Higher Education and Research Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)

– in the House of Lords at 8:31 pm on 11th January 2017.

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Relevant Documents: 10th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Clause 2: General duties

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I have a couple of amendments in this group. Perhaps I may start by speaking to Amendment 34. I have great hopes for it. My noble friend earlier enjoined us to be broad in what we put into this part of the Bill and not to be too bogged down in detail. I do not think that we can get much broader than the public interest, but it would be an important addition to this part of the Bill.

There are some very important things which will not get done under the current wording. One of them is consideration of what sort of system is wanted and what demand is out there. What do students want to see happening? What do those who recruit students when they graduate want to see happening? What pattern of provision is emerging? What strategy should be pursued to develop the higher education system which the country as a whole wants and needs? This is really important, and one can see that the current system does not function or at least functions extremely slowly. I shall give noble Lords a couple of examples.

The American university system is based largely on the liberal arts model. That has been very slow to come into this country, although our best students are flooding across to study it in America because it is the only place they can find it. A lot of good students want to stay abroad and to use universities to explore new subjects. We tend to take the view that you go to a university to study history or physics, and that is what you should stick to, but that is not what we all need afterwards. I studied physics; I could jolly well have done with a bit of essay-writing to go with it, not to say public speaking and maybe a bit of business. It would have done a great deal of good, because how many physics students go on to be physicists? It is not that many. But we have admission arrangements that pay no attention to breadth in the way that American universities do. There is clearly a great demand among students for good courses in the liberal arts style. That demand is not being responded to with any sense of rapidity by the established university system. Being universities, they all have the breadth of teaching ability and subject spread which would enable them to offer such courses if they chose to do so, but there is no pressure in that way.

The other example is acceptance of BTECs. It is noticeable how difficult it is to predict whether a university will accept a BTEC for its courses. For example, Durham has a very prestigious business course which accepts BTECs, but the course in Exeter does not. Why? Is this the pattern of response that we want in our education system as a whole? We agree that we do not want to tell individual universities what to do, but perhaps the conclusion is that we want more good courses open to BTECs. There seems to be nothing in the Bill which allows the OfS to consider such matters, and there should be.

My second amendment in this group is Amendment 47. The simplest thing would be for me to wait for an answer on that from Minister, rather than my taking up time telling him things about it when I want to listen to what he has to say.

Photo of The Bishop of Birmingham The Bishop of Birmingham Convenor of the Lords Spiritual

My Lords, I regret that my friend the Bishop of Portsmouth is not in his place tonight, having been exhausted, I suppose, by leading the debate on the Armed Forces covenant on Monday. He has asked me to bring before your Lordships Amendment 58 which relates to the general duties of the Office for Students. This is in the context of warmly welcoming the Bill’s commitment to greater diversity and improved choices for students, both in the wider choice of the number of institutions and in course and subject. However, we believe it is vital also to have a variety of institution types with distinctive characteristics. There are many universities with a particularly distinctive character: for example, the cathedrals group of universities, and others such as Goldsmiths, which has a focus on creative studies. It is this fact that the amendment seeks to recognise and pay heed to.

Your Lordships may know that there are more than 100,000 students enrolled across the 16 cathedrals group institutions. Collectively, undergraduates, post- graduates and research students are making the cathedrals group about the same size as the university sector in Wales. We do not for a moment wish to press this amendment to a Division, but we hope that the Minister and his officials will be willing to look afresh at the inclusion of and provision for universities with a distinctive character.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in making my first contribution in Committee I should start by making a declaration of interests, but I hope noble Lords will forgive me if it does not include being a member of a university in any shape or form. I think this puts me in a distinct minority in this debate. I am president of the British Dyslexia Association and chairman of a company that deals with assistive technology. This is relevant to the amendment I have tabled, which suggests that disability should be included in the general duties here.

Disability in universities is in a rather strange place at the moment. At the start of last term, universities acquired a duty to deal with what is graded “bands 1 and 2” disability functions. They were supposed to receive some guidance. They have not received that guidance to date—or if they have they have had it incredibly recently. So they have a duty which they have not had before, which means they are doing something they have never done before. Should they be doing it? Yes, probably, because they are charging fees and they have a duty to make reasonable adjustment, which has been taken on by the disabled students’ allowance until this point. That has been removed, so they have to do it, so they will need some guidance.

The noble Lord pulled me up when I said at Second Reading that there was no guidance on this, saying, “Yes, there are duties in regulation”. There is no guidance on this situation because it has not occurred before. It is new; it started in September. I hope that at the end of this debate we will have a little more information about the state of the guidance that has been issued. If no duty is placed somewhere in the Bill, how long will this situation go on for and when will we update it? Whatever happened here, the cock-up school of history has another example of what can happen.

When it comes to other duties such as accessibility, universities do not have an unblemished record. I have had many letters coming across my desk saying, “I could not get into a lecture hall”. If you cannot get into a lecture hall to receive lectures you cannot be part of the main group. There are arguments on both sides. Perhaps the person was expecting a little too much and the duty of reasonableness may not have been covered, but such situations occur. The record is not perfect; there is a greater duty and we do not know what we are supposed to be doing.

I hope that through this amendment, which is currently a probing amendment, we will get some clarity. Simply saying that the problem will be taken care of somewhere else is not good enough. We must know. Some 20% of the population are reckoned to have a disability; 20% of the school population are reckoned to have special educational needs. Many of those will be covered by a disability, if not the social sector, and the cross-over between them is far too complicated to be gone into at this time of night. There is a problem here. Unless we are going to remove whole sections of society, we must have a commitment and a way of making sure that such a provision is enacted and disabled people are allowed in.

It is a complicated, varied sector, covering everything from mild dyslexia to quadriplegia—I know I have missed a lot of people by going sideways in that description. How is this duty to be recognised, where is it going to be recognised and are we going to make sure that people are up to date and doing the job correctly? Somewhere in the Bill it should be stated clearly that we have to get on with it, because at the moment there is no great consideration of this issue. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.

Photo of Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Crossbench

I have a number of amendments in this group and before talking to them generally I want to say how much I agree with almost everything that has been said so far in this short debate. The Minister and other noble Lords have on a number of occasions emphasised the importance of not getting too hung up on detail, not giving too many detailed and restrictive instructions to the OfS. My concern is with these general clauses, which define what sort of institution this is and its general remit. The problem is that the definition it is not general enough. So much of what is said is focused on the development of individual institutions—their financial health; their particular policies and progression statements.

