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

– in the House of Lords at 8:48 pm on 8 March 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Schedule 5: Powers of entry and search etc

Amendment 124

Moved by Lord Watson of Invergowrie

124: Schedule 5, page 89, line 22, at end insert—“( ) the suspected breach may constitute fraud, or concerns serious or wilful mismanagement of public funds,”

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, the amendment standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Stevenson is really a probing amendment, designed to ask the Minister why we have Schedule 5 and why we need it. We have more than five pages on powers of entry and search, from the power to issue search warrants to those of inspecting, copying, seizing and retaining items. It all sounds terribly dramatic, and the reasons for it are not at all clear. Such a power was not in the 1992 Act and has never, as far as we or those connected with the higher education sector are aware, been necessary before. Perhaps the Minister can say whether there are problems that we are not aware of which are so serious that they demand a schedule all to themselves.

When it comes to Schedule 5, the Explanatory Notes refer us to the commentary on Clause 56. That does not enlighten us all that much, although it goes into slightly more detail:

“The warrant may permit or require a constable to accompany an authorised person and that constable may use reasonable force if necessary”.

That all sounds as though something serious is envisaged by the Government. Three-quarters of the Technical and Further Education Bill currently before your Lordships’ House is taken up with insolvency procedures—something that the Government do not envisage happening other than in extremely rare circumstances. Perhaps the Minister will say the same about Schedule 5. We certainly hope so, because we do not want these powers to be used at all, but certainly only sparingly. If entry and search is deemed to be required, it should happen only after a serious breach of a registration condition is suspected. That is why we set out fraud or serious or wilful mismanagement of public funds as conditions that must be met. Short of that, the vague conditions of the schedule do not meet the test. Can the Minister explain why this is necessary and in what situations he envisages where it might be necessary? I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the way that he posed his questions as to why we need these powers, and I agree that we hope that they will be used rarely. We are revisiting a debate that we had in Committee, and I am grateful to those who participated in that debate, particularly my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay.

In the light of the debate that we had in Committee, we have carefully reflected on the schedule, but remain of the view that it should stand as drafted. This will ensure that the Office for Students and the Secretary of State are able to investigate effectively if there are grounds to suspect serious breaches of funding or registration conditions at a higher education provider.

The proposed amendments would narrow these powers so they could be used only where there are suspicions of fraud, or serious or wilful mismanagement of public funds. We believe that most, but not all, cases where these powers would be used would fall into that category. However, narrowing the powers in the way proposed could affect our ability to investigate effectively certain cases where value for public money, quality, and the student interest was at risk, but where these might not clearly constitute fraud, or serious or wilful mismanagement of public funds at the time of the application for the warrant.

Higher education providers will be subject to OfS registration conditions. As an example, the OfS could put in place a condition to limit the number of students a provider with high drop-out and low qualification rates was able to recruit: for instance if the OfS considered that those performance issues are related to the provider recruiting more students than it can properly cater for.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, I hear what the Minister says. He is talking about low-qualification and high drop-out rates. Could it be that we have never needed this power until now because of the present university architecture, but given the expectation that there will be new arrivals on the scene, the Government are implicitly saying that they foresee dangers in future that have not been considered a threat hitherto?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I will come in a moment to why at present there is not provision for these types of institutions, where there is for every other, and I hope that that may answer the noble Lord’s question.

I was explaining that a breach of such a condition may not clearly constitute wilful mismanagement of public money if the provider was using the tuition fees in line with their purpose—the provision of a designated higher education course to an eligible student. However, there is a significant risk that value for public money, quality of provision and the students’ experience will be seriously negatively affected. If the OfS has grounds to suspect that the provider is in any case undertaking an aggressive student enrolment campaign, it is important that evidence can be found swiftly to confirm this, and to prevent over-recruitment.

If the amendment were made, a warrant to enter and search may not be granted in cases such as that. The amendments would also amend the powers so that the search warrant must state that all the requirements for grant of the warrant specified in Schedule 5 have been met. My noble friend Lord Younger wrote to Peers at Committee stage to clarify that it is not usual practice within powers of entry provisions for the magistrate to certify that conditions for grant of the warrant have been met, and we are not aware of any examples of this.

Schedule 5 sets out the conditions that must be met for a warrant to be granted, and we have full confidence that this constitutes a strong and sufficient safeguard to ensure a warrant would be granted only where necessary. This is a standard approach used in existing legislative provisions relating to search warrants and powers of entry. Examples from recent legislation include the powers to enter and search within Section 39 of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 and the powers to enter within Schedule 5 to the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

To be clear, a requirement to state that conditions have been met would not provide an extra legal safeguard. The requirement for these conditions to be met already exists in the schedule as drafted. There are strong safeguards in place to ensure these powers are used appropriately—and, I hope, rarely. A magistrate would need to be satisfied that four tests were met before granting a warrant: that reasonable grounds existed for suspecting a breach of a condition of funding or registration; that the suspected breach was sufficiently serious to justify entering the premises; that entry to the premises was necessary to determine whether the breach was taking place; and that permission to enter would be refused or else requesting entry would frustrate the purpose of entry.

These criteria will ensure that the exercise of the power is appropriately limited. Further limitations are built into Schedule 5, including that entry must be at a reasonable hour and the premises may be searched only to the extent that is reasonably required to determine whether there is or has been a breach. Powers of entry, such as these, already exist for a wide variety of other types of education. Ofsted has inspection powers in respect of schools, colleges, initial teacher training, work-based learning and skills training, adult and community learning and education and training in prisons.

