David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill continues to mutate, and we’ve been keeping an eye on it.

Ahead of the Report Stage in the House of Lords these are the latest government amendments that deal with higher education. Though the criminalisation of essay mills hit the headlines last week, there have been some other changes that have perhaps slipped under the radar.

The Bill itself is rapidly becoming a US-style grab-bag of spuriously related initiatives that vaguely back up the Prime Minister’s levelling up agenda – there’s no single overarching narrative and it still doesn’t set out how the Lifelong Loan Entitlement will actually work. On that one we are still waiting for the much delayed consultation before details arrive on the face of the bill on everything from module fees to access requirements – most likely some time after this month’s Budget and Spending Review. For probably the most transformative policy on post-compulsory education since the 1962 Education Act this isn’t really good enough.

Careers information in schools

Government amendments to the Bill propose that every pupil will have a “mandatory encounter” with providers or approved technical qualifications or apprenticeships – one in year 8 or 9, and one in year 10 or 11. Reading between the lines of this beefing up of the Baker Clause reeks of demand-side intervention – the thinking seems to be that people don’t do apprenticeships or whatever technical qualifications are called this week because they know much more about A levels.

The downside here is that A levels are the default route into higher education. By “default”, I don’t mean only – though it seems that in the past academic level three qualifications have been a good route into academic qualifications at higher levels, especially among more selective higher education providers.

After the years of decline since 2010, any attention paid to careers intervention is a good thing. And for many pupils, a technical or vocational route will be the right choice to progress career goals – though in all honesty a clear understanding of future life plans is rare among 14 year olds. As an exemplar of the “pick any card, no not this one” strain in current government thinking on skills and levelling up, this is hard to beat.

A shadow OfS register for private skills providers

If you wanted to be listed as a provider of skills and post-16 education – a state of affairs that will include many who also offer higher education – you need to get on a new list made by the Secretary of State. Minor amendments at this stage offer examples of the kinds of conditions that might be attached:

  • Provision of information that would support the transition of learners in the event of provider failure (learner data, course information, employer and subcontractor information…)
  • Financial information allowing an assessment of the risk of provider failure (financial statements, forecasts, audited statement, governance and assurance…)
  • “Fit and proper people” as managers
  • A student protection plan

There may also be fees for entering the list (covering only the costs of registration, without profit – a stipulation that may have ears pricking up in Nicholson House). There’s some thought about alignment or consolidation with other regulators, but this is one for mixed mode providers to keep an eye on – complying with two largely overlapping sets of requirements and making two data returns doesn’t look like much fun.

Essay mills

We covered the guts of this on the podcast. In essence under the Skills, Post-16 Education, Paperclip Procurement, Underwater Basket-weaving, and British Sausage Bill it will become a criminal offence (with a fine as punishment) to “provide, arrange, or advertise” contract cheating services for financial gain to students at any post-16 provider. This will be enforced by the Crown Prosecution Service rather than any of the education regulators, and extends only to offences committed in England and Wales as they apply to students enrolled at providers in England. There’s a commitment to work with devolved administrations, but nothing about this information superhighway thing I hear is going to revolutionise communication across national borders. Let’s hope that unscrupulous essay mill owners don’t cotton on to this loophole, eh?

It is notable that students who use these services will not be criminalised, just the service providers – DfE has been working with the CPS on this one. Likewise, there will be no additional burdens placed on providers.

OfS quality assessment

You’ll recall from our original coverage that the Skills, Post-16 Education, Sporty, Baby, Scary, Ginger and Posh Bill also includes a section explicitly permitting the Office for Students to use absolute as well as benchmarked data in making assessments of the quality of higher education provision. We’re still waiting for the results of the Office for Students’ “Quality and Standards” stage two consultation though we are told that the results of the three stage consultation process will not affect the bill – the OfS gets these powers whether it is agreed they will use them or not. Phase three, with minimum numerical baselines no less, will be released in November.

Other amendments of interest

Unlike in the Commons, the Lords’ Report Stage of a Bill is often an interesting process – members can put forward any amendments they wish, including those already suggested at an earlier stage. On the first day of this stage these will likely include local skills plans including support for measures to address climate change and other environmental goals, a list of employment areas that must be included, and the vexed question of the role of Mayoral Combined Authorities.

The Liberal Democrats still, mystifyingly, want to make “Skills Wallets” a thing. There are various calls to review various bits of legislation after they have been running for a few years, and attempt to give BTECs (due otherwise to be abolished) a four year stay of execution while T-levels bed in.

There are calls to give the Office for Students more responsibilities around ensuring that students have access to mental health support. Notably, Labour are keen to broaden Lifelong Loan Entitlements to all students regardless of prior qualification – a point raised by Jo Johnson earlier in the proceedings. Similarly, Labour wants to give the Secretary of State power to make regulations about credit transfer in higher education. And we all want more detail on maintenance loans.

Frankenstein’s Bill

The Post-16 Education, Skills, and Mrs Joyful Prize for Raffia Work Bill is a perfect example of what happens when Bills are introduced to parliament too early. We do not benefit from parliamentary scrutiny when most of the policy is not actually on the face of the bill – either to be added at an endlessly delayed later date or to be set only in secondary legislation.

Though the impetus for Lifelong Loan Entitlement comes from number 10, the generally shambolic nature of the proposed legislation has all the hallmarks of the Williamson regime. DfE currently has two very badly designed bills going through parliament, something that needs to rise to the top of Nadhim Zahawi’s in-tray quite quickly.

Read more:

Marshalled list of amendments as of 11.10.2021

Supplementary policy notes (October 2021)

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