Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
I beg to move,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (Consequential, Transitional, Transitory and Saving Provisions) Regulations 2018 (S.I., 2018, No. 245), dated
I thank the Leader of the House for scheduling this debate, even if slightly belatedly. When the Opposition pray against a statutory instrument, it should be clear that the whole House is entitled to a debate and vote. I hope that Government Whips reflect on that point when considering the point of order made earlier today by my hon. Friend Richard Burgon.
Unfortunately, the Government ignoring criticism until it is too late has been a recurring feature of the development of the Office for Students. Throughout the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, we raised questions and concerns that have remained answered. I suspect that even the Minister might privately wish his colleagues had heeded advice about the appointment of Toby Young some time before he eventually resigned. What a shambolic and politicised appointment process, which still hangs over both the Office for Students and the Government today.
The commissioner for public appointments found that the governance code was not followed—itself a breach of the ministerial code. It is now more than a month since I wrote to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary on this point, and I am yet to receive a proper answer. Perhaps the Minister who is here today can at least now clarify his position. He told us at the Dispatch Box:
“The same due diligence was carried out by the same advisers on all the candidates.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 636, c. 698.]
That directly contradicts the conclusion of the commissioner for public appointments. Perhaps the Minister can now tell us whether he rejects the findings of the independent commissioner, or would he like to correct the record? Can he give the House any update on what the Government are doing to enforce the ministerial code and ensure that this scandal is not repeated?
This is important because the composition of the board remains highly controversial even now. The new Minister has indicated that even he might like the board to be more representative. In a written answer to my hon. Friend Gordon Marsden,he said he would enter a
“dialogue with the OfS Chair…to ensure that both student interests and the further education sector” are represented on the board. That point is one that his right hon. Friend Robert Halfon has also made as Chair of the Education Committee, so can the Minister tell us what progress he has made? Will he also look at a voice for staff, which the University and College Union has called for?
The appointments process has been symptomatic of a Government that have tried to use the Office for Students to pursue a deeply ideological agenda. It is bad enough that the Government embedded their free market approach in the original Act, giving the Office for Students a duty to promote competition.
What does the hon. Lady say to Universities UK, which says that
“annulment of the statutory instrument is…not in the interest of either universities or students”?
Is this not just another example of Labour playing politics with our students?
This is not about annulling; this is about the Government making sure that legislation is fit for purpose. If the motion is passed tonight, the Government can go away and ensure that the Office for Students is fit for purpose. So far they have only undermined their own legislation, and their behaviour since has only worsened the fears. They seem to believe that education is a commodity to be bought and sold for private gain and not public good. Let me be clear: we fundamentally reject that belief. It is an approach that does not work for individuals or the system as a whole.
My hon. Friend is aware of the plans for the new UA92 university academy in my constituency, a public-private partnership with Lancaster University, to which Trafford Council is contributing funds and Gary and Phil Neville and other members of the Manchester United class of ’92 are acting as private sponsors. Does she agree that the role of the Office for Students as both a funder and a regulator must be clarified to ensure that such public-private partnerships are sustainable and adequately funded and that the taxpayer, including the council tax payer in Trafford, is not left facing the risk in the case of market failure?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—indeed that goes to the nub of the issue, which is that there are serious failings in the legislation around its acting as provider and regulator and a conflict of interest in the regulations. We have seen that, for example, in the Government’s desperation to promote new private providers. They are already playing fast and loose with the title “university”, handing it out without proper scrutiny or oversight. Every time the title “university” is given to a new provider without ensuring it provides a good education, it not only risks students and the taxpayer being ripped off but potentially damages the integrity and reputation of the whole system. As MillionPlus has made clear, this is of concern not just to the old established institutions but to the newer universities, such as the one my hon. Friend Kate Green just mentioned.
The Government’s Office for Students guidance seems to have abandoned the category of registered provider that was in the original legislation. Will the Minister tell us if new small providers will now be outside the regulation of the Office for Students entirely? With Britain’s exit from the European Union presenting a serious challenge to our world-class higher education providers, these risks cannot be justified, now or ever. The regulations transfer the powers of the Higher Education Funding Council for England to the Office for Students. In taking on the functions of HEFCE, the Office for Students will set and implement its own policy agenda. I hope he will tell us how he plans to address the potential conflicts arising from its regulating a sector in which it is an active participant.
The new Office for Students will not have all of HEFCE’s powers. It cannot, for instance, intervene when providers are in a difficult position—apparently that is in pursuit of a free market in which providers must be allowed to fail. Can the Minister assure us that the Office for Students has the powers it needs to protect students when they need its protection? Or will it just stand by in the name of ideology? The regulations also pass on powers of the Office for Fair Access. The danger of this move is that it robs the director of fair access of their independence and ability to negotiate directly with universities. Why is he removing from the director final authority to approve or reject access and participation plans?
This comes at a time when widening access could not be more important. The National Union of Students today exposed the cost of living crisis that has left the poorest students facing a poverty premium and the highest costs of access to education. While we have a plan to address the crisis, including by scrapping tuition fees and bringing back maintenance grants, the Government have kicked it into the long grass with their review.
