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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 4:15 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, let me first reassure your Lordships that we absolutely agree that a university title is valuable and prestigious, and that a university’s reputation needs to be protected. I am grateful for the opportunity to set out how we want to do this. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for raising some genuinely interesting points which I shall try to address.

As regards Clauses 51 and 52, currently there are three main legislative routes for English higher education providers to obtain university title. Two of these require consent of the Privy Council. The other requires consent of the Secretary of State under the Companies Act to the use of the word “university” in a company or business name. While the criteria are the same for all routes, in general, publicly-funded higher education providers obtain university title from the Privy Council. Alternative providers can currently use only the Companies Act route. This creates a slightly complex and certainly inconsistent situation. The Government want to achieve the position whereby the OfS is able to grant university title to all providers. Clauses 51 and 52 achieve this by making changes to the two Privy Council routes by transferring the responsibility for consenting to the use of university title to the Office for Students. This transfer to the OfS will not lower standards. We believe the reforms will continue to ensure that only the highest quality providers can call themselves a university. That is because we are not anticipating wide-ranging changes to the criteria. As now, we want any institution that wants to call itself a university to demonstrate that it has a cohesive academic community and a critical mass of HE students. This means that there will continue to be a distinction between universities and other degree- awarding bodies. That is not changing.

I endeavour to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson: we envisage that providers will be eligible for university title only if they are registered in either the approved, or the approved fee cap category, and have undergone strict financial sustainability and quality checks; have over 55% of full-time equivalent students studying HE; and have successfully operated with full degree-awarding powers for three years. As we do now, we intend to set out the detailed criteria and processes for obtaining university title in guidance, and we plan to consult on the detail of this before publication. The OfS will make awards having regard to this guidance, just as the Privy Council does now. I make it clear that we want this to be a high bar, designed to ensure that the reputation and prestige of being an English university are maintained. That is in the interests of the whole sector. The term “university” will, of course, remain a sensitive word under the Companies Act, which means that it cannot be used in a business or company name without the appropriate consent.

I know there are some concerns that our reforms would open the door to low-quality or even bogus universities. That would be a very unwelcome prospect. However, I submit that the protection of the word “university”, along with all the safeguards I have just outlined in relation to obtaining university title, are designed to ensure that this could not happen.

I turn to the amendments that relate to the role of the Privy Council. As I said, we intend to keep the broad structures for the award of university title—that is, a decision which is made independently, having regard to published guidance. At present, providers send their application to HEFCE, which advises the department, which in turn advises the Privy Council, which then rubber-stamps a decision. This is unnecessarily complex. It is legitimate to ask the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson: what is the role of the Privy Council in this context? That is an important question. A briefing paper of the Library of the House of Commons describes the Privy Council, in this context, as,

“effectively a vehicle for executive decisions made by the Government”.

We have investigated and cannot cite a single case in recent memory where the Privy Council disagreed with a recommendation by the department.

I hope I have been able to explain that we are not planning to change the independent decision-making and scrutiny, nor the core of what it means to be a university. I therefore suggest that the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, are not necessary and in these circumstances I ask him to withdraw Amendment 339.