Local authorities have powers to enter the premises of maintained schools. Regulators of qualification awarding bodies also have powers of entry. So, to answer the noble Lord’s question, currently HE providers are an exception as neither the Department for Education nor the Higher Education Funding Council for England has a statutory right to enter an HE provider if serious wrongdoing is suspected. To that extent, we are bringing these institutions into line with other institutions in education, and indeed other fields. I therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw this amendment, against the background of the reasons I have given for the schedule remaining as it is at the moment.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I thank the noble Lord for that, but I have to say that I am even less reassured than I was before moving the amendment. The Minister mentioned, as I did earlier, low qualification levels and high drop-out levels, and he then went on to talk about aggressive student enrolment campaigns. That conjures up images of press gangs going round the bars in ports and people being carried off, never to be seen again—or, in this case, to be seen again in a new higher education institution near you. It is a rather bizarre concept that I cannot quite picture in my mind.

The question is basically, “Why now and why not in the past?”. As far as anyone is aware, and the Minister has not suggested it, there has been no lacuna. The Minister said he is bringing this sector into line with parts of other education sectors. I do not know the detail on that, but my basic question is: where did the demand come from? Five pages in a schedule does not exactly suggest a tidying-up exercise, if we are allowed to use that phrase. It seems rather odd. However, I shall leave it at that. It does seem rather odd but in the circumstances, none the less, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 124 withdrawn.

Amendment 125

Moved by Lord Mackay of Clashfern

125: Schedule 5, page 90, line 15, at end insert “and that all the requirements for the grant specified in this Schedule are met,”

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

The amendment arises out of an observation I made when this schedule was considered in Committee. I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, who said that this was quite a serious matter.

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

I am sorry to interrupt my noble and learned friend but I believe that the amendment is within the group we have just concluded.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I believe that my noble and learned friend has the right to speak to any amendment in its place in the Marshalled List.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative 9:00, 8 March 2017

I think that that is certainly so; my understanding of time and practice here suggests that it is. Perhaps I may continue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brown, made the point that the noble Lord was making on the previous amendment: that this is really rather novel. You can imagine the effect on a higher education provider if it appeared in the newspaper that, the night before, a search warrant had been issued for its headquarters. In answer to that, my noble friend Lord Younger of Leckie said that the conditions are very strict, and he read out the fairly detailed conditions. I thought it might be a simple safeguard to require a signature to say that these conditions had been met. I got a letter the day after that suggesting that this was an unheard of stipulation. As you can imagine, that slightly worked me up to see what I could do about it.

The provisions say that a search warrant must specify the name of the authorised person who applied for it and so on, and,

“state that it is issued under this Schedule”.

That is a fairly important provision. It occurred to me that all one had to do was add after that the following simple words,

“and that all the requirements for the grant specified in this Schedule are met”.

That seems very straightforward and easy.

Look at how these magistrate’s search warrants are granted. One must remember that where the conditions in a particular provision are important, the magistrate may not have in his head exactly what the conditions are. Therefore, I suggest that this amendment is a rather easy and convenient way of making sure that the magistrate’s attention is directed to the detailed requirements of the schedule, which have to be met before the warrant can be granted. That seems very straightforward and I cannot see anything wrong with it. So far, I have not heard any reason why it would not work. Therefore, I beg to move this amendment.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, might I respond to the points that my noble and learned friend has raised? In so doing, perhaps I will respond very briefly to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in concluding the previous debate about why these powers were necessary and where the demands came from.

As I said, at present, neither HEFCE nor the Secretary of State has the statutory right to enter a HE provider to investigate if serious wrongdoing is suspected. This compromises investigators’ ability to obtain evidence of what may have happened and makes it harder to tackle rogue providers.

In its 2014 report on alternative providers, the National Audit Office said that the department has no rights of access to providers and that this affects the extent to which it can investigate currently. Therefore, we believe that these powers are needed to safeguard the interests of students and the taxpayer and to protect the reputation of the sector.

I apologise to my noble and learned friend, but I tried to address Amendment 125 when I—

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I appreciate that he is taking the opportunity to clarify that last point, but to some extent he has stirred the pot again. He is talking now about rogue providers. My point was that, up until now, we have not been aware of rogue providers. There is clearly a fear that in the not too distant future there will be rogue providers, and that surely is a bigger issue than the question of having five pages in Schedule 5 to deal with them.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

No, the provisions are not required for the reasons that the noble Lord has suggested but because we believe they are necessary for the current institutions and in the light of the NAO report, which was written before these new providers came on to the scene. The department has no right of access to the providers. This affects the extent to which it can investigate currently rather than in future.

I turn to my noble and learned friend. I am not sure that I can usefully add to what I said earlier. I would not of course challenge for a moment what he said about practice in the judiciary. My understanding is that it is not usual practice within powers of entry provision for the magistrate to sign a certification document, and we are still unaware of any examples of this. The relevant clause in the Bill, as I think I said a moment ago, sets out the considerations that magistrates would have to take into account when making their judicial decision to grant a warrant, and we have full confidence that this constitutes a sufficient safeguard to ensure that a warrant will be granted only where necessary. For that reason, we are not persuaded that his amendment, in saying that it would have to be signed, constitutes an extra safeguard to ensure that a warrant would be granted only where necessary. I hope that, against that background, my noble and learned friend will feel that he does not have to press his amendment.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

I am very sorry, but it strikes me as absolutely essential that the warrant be signed. I do not think that there is any question but that the magistrate has to sign the warrant. Given that the warrant has to contain a statement that it is under the schedule—in other words, the magistrate has to say that it is under the schedule—it is only common sense. There are special conditions here, which my noble friend relied on as justifying the proposition that they should have this provision, in spite of what the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, said about how detrimental it might be to a higher education provider. I am not disputing the need for the warrant at all; all that I am suggesting is that it would be a very important safeguard that magistrates’ attention would be drawn specifically to these quite elaborate conditions. They are quite detailed, and I do not think that it is likely that a magistrate will have them in his head, or her head, as they approach the grant of a warrant, when whoever it is comes along and applies for it.