We on the Government Benches agree that it is important that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have the chance to go to university, as they are doing in increasing numbers under this Government. Does the hon. Lady agree that if these regulations are annulled, as she seems to be suggesting—I hope it is not the case—it will hamper universities’ ability to drive those access plans, which help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds go to university?
As I was outlining, the poorer students today are leaving with the highest levels of debt, and this Government scrapped the maintenance grants that would have helped them. The next Labour Government will reintroduce maintenance grants and scrap tuition fees to make sure that our students can get the education they deserve. I ask the Minister to think again and ensure that everyone, whatever their background, can access education.
This brings us back to a fundamental point. What do the Government believe the role of the new Office for Students should be—an independent regulator, a funding council, a validator of degrees or a body to micromanage universities? How will a university know when it is dealing with the regulator, a funding council or the voice of Government? It is that final point that will be concerning to many universities and students, who worry that, far from acting as a voice for students to the Government—[Interruption.] I ask as the Minister chunters away—the Office for Students will be the opposite: the Government demanding a voice on to students. For instance, the Minister wants the Office for Students to stop no-platform policies that ban hate groups from student unions. This seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Perhaps he can explain why he believes that he and the board of the Office for Students should use their resources to interfere at this level.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech. One of the groups on the NUS’s no-platform policy was Hizb ut-Tahrir. Presumably, if Hizb ut-Tahrir was not on the NUS’s no-platform policy and student unions were not making efforts to stop it speaking, the Government would be attacking student unions for not doing enough to tackle extremism on campuses. Does this not expose the ideological flaws at the heart of the Government’s obsession with what is frankly a debate best reserved for student union meetings, rather than the House of Commons?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes some excellent points, as he did throughout the Committee stage of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. It seems ironic that many of the organisations or individuals listed under the NUS’s no-platform policy have been banned by the Government themselves. Is it still the Government’s policy to fine universities for the actions of autonomous student unions? If so, will the Minister explain how high the fines will go?
While the Government are prepared to dictate student union speakers lists, they have shied away from the real issues, such as the soaring pay of vice-chancellors, while staff pay continues to fall in real terms. The Labour party has set out a plan to tackle pay inequality and accountability, but the Minister seems strangely shy about using the sweeping powers of the Office for Students. Instead he has said he is “intensely relaxed” about runaway pay packets.
I thank the hon. Lady for being so generous with her time. However, it is not true that the Government are shying away from the issue of vice-chancellors’ pay. I have raised it during Prime Minister’s Question Time, and we are working on it in the Education Committee, looking into value for money. The Government commissioned a review of higher education, and the Office for Students will be focusing on value for money as well as choice and transparency. I think we should get our facts straight in this debate rather than misleading the public.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I pay tribute to the Education Committee for its work in holding the Government to account, but I will believe what she has said when I see action. The Government have taken no action whatsoever against vice-chancellors’ pay. It is all warm words and no action. Will the Office for Students be concerned with the real issues, or simply with scoring cheap political points? [Interruption.]
The simple fact is that the Government have created a regulator in which it is hard for the sector, let alone the rest of us, to have any confidence, and the regulations simply entrench the problem. Today, we cannot turn the clock back and unpick the entire regulatory framework that the Office for Students establishes. That is not what will happen if the motion is passed. Instead, the Government will be forced to think again about the problems that we have raised, and come up with genuine solutions that will create a regulator that has the confidence of those whom it regulates. That is all that I am asking them to do.
As we heard from Angela Rayner, the Education Committee has been conducting an inquiry into value for money in higher education, which has included an investigation of the role of the Office for Students.
I support the OfS as the new regulator, and I will support the Government tonight. I have confidence in Sir Michael Barber, especially in the light of his appearance before the Committee. Members on both sides of the House who are present this evening will have heard what he said then. I was pleased to hear him speak so positively about the increase in the number of degree apprenticeships—two of my favourite words in the English language—but I am concerned about the lack of further education representatives on the board. I find it incredibly disappointing that that important part of our education sector is being neglected yet again. Further education and apprenticeships play a vital role in access to higher education for the most disadvantaged and are crucial to building the skills base and productivity of our country, but they are so often excluded from bodies of this kind.
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point about further education. Does he also recognise that a post-Brexit environment in which we are not absolutely committed to driving up skills in this country is not compatible with a determination to reduce immigration? For that reason as well as all the others, I am surprised that further education is not represented.
The right hon. Gentleman has also made an important point. Pre-Brexit or post-Brexit, skills must be the No. 1 priority for our country. We know that about 30% of young people’s jobs will be lost to automation by 2030.
“give consideration to the lack of people with direct experience of FE and apprenticeship backgrounds on the board”.
“I recognise and agree with the clear message that was delivered on the importance of representation from the further education sector in our operations.”
