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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:00 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) 8:00 pm, 15th March 2017

My Lords, I am also signed up to this amendment. I come from a slightly different position, but I arrive at the same point. Throughout this section of the Bill, the Minister has been at pains to stress how it has been improved by the preceding contributions and debate of noble Lords who have experience of operational activity in the field we are covering. He is, I think, aware of my feeling—I explained it to him earlier this evening—that, had we had the same measure of agreement earlier in the passage of the Bill, we would have made a lot more progress and the Bill would be a lot better. We had to force our way into a position of improvement in the earlier parts of the Bill, but we have been able to do it by dialogue and discussion in this part, which is to be welcomed.

I say all that because this issue of research degree-awarding powers is really important for the higher education institutions in this country. In this section, we are dealing primarily with the UK-wide impact on research funding, but the reality is that this issue relates to the power to award research degrees. English higher education providers, as we need to call them, have attached great strength to this—so great that it was the motivation behind the insistence that we try to change the way the Bill is configured by ensuring that an amendment, which was resisted very strongly by the Government, was added to the very first clause to set out what we meant by a university. Intrinsically wired into what we mean by a university is the question of who has responsibility for awarding degrees. That was decided in the context of the opening clause with a discussion of what universities meant. Then we agreed with the Government to insert a very strong sentence referring to institutional autonomy and academic freedom. With that goes the ability for universities—higher education providers in England, particularly—to award degrees in their own right within a framework established by statute. This issue goes right through the Bill. It is interesting and quite informative that we have come back to it at this point. It has been a long and interesting journey.

Goldilocks, who featured earlier in our discussions, would have taken the view that there was a need here for some sort of equitable approach. It is very surprising that the very presence of the former Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, sitting directly behind the Minister and looking sternly at him, although he cannot see it—that got him moving quickly—has not had more success in cutting through on this point than his case warrants. He made it clear early in Committee that this was something he felt very strongly about. He got a lot of support around your Lordships’ House and he is still there today. It is an extraordinary situation, unprecedented in my short experience here, and I cannot wait to see the denouement of this process. We wait to hear what the Minister will say. He has tried a letter, he has tried a phone call and now he is going to do it in person—what a wonderful triage we will have before us on this occasion. I am rambling slightly, but I wanted to make the point—