I strongly support Amendment 58 because it would insert the word “diversity”. Surely what we want in a 21st-century higher education system is not simply choice between lots of institutions that are actually very similar but genuine diversity. I do not think, for reasons that I could bore your Lordships with for an hour but will not, that the current approach will generate diversity. It will generate new institutions but it will not in and of itself generate diversity.

It is absolutely critical that the central office that represents our Government has as one of its concerns the need to generate not just competition between similar institutions—not just choice between ever more institutions that look much the same—but genuine diversity. That will require quite a lot of thought and active intervention—pump-priming, whatever. Many of these amendments, including those that have my name on them, are about the need to secure and improve the overall strength and quality of higher education provision in England, to maintain confidence in the higher education sector as a whole.

I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. It has to be about not just the financial health of individual institutions but the financial health and viability of the higher education sector. You have to look at whether or not institutions are in a position to generate new ideas and new courses and, if they are not, what the OfS can do about it. It must look at this more broadly and not just at individual institutions. Unless it does so, new courses are not likely to come up because the safe approach is always to do more of what other people are doing—maybe a bit more cheaply or with more effective marketing, but basically to continue the pattern of the past few years, which is that we get more and more alternative providers but they all offer the same thing.

I hope—and I would like to hear from the Minister—that in the final version of the Bill there will be far more at the top, where the OfS board will look at it, so that everybody will be clear that this is what this institution is about and there is far more about the OfS’s duty to the sector and to the country as a whole, to take a leading role and, above all, to look not just at competition in a narrow sense but at securing genuine, high-quality diversity. I look forward to hearing from the Minister whether the Government are minded to think about this.

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour 8:45 pm, 11th January 2017

My Lords, I declare an interest as pro-chancellor of Lancaster University. I fear that noble Lords may feel that I have worked out my line with the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, because it is very similar to hers in its thrust.

I am not against competition per se. I am in favour of it. There is a lot of competition in the university sector as it is. My own institution is deeply competitive in trying to recruit students within a group of universities which it sees as its prime competitors. For instance, we have to invest an awful lot in our high-quality management school if we are going to continue to attract the international students who are so important to our income. Let us not pretend that we do not have competition. We have a lot of it. On the whole, at present it is healthy.

If we are to have more competition, it must not be bargain basement competition at the bottom end of the market, trying to erode margins in the cheap-to-teach subjects—let us put it like that—because ultimately that would undermine the viability of the university sector as a whole. Therefore, when we are talking about competition, the duties ought to have a heavy emphasis on innovation. I would like to see more competition in the area of new courses and institutions that reach out to people who have had apprenticeships and give them a ladder of opportunity into degrees. I would like to see more innovation in trying to attract to university people who are bright but have not succeeded in our conventional education system. There is a strong role for innovation but it has to be guided and managed. I would be horrified by the possibility that the OfS should think that competition should override all other considerations.

I do not have a word formula to meet these requirements, but this requires thought. I would like to hear from the Minister whether the Government share the concerns that the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, and I and others have expressed in this debate, and to hear that they emphatically do not think that the promotion of competition should override other objectives. My noble friend Lord Stevenson spoke to his amendments on having regard to the public interest. I would like to see a provision on having regard to the financial sustainability of the sector as a whole. Such amendments are very important, as we have to have balance on this question.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I have added my name to amendments in this group as set out by the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Lucas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf. I also support Amendment 57, as introduced by my noble friend Lord Addington. They relate to the general duties of the Office for Students and reflect some of the concerns over the unprecedented powers of this new body. We have already addressed the issues in Amendment 41 to do with part-time study and lifelong learning.

Amendment 42 comes from MillionPlus, which is the Association for Modern Universities and has as much interest as anybody in maintaining confidence in the sector, which they have all joined relatively recently, and promoting the reputation which has been hard earned and needs to be protected.

Of the other amendments in the group, Amendment 43 is on the provision of higher education which meets the vocational and professional needs of the students. In the 20 years that I worked for City & Guilds, my work involved linking in with universities, professional bodies and the higher reaches on trying to gain transferability and acceptance for different types of awards. Anything that can be done to try to promote that transferability between types of qualification has to be commended—particularly, I suppose, in view of the degree apprenticeships coming up. Again, recognition of vocational achievement within an academic context there would surely be for the good.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, has introduced amendments on supporting and working with student representatives. As we have addressed previously, if the Office for Students is to live up to its name it would be quite useful if students had something to do with it. Amendment 67 suggests that they could even have current experience of being a student.

The amendments on the financial health and viability of the sector are all self-explanatory and seem good. My last comment is on the right reverend Prelate’s amendment. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, about the importance of diversity and how having providers with a denominational characteristic has to be a good part of the mix that we are trying to promote in higher education.

Photo of Lord Willetts Lord Willetts Conservative

My Lords, I would like to comment on some of the interventions we have heard expressing concerns about alternative providers. Sometimes, it has been an unhappy story and alternative providers have not delivered what they were supposed to but some of the criticisms are unfair, for two reasons.

First, we should remember that these organisations have no access to research funding or funding for higher cost subjects, so there is a large range of university activities for which they have no access to public funding to engage in. In fact I know that for some of them, their grievance is that they would rather like to have access to some of these strands of funding so that they could provide a greater range of subjects.

Secondly, it is not entirely true to say that they are all of a sort. In my experience, they are quite astute at identifying where there are gaps in provision. For example, modern music is not a subject which is particularly accessible and well taught in higher education institutions. If you want some qualifications of higher education standard for modern music, you by and large go to an alternative provider. Many of them have focused on vocational courses. There is increasing interest in alternative models for delivering medical education. I am being wary as I see the noble Lord, Lord Winston, is poised but there is beginning to be debate about whether medical education could do with some innovation, and some new providers would like to come in.

The argument on this was very well set out at the time of Robbins. There was a lively debate then about new ways of delivering higher education, and the conclusion of some of the leading universities at the time and of the UGC was that the best way to get innovation in higher education was to allow in new institutions to deliver it, as that was a better way of achieving it than expecting the existing ones to do things differently. The new Robbins universities were of course set up without any prior track record. They got university title straightaway and came in with great ambitions for doing things differently.