He also said that the OfS would
“welcome high-quality applications from people with experience of the further education sector when the DfE launch their recruitment campaign for the current ‘ordinary member’
Our Committee was so concerned by the process of appointments to the board that we received a private briefing from the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Mr Peter Riddell, which laid bare some of the problems. I would welcome the appointment of a panel of apprentices alongside the OfS student panel to inform the work and ensure that the views of apprentices are properly listened to. Many further education students study for higher degrees and FE will take a leading role in degree apprenticeships. It is not right to say that students are involved only in traditional degrees and traditional higher education. Given the rapidly changing nature of higher education and the increase in the number of degree apprenticeships, it is crucial for the OfS board to be as diverse and representative as possible. The OFS should be leading the whole sector in its approach to embracing different models of higher education.
As I said, I shall support the Government this evening but I urge them to make it a priority to recruit a serious representative from further education, from the Association of Colleges or elsewhere, into the vacant position on the board.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do what it means when we talk about further education. For example, in Coventry there have been 27% cuts to further education budgets. What impact does that have on apprenticeships? More importantly, if we take that further and look at university education, UCU is in dispute with the Coventry University because it cannot get recognition. To come back to the point, it cannot get recognition in further education or in university education.
It is true that for a number of years FE funding was neglected. It has been stabilised, and I welcome the £500 million extra announced by the Government for the technical education reforms in a recent Budget, but further education needs a lot more funding. People say that it is the Cinderella sector, but I say that Cinderella became a princess and we should banish the ugly sisters of snobbery and intolerance.
My right hon. Friend is making a typically powerful and passionate speech. Does he agree with the small businesses that I met in my constituency last Friday, which say that as they use the new money in the apprenticeship levy for apprenticeships, they encounter problems with getting what they want out of FE colleges? Does he agree that, for that reason, it is very important that we have representation for them in this new body so that employers can also get what they want out of the new system?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that one day FE colleges will lead the vast majority of apprentice training in our country. It is good to have some private providers, but further education has an incredibly important role. That is my whole point: skills and apprenticeships should be at the heart of the Office for Students. I sometimes think that the powers that be have a traditionalist approach to higher education and everything has to be about traditional university degrees. They forget further education, skills and apprenticeships.
I congratulate the Minister on his new role. I know that he is a very thoughtful Minister and has been travelling up and down the country; Sam on tour, as I have seen on Twitter. I urge him to take this seriously—Sir Michael Barber is open to it—and put an FE representative on the board, and ensure that we have an apprentice panel too.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, Robert Halfon, who spoke with such knowledge and sense. He talked about the importance of apprenticeships and skills. Throughout this debate and the education debate in general, we should be talking more about positive destinations. It is hard to promote apprenticeships as leading to great job opportunities if we are constantly talking about higher education. We need to promote them, too, so it is good to hear his thoughts on that.
During the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill, the Scottish National party tabled amendments to ensure that the new research body, UK Research and Innovation, would include appropriate membership from the devolved nations and that the membership and strategy of UKRI took proper account of their policies and priorities. On Third Reading, the SNP voted against the Bill because of our concerns about a number of elements: tuition fee rises, the marketisation of the higher education sector and the dismantling of the research structure. They could have serious consequences for Scotland’s sector, given that our priorities might not be recognised, which could have an impact on our world-renowned image and reputation. Our MPs also voted to change the make-up of the Office for Students to ensure proper student representation was allowed on the board. It was disappointing that that did not happen.
We were also assured that UKRI would include somebody who had knowledge of the devolved nations. At the moment, we have that in Professor Sir Ian Diamond from the University of Aberdeen, but the problem is that there is no guarantee that that person will remain there and that the devolved nations will continue to have representation as we did not manage to get a guarantee in the Act. There is a serious chance that this could have a negative impact on Scotland’s higher education sector.
“there is a need to solicit and respond to distinct research priorities and evidence requirements identified by the devolved administrations” and that
“it is essential that the Research Councils should play a strong role in…shaping research priorities and promoting the distinctive requirements of UK research, including in association with the devolved administrations.”
However, the Act and the formation of UK Research and Innovation do not meet the overarching principles in the Nurse report, because the governance of UKRI is accountable only to the UK Government, with principally English interests. Any piece of legislation that threatens Scotland’s research priorities and has the potential to damage the research funding that Scotland receives should be amended. We remain concerned that UKRI will encompass both cross-UK and England-only responsibilities, and that it will not necessarily take account of the devolved nations.
Abolishing the Director for Fair Access to Higher Education sends out a worrying message. In Scotland, the Scottish National party has long championed widening access, passing legislation to ensure access to higher education for those from the most deprived backgrounds. This Government need to look at what the Scottish Government are doing to widen access. The latest UCAS statistics show that a higher proportion of those from the least deprived areas who apply are successfully securing places at UK universities.
