Something is afoot in The House of Lords and after a drought of primary legislation about HE in this Parliament, we could be on the verge of a fascinating change thanks to the politics around the Consumer Rights Bill.
Labour has had an amendment to the Consumer Rights Bills focused on HE. It effectively amended the 2004 Higher Education Act to make institutions identifiable by their legal form, rather than source of funding. The intention of this was to bring all providers granted specific course designation in to the scope of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, regardless of their corporate form.
Last Wednesday was the Committee stage in the Lords for the Bill and Baroness Hayter spoke for Labour following which she withdrew the amendment. Although the Government did not formally offer to bring forward their own alternative, Baroness Neville-Rolfe for the Government said they will continue conversations with the Labour Lords about the issue, and Labour withdrew the amendment on that basis.
The exchange makes interesting reading:
“Baroness Neville-Rolfe: …These arrangements were put in place in 2004 and in my view have served the sector very well. They provide students at universities in England and Wales with access to a dispute service and so to an alternative to the courts. However, as the noble Baroness rightly points out with her telling examples, they do not apply to the newer providers now offering education courses. I will reflect on the views expressed today and think very carefully about the arguments that have been put forward. In the meantime, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: I hope that those words are as warm as my colleague is suggesting they are. We were, I think, hoping that the Government were going to go a little further and ask us to withdraw so that they could bring forward their own alternative. The numbers of students who would have been caught by this in the year after 2004, when it was brought in, was just over 3,000; it has now gone up to 12,000, so it has become a big issue. Can the Minister perhaps go a little further than she indicated?
Baroness Neville-Rolfe: I confirm to the noble Baroness that my words are extremely warm. We will obviously return to this issue and, if need be, have a discussion with her, but I would be grateful if she would withdraw the amendment on that warm basis.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: I think that I will take my jacket off because of the heat in here. With those words of reassurance, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.”
A steamy exchange indeed and most had assumed that this amendment had gone as a result.
However, as of this week, an identical amendment that is to be moved at report stage (19th November) has been published by Baroness Hayter and Lord Stevenson for Labour.
In broad terms, there appears to be a consensus in the sector that it is sensible to identify types of providers by what it does and who funds it rather than the previous agreements on corporate form. Indeed in the same session above, Baroness Hayter noted that UUK support this move. It also ensures that alternative providers can be brought in to this part of the regulatory regime and this move was effectively promised by the Government anyway in the 2011 White Paper.
However, precisely why the amendment has re-emerged is unclear. It is possible that the sector lobbied to have it brought back, although it is an unexpected turn of events.
Either way, the measure is ultimately something of a sticking plaster. OIA rather heavily depends on sensible, proportionate, well supported internal processes. Also, it was introduced as a replacement for a fairly complex and dysfunctional existing system. This amendment would be a change here, in that it introduces a level of recourse, rather than making the existing path of recourse more sensible.
There are, of course, much wider repercussions of the Consumer Rights Bill for HE, even if this amendment doesn’t pass. And it’s likely that any future serious HE legislative push (e.g. an HE Bill) would sweep aside much of 2004 and other Acts that affect the sector. However, it is fascinating to watch a rare nugget of potential HE legislation wind its way through the system at the end of this Parliament’s life.