As we go through these clauses there are lots of genuine concerns, which we need to focus on, about the weight given to competition and collaboration. I may come to those when we debate those clauses, but we should just remember that the story of the advance of British higher education is successive waves of new entrants coming in and doing things differently. That is why we have the diversity that we currently celebrate, and we should, as a minimum, expect it to be as possible in the future for new entrants to come in as it was at the time of Robbins and of the great Victorian reforms.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

My Lords, I am glad I am following rather than preceding the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, because the point I wanted to make was about geographical diversity. Mindful of the injunction he gave earlier on that we do not want to load still more duties and responsibilities on the Office for Students, I am not suggesting that there should be an amendment on this, but it is very important that the OfS, and indeed public policymakers at large, have regard to the importance of fostering and improving the geographical diversity of our higher education institutions. One of the things that is surely clearest to those of us who have been engaged in the big and increasingly challenging debate on regional regeneration is the importance of higher education institutions in the regions serving a steadily higher proportion of our larger communities across the country.

What is interesting about Robbins is that of the big developments in the 1960s, although it is true that there was some significant innovation in terms of the type of higher education being introduced, by far the biggest and best example was not in fact a Robbins institution but the Open University, which was quite strongly opposed by some of the established institutions at the time. It was only—how can I put it?—a significant exertion of prime ministerial power on the part of Harold Wilson, along with Jennie Lee, that got the Open University going.

Photo of Lord Willetts Lord Willetts Conservative

I completely accept the heroic success of the Open University. But is the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, saying that he very much welcomes the fact that it got university title straightaway?

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

The OU was a wise and sensible innovation, although there is a wider issue here of alternative providers and profit against trustee status, which I will come back to. The 1960s universities were of course set up on the trustee model. The most significant change that Robbins made was not innovation in terms of types of university, but in extending university institutions to large parts of the country where they either had not existed at all before or could offer only other people’s degrees. The University of London was basically the institution which enabled large parts of the country to have any higher education system at all in the past.

Three years ago, on behalf of the North East local enterprise partnership, I was asked to lead a review of policies to promote economic regeneration in the north-east. One of the things that became clearest to me in our work was that the single most important class of public institutions, in terms of fostering regeneration and innovation in the north-east, were the five universities in the region. Without them, what was an exceptionally challenging area for growth, innovation, the location of businesses and creating higher education opportunities would be in a much worse condition. Underlying this, a particular issue which we face as I see it in the higher education sector is the propensity of students, particularly those from less-advantaged backgrounds, to study at local universities rather than to aspire to go to national universities. If the local universities are not there or do not themselves offer the quality—there will often not be a choice there because of the nature of their communities —then there are no higher education opportunities at all in those communities. When it comes to objectives for public policy for the period ahead, maintaining and enhancing the geographical diversity of high-quality institutions is hugely important.

This leads me directly to the issue of alternative providers. I have read the Higher Education Policy Institute’s report on alternative providers, published last week, which has some astonishing statistics: it said there were 700 with 300,000 students, more than 100 of which have access to fee loads. So it is a very large sector—it is just that these providers are predominantly in London and the south-east. That is not really surprising, when you think about the professional networks in communities and so on. However, the area where we seem to need significant improvements in quality and diversity in the offer is in other parts of the country, where in particular there is much less propensity on the part of students to travel than on the part of students in London and the south-east, and where the concept of the local university is often the difference between students being prepared to go into higher education at all or not proceeding. In terms of the things that the OfS should have regard to, in its regulatory role it will play quite a big role in seeking to encourage a market in alternative providers that is geographically diverse, and maintaining and enhancing the existing diversity of our institutions is hugely important.

That leads me to what the right reverend Prelate said about the role of denomination providers. One of the great virtues of the Church of England is that it is a national institution that regards itself as having a mission in all communities. As we have this ever-greater suction towards London and the south-east, that aspect is important. Allying institutions with a powerful social mission—such as the religious communities, which are located community-by-community across the country and are not simply regionally based—to the great cause of opportunity and higher education is hugely important. They will have a big and perhaps increasingly important role in introducing and enhancing the quality of higher education to communities that are not advantaged and which are distant from London.

Photo of Baroness Brown of Cambridge Baroness Brown of Cambridge Crossbench 9:00 pm, 11th January 2017

My Lords, I shall speak to a couple of issues. First, although I generally support the reasons behind the amendments in this group, I have to express some concern about what I infer from the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who was speaking about the role that the OfS might play in encouraging universities to take students with different qualifications. Until recently I was vice-chancellor of Aston University, which has the outstanding Aston Business School, which does indeed take students with BTECs. However, our experience at Aston Business School was that these were the students who were least likely to succeed in that course. They had the highest rate of third-class degrees and failures. They had real problems with the mathematical elements of the economics in the business degree, such that we put on a lot of additional teaching to try to assist them through it. It is very important that universities are allowed to set their own admissions criteria because their curricula will require different things of the students who attend. It is important to indicate to students what is going to be needed to get through those courses.

I therefore have a lot of sympathy with Exeter over not taking students with BTECs for the curriculum that it teaches. Aston and, I think, Durham are able to, but I am sure that they do so by providing additional help. I encourage the Minister to stick to what Clause 2(4) says—that the guidance from the Secretary of State must not relate to the criteria for the admission of students or how those criteria are applied—because that is hugely important to the autonomy and independence of our universities.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness: it absolutely is not interference with an individual university; it is looking at the system as a whole and saying, “We need to do something about providing better courses for people coming out of school with BTECs”, if we have decided that BTECs are what schools are providing. BTECs are just being upgraded to address some of the problems, and I hope that works, because clearly there are problems with the old syllabus. Universities have to take their own decisions but the OfS surely ought to be looking at the system as a whole and changing the provision somewhere, because the system as a whole is not meeting people’s needs.

Photo of Baroness Brown of Cambridge Baroness Brown of Cambridge Crossbench

I thank the noble Lord for that clarification, which I strongly support.

I shall speak briefly to Amendment 56, in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Wolf. The Office for Students is tasked with promoting quality. Promoting quality seems a modest ask, and we feel that the Office for Students should be given a more dynamic and assertive challenge—not just to see that a particular objective or standard has been reached, but to be active in ensuring that quality is delivered in an environment of continuous improvement. We urge the Minister to consider some more active wording about the need to secure and improve the overall strength and quality of higher education provision in England, with a stress not just on ensuring quality but continuing to improve it.