Given the problems that we have seen with the Office for Students, perhaps the UK Government should seek to rethink instead of ploughing on with this unpopular policy. The embarrassing Government U-turn earlier this year over Toby Young’s appointment shows how much of a shambles the management of the OfS has been. How can people have faith in it when it failed on day one? A report by the Commissioner for Public Appointments has sharply criticised the Department for Education and the Office for Students for failing to complete proper due diligence on Toby Young before his appointment as England’s new university regulator in January. The commissioner’s report concludes that the OfS’s board appointments, including Young, showed a “clear disparity” in the treatment of different candidates. It stated that parts of the process
“had serious shortcomings in terms of the fairness and transparency”.
It also states that there was a high degree of ministerial interference in Young’s appointment. This calls into question the integrity of the Office for Students from the very outset, and this must be looked into, alongside proper student representation at the OfS.
When we are talking about a commodity as valuable as education, we have to be really careful when we look at the marketisation of this sector. A constituent came to see me recently. He had come from England, although that is actually irrelevant. He had been through a number of private providers and he had spent thousands of pounds on qualifications that were effectively useless. This is the difficulty that we find when we open up higher education to marketisation. We must protect our education sector, and we must protect education as the valuable resource that it is. This Government would do well to look north to Scotland on this.
The simple fact is that universities and students need these regulations to be implemented. I am not sure that Angela Rayner mentioned the contents of this statutory instrument once in her remarks. They are transitional. The regulations are entirely sensible and intended to fill the regulatory gap that has been left following the abolition of the Higher Education Funding Council for England earlier this month. They enable the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation to take on the statutory functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and of the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education between now and July next year, after which the new regulatory system will be functioning.
Given that the hon. Lady spent her opening speech talking about the details of the OfS, it is fairly obvious that Labour Members’ opposition to these proposals has nothing to do with this statutory instrument at all. They have been vocal about their reservations on the OfS, and that is fine, but voting down this Bill will not change that. It will simply wreck the regulation of universities for the next 15 months, and it will be the students who suffer as a result. This is about the transition. It is a dry SI about the process; it is not about what we are transitioning to, a decision which has already been taken. Labour’s opposition to this SI is therefore totally misjudged. It is almost as though Labour Members saw the words “higher education” in the title of a piece of legislation and thought, “We can bash the Tories on this subject.”
If the regulations are annulled, students will ultimately lose out. They would no longer have vital protections to address concerns about governance, quality or financial sustainability in their education. They could face increased fees, because it is only these regulations that ensure that a cap on student fees remains in place.
My understanding is that the Office for Students is supposed to protect students’ interests. One of the things that students are most worried about is that, whereas the Bank of England charges bankers 0.5% on loans, the Student Loans Company will charge them over 6% next year. Does the OfS have the power to cut that interest rate in the interests of students?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but she totally misunderstands this legislation, which is not about the Office for Students or its powers. The Government have launched a review of higher education funding to find out whether what she suggests is something that we can or should do. That will be important going forward, but it is not what this SI is about.
The Opposition have talked repeatedly about standing up for students, continually claiming to be the voice of students and discussing their plans to abolish tuition fees, and yet here they are risking the cap on fees by opposing the regulations. Let us not forget that the Opposition does not have the strongest record on keeping education promises. Before the election, the leader of the Opposition said that he would “deal with” existing student debt. Afterwards, however, he told Andrew Marr that he did not make that commitment, that he would not write the debt off, and that he was unaware of the size of the debt. He made promises without knowing the full facts and ultimately realised that he could not deliver them.
The Opposition talk about tuition fees preventing people from going to university, but the truth is that more disadvantaged 18-year-olds are going to university under this Government than ever before. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds were 50% more likely to attend university in 2017 than they were in 2009 under Labour, and our results on this kind of social mobility compare favourably with other countries, such as Scotland where higher education is free.
My hon. Friend is exactly right that the legislation will ensure that we have regulation from the Office for Students over the next 15 months instead of a gap between now and the middle of next year.
The irony is that Labour’s position on tuition fees is the least socialist idea that I have ever heard. Labour ignores the figures that I have just shared and says that universities do not take enough students from poorer backgrounds and that they are for the rich. However, despite those assumptions, it proposes raising taxes to fund free university education.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. Labour proposes raising taxes for poorer people who do not get the benefit of higher education in order to fund free higher education for rich people. It is the opposite of socialism and the opposite of promoting social mobility. It is another totally illogical giveaway that looks nice on a leaflet but is totally illogical and undeliverable.
I am going to crack on and finish because I am nearly done.
Moving on from fees, without this agreement there is a risk that universities will not receive crucial grant funding. These transitional regulations enable the OfS to allocate £1.3 billion of teaching grants. Without this legislation, there would be no means to give out those grants and no provision to offer access agreements to support disadvantaged students in the next academic year.
I understand that the Opposition have reservations about how the OfS board has been set up and about appointments to it, but this is not the place to raise such issues. Those decisions have already been made, and their actions risk—[Interruption.]
I have one line left, so I am nearly there.
The Opposition’s actions risk creating a regulatory gap in the higher education sector and uncertainty for both students and universities. Ultimately, it is that uncertainty that we are trying to avoid, which is why I am supporting the Government today.
