Higher Education and Research Bill - Report (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 15th March 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) 7:30 pm, 15th March 2017

My Lords, it has been a good debate on a wide range of issues broadly around the work of the research councils. It includes the Government’s important and welcome commitment to uphold the Haldane principle—or Willetts principle—and indeed to enshrine it in the Bill and throughout the instructions that will be given to the various bodies that are to subscribe to it.

We are delighted to be able to sign up to a number of government amendments in this group. We are pleased to see the concession made to the point argued strongly in Committee by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, about including under specialist employees all technical staff where they are involved in research. That contrasts with the attitude taken in Committee and earlier stages of the Bill, when we attempted to broaden the representational elements relating to the Office for Students—or office for higher education, as it should be called. In particular, we raised the lack of engagement with students, which seems perverse given the Government’s willingness at this stage to include others involved in their discussions.

I shall speak briefly to Amendment 177—the one amendment to which no one has spoken—and seek the Government’s response. We all accept that the strength of our higher education and research institutions will be central to the health of our economy and vitality of our society. As we look towards a post-Brexit world, the role of research in driving innovation, investment and wellbeing will surely assume greater significance. The capacity of research institutions to act with autonomy and independence will be key to their success.

The Government’s amendments, as I have already said, rightly respond to concerns raised about the need to embed the principle of institutional autonomy more firmly within the Bill. Why, therefore, have the Government not accepted Amendment 177 or brought forward their own version of it?

The Government did respond to arguments about autonomy in relation to the OfS. We welcomed their amendments and signed up to them—they are now in the Bill—such as that on,

“the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers”.

Yet as it stands, UKRI has no such duty, despite the extensive influence and engagement—indirect and direct—that it will have with higher education providers under the new system. We accept that UKRI is not a regulator, but its role is instrumental. It is bound to be engaged in discussions with institutions and bodies that are in a different sector from the institutional autonomy provided by the Secretary of State and the OfS.

That is an asymmetry that I regret. Could the noble Lord, when he comes to respond, at least give us some solace by accepting that, although it may be too late to amend the Bill at this stage, the institutional autonomy issue percolates through to research, is important to the institutions that will be working with the research councils and UKRI post-implementation of the Bill, and is something which the Government should address at some point, whether through memorandums of understanding or by guidance?