A Higher Education and Research Bill has been announced by the Queen as she sets out the government’s new legislative plans. We’ll be tracking all the developments and setting the new Bill in context of HE policy history.
The 1986 Education Act established statutory protection of freedom of speech within the law in universities and colleges, for members, students, employees and visiting speakers; and made ‘every person connected with the government of the institution’ responsible for securing it.
The 1988 Eduction Reform Act:
- Removed the polytechnics from local authority control and created the new legal form ‘Higher Education Corporation’, which most of the polytechnics then became
- Abolished the Inner London Education Authority; the polytechnics it controlled became Companies Limited by Guarantee
- Set up the Universities Funding Council (UFC) and the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council (PCFC)
- Ended academic tenure rights (by setting up a body of five people – the ‘University Commissioners’ – with sweeping powers to amend the statutes of any university)
- Made it a criminal offence to purport to offer a degree without the proper authority, and made the directors of companies guilty of the same if they allow the company they control to do this
The Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher and the Secretary of State was Kenneth Baker. These are worth taking together as they were part of the same scene. The key context was public sector reform. The 1985 Jarratt Report had been commissioned by the vice-chancellors’ national body and recommended adoption in the universities of stronger central management structures, and the abolition of academic tenure. At the same time, the government was ‘at war’ with many local authorities and in many cases the polytechnics within them were equal in size and budget alone to their other divisions combined. The polytechnic directors had a separate lobby, which was pressing for freedom. But a single funding council was seen by vice-chancellors and conservative elements as going ‘a bit too far’, hence a binary system remained but polytechnics were less constrained within that system. Two parallel admissions systems emerged as well – though this was not a statutory matter. Freedom of speech protections went across all institutions and had their roots in Conservative opposition to ‘no platform’ policies and related practices in some institutions; it may yet be this final aspect that becomes most relevant to today’s debate, as ‘no platform’ is a hot issue once again and we may see new measures proposed by government, or by parliamentarians through amendments.
The Queen has begun her speech and is listing off the full range of the government’s priorities, including
“Legislation will be introduced to ensure that Britain has the infrastructure for businesses to grow”
“my government will ensure the United Kingdom is at the forefront of emerging technology”
and as expected…
“To ensure that more people have the opportunity to further their education, legislation will be introduced to make it easier to form new universities, and to promote choice and competition in the higher education sector”
Aside from the HE Bill itself, the government’s legislative and policy agenda announced today will likely involve other measures that will have an impact on HE. Many commentators have suggested that this year’s legislative agenda will be quite ‘light’ compared to last year’s mammoth list of proposals, several of which have not yet made it all the way through Parliament.
The overall theme of the speech will be ‘improving life chances’, and the Prime Minister wishes to emphasise his interest in social policy and societal fairness. Most issues of controversy are being held back in light of the upcoming referendum and the government’s slim majority.
- Social Care Bill: The PM wishes to take action to improve the quality of care for young and elderly people. Care leavers face a number of particular barriers to entering employment and higher education, which the government will plan to tackle. One known planned initiative is the provision for ‘mentors’ for care leavers up to the age of 25.
- Extremism Bill: A new crackdown on extremism is planned, including a public ‘register of known extremists’ and new powers to ban certain groups. This may affect how institutions deal with their obligations under Prevent.
- Education Bill: This will involve funding changes to education following a climb-down from the government on the full forced conversion of all schools to academies.
- British Bill of Rights: This one is expected to make a return after a failed attempt last time and could radically redraw our constitution and impact equality legislation. However, it may yet be another ‘promise of a promise’, with numerous legal and constitutional issues to tackle.
- A Digital Economy Bill is being announced which will crack down on intellectual property issues and give more powers to Ofcom.
- UK Spaceport: Newquay is expected to be announced as the home of the UK’s new spaceport, which falls under the more miscellaneous of BIS’s responsibilities.
- Skills White Paper (and Bill?): We know that new proposals on vocational education pathways are on the way, following the recent review by Lord Sainsbury. We will find out today if any legislation is required to implement them.
The Science and Technology Act 1965 established the procedures for creating Research Councils by Royal Charter, although only the Medical Research Council, the Science Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council were actually named. Others came later, including the splitting up the SRC.