I am a former student union executive officer and NUS full-time elected officer. The Government are excluding student representation on entirely spurious grounds, so it is not an office for students but an office against students. On
The Government’s power grab is not being challenged by people in the sector, as they fear reprisals from Ministers, so it is for us in the Opposition to speak up for them. An anonymous vice-chancellor said:
“It is a huge problem if we feel we cannot criticise government. A lot of VCs feel that if they speak out they risk being ripped apart by the media. If there is a lack of leadership at UUK that is a massive problem.”
How have the Government managed to create both a culture and an institution akin to the Ministry of Love in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in which university vice-chancellors, the leaders of this country’s great institutions of learning and research, cannot speak out? In a modern democracy, that is a shameful indictment of the Government. This chapter, on how the state has treated universities in this country, will live long in the history of infamy. This motion is not only necessary but essential if we are to guard universities’ academic freedom. We must think again about how the Office for Students is constructed.
I understand but strongly disagree with the Government’s need to turn higher education into a complete market economy in which students do not fulfil their desire to learn and grow but are consumers there to fulfil a future economic need. There is a drive for deregulation, the free marketeers’ dream.
Does my hon. Friend accept that, as one vice-chancellor told me, there is at least a suspicion that we are moving back to the binary divide between the Russell Group and the new universities? That is a worrying development because it will play out in terms of value for money, and it will end up with the Russell Group charging higher fees and new universities having to charge lower fees.
I have a 1992 university in my constituency and I am a graduate and former student union officer of a Russell Group university, and I agree with my hon. Friend. The rot will set in when we start to have differential fees, which some of us here opposed at the time.
We need to create an institution that supports our bastions of learning, rather than one that tries to sanitise them. We need to transform how students view their institutions and the Office for Students. We need to view these institutions differently from other actors in the free market—they are not a shop or retail outlet but places where people come to learn and grow.
The hon. Gentleman is kind in giving way. Is his understanding of the motion the same as mine? If it is approved and the Office for Students is abolished, my understanding is that there will be no fee cap at all on providers, so all providers will be able to raise their fees. There is a control on fees at the moment because of the Office for Students. I am very worried about that, but I do not know whether he is.
I was here in July when we debated the statutory instrument on the fee cap, so SIs do come to the Floor of the House. The Office for Students needs to operate properly and enshrine academic freedom. That is what we need, and that is what the motion would achieve.
A bit of learning and growing by Government Members would be helpful. Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot amend SIs? We can only vote them down, and then the Government must table another one. We did not invent that process for this occasion.
My hon. Friend has been here far longer than me and it is good to know that lots of Members are learning about the statutory instrument process as we sit here and speak. I knew we could not amend an SI in the same way as we can amend primary legislation, but I am sure this is not going to be the end on this SI if the motion is defeated tonight. The Government may come back with a better offer, given the opportunity.
In conclusion, I just want to touch on the previous appointment to the regulator. On the marketisation of education, the Government chose to appoint their chief cheerleader in this transformation, Toby Young, a figure so abhorrent to the sector that he barely lasted a week. That is where we are with the governance of the OfFS. Today, we have our opportunity to start the fightback to get ourselves an Office for Students that is fit for purpose and to curb the Government’s enthusiasm for a consumer higher education market. We can start the journey back to universities as places where people want to go to grow and learn, and where people are not simply going to a sausage factory for this Government’s failed policies.
In the remarks of Angela Rayner, whose passion I admire, my colleagues will have been struck by her use of the phrase “ideologically driven, free market privatisation”. Those with particularly good memories will have heard those words some years ago. I refer, as I am sure you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the Second Reading debate on the Education (Schools) Bill on
“We shall vote against it this evening. We shall campaign against it and ensure that parents throughout Britain see the Bill as deeply damaging, because it is an ideologically driven privatising measure.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 199, c. 232.]
The exact same wording was used to describe the creation of Ofsted, which is now a part of the warp and weft of the education system and on which my constituents rely. Parents in our constituencies rely on it to look at standards in schools, which in itself drives up the standards in our schools. So the hon. Lady has got the wrong end of the stick, because the OfS is there to do the same thing.
We have to ask ourselves a simple question: what is the purpose of higher education? It is to deliver the best possible quality of education for our young people, so that they can stand on their own two feet and make the most of their talents. Some have an obsession with whether it is free—I agree there are concerns about the interest rate and the level of debt—but the purpose of education is what people get at the end of it and what it does to help them make the most of their lives. I want us to establish an OfS that drives up standards by bringing the same transparency that has applied from Ofsted, empowering students just as Ofsted empowers parents. It is a simple principle: driving up standards through competition. Labour Members do not understand it, which is why they are making the same mistake as they did in 1991, ranting about privatisation and ideology. They are the ones with the ideology: they are anti-quality and anti-aspiration.
As the first person in my family to go to university and to have made it from free school meals in an inner-city state school to the University of Cambridge, I am not taking any lectures from the Conservative party about being anti-aspiration. It is because so many of my constituents have high aspirations for their children to go on to high-quality technical education or high-quality higher education that I am so concerned about the direction of Government policy.
