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 Prior of Brampton Lord Prior of Brampton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 8:00 pm, 15th March 2017

My Lords, I rather fear that an irresistible force has met an immovable object on this occasion. That is a shame because we have agreed on so much in this part of the Bill and we all agree that the various amendments that have been made have vastly improved the Bill. I would argue that we have done 98% of the work required. Despite the very eloquent speeches made by the noble Lord, Lord Smith, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, I feel we are somewhat dancing on the head of a pin on this issue. What is the difference between the two cases being put? On the one hand, my noble and learned friend and the noble Lord, Lord Smith, say that research degree-awarding powers should be made jointly by the OfS and UKRI, whereas the Bill says they should be made by the OfS with advice from UKRI. There is clearly a distinction between the two and I understand it, but we are not talking about a huge distinction this evening. It is important to bear that context in mind as we wind our way to the end of this debate.

I start by stating that the Government fully recognise the importance of a co-ordinated approach to supporting the pipeline of undergraduate and postgraduate talent and skills development. Let me explain briefly where responsibilities will lie across the two organisations, UKRI and the OfS. The OfS will be responsible for maintaining the quality of higher education in England, including postgraduate provision, and promoting the interests of students in English higher education providers, including students engaged in postgraduate research and study. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland this is the responsibility of the devolved Administrations.

UKRI will support the cost of postgraduate research degree programmes in English universities through Research England’s dedicated PGR funding stream. Support of this type is also a devolved matter for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Additionally, the Government made an amendment in the other place that clarified UKRI’s ability not only to support postgraduate provision but to encourage it. At his appearance before the Science and Technology Select Committee last October, Sir John Kingman argued that these reforms would improve oversight of the research talent pipeline.

UKRI will be a major and influential advocate for the importance of maintaining a strong, healthy pipeline of research students. Crucially, it will have a strategic centre that can gather and analyse intelligence on the pipeline from across its councils and can work with the OfS and the devolved funding bodies to develop a more holistic and comprehensive picture of the landscape than is possible under current arrangements.

The Government are backing UKRI to succeed. In the Budget—funnily enough, very little publicity was given to this aspect of it, which is surprising given the importance I know noble Lords attach to it—the Government committed to spend £250 million over the next four years to increase the number of highly skilled researchers and develop the talent needed by British industries for a thriving and innovative economy. We also announced £100 million for global research talent over the next four years to attract the brightest minds to the UK and help maintain the UK’s position as a world leader in R&D. That was a very significant announcement. Let me be clear: UKRI will work closely with the OfS and its equivalents in the devolved Administrations to ensure that this vital part of the university system is protected.

I turn now to the amendment in front of us; there are two distinct proposals within this amendment. First, on the matter of research students, it must be said that the OfS is an England-only regulator, while UKRI is a UK-wide funder. It would be entirely inappropriate to give the OfS a decision-making power in relation to a research council’s doctoral funding for a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish university, for example. Secondly, each organisation will make countless decisions that relate to research students. Requiring them to make every one of these decisions jointly would result in a duplication of effort and, in many instances, simply not make sense. For example, the OfS will not be well placed to take decisions on where research funding should be allocated to fund doctoral training for the purpose of enhancing the UK’s research capability where this is outside the university sector—for example, in one of the UK’s world-leading research institutes. Conversely, this amendment would risk giving UKRI unnecessary decision-making responsibilities on regulatory issues which affect all higher education students, but where UKRI will have no particular remit or expertise, such as on ensuring institutions have appropriate student protection plans in place.

As we have been clear throughout the passage of this Bill, the OfS and UKRI can share information and will co-operate at all levels to ensure that the respective decisions they make regarding research students are appropriately informed by the expertise of the other organisation. This is a much more proportionate and effective approach. Clause 108 already enables this and, since both organisations have a duty to have regard to the need to operate in an effective and efficient way through Clauses 3 and 100, the Bill actively encourages such co-operation. In addition, this House has already agreed amendments that require the OfS and UKRI to detail in their annual reports how they have co-operated in the past year. We fully expect evidence of co-operation on matters related to research students to be included in these reports and, through provisions in Clause 108, Ministers can act to require this to happen should the evidence suggest otherwise. However, I put to the House that while co-operation and collaboration is appropriate, asking the OfS and UKRI to make joint decisions in every instance is not.

On research degree-awarding powers, we considered carefully the constructive arguments made in Committee by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, the noble Lords, Lord Mendelsohn and Lord Stevenson, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, that this should be a matter where OfS and UKRI should make decisions jointly. Having given this matter much thought, we do not agree that the decision itself should be a joint one between the two bodies, given that UKRI has no direct regulatory function in relation to higher education providers. Nevertheless, while we believe that the OfS as regulator of the sector is best placed to take the final decisions, we fully agree that it is important that the expertise of UKRI should be fully utilised in ensuring that the OfS makes well-informed decisions. Because of this, we put forward an amendment, which this House has already agreed, requiring the OfS to request advice from the designated quality body or committee on degree-awarding powers. This amendment ensures that the advice must be informed by the views of UKRI when it concerns research degree-awarding powers, and this advice cannot be ignored by the OfS. This gives UKRI a clearly enshrined role, securing its influence in decisions on research degree-awarding powers, which is much stronger than anything that has gone before in securing a guaranteed role for such advice to be given for matters concerning research degree-awarding powers. Through our reforms, we see UKRI having a bigger role than any research organisation currently has, or that HEFCE has now.

The new system that we have designed has clear accountabilities, and instituting joint decision-making in this way could give UKRI a role in matters which have nothing to do with an institution’s research capability. Further, the Government will also commit to giving UKRI an important advisory role when the department is preparing guidance on the criteria by which applications for research degree-awarding powers will be assessed. These are meaningful legislative provisions. The Bill does not prevent UKRI having a role in the appeals process when appropriate. We believe that it is a more practical and reasonable alternative to the amendment, taking into account the real-world operations of the two bodies, while crucially ensuring that any decisions are informed by the relevant expertise. The amendment as drafted would make it a legal requirement for the OfS to jointly take decisions about the number of doctoral training places to be supported by the research councils, about the funding of doctoral research training in research council institutes and facilities, and about the support given by UKRI for doctoral training in universities in the devolved Administrations. These things are the primary responsibility of UKRI and are outside the scope of the OfS’s responsibilities, and I believe it would be wrong to put them into legislation today. It is with those things in mind that I ask the noble Lord, Lord Smith, to withdraw his amendment.