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Higher Education and Research Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:29 pm on 26th April 2017.

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Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education) 3:29 pm, 26th April 2017

The Higher Education and Research Bill sets out the most significant legislative reforms of the sector for 25 years. The world of higher education has changed fundamentally since the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, leaving a regulatory system that is complex, fragmented and out of date. The sector has consistently called for new legislation to update the regulatory framework and just yesterday the two main sector groups, Universities UK and GuildHE, reiterated their full support for this important legislation.

Given its scale and importance, this Bill has understandably received robust and constructive debate as it has progressed through this House and the other place. I would like to put on record my thanks to all Members and noble Lords who have engaged with it during the process, throughout which we have listened, reflected and responded. This group includes no fewer than 240 amendments agreed in the other place which strengthen and improve the drafting of the Bill. They cover a range of issues including institutional autonomy, the inclusion of collaboration and diversity of provision in the Office for Students’ duties, student transfer and accelerated degrees. The other place also agreed amendments to strengthen the research provisions in the Bill, including putting the Haldane principle into legislation for the very first time. Today, I am pleased to show once again that we are willing to engage and respond. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me if I speak at some length: there are many important points that I would like to set out clearly.

Turning first to Lords amendment 1, we listened carefully to the debate in the other place about the role and functions of universities. At its heart was the importance of protecting institutional autonomy, which we fully support. We responded to this with a significant package of amendments designed to provide robust and meaningful protection of institutional autonomy across the whole of the Bill, which I was pleased to see receive support from all parties. On the definition of a university, in a limited sense a university can be described as predominantly a degree-level provider with awarding powers. If we want a broader definition, we can say that a university is also expected to be an institution that brings together a body of scholars to form a cohesive and self-critical academic community to provide excellent learning opportunities for people. We expect teaching at such an institution to be informed by a combination of research, scholarship and professional practice. To distinguish it from what we conventionally understand a school’s role to be, we can say that a university is a place where students are developing higher analytical capacities: critical thinking, curiosity about the world and higher levels of abstract capacity in their analysis.

Further, the strength of the university sector is based on its diversity and we should continue to recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach is not in the interests of students or of wider society. In particular, small and specialist providers that support, for example, the creative arts, theology and agriculture have allowed more students with highly specialised career aims the opportunity to study at a university. Indeed, as we have said in our White Paper and throughout the passage of the Bill, the diversity of the sector and opportunities for students have grown as a result of the important changes introduced by the previous Labour Government in 2004, including the lifting of the requirement for universities to have students in five subject areas and to award research degrees. No one would want, and we would not expect, to go back on the specific changes that the party opposite made.

To protect the use of university title, we have tabled amendments (a) to (d) to Lords amendment 1 to ensure that before allowing the use of that title, the Office for Students must have regard to factors in guidance given by the Secretary of State, and that before giving the guidance, the Secretary of State must consult relevant bodies and persons. This consultation will be full and broad. It will reference processes and practice overseas, for example in Australia, and provide an opportunity to consider a broad range of factors before granting university title. Those factors might include a track record of excellent teaching; sustained scholarship; cohesive academic communities; interdisciplinary approaches; supportive learning infrastructures; the dissemination of knowledge; the public-facing role of universities; academic freedom and freedom of speech; and wider support for students and pastoral care.

In the other place, we tabled an amendment based on a proposal from Baroness Wolf requiring the Office for Students to take expert advice from a relevant body on quality and standards before granting, varying, or revoking degree-awarding powers. I can confirm that the role of the relevant body will be similar to that of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s advisory committee on degree-awarding powers, and the system we are putting in place will build on the QAA’s valuable work over the years.

Amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 71 further strengthens that provision. Specifically, the amendment makes it clear that, if there is not a designated quality body to perform the role, the committee that the OFS must establish to perform it must feature a majority of members who are not members of the OFS. Further, in appointing those members, the OFS must consider the requirement that the committee’s advice be informed by the interests listed in the proposed new clause, which will ensure that the advice is impartial and informed. The amendment also makes it clear that the advice must include a view on whether the provider under consideration can maintain quality and standards, and it requires the OFS to notify the Secretary of State as soon as possible after it grants degree-awarding powers to a provider that has not previously delivered a degree course under a validation arrangement.

I also confirm that I expect the Secretary of State’s guidance to the OFS on DAPs to continue to require that a provider’s eligibility be reviewed if there is a change in its circumstances, such as a merger or a change of ownership. The OFS has powers under the Bill to remove DAPs from a provider where there are concerns as to the quality or standards of its higher education provision following such a change. We expect the OFS to seek advice from the relevant body on any such quality concerns before taking the step of revocation.

In the other place we made amendments providing additional safeguards on the revocation of DAPs and university title, recognising that those are last-resort powers. Amendments were also made relating to appeals against such decisions. Amendments (a) to (h) in lieu of Lords amendments 78 and 106 achieve the same aims as the Lords amendments but will align the wording more closely with terminology used elsewhere in legislation. The amendments allow an appeal on unlimited grounds, and permit the First-tier Tribunal to retake any decision of the OFS to revoke DAPs or university title.

Over the course of the Bill’s passage we have seen complete consensus in both Houses on the importance of teaching in higher education. We have always been a world leader in our approach to higher education in this country, but we cannot and should not be complacent. The teaching excellence framework offers us the opportunity to safeguard the UK’s best teaching and to raise standards across the sector. For the TEF to work properly, however, there must be reputational and financial incentives behind it. We propose to disagree with Lords amendments 12 and 23, which would render the TEF unworkable.

Almost 300 providers took part in the first round of assessments, and we have received vocal support for the TEF from the major sector representatives. The sector has voted with its feet and has demonstrated real confidence in the framework. It would not be appropriate to stop or fundamentally alter the TEF now.