As much as Conservative Members come here this evening to accuse the Labour party of trying to bring down the OfS by daring to vote against the statutory instrument, they neglect to notice that this SI was not in place yesterday and yet the architecture of the higher education sector has not fallen apart. It is not in place today, yet the higher education sector still seems to manage to function. If they expect us to pass any old rubbish on the basis that we have to pass it or there will be calamity, I have to tell them that, unfortunately for the Conservative party, they did not win a majority at the last election, and they have to get used to winning arguments and to parliamentary scrutiny. Presumably, that is why they bring forward so little legislation; they realise that this House of Commons will not pass any old rubbish.
That brings me to the statutory instrument we are dealing with this evening. The Office for Students is the logical conclusion of a vision of a higher education system in which, as my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said, the market rules supreme and which seeks to reduce higher education to a commodity for students to purchase as consumers and trade in for future success in the workplace. We were promised that the Office for Students would be this great champion of consumers, but we have seen precious little evidence of that so far.
The tragedy is that the Government managed to find a well-respected chair of the Office for Students, who was the architect of the system and who believes in their vision of a consumer-driven higher education system. The problem for the chair of the Office for Students and its very capable poacher-turned-gamekeeper chief executive is that, because of politicisation by the Government and their sheer incompetence, the Office for Students has been left discredited by the political process that led to the composition of its board. How can they come here with a straight face and defend a process that was condemned by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, who found not only that assurances given to this place were incorrect, but that there was direct political interference by special advisers from 10 Downing Street?
The report by the Commissioner for Public Appointments on recruitment to the Office for Students highlighted several concerns about fairness and consistency in the appointment process. Will my hon. Friend comment on how students and universities can be expected to place any trust in that body as a regulator?
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, one of the things about the appointments process that has deeply damaged the standing of the OfS in the eyes of students was the insistence by Government political advisers that there should be no representatives from students unions or the National Union of Students on the board. The Government did not say, “We’re going to cast the net wide, and if we find a student who is more capable than an elected officer of the NUS or a students union, we’ll appoint them,” but instead effectively blacklisted the NUS and students unions. As a former president of the NUS, I think that is an absolute disgrace, not least because students who are elected have the confidence of the student body. They present manifestos about the issues that those they represent care about.
If the Government had listened a bit more to what students were saying, perhaps they would not be in the political mess they are in, not just with students but with their parents and grandparents, who are horrified that tuition fees have been trebled, that student grants for the poorest were abolished and that the education maintenance allowance for students in further education was scrapped. The Government have got themselves into a real mess by failing to listen to people who know best about higher education, which is the people who work in it and the people who learn from it. It is a disgrace that there is no NUS representative on the board of the Office for Students.
It is also a disgrace that there is no staff representative from the University and College Union. Recent events, particularly in the pensions dispute, have shown that the lack of effective dialogue between staff representatives and university leaders leads to students being severely disadvantaged, but we have barely heard a peep from the Government about that crisis. They seem to have their heads in the sand. It is deeply regrettable that the Office for Students has been so deeply damaged by politicisation in the run-up to its creation, and the Government should not be surprised that we wish to oppose this statutory instrument this evening.
Finally, let me gently say, without apology or any humility whatsoever, that many of the issues that have confronted the Government, particularly vice-chancellor pay and scrutiny and accountability, would easily have been dealt with had they accepted more amendments from me and my party’s Front Bench during the Higher Education and Research Bill Committee. I warned them that vice-chancellor pay was soaring out of control, and I proposed a modest amendment that would have put student and staff representatives on remuneration committees to better hold vice-chancellors’ pay to account, but that modest proposal was rejected by the Minister’s predecessor. The Government must be regretting that now. I also tabled an amendment that would have required universities to publish the ratios of the highest-paid to the lowest-paid at their institutions, to allow students, staff and the public to better hold them to account. That modest proposal was rejected as well.
As my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said, the truth is that, when it comes to championing the interests of students and making our higher education sector better, fairer and more equitable, the Government do not listen and do not act. I agree strongly with what the Chair of the Education Committee said about the lack of further education representation. If we are serious about a further and higher education system that is well placed not just to serve the needs of our future economy, but to champion social justice, the Government need to do a damn sight better than they have done with the creation of the Office for Students. They cannot expect an effective Opposition to wade through statutory instruments like this when the work beneath it is so shabby and poor.
We are blessed with great universities in this country and I welcome the expansion that we have had in the number of students attending university—50% of school leavers now go to university. That is truly welcome, but—there is obviously a but coming—not all universities are great and not all courses are great. In fact, only 32% of students say that they consider their university to be value for money. There is too weak a link between the funding of universities and the quality of teaching. Students deserve better and students want better. They want to make a more informed choice about the university that they go to.