Therefore I am not asking for any separate signature—one signature is enough—but the signature would include the phrase that I have put in this amendment, after the fact that it is under this schedule. That seems to be absolute common sense, and I am extremely sorry that the Government have not had the willingness to accommodate this, which occurred to me in the course of dealing with the matter here. Surely, that is what Committee stages are for. If the Government are to cast aside what I have suggested, given that I have a certain amount of experience of magistrates’ warrants and so on, I sincerely hope that before Third Reading this is taken into account. Otherwise, it seems to me an absolutely idiotic attitude from the Government to simple improvements suggested in the course of the discussion.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful to my noble and learned friend, and of course I will with my colleagues have a look at this between now and Third Reading, but what we have done here is to take a standard approach used in existing legislative provisions relating to search warrants and powers of entry. We are simply seeking to replicate the procedure that already exists in similar circumstances, when for whatever reason powers of entry are required. We are simply applying best practice and extending to these institutions powers that already exist to institutions in the educational field. However, in view of the very strong feelings that my noble and learned friend clearly has on this, and in view of his greater knowledge than mine in matters judicial, of course we will take it away and have another look at it. Against those undertakings, I hope that my noble and learned friend might feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

Certainly, with that understanding, I am prepared to withdraw the amendment and I sincerely hope that wise counsels will prevail by the time we come to Third Reading.

Amendment 125 withdrawn.

Clause 59: Cooperation and information sharing by the OfS

Amendment 126

Moved by Lord Lucas

126: Clause 59, page 37, line 24, at end insert—“( ) The OfS may publish any information that it holds as Open Data if it considers it to be in the public interest to do so.”

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, with the permission of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, I wish to speak also to Amendment 127. With these amendments I seek merely to replicate existing good practice, as my noble and learned friend said that he was seeking to do a moment ago.

It appears to me that one of the great successes of the coalition Government was the move to open data. One of my earliest exposures to that occurred in 1996 and 1997, when I was the Whip here for the Ministry of Agriculture in the middle of the BSE crisis and we spent a year trying to understand what was happening—what the route of infection was and how the disease worked. We had some good scientists in the Ministry of Agriculture, but eventually we took the decision to release the data to outside scientists. Three weeks later, we had the answer. It was not that they were better scientists but that there were more scientists with a different set of ideas. That success has been replicated in many aspects of the economy through this Government’s determination to make data open and accessible for commercial and other purposes to a very wide range of people. I regret to say that in my own business, The Good Schools Guide, this has resulted in all sorts of competitors popping out of the woodwork who suddenly have access to all sorts of interesting data about schools and are doing things with those data that I had not thought of doing. That is very tiresome, but as a principle it is excellent.

University data have been locked away. There is a great chunk of data in UCAS. Anybody who has tried to deal with that body has found that it is an astonishingly hard nut to crack. It is uncooperative, even to the extent of destroying references which might have been used to link UCAS data to other datasets. I hope that is now changing. This Bill is a great instrument in that regard. However, UCAS has lots of data which students need to know, such as data on the actual requirements to get on to a particular course. For example, a document may say that AAB grades are required to get on a particular course, but is that what is actually required? Smart schools know that that is not the case and that you can get on that course with three Bs. However, unless you have that sort of resource, you tend to think that what is stated by UCAS is accurate. What are the chances of getting on a course? What is the ratio of applicants to places? Again, those seem to me obvious data that should be available. Therefore, I hope that there will be an attitude of openness and of making data consistent, easily understood, linked to other data sources and produced promptly.

At the moment, HESA data on who has joined universities and on what terms appear 18 months after those students have joined their universities. Why is that? There is absolutely no good reason at all for that. There is no similar practice in the DfE with regard to schools and schools data. Those data are provided much more quickly. Providing data late merely means that everything is out of date, less connected, less relevant and harder to keep up with.

If we adopt an attitude of providing open data where possible, and managed closed data as with the national pupil database but making it as accessible as possible, we will get much better information sets available to students and we will really start to get at questions such as drop-out rates. Why do students drop out of courses? We do not know. It is not a good thing. It is very tough for the students and it is not fun for anybody. It is certainly not fun for the Government, who end up with a chunk of loan that will probably never be repaid. We need to understand why that is happening. Students need to see that this is coming. As others have said, getting HESA’s permission to publish those sorts of data is extremely hard. It is something on which we absolutely ought to be taking a lead, as the Government have done in other areas in the Bill.

I want from my noble friend the comfort of knowing that in this Bill the Government have equipped themselves with everything they need to make data open wherever they can and that they will not accept old practices as the way that things should go forward. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees 9:15, 8 March 2017

My Lords, I support Amendments 126 and 127 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and my noble friend Lord Willis. I accept the arguments that the noble Lord set out clearly and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

I also add my support for Amendment 130, as I did in Committee. As we have already discussed, those on non-permanent contracts may find it more difficult to deliver quality teaching with all the uncertainties hanging over them, and it would be useful to have data to see whether that is in fact the case. The reverse situation with lifetime tenure tended to have the effect of too much certainty of employment, which could lead to a lack of incentive to devote time and trouble to quality teaching, but tenure is not really a problem that we have to address these days. The employment status of staff and the staff to student ratio are both significant factors in teaching. I hope that the Minister will be able to accept this amendment and I look forward to his reply.