Photo of Baroness Cohen of Pimlico Baroness Cohen of Pimlico Labour

My Lords, I support the amendments. I would like to see something more definitive in this package of clauses. One of the most important developments in higher education is the growth of the degree-level apprenticeship. It has not had the fair wind that it deserves, but it is immensely important, because people come out of it without debt and, usually, with a good job, but there is a distinct feeling that it is looked down on as being in some way trade training rather than degree level. I have 2,000 such students in my university and we expect to expand, not as a matter of principle but in response to huge demand. There is very little in the Bill about degree-level apprenticeships, and perhaps there is not meant to be, but since it is such an enormously important development, I would like something in the Bill to say that we will encourage it.

That goes along with geographical diversity. We have eight establishments all over England—again driven, I fear, not by social purpose or a plan but by the market. We discovered that we had students coming to London who did not mean to be there. They were making great sacrifices to be in London and a lot of them seemed to come from York or Leeds. We thought that the local profession would have welcomed them and given them a hand to get started. So I fear that demand did that but, as many noble Lords have said, you cannot expect everybody to travel to London or the great southern centres to go to university. It is enormously helpful to a locality to have a decent university. Much of the demand for degree-level apprenticeships will not be in London; it will be outside London and geographically spread. I am looking for a way to say this in the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Labour

My Lords, several of the amendments seem linked to some of the issues that we were discussing on Monday. That is, there is a sense of unease in the sector that the system is not being looked at in a holistic way. That came through in an awful lot of the evidence that went, first, to the Commons Select Committees, but also came to us in this House, in the form of the briefing we received. I very much focus on the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on promoting choice and serving the public interest. It is entirely right to expect universities to serve the public interest, and it is a role for the Office for Students to try to ensure that they do that as a sector, particularly with regard to the need to maintain confidence in the UK’s higher education sector. There is a real anxiety that some of the major changes in the Bill will rather undermine the sector rather than maintain confidence in it.

I have one anxiety, which we can come back to later, about the role of OFFA. When I asked the civil servants whether there were any changes, and what the difference was between the new Office for Students and HEFCE, they did not perceive that there were any real, or major, differences. But there is one difference on which we should focus, and I hope the Minister will consider this—that is, the role of HEFCE as it is now, which I hope the Office for Students will be able to take on board, of reflecting the needs and interests of the sector to government, not necessarily formally but certainly to ensure that there is an unasked-for dialogue. I hope that the Office for Students, in knowing the sector as it will, will be able to transfer that to government. It all goes to the sense of maintaining confidence in the sector and the public that they are getting the value for money that their taxes, having been spent on higher education, really deserve.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

The question has been raised with me as to whether the provisions of Clause 2, in preventing an intervention by the Secretary of State, may have the effect of preventing the Secretary of State coming in to try to support vulnerable subjects. We know that some subjects are very important—for example, physics—yet they are quite expensive to teach. So in the interests of economy, institutions might be inclined to abandon courses in these subjects. The restrictions on the Secretary of State are not, I think, intended to exclude that kind of provision, but I should like confirmation of it.

The other thing that I want to mention relates to Amendment 56, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Wolf and Lady Brown, about,

“the overall strength and quality of higher education provision”.

I am wondering what the “strength” aspect of higher education is. I would be glad of some clarification.

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for Education) (Higher Education)

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for a thoughtful and wide-ranging debate—a debate in two halves, or one-quarter and three-quarters. I must make sure that the House remembers the eloquent speech from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, before the dinner break. I hope to do justice in responding to all the important issues raised, and on this occasion I make no apologies for speaking for slightly longer on this group. For those areas where I do not have time to go into detail, I shall write a letter.

The Government are keen to ensure that the general duties afford the OfS the ability to make sound judgments and take action according to priorities. It is essential that this legislation sets out a high level of core priorities for the OfS but does not burden it with a long list of specific duties that it must attempt to balance without sufficient flexibility to be responsive as priorities change. The noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Liddle, raised the issue of ranking and the prioritisation of duties, which is a fair point, but I reassure them and other noble Lords that there is no implied ranking in the list of OfS duties in Clause 2. They are all important and must be considered in the balance. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that the competition duty must not override other duties. Clause 2 is deliberately drafted with that in mind. There is no hierarchy, and no obligation to prize one of the listed matters over any other. Ultimately, this approach is very much at the heart of optimising the effectiveness and breadth of the future OfS. A discretion is given to the OfS to decide how to weigh matters in the balance in individual cases. The OfS must be able to use its judgment on how best to balance regard for these duties. It must be able to take strategic action and be responsive to priorities, while still retaining accountability for ensuring that no duties are unduly neglected.

I will now focus on quality and confidence, specifically Amendments 42, 50, 56 and 264. Several of these are aimed at ensuring the quality of and confidence in our higher education sector. I support the sentiment behind these amendments entirely. Quality is the cornerstone that will maintain and perpetuate confidence in our world-class higher education sector. This is not the first time that we have faced concerns about allowing entry of low-quality providers to the higher education sector; my noble friend Lord Willetts cited Robbins and the innovation in the higher education sector. The argument has been just as rife, and certainly just as baseless, in every era of higher education expansion, be it the 1820s or 1992. These concerns were not borne out in the past and nor will they be now.

I reassure noble Lords that Clause 2 already requires the OfS to have regard to the need to promote quality, so the proposed amendments are somewhat duplicative of provisions already made in the Bill. What is essential is that the effect of the provisions within the Bill are sufficient to maintain that confidence. Unlike the OfS, HEFCE is not explicitly required to have regard to the issues in Clause 2 and thus the Bill goes further than ever before in promoting quality and therefore safeguarding confidence. I believe that the existing Bill provisions will offer sufficient assurance that the OfS will be obliged to deliver the outcome of maintaining confidence in the higher education sector.

In the new regime, a provider must meet tough quality and financial sustainability and good governance criteria, and undergo a rigorous scrutiny process to test the quality of its academic provision, as set out clearly in the Bill’s conditions of registration for providers. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said that providers would be more likely to exit or fail and that the OfS therefore needs a duty to maintain confidence in awards. Under our reforms, if a provider is not financially stable, it will not be able to apply for degree awarding powers.