The Prime Minister was Harold Wilson and the Secretary of State was Tony Crosland. The wider context was Wilson’s totemic speech, as leader of the opposition in 1963, on the ‘white heat of the scientific and technological revolution’. Crosland took forward legislation to enact change in the funding regime for science. The impact at the time was debatable, though clearly the structural instruments put in place here have been long-lasting. The coming Bill is expected to significantly amend and reform this legislation to create a ‘nested’ structure with existing chartered Research Councils and some other bodies under the umbrella of a new statutory body, ‘UK Research and Innovation’.
From the details of the White Paper, we can begin to piece together all the many issues that an HE Bill announced today will have to cover. These include:
- Abolishing HEFCE and introducing the OfS and its duties, overturning the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.
- Legislating for single entry into the HE sector through the OfS, and removing the need for the Privy Council to approve new entrants.
- Outlining the parameters of the new quality assessment body, on the basis of “capability, co-ownership or governance by the HE sector, commanding the confidence of the sector and independence from Government or any Government body”.
- Establishing the ‘transparency duty’ for individual institutions’ data on widening participation.
- Overturning the Science and Technology Act 1965 to merge the research councils, and also the section of the Higher Education Act 2004 that established the AHRC.
- The White Paper states that the government will “deregulate the constitutional arrangements that govern Higher Education Corporations (HECs) by removing unnecessary statutory requirements that are specified within existing legislation.” Whether this will be accomplished through the new legislation remains to be seen.
- A legislative requirement for the OfS and UKRI to “work together on areas of mutual interest, such as the financial sustainability and efficiency of the HE sector”
- Requiring “those organisations that provide shared central admissions services (such as UCAS) to share relevant data they hold with Government and researchers”.
- Promises of “legislative protection” for the dual support system, despite the merging of the research councils into UKRI.
The annual State Opening is full of historical traditions that hark back to the conflicts between Parliament and the monarch. The Yeoman of the Guard – fortified by a glass of port – search the cellar for gunpowder to guard against the another gunpowder plot. Black Rod has the door to the Commons slammed in his face, representing MPs independence of the Crown. The Queen’s address, written for her by the government, represents her ultimate sovereignty invested through Parliament: the ‘fusion’ of the British legislative and executive branches in uneasy compromise.
During the Civil War the two English universities found themselves at odds with Parliament as they took the side of Charles I. Oxford became the Royalist headquarters, and Charles set up an alternative assembly in Christ Church College. Cromwell forcibly seized assets from the Cambridge colleges, and the universities had to petition Parliament for protections.
With the White Paper indicating a healthy amount of distrust held by the current executive towards the established institutions, might the universities and Parliament be heading for another round of conflict?
Throughout the day we will be publishing brief reflections on past legislation that has shaped higher education today.
The Education Act 1962 introduced a duty on all local authorities to give grants to qualifying students from their area to enrol on qualifying courses anywhere in the UK.
The Prime Minister was Harold Macmillan, and the Minister of Education was David Eccles. This hugely important legislation ended the ‘postcode lottery’ for getting a grant depending on where you grew up. It can be no coincidence that this was seen as an essential move towards expanding opportunity at a time when people born during World War Two were reaching young adulthood, and in economic affairs the country was emerging from ‘austerity’. The Act’s legacy of student grants in England has only recently come to a close with the conversion of maintenance grants into loans confirmed in January.
On the weekend Martin McQuillan wrote for Wonkhe with a scathing criticism of the Labour Party’s opposition on HE policy. Since then, we’ve got a little more of an insight into how Goredon Marsden, the Shadow Minister, will respond. He’s written for Politics Home and criticised the White Paper for overlooking devolution, part-time study, and stronger action on widening participation.
Jo Johnson and his colleagues need to stop their ideological obsession with markets and competition and instead work with the grain of an entrepreneurial state, local government and business to embed social mobility and economic success for the next generation of young people who will enter HE.
After being formally announced in today’s Queen’s Speech, it is unclear when exactly the text of the HE Bill will be introduced in Parliament. Nonetheless, after being formally introduced it’s a long and drawn out journey through both chambers before receiving Royal Assent. Over on Policy Watch, David Morris has given a quick overview of Parliamentary procedure and the anticipated ‘hotspots’ for the passage of an HE Bill.
It’s the State Opening of Parliament and Queen’s Speech today. We know that the Queen will announce an HE Bill – the first time universities have been substantially before Parliament since the debates over the 2004 Act. We don’t know if we’ll see the actual Bill today, but we thought it would be fun and/or interesting to situate this odd tradition in context and look back at Bills of old and forward to what the new HE Bill might bring.
Updates will start soon.