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, I support the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Willis, which were explained very well by the noble Lord. They would contribute to a better understanding of all the issues that have arisen during the course of the Bill and would be a source of good data for the future as we see how the system being brought into play works in practice.

My Amendment 130 stems from Clause 61, which would place a duty on the relevant body or the Office for Students to put in a series of measures in relation to data that are to be published. The requirements are not very detailed—there is broad discretion—but the broader areas relate to student entrants, the number of education providers of different types, the number of persons who promote the interests of students and a good range of other things. Curiously, it does not really go down into the detail of some of the mechanics mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, when she spoke on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, and these are the issues picked up in my amendment. It happened to be topical because, when the Committee stage took place, there was an investigation into the use of part-time, non-permanent and permanent staff in higher education on zero-hours contracts—I think that was the term used. This amendment at least points in that direction but I think that it has a wider resonance, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I am grateful to those who have spoken in this debate for addressing data issues. I entirely share the view of my noble friend that as much data as possible should be made openly available as soon as possible, and I have no difficulty in endorsing the broad principles that he enunciated.

However, I do not think that the issue here is about the powers to obtain data under the Bill. The current drafting already enables the OfS to make data available in connection with the performance of its functions and it also gives the Secretary of State the power to require application-to-acceptance data for qualifying research purposes. I am sure my noble friend will accept that, however we draft the powers of the OfS, data protection rules will necessarily mean that open data are subject to restrictions on sensitive and personal data.

With regard to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, although I sympathise with its intent, the OfS will be a regulator of HE providers, with the power to require such information from them as is required to perform its functions. However, it is not feasible to expand its remit to impose conditions on private companies that it does not regulate and with which it has no regulatory relationship.

Although I do not believe that these amendments are the answer to overcoming barriers to accessing data, I agree that greater collaboration between sector bodies on sharing and making comparable data available to students and researchers is something that we must continue to strive for. We would expect the OfS and the body designated to compile and publish higher education information on behalf of the OfS to play a part in encouraging that collaboration. The requirement to consult on what, when and how data are published will ensure that the interests of the sector, as well as those of students and prospective students, as called for by my noble friend, are taken into account. Moreover, in the spirit of co-regulation we must also recognise that the sector is already taking measures to address the points raised by my noble friend through the recently published HESA open data strategy, along with the recommendations made in the Bell review around the co-ordination of data.

I turn now to Amendment 130, which relates to an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, in Committee. I understand his concerns about the job security of higher education staff and I can reassure him that the Government value the crucial contribution of HE staff. I remind the noble Lord that we are not seeking to determine on the face of the Bill exactly which data must be collected. Data requirements and needs evolve over time. The relevant data body needs to maintain the ability to adapt to changes and therefore data requirements will be decided through a period of consultation. The OfS will have a duty to consult on data collection and publication in conjunction with the full range of interested parties. In respect of the publication duty, the OfS will also have the discretion to consult persons that it considers appropriate, including any relevant bodies representing the staff interest. It would be inappropriate to specify workforce data when all other data requirements will be agreed through a period of consultation. It also risks pre-judging the consultation process.

However, I can offer the noble Lord some reassurance on workforce data. The current data body, HESA, already collects data on so-called “atypical” academic staff whose working arrangements are not permanent. This is governed by the code of practice for higher education data collections. Discussions were held last year between the trade unions, employers’ representatives and HESA on improving understanding of employment patterns in the HE workforce. This has led to proposed improvements to the HESA staff record. These are currently going through consultation with a view to being implemented in 2017-18. We are confident that this issue will be considered as part of the data consultation and that the OfS will want to build on HESA’s positive action in this area. I would therefore ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. He has answered all the points I raised very satisfactorily.

I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, spoke to his amendment as well. There are datasets that are not obvious but which can have a great effect on the way the sector progresses. If the sort of information he is suggesting is made public, there will be a trend towards better behaviour. Students care about these things. If you are considering a university, you care about who is going to be teaching you and what sort of workforce it is. Also, the fact that a university has a strong cadre of highly valued permanent staff who have been in post for a long time is something that can be used in its recruitment policy. It is the sort of thing that students like to know, so I would encourage the OfS to look wide in its definition of data, and certainly to include things like gender relationships and relationships in general between students and staff. That sort of thing is a great driver of good behaviour. From time to time we hear stories of bad behaviour, so unless the information is surfaced and it becomes commonplace for higher education institutions to have to tell people what is going on, these things can too easily be hidden.

I commend the Government for their attitude to data and I look forward to the OfS following the diktat that my noble friend has just outlined. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 126 withdrawn.

Amendment 127 not moved.

Clause 60: Duty to compile and make available higher education information

Amendment 128 not moved.

Clause 61: Duty to publish higher education information

Amendments 129 and 130 not moved.

Schedule 6: English higher education information: designated body

Amendment 131

Moved by Lord Watson of Invergowrie

131: Schedule 6, page 94, line 27, at end insert—“( ) a number of persons that, taken together, appear to the OfS to represent, or promote the interests of, higher education staff,”

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, Amendments 131 and 132 mirror those that we brought forward in Committee. They concern the entitlement of higher education staff to be consulted prior to the OfS making a recommendation of a body suitable to perform the data functions. In such situations, this schedule provides for a number of registered providers of higher education, covering a broad range of different types of providers, a broad range of students on higher education courses and a broad range of employers of graduates, which is perfectly understandable and acceptable.

