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Higher Education and Research Bill - Committee (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 25th January 2017.

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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) 4:00 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, I was going to speak early in this debate, but the intervention by the Lord Speaker, with his new approach to managing business, saved your Lordships from that—although I did have a wonderful anecdote that I was going to share and a few jokes that I thought might get us off at a good speed to what will be a very long session. However, we have all benefited from the two excellent speeches from the noble Baronesses, Lady Wolf and Lady Garden, against the clause standing part. It is also good to see the noble Lord, Lord Browne, in his place. His report continues to send waves through this area, and it is good to hear, in his voice, what he would have done had he been in a position to deliver the rest of the recommendations in it.

These issues were raised on the last amendment on the previous day in Committee, but we are still left with some questions that need to be answered before we can make progress in this area. Although the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, made it clear that the evidence that has been provided is only anecdotal, there may be problems in this area and it may be that we need a new validating system involving an independent validator like the OfS, which was set up to take away any hint that there might be some competitive pressures or any other issues that might interfere with innovation and challenger institutions of a new type coming into the system. However, again, I am not sure that that answers the problem of how the Office for Students, if it is the regulator, combines its responsibilities for validation with its responsibilities for overseeing standards, publishing statistics and overseeing fair access. The more we think about the OfS as some sort of Gilbertian character, reflective of all the various issues for which it is responsible and which are needed in the higher education sector, the more we lose touch with the reality of how that system will work. The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, is quite right to ask how we got into this mess and whether this is really the right solution to get us out of it.

The issue that needs to be sorted out is whether the validation that is required in the system can be provided from within that system or whether it has to be provided from outside. If it is outside, surely it should be independent and available on the basis that it is not responsible for those who might benefit from any decision or other action that is part of it. But we have others that could do this job. The professional bodies all have a stake in the success or otherwise of the institutions and students for which they are responsible. Professional bodies do a lot of validation of institutions and courses, and their expertise could be used and harnessed. As we discussed on a previous amendment, and again today, the CNAA is still, in a vestigial form, present in the Open University, and maybe that would be a way forward. Alternatively, it may need to be a body completely independent of the system currently set up for the purpose. Whatever it is, I do not think Clause 47 has taken the trick that needs to be taken. It will not sort out the problem that we have and it should be taken back by the Government and reviewed.