The Bill has been substantially improved over the course of recent weeks, and we are very grateful for many of the amendments the Government have brought forward. But one aspect of the Bill still gives rise to concern: its basic failure to understand the essential interrelationship between teaching and research. Research is not only important in universities of and for itself in pushing ahead the frontiers of knowledge and understanding, and vital for our economic future and success as a country; it is also important for the way it enriches, enlivens, illuminates and deepens the teaching universities undertake. Having postgraduate students alongside undergraduates enhances the undergraduate experience, provides added value to their learning and benefits the overall academic atmosphere of the university community.
The recognition of research degree-awarding powers is therefore of critical importance but the Bill fails to recognise that. It ultimately places the authority for the awarding of such powers solely in the hands of the Office for Students. As a result of government amendments, the Bill now helpfully requires the OfS to seek the advice of UKRI before granting, varying or revoking degree-awarding powers. That point was reinforced in the letter the Minister helpfully sent us this morning.
However, seeking advice is not enough. In Clause 108, the phrase “may co-operate” is not enough, nor are “may provide information” and,
“must, if required … by the Secretary of State”.
Our amendment seeks to put this right very simply by saying that the decision to grant, revoke or vary research degree-awarding powers should be made jointly by both the Office for Students and UKRI. The body that knows about students and the body that knows about research should both be intrinsically involved in that decision. It would be daft to leave open the possibility, as the Bill does at present, that the OfS could ignore the advice, knowledge, expertise and research experience of UKRI in deciding whether a university should be able to grant research degrees. Worse, if a decision to vary or revoke has been made, the university can make representations but only to the Office for Students. The OfS could deal with these representations unilaterally. An appeal could then be made to the First-tier Tribunal. At the moment the Bill envisages only an appeal relating to an Office for Students decision. Surely an appeal should be able to be made in relation to the views and decisions of both the OfS and UKRI. If it is a joint decision, there will rightly be subsequent joint accountability for that decision.
It is also worth pointing out that UKRI will be a major funder—post-Brexit, quite possibly the major funder—of postgraduate research study. Are we seriously saying that it should take only a minor advisory role in ratifying a university’s degree-awarding status? I urge the Government to think again, support research, intertwine research and teaching to the fullest possible extent, bring clarity and firmness to the process and ensure that the best decisions are taken with the full expertise of UKRI intimately involved. This must surely be a joint process. I beg to move.