That is it, apart from the catch-all,

“such other persons as the OfS considers appropriate”.

In Committee, the Minister said that the Government did not think it appropriate to restrict the ability of the OfS to consult such other persons as it considered appropriate. These amendments do not do that. If we had extended them to delete the reference in the schedule to “such other persons”, that would have closed things down. However, we are not doing that; we are leaving it there and suggesting that we should add another provision to ensure that staff working in higher education are part of the process. That does not mean only academic staff but includes all categories of people who contribute to making the experience of students fulfilling in every way possible. These people know higher education and the way in which institutions work, and so caretakers, catering staff, IT support, technicians and other categories should be asked to bring the benefit of their experience to bear in the decision either to designate a body or to remove that designation.

The Government do not give adequate consideration to the role that staff working in higher education can play. They have a contribution to make and they should be enabled to make it. This is not a radical suggestion—it certainly ought not to be—and adding one more category to those who must be consulted would certainly not be onerous for the Office for Students. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I repeat what I said in an earlier debate: we appreciate the role of all HE staff and there should be no imputation to the contrary.

This is another issue which we discussed in Committee. The amendments would require the OfS to consult HE staff on designation of the data body and would require the Secretary of State to consult HE staff before removing such a designation. We are committed to a system of co-regulation for the designated bodies, and this means that both the OfS and the sector should have confidence in the designated data body. Therefore the Bill already contains a requirement for the OfS to consult a broad range of registered HE providers on designation of the data body, and the Secretary of State must also consult before removing such a designation.

Providers are, of course, made up of HE staff, and in consulting HE providers we would expect their responses to be inclusive of the views of their staff, not only the academic community at that institution but the administrative and support teams, who in many cases directly gather and then submit the data required. So we expect that the views of staff on data and designation will be represented in their institution’s response.

However, there is nothing in the Bill to prevent direct consultation with staff groups. The OfS and the Secretary of State will have the discretion to consult any person, including a staff representative body. We would expect it to adopt an open approach, and we bear in mind the remarks that have just been made by the noble Lord.

The legislation must be broad and flexible to stand the test of time and therefore, despite the urging of the noble Lord, we should resist specifying this sub-group, or any other group with an interest, in the list of consultees when the current drafting of the Bill is sufficient to ensure that the views of HE staff will be represented both in the designation process and in the removal of designation. Against that background, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, I find that partially encouraging. The Minister’s initial remarks will be noted by those who represent staff—trade unions and other organisations—and in future will be shown to the management of higher education institutions when the time comes for them to be consulted on designation or “dedesignation”, if there is such a word, in this context. I am sure the Minister did not mean to be disparaging, but for the staff to be described just as a “sub-group” undervalues the role they play in the running of an institution. That is why we believe there is a case to add one more provision, while still leaving it open for anybody else to be included.

However, the Minister’s remarks have been helpful. It would be even more helpful if at some stage they could be issued as some form of guidance to higher education institutions, but it is up to staff representatives, trade unions or whoever to use those remarks and ensure they are turned into meaningful representation within higher education institutions. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 131 withdrawn.

Amendment 132 not moved.

Clause 70: Grants from the Secretary of State

Amendments 133 and 134

Moved by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara

133: Clause 70, page 44, line 19, leave out from “protect” to end of line 26 and insert “the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers.”

134: Clause 70, page 44, line 27, leave out “So”

Amendments 133 and 134 agreed.

Clause 71: Regulatory framework

Amendment 135

Moved by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara

135: Clause 71, page 45, line 41, at end insert—“ In exercising its regulatory functions under this section, the OfS must have regard to the Regulators’ Code.”

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, with the agreement of the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, and in the absence of the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, I will speak to this group. We understand that their Amendment 135, which we support, has been overtaken by events. It may be subject to an announcement that would remove the requirement for it, which I am sure we would all be grateful for. I have read through the Regulators’ Code and looked in detail at what it does. It can do nothing but good for the sector. It is an effective and useful guide. It will be extremely helpful to all those who will have to deal with the OfS as it moves into its new role. It is to be welcomed that the Government have seen the sense of the amendment we tabled in Committee and have decided to move forward in this way.

Amendment 136 is a slightly different beast. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who always seems to get stuck at the end of debates and has to hang here to make her very valuable contribution. That situation will change when we next discuss amendments that have her name to them. This one concerns an issue that has been growing in impact as we have been discussing and thinking about the issues raised in the Bill.

There is not, as might be implied by the drafting of Amendment 136, any sense in which we would resile the authority of the CMA regarding the work that will be done by the OfS and its associated committees and structures. The CMA has statutory rights to engage with anything consumers do in the public and private realms. Therefore, it will from time to time no doubt take an issue and respond to complaints. All these things are set out in statute in the ERR Act and the Consumer Rights Act 2015. However, there clearly are operations under the whole umbrella of the CMA that will have a resonance and possibly an ability to be dealt with by the Office for Students. It would be more appropriate for it to do these as part of its regulatory functions.