Just last week, a sixth form student was doing work experience with me. She was weighing up a choice of two or three universities—one has a better reputation by word of mouth, but another does better in the data of the National Student Survey. She was using that information to make an informed choice, which is a very positive sign that we are providing students with better information about the options and that very important decision—a decision that will have lifelong consequences—on what university to go to.
What we know is that transparency and regulation drive up quality. For a student, that process will help to drive up the quality of what universities offer. My hon. Friend James Cartlidge talked about Ofsted. We know that Ofsted has done that for schools and that the Care Quality Commission has been and is doing that for healthcare. That is where the Office for Students comes in. As a new regulator, it is far more focused on students, on what students need and on the quality of teaching for students. The Labour party should welcome that new regulator. As we have the Minister is in his place, may I just say that the new regulator should go even further in what it looks at? It should go beyond looking at the quality of teaching to the wider experience of students and the outcomes for students. I ask him to consider extending its remit to include student well-being and mental health.
Although university is an exciting time, it is also an extremely challenging time for students. They are often living away from home for the first time. There are many transitions that they are making and they are taking much greater responsibility for themselves, and it can be a lonely and isolating time. More students are seeking help with their mental health, but not all are getting it. Not even a third of universities have a mental health and well-being strategy. Only 29% even monitor attendance, so they do not know what their students are doing. One sign of a student struggling will be that they are not attending lectures and tutorials.
I am very interested in what the hon. Lady is saying and I have sympathy with it. UA92, which I was talking about a few moments ago, makes great play of its emphasis on developing the character of its students—something that I know not all higher education institutions seek to do. Does she agree that it would be useful for the OfS to think of ways of measuring and evaluating that, too?
I agree. The OfS should include that in its remit and look at measuring not only quality of teaching, but the outcomes for students and what universities do for students’ well-being and mental health. There is work being done on this led by Universities UK and I would very much like for that to be taken up by the OfS.
In conclusion, in addition to the OFS’s very welcome focus on what students need and better quality of teaching, it should also look at the wider experience and outcomes for students.
The Minister will be aware that, as a former Minister, I am concerned about the loss of the Office for Fair Access and about whether access will continue to be an important theme under the new Office for Students. We have a lot to do, particularly on fair access to the Russell Group. The Minister will be aware of the work that I have tried to do, particularly in relation to Oxbridge. I look forward to going to Cambridge later this week to discuss in more detail what it is doing to get young people from the regions, particularly from the north of England, and particularly from poorer backgrounds and ethnic minority backgrounds. I have some faith, of course, in the leadership of Michael Barber and Nicola Dandridge, but it is right to say, as my hon. Friend the shadow Education Secretary indicated, that the Office for Students got off to a very bumpy start indeed with the Toby Young affair.
When the Minister gets to his feet, I hope that he might say something about further education in particular. A lot of Members across the House would say that, if someone has three or four children in this country and only one is academic, Britain is still one of the best places in the world in which to be born. But I do not think that any of us believe that this country has cracked it when it comes to vocational skills; we are a long way off. It is a mistake not to have FE represented in such an important body, which is regulator, funder and has important levers in relation to the provider. I do hope that the Minister will look again at the important role of FE, as has been suggested by the Labour Front-Bench team and the Chair of the Education Committee.
In an age where student satisfaction is everything—that journey began many years ago, when we decided to move towards a regime of fees—it seems paradoxical that the student voice is not as present in this new body as it probably should be. [Interruption.] The Minister nods from a sedentary position that it is. I look forward to him explaining how that is the case. If it is the case, why does he think that students should be afforded less of a status, frankly, than others who sit on the board?
That point has been raised a number of times during this debate. For the first time, there will be a regulator that will have a student panel and a student representative on the board. I was there for the inaugural meeting and those representatives are doing great work. The suggestion that the student voice is somehow not represented is simply inaccurate.
It was, in fact, the case that the president of the National Union of Students sat around the board table of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, so it is not true to say that what we have now is an improvement. We have a token student on the board of the OfS with no representative background whatever, and a talking shop that has no real teeth. That is not the same as having a board member.
When I walked into the Chamber and listened to the shadow Secretary of State, Angela Rayner, I thought for a moment that I had walked into the wrong debate. Although the Opposition prayed against the Government’s legislation, meaning that we had to have this debate on the Floor of the House, it took quite a long time for me to realise that she was actually speaking to her motion, because nothing that she said was relevant or bore any resemblance to its content. The motion is actually a very serious one that calls for the set of regulations before the House to be annulled, although she said that that was not the case at all.
This legislation should be a piece of good news for the House. For the first time in the age of the student—when students should no longer be grateful for the experience that universities dish out to them, but should have a champion for them—this Government have set up a new regulator to perform that role. But of course the Opposition chose not to recognise that, saying instead that we should annul the legislation.
The first point—I will speak specifically to the SI—is that annulling this legislation is unviable. It is unviable to continue with the existing legislation. That is because the Higher Education and Research Act—HERA—replaces the previous legislative framework for higher education that was established in 1992, when the sector was smaller and competition was limited. The majority of funding came from direct grants, to which HEFCE attached conditions. The situation now is fundamentally different. Of 131 higher education institutions funded by HEFCE until April this year, 90 receive less than 15% of their income directly from Government. Attaching conditions to grant funding is simply no longer a viable mechanism to deliver regulatory oversight and to protect students’ interests in the long term.
