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Path clears for HE Bill as government announces major changes

As the government announces major amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill, we run down what's new, what's been splashing in the media, and assess the politics of the package.
This article is more than 7 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

This morning, at a packed UUK members meeting, Jo Johnson outlined the tweaks, enhancements, and in some cases concessions made to the Higher Education and Research Bill and his wider programme of sector reforms.

The government has published a factsheet setting out the new reforms and amendments on autonomy and the rest.

The big changes

  • The government has launched a big drive to push accelerated ‘fast-track’ degrees and will tweak the funding system to incentive providers to offer them.
  • There will be a push on credit transfer to help empower the market, although universities will not be compelled to comply with the system.
  • An explicit definition of universities’ autonomy will be incorporated into the Bill, jointly proposed by the government’s Viscount Younger and his Labour shadow Lord Stevenson. This change also covers the freedom of academic staff to “to question and test received wisdom… without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges”.
  • Ensuring that standards against which providers are assessed are explicitly made the responsibility of the so-called “designated quality body” rather than the OfS. This would currently be, to all intents and purposes, QAA. The definition of standards outlined in the Bill has been deleted, so as to affirm the sector’s right to define standards.
  • The full rollout of the subject-level TEF has been postponed to year 5 of the exercise (2019-20). Pilots will still begin next year, but this is effectively a recognition that implementing TEF at such a granular level will be a significant policy and administrative challenge.
  • TEF itself will be subject to a “genuine lessons-learned exercise from this trial year”, according to Johnson.
  • The power of the OfS to grant or revoke degree awarding powers will be subject to more specific criteria to be outlined in the legislation. Furthermore, the powers of the Bill will be explicitly unable to revoke a higher education provider’s Royal Charter.
  • A new amendment will specify the OfS’s duty to promote collaboration as well as competition amongst providers.
  • All registered providers, regardless of where on the OfS register they sit, will be subject to the freedom of speech duty as set out in the Education (No 2) Act 1986.
  • A higher annual fee limit will be enabled for accelerated degree courses.
  • The Haldane Principle will be specifically outlined in legislation for the first time.
  • New protections are outlined for the independence of the respective Research Councils. The Councils’ budgets, as well as that of Innovate UK, will have to specifically outlined in grants to UKRI, and consultation, as well as parliamentary assent, will be required to change the activities or names of the Councils.
  • In contrast to Johnson’s previously announced wish not to be ‘prescriptive’ when it comes to the organisation, further regulations for the governance of UKRI are to be specified in the legislation, including the Executive Committee and size of each Research Council.
  • New amendments will specify that OfS and UKRI must collaborate with each other and with their devolved nations’ counterparts.

Accelerated degrees

It seems the announcement on fees for accelerated degrees, despite garnering much attention, has been widely misreported, including suggestions they could be as high as £14,000 per year (which heroically assumes there’s an inflationary increase in the mix as well). This is the worst kind of tabloid-ism – with policy intentions deliberately distorted to make the fee figure look as salacious as possible.

In fact, Jo Johnson went to great lengths in his speech to UUK to stress that universities should not expect to be able to charge the equivalent even of the current £27,750 all-in maximum fee for a normal three-year programme. The policy document released by DfE is also sharp:

“Our clear intention is that accelerated courses will cost students less than an equivalent course, and we anticipate students will claim less overall in maintenance loans too. This means the costs should be lower for Government. We will seek to stimulate the market for accelerated courses by setting a fee cap that provides adequate funding for providers while offering the student and the taxpayer a fair and good deal.”

This is sensible policy. The fee cap for these courses should obviously be somewhere between £9,250 and £13,875. It needs to be both high enough to stimulate new courses and low enough to offer students real choice and create some efficiencies on the side. The government will no doubt consult on this, and the eventual figure will be approved by Parliament. We’re opening a sweepstake on the result at Wonkhe towers now – but nobody here will be picking £13,875.

The NUS view expressed today – that such fees are ‘unaffordable’ – completely misses the point that these fees, like all undergraduate fees for first-time students, will presumably be backed by income-contingent loans, so affordability is a moot issue. But the government must clarify that this will indeed be the case. It also needs to give assurances that students will be supported properly for living costs over any summer study periods – organising maintenance loans in blocks of traditional university term periods should be rendered obsolete as soon as possible, and this really should only be a minor administrative headache.

The politics

This sweeping set of changes has been hugely reassuring to the HE sector on some key points of principle and elements of it have even garnered cross-party support. Lord Stevenson, Labour’s HE spokesperson in the Lords, told Wonkhe that “It’s a major set of concessions, and follows a strong cross-party consensus for the need to adjust the Bill”.

“We welcome the amendments, which show the government have been listening. There is a bit more to do, particularly on the TEF, and its ramifications; on student loans; and on overseas students and staff but the Bill is much improved.”

Another Labour peer told us that these changes are “likely to take the heat out of further debate”. This is very warm language and suggests that today’s proposals substantially smooth the way for the Bill’s timely passage through its remaining stages in Parliament.

For the government, none of the changes dramatically alter Jo Johnson’s overall mission – in fact with credit transfer and accelerated degrees; one could argue they provide further elements of choice and competition to the overall project; consistent with other reforms. Indeed these were set out in the White Paper, but no one was sure until now whether they would go ahead. However, how they will be taken up remains to be seen. In his speech today, Johnson indicated that he felt these measures would help social mobility and provide new opportunities for part-time and mature students. Whether universities will really want to to truly engage with a credit transfer system is an open question. And accelerated degrees look most likely to be utilsed by the new ‘challenger’ providers. Still: the bigger challenge is to the market to make something of these policy initiatives.

Although there is still much that people will find to disagree with in the government’s overall reforms, on the face of it, today’s amendments substantially improve the proposed legislation. Sector leaders are telling us that they are broadly happy and are claiming a victory from their lobbying efforts on many of the changes, particularly on new protections for autonomy and standards. And the signs now point to the Bill’s accelerated chances of a smooth passage in the later stages of its journey through Parliament. Not bad for a day’s work.

Additional reporting by Team Wonkhe.

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