This is a question we have asked before and have not had a satisfactory answer to, which is why we are bringing it back tonight: what exactly is the boundary between the Office for Students in its regulatory mode and the CMA? At the moment the CMA has taken quite a serious first step into discussions with higher education providers. It has carried out a survey of the way they treat their consumers: students. It has drawn certain conclusions from that and is currently obtaining undertakings from a range of providers, many of which are well-known household names. This is a dog that barks and bites. We have to be very careful where it might go. We would not in any sense wish to constrain it, but it will introduce a completely new sense of engagement between those who respond to offers from higher education institutions to go to them and study, the results they obtain, and their attitudes to and relationships with such institutions.

However, the detailed work of that will necessarily fall to the Office for Students, so there really are questions. Where does the boundary lie? What are the parallel powers that the Government are setting up in this area? Will the OfS have the same powers that the CMA has, as defined in the two acts that I have already mentioned? Are there new and additional powers that are not being mentioned? If so, could we have a note about these? Where exactly are we on this? I think there is a danger that this ground will be rather trampled over. I have said this was a dog that not only barked but bit, but I think there are other worries that there may be some sort of competitive urge between the two bodies to be more regulatory than the other, and I hope there will be powers available to make sure that that does not happen. We do not want too many dogs, and we certainly do not want them biting. We want to make sure at the end of the day that the true interests here, which are the interests of the students, are not curtailed or in any sense hampered by the fact that regulators are exercising functions in a lot of different ways. I am speaking to this amendment but there is a previous one in the group, and I will respond to mine once the noble Baroness has responded. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench

My Lords, I will speak about Amendments 135 and 136. It was a bit of a shock to many people to find that the Competition and Markets Authority had entered this rather competitive field of regulation. The CMA’s job is to promote competition and make markets work. I think much of the debate we have had over the past few weeks is precisely about how universities are not really about competition and markets; they are about collaboration, scholarship and research.

The OfS is replacing HEFCE, which was the lead regulator, but the OfS is not taking over the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. I declare my interest as the first holder of that office, a few years ago. The OfS is intended to be a single, student-focussed regulator. I think the Government might be seen to be undermining their own scheme if they allow the CMA to meddle in affairs which really are not suitable for it. There is already far too much compliance and legalism for universities to deal with—human rights, health and safety, data protection, freedom of information, judicial review, Prevent guidance and much more, including the common law. There is a crowded enforcement field as well—the CMA, other higher education bodies, consumer protection legislation, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, Scottish and Northern Irish ombudsmen, government departments, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Quality Assurance Agency. The CMA admits how fragile its own guidance is because everything depends on how the courts would interpret consumer law applied to universities’ functions.

I would argue that the CMA is also an inappropriate regulator because it shows little experience of how universities work. It is insistent on clear information being given about course variation before a student signs up. This is an example of how it is inappropriate. The prospectus for a student goes to print four or five years before the potential student who has read it graduates some years further on. It is impossible, therefore, in a prospectus to lock in lecturers for five years because of sabbaticals, fluctuating demand and finances, and even building works. How can a university predict what its fees will be five years from now, especially with new mechanisms being introduced right now? The CMA has recently opined that it thinks that it is unfair for universities to withhold formal qualifications from a student who is in debt. Does it have any idea how difficult it is to chase a student through debt collection procedures or failure to provide campus accommodation the following year—which it suggests as a sanction—when a student has left with no forwarding address or gone abroad, as frequently happens?

The CMA will also come into conflict and overlap with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. The latter has been in existence for about 13 years and has decided thousands of cases, many of which have a consumer flavour. It has given a wide range of advice to universities about the same issues that the CMA has involved itself in. The OIA’s task, however, is to decide what is fair and reasonable. This is not the same as the CMA’s perspective, which is about deciding a dispute on the precise terms of the contract.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator offers alternative dispute resolution, which is far better than resort to litigation. Unlike the CMA, the OIA can be flexible and offer resolution tailored to the needs of the wronged student—not money but a chance, for example, to retake a year or have extra tuition. The OIA should prevail over the CMA because it was based on a statute designed to provide that one specialised service for students; namely, the settlement of complaints according to what is fair.

There is something wrong in theory about letting the CMA drive issues of university information and practices. Its perspective would cement the student as a paying customer expecting to reach an acceptable outcome. But we are dealing in this Bill with a participatory process—education, not training; knowledge, not skills; and teaching, not rote learning—in a situation that involves a relationship of give and take between students and lecturers, parents and universities, and employers and government. We do not want the commercialisation of this relationship, as if it were the purchase of a car. We want value placed on stimulation, career guidance and intellectual growth, not just the path to a paper qualification.

The consumer model that the CMA applies results in a totally one-sided set of contractual details. It seems to think that there are no obligations on students to pull their weight and no enforcement mechanisms against students’ own shortcomings. There is no mention by it, or in the TEF, of students’ efforts and their responsibility to learn. This one-sided market approach is more likely to lead to complaints about poor teaching after an unacceptable result has been handed down. We expect collaboration and not competition.

Higher education is not like a consumer transaction. The education relationship is unique. There is no fixed outcome which can be measured by organisations such as the CMA because the quality of the experience is determined by the aptitude and hard work of the student, as well as the facilities and teaching offered by the university.

Higher education is one of a class of major events in life which do not readily lend themselves to government by contract. Such situations are too emotional and personal, with no clear goal and perhaps an imbalance of power. The issue may be too important for the rest of society to be left to the narrow issue of a contract between the individual parties. Only overall regulation focused on the goals of higher education and the student will do, not intervention from an unrelated and unrepresentative body such as the CMA.