Although we plan to consult on the detailed criteria and process for obtaining degree-awarding powers, we imagine that they will not deviate significantly from those already in place and are certain that any difference will not compromise quality. The level of detail required, however, would not be desirable to include in primary legislation. In addition, any new degree-awarding powers will be issued on a time-limited basis in the first instance. In the unlikely event that it is needed, the OfS could revoke degree-awarding powers, following due process and subject to rigorous safeguards including an appeals process—something which I spoke about on the first day in Committee. It has always been the case that degree-awarding powers can be lost. Alternative providers are granted renewable degree-awarding powers on a six-year basis. Renewal is subject to the Government being satisfied that the quality of those degrees has been sustained.

I turn to Amendment 49 and financial health. Confidence in the sector is also a product of its financial sustainability and we completely agree that students have the right to expect that any higher education provider that benefits from having access to public money should be in robust financial health. Our White Paper was explicit that the OfS should perform a similar role to HEFCE in assuring financial sustainability and health. We have listened to concerns that this needed to be strengthened.

The new clause that we introduced in the other place gives the OfS a statutory duty to monitor and report publicly and to Parliament on the financial sustainability of providers and the sector. As set out in Clause 62, the OfS will also rigorously check the financial health of all providers that will be in receipt of government funding, either directly or indirectly, prior to their registration, and these providers will also be required to have student protection plans. The Government believe that these measures, taken together, provide a sound basis for assuring the financial health of the sector.

I shall now address a point on public interest that was raised by my noble friend Lord Lucas who again showed a thoughtful approach to his amendments. The Government invest substantial amounts of public money into the higher education system and government Ministers, as legitimate, democratically elected representatives of the people, have an absolute commitment to ensure that the system is working in the public interest.

Furthermore, the general duties of the OfS to promote choice, competition and equality of opportunity and to ensure value for money all constitute different and important facets of the public interest. Therefore, in delivering these duties, the OfS will operate in a way which ensures that the higher education sector operates in the public interest, as we would expect it to do.

I turn to another important subject—diversity in higher education—and to Amendments 30, 43, 51, 52 and 57, which aim to ensure that a diverse range of higher education provision is available to all. This is something that this Government wholeheartedly support, and it is our intention that, through the reforms set out in the Bill, the diversity of our world-class higher education system is not only maintained but strengthened. By diversity, I mean not only the diversity of the types of provider and subjects that is key in supporting student choice but also the diversity of provision as regards the format of study options available, such as part-time. The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, referred to diversity and said that it could be as well as or instead of choice. However, I reassure her that we also see this as being about having a wide range of different choices available for students.

The Government recognise that one of the real strengths of our higher education system is the ability of institutions to determine their own missions as either multidisciplinary institutions or as institutions specialising in particular courses such as the performing arts or theology, as highlighted in the amendment tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth but spoken to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham. I thank him for his contribution. He spoke about the inclusion of, and the provision of, universities with specific characters. Without going into further detail, I would be delighted to offer him a meeting with officials to hear more about our plans in that respect. In order to protect this type of specialist provision, we made an amendment in the other place to make it clear that the Secretary of State cannot give guidance to, or impose terms and conditions or directions on, the OfS which would require it to make providers offer, or stop offering, particular courses.

The Bill will also allow the OfS to build on the valuable work HEFCE has undertaken in recent years on the issue of “cold spots”. As part of its existing duty on student choice, the OfS will have a remit to be aware of local cold spots and take action if necessary. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, raised the question of diversity and geography. Encouraging, and responding to demand for, new entrants in new areas is very much an important part of our reforms—something that I think the noble Lord is certainly aware of. New providers are already coming forward in cold-spot areas that will be able to take advantage of our reforms. The often- mentioned Dyson Institute of Technology in Wiltshire and the New Model in Technology & Engineering in Herefordshire are two cases in point.

Amendment 57, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, concerns the important issue of access for disabled students. I know that he has assiduously promoted the need to ensure that the rights of disabled people are looked at by government. Widening access and promoting the success of disadvantaged students is also a priority for this Government and will be a key part of the remit of the Office for Students. The OfS has a duty to have regard to equality of opportunity in connection with access and participation in higher education for all groups of students, including, importantly, those with disabilities. There is already a strong legal framework in place which protects individuals with disabilities and their right not to be discriminated against.

Higher education institutions are responsible for complying with the law in terms of promoting equality and making reasonable adjustments for disabled people under the Equality Act 2010, and we expect universities to fulfil their responsibilities under the Act. So a range of statutory arrangements already in place promote access to higher education for those with disabilities. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who made a passionate speech in this respect, might say that he has heard this before. However, I will go further and say that the Government have facilitated a sector-led group to draw all this guidance together to help providers to respond to the changes to disabled students’ allowances, and this will be reported shortly. I hope that he will know that we are taking action in this respect.

Photo of Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Crossbench 9:15 pm, 11th January 2017

Perhaps I may raise one point for clarification. I think the Minister just referred to the public sector equality duty, which of course would in any case apply to any university that is indeed a public body. I accept the point that perhaps no supplementary and additional clauses are needed there to ensure proper and fair treatment of students with disabilities. However, I am not quite certain how that would apply to an English higher education provider that is not a public body but a private one. Can the Minister clarify that point?

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I do not know what the answer is but I suspect that there is a duty under the Equality Act. I point out to the Minister that the fact that everything has changed because of the DSA and because the guidance is not in place has driven this. That is my concern. We are already a term late with something that is a fundamental shift. This should have been addressed months ago and has not been. I would be prepared to meet with any officials or to do anything that gives more clarity here. This whole sector needs to know. The British Dyslexia Association’s helpline is probably the biggest proof that there is a problem here, as it hears from a lot of very worried people who want to know what is going to happen to them, and institutions that do not know what to do.

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for Education) (Higher Education)

On this particularly important but sensitive subject I take note of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. If I can create a broad sweep around this subject, it might be helpful for us to arrange a meeting to ensure that we can give both noble Lords and indeed the Committee confidence that we are looking seriously at how, under the new framework, the disabled are properly looked after and monitored during their period at providers, including universities.

On the question of vocational education and Amendments 43 and 47, these amendments recognise the importance of ensuring a joined-up vocational education sector to deliver the opportunities and skills for learners and to drive economic productivity. The higher education sector has an important role in providing both academic qualifications and vocational and technical skills to deliver the capabilities needed by employers. The duties on the OfS to have regard to the need to promote quality and greater choice and opportunities, and the need to encourage competition, are applicable broadly across the range of higher education provision. This includes vocational and professional higher education courses, linking in with the Government’s post-16 skills plan and apprenticeships to ensure that we have a comprehensive academic and technical skills offer.

