Higher Education and Research Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 26th April 2017.

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Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education) 3:45 pm, 26th April 2017

It is a great pleasure and privilege to speak on these amendments this afternoon. I join the Minister in thanking the various teams of drafters and Clerks for all the work they have done. He and I have had some intense discussions in the past three to four days, and they must have put great pressure on the Clerks to produce the substantial amendments that are before us today. I want to give special thanks to the Public Bill Office. Most people who have been in opposition, of whatever party, know that it is very much, in terms of resources, a David and Goliath process and we are enormously grateful for the professional work of the Public Bill Office in assisting us.

I want to place on record, because we are talking about Lords amendments, my gratitude and that of many in the House for the robust exercise by the House of Lords of its historic privilege, which is to revise, to remind and to warn. It has done all three things with this raft of amendments, which, combined with the intense pressure that was applied across the sector by numerous groups, the work that we have put in and the Minister’s co-operation in recent days, has brought us to where we are today.

I am sorry that the Minister, in his measured presentation, did not find time to talk about the contribution of the people who work in universities. Their contribution is just as important as that of students and teachers, because without them we would not have universities or other higher education institutions. I place on the record also my thanks to the various sector groups who have assisted us: the National Union of Students, which delivered thoughtful and trenchant critiques that helped us get to where we are today, as did the other unions involved—the University and College Union and Unison—and the Council for British Universities, as well as the whole range of universities, modern and traditional. I must not forget the submissions from the further education sector and the Association of Colleges, because as I frequently remind the Minister, 12% and rising of higher education in this country is provided by further education colleges.

This process has been about the dialogue with university vice-chancellors and junior lecturers. We are in a much better place because of the specialist critique and the Lords amendments that the Minister has accepted on UK Research and Innovation, and on research. As Carol Monaghan is in the Chamber, I pay tribute to her and her team for the points they made about the importance of the devolved Administrations.

Let us turn to the amendments that the Government wish to remove; I was going to say tamper with, but that would be churlish. The Government’s concession on university title is welcome and necessary, and, my goodness, it has been a long time coming. From the beginning, there have been strong concerns about this across the sector from people who work within it—people concerned about the nature of their employment and about the quality of their teaching—and, as I have said, from the students who increasingly have to pay more and more.

We should not forget that the Bill is being wound up in the context of a world-class university sector that is now facing all the challenges of Brexit that have not been not included in the Bill in any shape or form. We have to protect our world-renowned brand of universities in as many ways as possible, so we are content that the Government have now committed to holding this full and wide-ranging consultation on university title. As the Minister said, once that consultation has finished, as a result of the discussions that we have had with him, the Secretary of State will have to issue guidance to the Office for Students on the criteria to be applied when awarding university title, to which the OFS must have regard.