The CMA focuses on choice, price and competition. It assumes that satisfying the consumer-student is all that matters. Its view of contracts is about the provision of education, but it is no help when it comes to what education should achieve. Its interventions will not only overlap and conflict with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator but will lead to more micromanagement, box-ticking, checking and inspection, and not to greater quality or public benefit. It has no place in this new system.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I have a lot sympathy with what the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said. Where I disagree with her is on university admissions. That seems to me to be a pure consumer transaction. The consumers are provided with information on which they are asked to make a decision. This is an area where I like the idea of there being common standards across the consumer realm rather than some cosy deal that, in the case of higher education, makes it unnecessary to provide the consumers with the level of information and reassurance that they have elsewhere. I think that it is even more necessary. It is probably the second or third biggest single transaction that most people will make in the course of their lives: their commitment to the amount of student loan they will end up with at the end of three years and their commitment to a direction in life which may require a lot of effort and sacrifice to change if they have taken one particular way down.

At the moment I think that it should be very much open to question by the CMA whether what is being provided to students is true, accurate and as much as they should have. Yes, I agree that the Office for Students should have a role in this, but the standards, the bar which we are aiming at, should be set in accordance with our national standards—and at the top of the range of national standards. I think that the CMA has a role in that. So I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, about what happens when you are in a university: all those sorts of relationships, the outcomes and the need for students to contribute, it being a partnership and so forth. It is very hard to read that as a consumer contract. But that first moment of decision—or that rather strung-out moment of decision—seems to me to be very much CMA territory.

Photo of Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Crossbench 9:45, 8 March 2017

My Lords, I do not want to say very much about this. I did not withdraw the amendment which my noble friend Lady Brown and I originally tabled and which the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, kindly introduced, because I wanted the opportunity to say in the House how very much we appreciate the fact that the Government listened to us on this and how convinced we are that introducing the Regulators’ Code into the OfS’s actions will be entirely for the good. It will take care of a great many anxieties we had about details in the Bill and we are truly appreciative of that.

I also want to agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said about the realities of dealing with students who are in a university and how you cope with problems, complaints and all the issues which come to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. It is really important that the Government take account of the fact that this is not like a situation where you buy a coffee and if you do not like it you go and buy another coffee. My noble friend spoke very eloquently. I hope the Government will listen to her on that as much as they listened to us, and I thank them very much.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken to these two amendments for their contributions to this debate. I shall deal with the easy one first.

My noble friend explained in his letter earlier this week that he had listened to concerns around the regulatory powers of the OfS and the assurance that noble Lords, many of whom have spoken in this debate this evening, are seeking around its adherence to the Regulators’ Code. As already stated in the Bill, under Clause 3(1)(f), we share the aspiration that the OfS should comply with recognised standards of good regulatory practice. We remain wholeheartedly committed to the principles of the Regulators’ Code, and because the OfS is the sector regulator, we agree that it should sign up to the code. I am therefore pleased to confirm the announcement made on Monday that the OfS will voluntarily commit to comply with the code, with a view to its regulatory functions being formally brought into scope when the list is next updated via statutory instrument.

I now turn to the more difficult amendment about the respective roles of the CMA and the OfS and what the interface is between the two. In his letter to noble Lords earlier this week, my noble friend recognised the concern over the respective roles and responsibilities of the CMA and the OfS. I will explain why we believe that this a not a substantiated concern. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, used the right expression when she said, “We expect collaboration”. That is exactly what we expect.

The CMA is not a sector regulator but an enforcer of both competition and consumer protection law across the UK economy. The CMA has the specific role and specialist expertise to enforce competition law and consumer protection across the whole of the UK economy. It would be unprecedented, as has been suggested at times, for the competition and consumer enforcement functions of the CMA to be transferred entirely to a sector regulator. Even where sector regulators have enforcement functions, the CMA retains powers as an enforcement authority, with appropriate arrangements for co-ordination of concurrent functions.

In the past the CMA has provided general advice to HE institutions on complying with consumer law. In addition, its consumer enforcement powers have been used in relation to the sector. Specifically, it has received undertakings from providers around, for example, academic sanctions for non-fee debts, such as accommodation debts; information for prospective students on additional non-fee costs; terms and conditions on fee variations; and fair complaints procedure.

HEIs are expected to comply with consumer law, enforced by the CMA. The OfS will be expected to take on board the CMA’s guidance and best practice when it develops the details of the regulatory framework. It is perfectly usual for an organisation that is subject to sector regulation to be required to comply with legal requirements that are enforced by bodies other than the sector regulator. For example, even in regulated sectors the Environment Agency carries out regulatory and enforcement activity in relation to the environmental aspects of an organisation’s activities—for instance, as regards waste and contaminated land—and the Health and Safety Executive enforces health and safety requirements.

Although the CMA and OfS share areas of common interest in relation to competition and consumer matters, their roles are distinct and complementary, not contradictory. This is the joint view not just of Ministers but of the CMA. So we expect the CMA and the OfS to work productively together, just as the CMA works well with other regulators—indeed, as it does with HEFCE at the moment—and we see no reason for this to be different once the OfS is established. There will be a further opportunity to explain respective roles and responsibilities, as necessary, as part of the consultation on the regulatory framework this autumn.

Students—in addition to being students—have consumer rights, and universities and other higher education providers that do not meet their obligations to students may be in breach of consumer protection law. Compliance with that law is important not just to protect the students but to maintain student confidence and the reputation of the HE sector, and to support competition.