To reassure my noble friend Lord Lucas, who tabled Amendment 47, it will be important for the Office for Students to co-operate appropriately with a range of other bodies, including the Skills Funding Agency and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, and Clause 58 makes specific provision to enable this.

Finally, I will say a brief word about student involvement in the OfS, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. We have already discussed this with regard to other amendments and have acknowledged it though the amendment introduced in the other place which guarantees dedicated student representation on the OfS board. Students are at the heart of the OfS and our wider reforms; I have said that before and I think it is generally acknowledged. We have been listening and will continue to listen to students throughout implementation, and the OfS will embed student engagement, in all its forms, throughout its work.

We have covered a wide range of issues in this debate and I am grateful to noble Lords for their considered contributions. I maintain that it is essential that the legislation sets out the high-level priorities for the OfS while providing sufficient flexibility to respond to changing priorities. I am confident that Clause 2 on the whole delivers our shared aim of ensuring that we maintain our world-class, diverse and inclusive higher education system in the interests of students and taxpayers. However, I can assure noble Lords that the Government will reflect further on several of the issues raised by these amendments as the Bill progresses through this House. In the meantime, I hope that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 9:30 pm, 11th January 2017

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions and I particularly thank the Minister for his very full response, which has gone some way down the path of trying to reassure us, although we will probably have to pick up one or two points that he made in the debate on the next group. I should like to end with my thoughts for him to take away and reflect on. I will not make the usual pun about whether they will be taken note of—although it seems that I just did.

The Minister’s argument for not putting more ambitious wording into Clause 2 seemed to be that there were already sanctions in place if, in the event, institutions did not do what was required. I find that a bit weak. I think that it would be more helpful if there were a bit more aspiration in Clause 2 and a bit less about the process, and I ask him to reflect on that.

The Minister also implied that many of the obvious day-to-day operations of the OfS and its ancillary work would clearly be in the public interest. However, you can never rely on that—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, before he left his place. The public interest is important, as has been said by a number of people around the Committee, including the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I think there is a case for having the public interest mentioned in at least one of the provisions—perhaps in Clause 2(1)(b).

The whole discussion on the remit is not really about the financial health of the institutions concerned—again, there are processes in place for that—but about how to inculcate into the OfS, as it is set up, the sense of wanting to see academic vitality across the country and new institutions in the right places in the country, or a sense of innovation, which the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, talked about. Of course, he is right that the waves of change that came through were very impressive and produced a step change each time. However, in thinking about that he may want to bear in mind that we also lost a lot when some of the institutions—such as the polytechnics—set up in the shadow of the Robbins movement ceased to be polytechnics and lost some of the drive that was specific to that activity. In a sense, that is part of my worry about the clause—that it does not quite get us all the way to an all-inclusive and all-embracing style of higher education, including everything that is currently there and, without disrupting the existing arrangements, making plenty of space to bring in new people. However, the Minister has agreed that he will reflect on that and, on that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 29 withdrawn.

Amendments 30 to 32 not moved.

Amendment 33

Moved by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara

33: Clause 2, page 1, line 12, at end insert—“( ) the need to promote collaboration between English higher education providers where it is in the public interest and the best interest of students and employers,( ) the need to promote innovation in the provision of higher education by English higher education providers where it is in the public interest and the best interest of students and employers,”

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, we move to the other half of the discussion on Clause 2, which is primarily about competition and collaboration, as indicated in the Marshalled List and the groupings, although there are a number of sharper amendments around them. I shall not go through them in detail: they are basically about trying to prioritise collaboration and development and to reduce the reliance on competition.

We have already had a debate in which the Minister made it clear that the various points in Clause 2 are to be taken as a whole. Therefore, it could be argued that there is no need to worry about the problems created by competition or the fact that collaboration is not given a high enough position among the priorities. Nevertheless, if people read the clause from beginning to end, they will come across some words earlier than others that will be bound to set the tone. Therefore, these amendments—others will speak to the bits that they are most interested in—are interesting in that they try to give a sense that these measures must leave the sector with a predisposition to work together and the idea that, if they do work together, there will be benefits, and through that collaboration quality will be improved. For instance, Amendment 45 would explicitly encourage collaboration and innovation. You can say that that is not necessary but, if it were included in Clause 2, it would clearly make a difference. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Brown of Cambridge Baroness Brown of Cambridge Crossbench

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 35 and 37 in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Wolf. In doing so, I want to support the intent of Amendment 33 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. As we have heard, universities are, by their nature, highly competitive; the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, commented on this on Monday and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, reinforced the point today. They compete for the best students, the best academic staff and research funding, and they compete particularly fiercely for positions in the large range of existing ranking and league tables, and in particular for positions in the National Student Survey.

Much of this competition benefits students. For example, the importance of doing well in the areas of the National Student Survey that concern assessment and feedback has meant, in almost every university in the country, that students now have their work marked and returned much more quickly than they used to a couple of years ago. There is now a real focus on doing that in a timely manner so that students get good feedback on modules in which they are weak so that they can use it for revision and to ensure that they are well prepared for examinations. Clearly, competition in many forms strengthens the student experience.

Collaboration between institutions is also hugely important. Let me give noble Lords some examples. When I was director of engineering for the marine business at Rolls-Royce, we made use of a modular Masters in marine engineering and technology that was developed by a group of very distinguished universities, mainly in the north-east of England. Students could register at any one of the institutions for their degree and assemble a bespoke course, with specialist modules across the institutions. It was a collaboration that worked for industry and for students.

Collaboration and the sharing of best practice in the area of efficiency and effectiveness, as reported in Professor Sir Ian Diamond’s reviews, has enabled universities to reduce back-office costs, share access to expensive teaching facilities and invest in new infrastructure in recent years. Again, this is of direct benefit to students. Birmingham City University, Aston University and the University of Birmingham—all the universities in Birmingham—continue to collaborate on a joint outreach programme into schools across the city. It is a collaboration that supports widening participation and university access for some of Birmingham’s least advantaged children.

I argue that students, employers and our economy will benefit directly from this type of collaboration—and we want to see more of it, not less. To focus on competition in the absence of collaboration could slow the rate of improvement and innovation in our higher education system. I urge the Minister to ensure that the Office for Students has regard to the need to encourage both competition and collaboration between HE providers. This will be in the interests of students, employers and our economy.

