Most of the information available about the measures described in the Queen’s Speech is available in the background briefing notes.
Though there are clearly two bills with a direct impact on the higher education system, there is a whole range of other things that the sector needs to be keeping an eye on. So here’s what we spotted:
The big two
There’s a bit of a surprise tucked away in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. Alongside the heavily trailed funding flexibility and lifetime skills guarantee, the Office for Students will get strengthened powers to “take action to address low quality higher education provision”. As nobody has managed to identify a way to reliably identify such provision, this will be some legislative text to peruse with interest. The “minimum expectations of quality” language applies to both assessment and regulation – so the (imminent) TEF consultation may have a few hints alongside what we already know from the Quality and Standards consultation.
Elsewhere the big noise concerns the collaboration of employers and providers to meet local needs, and the availability of the equivalent of four years’ worth of student loans for any sort of qualifications at levels four to six. The Secretary of State gets intervention powers where colleges are not addressing local needs, and it looks like (another) new regulatory approach for the skills end of post-16 provision. Most of this is covered in the Skills for Jobs white paper from January
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill looks largely identical to the previously published policy paper. The Free Speech Champion is present, as are the references to redress (and a bespoke complaints regime) for people who have suffered “loss” as a result of a breach of freedom of speech duties. What’s fascinating and puzzling about what we have in front of today is the language around students’ unions. We’re told that “for the first time” (the 1986 Education (No 2) Act apparently not counting here) SUs will have to take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech – but it is the Office for Students that appears to be able to impose fines for breaches of the duty.
Of course, the Office for Students does not currently have the power to regulate SUs – they are regulated by the Charity Commission. So as much as the new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom may well want to fine an SU for cancelling an event, to allow them to do so would require SUs to enter the OfS regulatory world – something that feels like a complex and pointless approach to a problem that exists largely in people’s minds. We could add a lot more here – but with the Bill published on Wednesday, there’ll be plenty of time for all the usual free speech-related delight then.
The only major legislation in this area is the ongoing Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill – which we’ve covered in depth previously. A date for the report stage is still to be confirmed, there were no changes in committee and the bill appears to command a measure of cross-party support. I imagine that the ten-year reverse sunset clause will attract attention in the Lords, if nothing else.
Right from the start the Johnson administration has been keen to keep investment in R&D front and centre – we get another repetition of both the £22bn and 2.4 per cent of GDP targets. We learn that BEIS will publish an Innovation Strategy this summer – to “inspire, facilitate, and unleash” innovation around the UK. And the Review of Research Bureaucracy rumbles on – there will be advice on practical solutions to identified “unnecessary research bureaucracy”.
Though there’s no legislation attached, there appears to be a specific interest in UK life sciences – which looks like an investment in medical research, noting a need to “partner with industry, the NHS, and academia. Genomics, you will be pleased to hear, is still “cutting edge” – as is early-stage diagnosis, advanced manufacturing, and digital health. The details we have on the Animal Welfare Bill do not specifically deal with animals used in research – but this is something that could have an impact in some parts of the sector.
We’ve looked at the integrated review in the past too – this defence and foreign aid focused plan does include a fair amount of research and development spend. The investment in science and technology, and the idea of a “responsible cyber power”, both seem like challenges that would benefit from university input – the commitment to “acting as a force for good in the world” may ring a little hollow with recent cuts in overseas development funding, but at least demonstrates such work is not entirely off the radar.
Students and students’ unions
As well as the issues for SUs posed in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill above, the Charities Bill will aim to address administrative and financial burdens in running a charitable organisation and complying with the many requirements this entails. It will make it easier to amend governing documents, make it easier to merge charities and to use permanent endowments. In essence, it is likely to operationalise the Law Commission’s “Technical Issues in Charity Law” report, which the government responded to (and largely accepted) back at the end of March.
Depending on the definition of “public bodies”, universities are likely to be subject to proposed legislation on boycotts, divestment and sanctions which looks likely to revolve around not being allowed to do any of those things. But neither students’ unions nor their student societies are public authorities – and as some campaign for such measures (indeed, an SU vote on blocking the formation of a Jewish Student Society is one stated example), the change in temperature should be noted as a potential precursor to other measures in this area. The argument is that boycotts undermine UK foreign policy and contribute to divisive behaviour (including antisemitism) – this all seems to be at an early draft stage but addresses particularly boycotts of foreign countries and UK firms that trade with foreign countries.
There’s a White Paper coming on Renters’ Reforms in the autumn – this will follow the summary of consultation responses on “no fault” (Section 21) evictions, proposals on a “lifetime” deposit model and suggestions around standards in rented accomodation. A package of reforms is expected to require private landlords to sign up to a redress scheme, and more stuff on enforcement measures aimed at “bad landlords” without penalising “good landlords”.
A largely redundant section on the Turing Scheme reveals that there have been “over 130 applications from universities across the UK” – you get to choose whether you think that number refers to individual students involved.
On and off campus
There’s a Building Safety Bill that will establish a new Building Safety Regulator – with changes to the way “high-risk” buildings are regulated. This is very much framed as a response to Grenfell, to the extent that it is a surprise that last year’s events in Bolton do not even merit a mention. The many halls of residence that still have unsafe cladding in place might benefit from provisions to support its removal – £5bn is available for work relating to buildings between 11 and 18 metres, and £30m for the cost of common alarm systems to replace the existing “watch schemes”. Tenants (including students in halls) will gain some new rights on consultation and access to safety information. If you’ve been following this policy area in detail, you’d be glad to see that there will be a response to considerations relating to the 2020 Draft Bill “shortly”.
Despite the almost general revulsion, a government response to the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities will be published in “due course”.
There’s nothing in the Education Recovery Plan about higher education, suggesting that ministers are not aware of any problems. Which given the sheer number of working groups and task forces Michelle Donelan now sits on feels like something of a cop-out.
Section 13 of the 2017 Higher Education and Research Bill gives providers of higher education a duty to support the registration of students to vote – Office for Students put student voter registration into the regulatory framework, and regulatory guidance 11 offers guidance on how to do it. Now a proposed Electoral Integrity Bill looks set to require voter identification at polling stations (and increased protection on postal and proxy voting). There’s nothing clear on what kind of identification would be required, but universities are quite good at providing personal identification to students: a facility that surely would be under active discussion given the government’s clear commitment to facilitate student voting?
Other points of interest
We’ve been needing a Professional Qualifications Bill since Brexit – the UK’s recognition of global professional qualifications is currently based on an interim system based on the European Union approach. The government is appraised of the fact we need to be able to appoint nurses and teachers who trained overseas, and there’s a keenness not to privilege European applicants as it is claimed the current system does.
The proposed legislation will set out a new professional qualifications framework, and bring transparency to existing entry requirements. As you’d expect this looks like being on a something for something basis with reciprocal recognition being required – good to have the right to work overseas built-in. There’ll be a new system specifically for architects too – but both as employers and as awarding bodies universities need to pay close attention to these proposals as they emerge.
A Draft Online Safety Bill will designate OfCom as an independent online safety regulator, and make companies responsible for the safety of their users online. That latter clause appears to relate to the provision of “services” and “platforms” rather than the nuts and bolts of internet connectivity – there’ll be fines available of up to £18m or 10 per cent of global turnover for services that do not have “effective and accessible user reporting and redress mechanisms”. Ofcom will prioritise enforcement action around children’s safety, but there are also measures to address disinformation through media literacy – such as perhaps how to identify a fake fact-checking account run by a political party during an election, or the use of misleading social media adverts during a referendum, just to give two completely random examples.