The Office for Students is an independent regulator that puts the interests of students and value for money at its heart. It stands for a new, outcome-driven approach to regulation that seeks to open up university opportunities to all, to enhance the student experience, to improve the accountability and transparency of providers, to promote the quality and flexibility of higher education choices, and, crucially, to protect students’ interests. The old system, to which the Opposition would like to return, is a recipe for state control of universities, and it would see a return to top-down planning of higher education and student number controls. This would be a fundamental undoing.
As the Minister will know, I wrote to him on the point raised by Helen Whately about the remit of the OfS. Does he recognise that if it is to be a champion for students, its remit needs to be more widely drawn? Does he recognise the point made by the all-party parliamentary group on students that adding a responsibility for wellbeing, with special regard to students’ mental health, would balance out the current remit and demonstrate that the OfS was more interested in putting students first? I regret, as he might perhaps recognise, that he did not respond directly to that point but simply passed it on to the OfS for comment. Will he take this opportunity to agree with the hon. Lady, with me and with many Members on both sides of the House that the remit needs to be broadened in this respect?
The remit of the OfS is already very broad. I passed the letter on to it for comment, as an independent regulator, and it is right for it to respond to the hon. Gentleman. I agree, however, that there is an issue around student wellbeing that needs tackling, whether via the OfS or via another route. It is something that we should be alive to. The Chairman of the Education Committee and Mr Lammy mentioned the role of further education, in particular. I assure them that the Secretary of State’s first set of strategic guidance to the OfS set a very clear expectation that apprenticeships must be taken into account whenever the OfS exercises its functions, and that apprentices must be represented within its widening access and participation activity. I note the points that have been made about the composition of the board.
However, the key point is that there is no going back. HERA has established the new Office for Students, which regulates in a very different way by imposing terms and conditions on providers that want to be on its register, and only registered providers can benefit from their students having access to student support. The OfS is already operational, and there is no going back. HEFCE has already been abolished, as has the Office for Fair Access. Both ceased to exist on
The Minister and I have corresponded about the impact of the recent strike on students and the fact that universities do not really have a financial incentive to settle the strikes because they get the tuition fees in and save money on the lecturers’ pay. A further question I have about the OfS’s remit is whether it will have the power to order the institutions to pay the students compensation.
The hon. Lady makes a perfect case for the OfS. The reason why the OfS could not have intervened in the recent strikes is that it did not exist statutorily at that point, but were the OfS to be in place, that is exactly the sort of issue it could take on and champion on behalf of students. That is why we have brought this legislation before the House.
Let me absolutely clear about the effect on students and providers alike if this motion is carried. First, students’ fees will be uncapped. While the amount of fees that students can be charged is set out in separate legislation, these transitional regulations ensure that until the new regime goes fully live on
Overnight, there would be no legal barrier to prevent students from being charged the same fees that providers charge to international students. What would that mean for students? In 2017, international students paid between £10,000 and £35,000 annually for lecture-based undergraduate degrees, and for undergraduate medical degrees some providers charge up to £38,000 per year. Simply put, a vote to annul these regulations is a vote to allow tuition fees to be increased without any upper limit.
Without fee caps, we lose access plans, because it is the incentive of being able to charge students up to the current higher fee cap that drives providers towards agreeing access plans. Without fee caps, that incentive is removed. Many Members in the debate have commented on the importance of access, especially to our elite universities, but a vote to annul these regulations is a vote to remove the key tools currently used to boost access and participation. We need an orderly transition to the new regulator.
The hon. Gentleman has already had his chance. Establishing a single regulator, which brings together the—[Interruption.]
Madam Deputy Speaker, you make a fine Chair.
Establishing a single regulator, which brings together the regulatory functions of HEFCE in relation to teaching in higher education with the statutory remit of the Director of Fair Access, delivers a significant change in ownership of responsibility for widening access and participation. It brings together the powers, duties, expertise and resources under the collective responsibility of the OfS and allows for a smooth and orderly transition.
In conclusion, during the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act, Members across the House debated long and hard about the future of higher education. Irrespective of different views about how we finance higher education or how it should be regulated, there will always be an imperative to ensure that students are getting a high-quality experience and positive outcomes from the time and effort they put into their education. This Government firmly believe that giving students real and well-informed choices is the most effective way to achieve that, and that the regulatory system should be designed to support healthy competition on a level playing field.
In attempting to annul these regulations, the Opposition are proving that they have no desire to give students more information, protection, choice or value for their money, and that they will bring nothing other than chaos and confusion for students and providers alike. While I am dismayed that the Opposition prayed against these regulations and did not even utter one sentence about them, I urge the House to vote for this important champion of students.
The House divided:
Ayes 211, Noes 291.