Photo of Lord Jopling Lord Jopling Conservative

My Lords, over the past 30 years, I have spent a good deal of my parliamentary time involved with international bodies such as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, with which I am still quite heavily involved. I have become, at those organisations, exasperated sometimes by the capacity of members to put down a series of amendments to motions that amount in many ways to decorating a Christmas tree—I have always described it as such and have had my leg pulled about it. Looking at the two paragraphs in Amendment 33, I question whether the main part of what they are driving at is already covered in the various subsections of Clause 2.

It may be that on reflection the Government will feel that way about some of these amendments. For instance, I would have thought that a great deal of,

“the need to promote collaboration”,

was covered by subsection (1)(b) on encouraging competition—not all of it, but most of it. Again,

“the need to promote innovation”,

is largely covered in subsection (1)(a), which refers to,

“the need to promote quality, and greater choice and opportunities”.

Rather than making this clause a sort of Christmas tree, I hope that the Government will look at these amendments to see if anything useful can be added to the Bill—but if they are not necessary, please do not bother.

Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour

My Lords, forgive me if I add a slightly dissonant note to this conversation about collaboration. The sentiments behind it are absolutely wonderful and I agree that the collaboration over outreach for example in Birmingham and over outreach and public engagement at the University of Bath are two very good examples of where it works. But essentially—and with respect to my Front Bench, who have done a fantastically good job at looking at some of the issues raised by the Bill—one of the problems is that it is very difficult to see how one can enforce this kind of collaboration in any meaningful way.

To take the issue of science, where we are inevitably competing in the REF and where we sometimes publish in collaboration, noble Lords should see the internal wrangling over who goes first on the paper and who goes last as the senior author on the paper, which happens again and again in universities. It is a massive problem. In my own career, I had a very important collaboration with University College London, where we were extremely innovative with a new technology that looked at chromosomes. Ultimately, the collaboration failed totally because, regrettably, we could not agree on how we would publish it. It became an issue when we looked at the scores.

Sadly and unfortunately this is still true. So much of science is published in a very testosterone-driven environment. It is not desirable, but it does happen. One reason why it is so important to have more women in science is to try and humanise our laboratories because women are so much more ready, in my experience and certainly in my lab, to collaborate, even when the collaboration may not be to their full advantage. Males are less ready to give way to this. While I absolutely accept that there is extreme value in the notion of this kind of collaboration, I wonder whether it would be terribly useful to have it included in the Bill in this form. It could be included in some other way and perhaps we will come back to it in time, but I suspect that it would be very difficult to implement.

Photo of Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Crossbench

My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what noble Lords on both sides have said, but there is an issue here that the amendment gives me an opportunity to raise, since I am informed that one cannot ask questions once a Bill is in motion. One issue that faces us at the moment in the university sector is that we have the OfS, and we are not quite clear whether it is a regulator or not, and we also have the Competition and Markets Authority. One question that I have is whether there are incipient conflicts between these two important and powerful bodies. I would personally like to see collaboration included to make it clear that it is not outlawed, although it is extremely difficult to achieve—it is almost impossible to achieve.

I would like to take this opportunity to mention the Francis Crick Institute, which, thanks in good part to the good offices of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, when he was Minister, achieved the utterly amazing feat of getting Imperial, King’s and UCL to collaborate.

Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour

That is not true.

Photo of Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Crossbench

Well, sort of.

Collaboration is not something that can be enforced. Competition becomes extremely naturally to us, but at the moment we have two bodies with very different views. The Minister has assured us, and I am happy to hear, that the drafting of Clause 2 does not preclude in any way thinking about the sector, thinking nationally and thinking about society.

My experience of how my own and other people’s institutions interpret the requirements of the CMA is that, basically, it does not think that you should ever speak to anyone else because that might be interpreted as interfering with competition. I know that this sounds a bit like a Christmas tree and a signal, but perhaps I can take this opportunity to ask the Minister to let me know, if not right now, whether officials have looked carefully at the possibility that we will see conflicts over this issue; that is, between what I take to be two regulators, or certainly one regulator and the Office for Students. I would be grateful for some information on that.

Photo of Lord Willetts Lord Willetts Conservative 9:45 pm, 11th January 2017

My Lords, I would like to follow on from that speech by asking the Minister, who has been so helpful this evening, to clarify how collaboration might work. I listened attentively to what he said in his intervention on the previous group of amendments and he seemed to make the argument that this overarching aim of serving the interests of students would encompass both competition and collaboration. It would be helpful to me and perhaps to other Members of the Committee to have that explained.

We have had examples from academics of what might happen in the world of universities. Let me give an example from the area of policy, which is that sometimes a university may have got into significant financial difficulties. What HEFCE did was essentially to broker a merger of universities. Sometimes that involved sending a rather weak swimmer to rescue a drowning man and created another set of problems, but nevertheless what HEFCE can do when an institution gets into difficulties is promote mergers.

It is an unhappy parallel and I am reluctant to raise it, but we have seen examples in health legislation of bringing in a duty to promote collaboration. Reportedly, that subsequently led to occasions when it was rational for two underfunded and financially exposed hospitals to come together, but that was not possible because there was a competition requirement on Monitor with no scope for promoting collaboration. So it would be helpful if we could hear from the Government that they do indeed understand these types of functions and that there could be circumstances where it remains desirable, and—here I follow on from what was said by my noble friend Lord Jopling—whether the way to tackle it is through a long list of duties or a simpler overarching statement. It would be helpful to understand the logic.

