No less an authority than Erskine May describes the Commons second reading as “the first important stage through which the bill is required to pass; its whole principle is at issue, and is affirmed or denied by the House”.
The second reading of the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill was, in contrast, primarily a mechanism for the government to fill time before the Prime Minister’s statement on the Windsor Framework.
Though offputtingly technical, the measures in the current bill are every bit as transformational as the 2004 Higher Education Act, or the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act. Older readers will recall the packed benches and breathless coverage of the debates on those bills at that point – and compare the sparsely populated green benches we saw yesterday.
Clearly higher education funding reform isn’t the box office draw it used to be.
It’s likely that the almost entire absence of anything that could be considered policy on the face of the bill had put prospective contributors off. As we’ve been over on the site before, the lifelong learning bill is simply a set of modifications to existing legislation, granting the secretary of state a range of new powers to set funding eligibility and fee limits at a greater resolution than ever before.
Or as Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Munira Wilson put it:
Parliament is meant to debate and approve the policy framework and then let the regulations deal with the technical details. This Bill does the opposite—it sets out the mechanism through which an LLE will be delivered without setting out any of the major policy decisions about how it will work.
Much of the policy hinges on the government’s response to last February’s consultation on the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. Nearly 10 months on, all we have is a promise that the response will be published by report stage – thus will be unavailable for both the high level policy debate meant to happen at second reading and the detailed scrutiny you would expect at committee stage.
Indeed, with the report and third reading crammed into one single day in the Commons, it is unlikely that MPs will get any meaningful change to debate the way the LLE will work – who is eligible, will student support be available, will equivalent level qualifications (ELQs) be permitted, and for that matter how much it will all cost – at all. This is, frankly, shameful – I’m not even convinced the Speaker would rule this approach to be in order.
Will this do?
With a good few hours to fill before Rishi’s big moment the majority of speeches came from the conservative back benches, allowing members to bloviate at length about their own experience of, or feelings about, lifelong learning. Very little of this had any connection to the measures nominally under discussion.
So it fell to shadow higher education minister Matt Western, Munira Wilson, and Education Committee Chair Robin Walker to attempt to critique what was on offer – all three called on the government several times to commit to at least publish the consultation response before committee stage began.
Western noted that a huge range of powers were being delegated to the Secretary of State to be exercised via secondary legislation. He pushed the government to put the definition of a “credit” on the face of the bill – although Halfon’s response was that it wanted to keep this as a standards-related sector definition, despite also being responsible for a regulator who is trying to ensure that it does not.
In the minister’s words:
The Government feels that the number of learning hours in a credit is an area that should continue to be governed from a quality standards perspective, rather than from a fee limits perspective, and we have legislated accordingly. In the Bill, the credits are used to signify the total amount of learning time that a student would ordinarily be expected to spend to complete a particular course or part of a course. However, I can assure both spokespeople that further details on the number of learning hours associated with credits will be set out in the regulations.
Munira Wilson went in hard on the attractiveness of the loan system to the kinds of learners it was meant to benefit – noting the failure of the pilot (thirty-three!) to demonstrate this, and polling that suggests that the notion of debt was off-putting to mature learners. We didn’t get an answer on this critical demand issue, nor on the continuing absence of a sharia-compliant loan system (regularly promised since 2010).
Both touched on the issue of equivalent level qualifications – if you’ve already done a degree or a HND would have a lifelong loan entitlement to go back and do something else? That’s one for the consultation. Both touched on regulation – given the convoluted, outcomes focused nightmare we have for full courses could we expect the same for outcomes? Halfon’s answer was heavy on the aspiration of reducing burden, but troublingly light on the specifics.
I get accused of hyperbole about LLE a lot – but let me emphasise again this is probably the most fundamental reform of higher education funding, eligibility, and regulation since the 1960s. There are some genuine policy challenges to making the scheme work – there are risks present for every stakeholder group. Parliamentary (and, for that matter, journalistic) scrutiny, if done well, could help identify these problems and solve them.
Let’s see if there’s any policy by the time the committee stage arrives.