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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 4:30 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, in moving this amendment I shall also speak to others in this group in the name of my noble friend Lord Stevenson. Amendment 366 is self-explanatory, so I will say a little about the others. Amendment 374 seeks to extend “what … when and how” to,

“what … when, where and how”,

when the Office for Students is determining what course information is to be published. It is designed to make it incumbent on the OfS to consider what would be helpful to students on higher education courses in terms of where the information should be made available. The Government have decided to ensure that how the information provided by the OfS is disseminated should be subject to all considerations with the exception of where it should be available. Surely this is one small amendment that the Minister cannot find a reason to turn down.

At first reading, Amendments 376 and 377 may seem pedantic, but the aim is simply to ensure that this subsection is all encompassing. If the Minister declines to accept these two amendments, it could imply that only some people considering applying for such courses should be included. Should that be the Minister’s intention, he needs to say who he thinks might or should be excluded. I hope that would not mean mature students.

Amendment 379 would achieve the same purpose in respect of staff, who also need to be given consideration in this case. Amendment 384 would add staff working in higher education institutions to the list of those whom the OfS must consult from time to time about the information to be made available. Students and prospective employers are included in the Bill so it is fair to ask why not the people who collectively work to ensure that the student experience is as rewarding, in all senses of the word, as possible. This clearly casts the net wider than academics. Support staff in many categories also contribute to the success of the courses provided to students at our universities and it is therefore appropriate that they should also be part of the consultation exercise.

Amendments 396 and 406 are similarly concerned with ensuring that the views of higher education staff are taken into account—the first in respect of consultation prior to recommendation of the designated body and the latter in situations where it is proposed that the designation be removed. I suspect the Minister will point to the final subsection in all three cases, which allows for the involvement of “such persons” as the Secretary of State “considers appropriate”. These two amendments are concerned with inclusion—involving the people who work day to day in our higher education institutions. The Government have been unwilling to include staff explicitly as the Bill stands, or perhaps they have considered them and deemed such inclusion inappropriate. As a result, what confidence would staff likely have that the Secretary of State might suddenly decide that it was a good idea and introduce them under the “such persons” subsection? These two amendments are about including staff; doing so would not exclude anyone else. It is right and proper that the Minister should agree to this common-sense addition to the Bill.

Finally and most importantly among the amendments in this group in the name of my noble friend Lord Stevenson, I turn to Amendment 368. As recent media reports have revealed, too many universities today employ academic staff on short-term—sometimes zero-hours—contracts. In some situations, lecturers are even paid on an hourly basis, a situation unthinkable just a few years ago. That means that job insecurity is a major concern among staff at many institutions, and the higher education sector needs to wake up to the likely consequences of any race to the bottom in employment practices. In some ways, this is a natural development of the increasing marketisation of the sector, a shift about which the Government are wildly enthusiastic and a philosophy that underpins the whole Bill. Those of us urging caution have genuine fears as to where it might lead.

We have heard much about the importance of student satisfaction in our deliberations, and rightly so. That is one of the metrics that is supposed to drive up teaching standards, yet it seems to ignore the fact that good teaching depends not just on well-qualified staff but on well-motivated staff. What sort of motivation stems from not knowing whether you are going to be teaching a class next week, far less next term or next session? That is a question universities have to consider very carefully and the requirements of Amendment 368 will encourage them to do that. Those that place short-term economic considerations before the long-term interests of their staff—and, by extension, their students—are treading a path that leads to poorer standards and potentially lasting damage to their reputation. Institutions that have nothing to hide in terms of employment practices—and their impact on staff/student ratios—have nothing to fear, and neither should the Government in accepting this improvement to Clause 59. I beg to move.