What is partly going on here, if I may say in my final observation, is that we are dealing with a problem of trust. Indeed, we may have someone who is an expert on trust here in the Chamber with us. The odd feature is that HEFCE had an extraordinarily wide range of powers, which it operated with extraordinarily high levels of discretion and a minimal legal framework. It got away with that because, by and large, people understood and trusted HEFCE. The more we can think of this body as a successor to HEFCE in a different financial environment—it does not have grant-giving powers as its ultimate source of responsibility, so it needs a legal power as a regulator instead—the more we can think of it as the heir to HEFCE, apart of course from the research side, and exercising the range of functions that HEFCE had. At one moment, HEFCE was promoting cold spots and at another it was brokering mergers because, by and large, it was trusted by the sector to do that kind of thing. Some statement about the spirit of HEFCE living on, combined with a broader approach, might be a better way of tackling this than setting out a very long list of duties and obligations of which I continue to remain wary. There is no evidence that that promotes trust in any other area, and I have to say that the advice I was given by parliamentary draftsmen when I was a Minister was that they hated long lists of duties in undifferentiated lists. They never regarded that as a good way of defining a legal framework within which a body would operate.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

My Lords, I turn to the issue of geographic diversity. One of the prime areas where there has been collaboration is in creating campuses and a university presence in areas of the country where it otherwise would not have been either an economic or a prime mission of a university to seek to make such provision. The example that comes to mind from my time as a Minister, and where quite a lot of work was done by government bodies to foster collaboration, was in Medway. As I recall, that was a collaboration between the University of Greenwich, the University of Kent and, I think, another institution to enable higher education provision to be made in a very challenging and deprived area. A sole provider would not have been prepared to move in there. The same was true of the creation of higher education provision in Cornwall, which, as I recall, was a collaborative vision on a similar basis. Looking at the need to spread geographical provision more widely, fostering collaboration between institutions, and further education institutions where necessary, will be very important to making any provision at all.

Collaboration is not only between prestigious institutions, although I should add that in my experience the Government can foster collaboration of any kind where they are prepared to sign very large cheques, which has a large part to do with Crick. However, where we want to see more provision in areas of the country where it is not at the moment in the prime mission of any institution to provide it, collaboration between different types of institution may be a prime way to see that come about.

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for Education) (Higher Education)

My Lords, I assure the noble Baronesses, Lady Wolf and Lady Brown, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that I fully understand the principles they seek to address here. To reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, on the new duties for collaboration and innovation, we are wholly supportive of collaboration and innovation where it is in the interests of students. I hope I can go some way to answer the question raised by my noble friend Lord Willetts on how collaboration and competition will work. I will say a little more about that later. For example, providers could share services to generate efficiencies that allow more resources to be focused on teaching, offer courses in partnership, or design new styles of degree programmes to meet differing students’ needs. These are essentially non-competitive ways to enhance the offering from both or more institutions should they decide to collaborate.

I will start by saying a little more about collaboration. The general duties of the Office for Students are absolutely consistent with the idea that providers should continue to collaborate and innovate in the new regulatory system. There should be no conflict with the OfS’s duty to have regard to encouraging competition between higher education providers where it is in the interest of students. My noble friend Lord Jopling is right in his assessment that the OfS is already required under Clause 2 to have regard to,

“the need to promote quality, and greater choice and opportunities for students”.

Such collaboration and innovation is implicitly and undoubtedly in the student interest. To pick up on the question asked by my noble friend Lord Willetts, there is nothing inherent in that “have regard to” duty that would prevent the OfS also supporting collaboration between higher education providers if it considers it is also in the interests of students, employers or the wider public—for example, by supporting the merger of two providers.

The noble Lord, Lord Winston, asked in his thoughtful, brief intervention how the OfS would enforce collaboration. We do not wish to create an expectation that the OfS should be formally or actively regulating this type of activity. That would be unnecessary.

On innovation, we concur with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, about a lack of innovation in the higher education sector. It is important for the OfS to have a focus on supporting a competitive market. That means it must regulate fairly and allow all providers to operate under the same set of rules. This will make it simpler for new high-quality providers to enter and expand, help to drive up teaching standards overall, enhance the life chances of students, drive economic growth and be a catalyst for social mobility.

Competition will incentivise providers to raise their game, fostering innovation. New providers can respond innovatively to what the economy demands and equip students with the skills needed for jobs of the future. So promoting innovation, like collaboration, does not require a separate duty. When it is in the student interest, the OfS will be fully able to support it because the student interest is at the very heart of the OfS. Requiring the OfS to have regard to encouraging competition only where it is shown to be in the interest of students, employers and the wider public would be unnecessary, burdensome and inflexible to implement. The current wording already limits the promotion of competition to where it is in the interests of students and employers. The amendment would mean that the OfS would have to demonstrate that in some way that these various interests were met, placing an unnecessary evidential burden on the regulator and in turn on higher education providers.

I now turn to whether the OfS should have regard to encouraging competition where this is in the interest of the public or of wider society. The Bill makes explicit the general duty to encourage competition,

“where that competition is in the interests of students and employers”.

In doing so, it emphasises that the student interest is at the heart of the OfS and recognises the wider public benefits associated with maximising choice and competition in the higher education sector.

As I set out in the previous debate, operating in the public interest or that of wider society is implicit in the role of the OfS as a public body that is accountable to the Secretary of State and to Parliament. The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, spoke of the conflict between the roles of the CMA and the OfS and asked me to provide further detail. As I said on Monday, I look forward to discussing this matter later in Committee, when we will consider the noble Baroness’s proposed new clause. I hope that she will have a little patience and that we can discuss that at more length later on in the Bill. In the meantime, I hope that I have been able to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, who spoke at the beginning of this debate, that we have struck the right balance—and it is a balance. I hope that she will not press her amendment.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I think that it was my amendment, but the noble Baroness may choose not to move her amendment at the appropriate time. I am grateful to everyone who has contributed to this debate. It has been a good mini debate on the other half of the question about what Clause 2 sets out to do.

I am left with one question. I realise that it cannot be answered at this stage, but I wonder whether the Minister could write to me about it. We bandy around the word “regulator” a lot and I think that we all have slightly different versions of what it means. It would be helpful before we go to the later stages of discussing what the OfS is to have a clear definition. I am thinking in particular about the generic rules that apply to regulators; for instance, the amendment to the ERR Bill to require all regulators to have regard to growth—there were others of a similar class. As I understand it, the implication is that whatever the statute contains when this Bill becomes an Act will have to be read as if it also included an exhortation to ensure that all work was done to provide growth. There is nothing wrong with growth—we supported that—but it was aimed mainly at economic and not social regulators. There have been difficulties with applying it in the social work area, for instance, and other areas, so it would be useful and comforting if the Minister could write to us explaining exactly what the term regulator implies. That would give reassurance to some of us who have been worrying about this issue. The suggestion that we should have as the main functions of the Office for Students a set of pretty high-level statements and not a detailed list is fine, but I would like to see that list in relation to whatever else comes with the responsibility of being a regulator. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 33 withdrawn.

Amendments 34 to 59 not moved.

House resumed.