.
Online Safety Bill
This one also returns from last session, and still conflicts with the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill in a number of interesting ways that we’re sure the government is completely on top of.