The noble Baroness asked whether there was confusion about the regulatory roles of the CMA, the OfS and the OIA. I applaud the work that she did at the OIA. As I think I said a moment ago, subject to the passage of the Bill, the OfS will be the regulator for higher education providers in England. The OIA will continue to operate as the body designated by government to operate the student complaints scheme in higher education, so it is not a regulator and it will continue to deal with individual student complaints. The CMA is not a sector regulator but an enforcer of both competition and consumer protection law across the UK economy, and it has the specific role and specialist expertise to enforce competition law and consumer protection across the whole of the UK economy. So there is no overlap of responsibility between the CMA, the OfS and the OIA, although the OfS will be expected to take on board the CMA’s guidance and best practice when developing the regulatory framework.

As I said, there will be an opportunity, as part of the consultation on the regulatory framework this autumn, to explain, discuss and identify the respective roles and responsibilities of these three bodies as necessary. In the meantime, I ask the noble Lord 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)

I thank the Minister for that reply. On the relatively simple question—the good news, as he called it—of Amendment 135, I echo the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf. We are very grateful for the listening and reflecting that has taken place. The end-result is exactly as we would want it. This is a body that will be carrying out regulatory functions. It would be better if it were fully subscribed to the Regulators’ Code. I understand that there will be a transitional arrangement. If that is the intention, we wish it well and that will be the right solution for that.

However, I am a bit more puzzled about the question of the overlap and links between the CMA and the Office for Students, particularly in relation to the very powerful case made by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, whose experience in the OIA leads to real and very important questions about where this is all going to go. As she pointed out, and I do not think was picked up by the Minister in detail—although I will read what he said in Hansard—there are three bodies with very different functions and aims. They have very different cultures, missions and outturns that they will be looking for. I do not quite see how that all fits together.

I understand that there will be a consultation period, but we are starting from a very odd position. With the competitive focus and the competition issues—the possibility that institutions might seek to challenge the work being done by other higher education institutions through the Competition Appeal Tribunal—this is a new world that is going to cause quite a lot of concern, worry and cost. It is certainly a deflection from their main purpose of the higher education institutions engaging in this. That has not been dealt with, and I wonder whether it might be possible for more information to flow our way.

On the detailed precision about where the CMA sits in relation to the Office for Students, I understand that will have to evolve. I am not in any sense being critical of that, and I have already admitted in my opening statement that we understand the role that Parliament has given to the CMA. That cannot be taken away but, surely, there is a case here for a memorandum of understanding at least—some sort of written documentation so that we would at least have a baseline on which to operate. I did not hear that from the Minister. Perhaps he could reflect on that and write to me about it.

It was a good aphorism to say that these are complementary but not contradictory groups working here, but it will be very difficult to see for a few years where this will all settle down. He may be right in what he asserted: it may be that this is in the best interests of students, but it is a bit hard to see that at the moment. While I see no particular case for progressing this amendment, or any others related to it, to improve the Bill, I wonder whether it might be sensible to have a quick meeting about this. Those who are keenly involved in this might just share experiences about where our nervousness comes from to ensure that there is nothing to be picked up, at least by a statement about a way forward to set out the broad understandings under which we will start the system before we get to Third Reading. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 135 withdrawn.

Amendment 136

Tabled by Baroness Deech

136: After Clause 71, insert the following new Clause—“Transfer of regulatory functions relating to higher education providers and students from Competition and Markets Authority to Office for StudentsOn the establishment of the OfS—(a) the OfS assumes responsibility for the regulatory functions in respect of higher education providers and students enrolled on higher education courses hitherto performed by the Competition and Markets Authority; and(b) the Competition and Markets Authority ceases to have responsibility for those regulatory functions.”

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench

I may not have made myself clear enough. I thoroughly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that the solution is probably a memorandum of understanding. I was trying not to talk about the clash between the CMA and the OfS, if there is one, but there is definitely a clash because two bodies, the CMA and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, are right on the same field. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator has been handing out hundreds of decisions every year about prospectuses, facilities and the consumer rights of students. I have already come across one case where it seems that the CMA has been contradicting the OIA. There is definitely confusion and a clash there, albeit a well-meaning one. They are coming at it from different perspectives and it seems quite unnecessary to have the CMA going in over the same territory. There has to be a solution. The OIA is not a regulator but a complaints handler and it is deeply involved in what one would call consumer transactions. But if the Minister will be happy to consider an MoU in some solution, then I am content not to move the amendment.

Amendment 136 not moved.

Clause 73: Secretary of State’s power to give directions

Amendments 137 and 138

Moved by Viscount Younger of Leckie

137: Clause 73, page 46, line 32, leave out from “protect” to end of line 39 and insert “the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers.”

138: Clause 73, page 46, line 41, after “but” insert “, whether or not the directions are framed in that way,”

Amendments 137 and 138 agreed.

Clause 79: Meaning of “English higher education provider” etc

Amendments 139 to 141

Moved by Viscount Younger of Leckie

139: Clause 79, page 49, line 38, after “see” insert “—(a) ”

140: Clause 79, page 49, line 39, leave out “and (6)”

141: Clause 79, page 49, line 39, after “education)” insert “, and(b) section (Duty to monitor etc the provision of arrangements for student transfers)(5) and (6)(duty to monitor etc the provision of arrangements for student transfers).”

Amendments 139 to 141 agreed.

Clause 81: Other definitions

Amendments 142 and 143

Moved by Viscount Younger of Leckie

142: Clause 81, page 50, line 42, at end insert—““the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers” has the meaning given by section 3(7);”

143: Clause 81, page 51, line 1, at end insert—““sector-recognised standards” has the meaning given by section 14 (2B);”

Amendments 142 and 143 agreed.

Consideration on Report adjourned.