Examination of Witnesses

Higher Education and Research Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:38 am on 6th September 2016.

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Professor Simon Gaskell, Gordon McKenzie, Professor Joy Carter, Pam Tatlow, Alex Proudfoot and Paul Kirkham gave evidence.

Good morning and welcome to our first witnesses. Thank you for joining us for the first session of the Bill today. We are going to hear evidence from the witnesses and I will ask Members to ask questions of the witnesses. Witnesses need to be aware that we will finish this session at 10.30 am. Questions can be put to specific witnesses or to the panel as a whole. If they are to the panel as a whole, given the number of members, I would appreciate brief responses. Will the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record, starting from the left?

Professor Simon Gaskell:

I am Simon Gaskell, president and principal of Queen Mary University of London. I am also chair of the Higher Education Statistics Agency and am on the Russell Group board. My primary reason for being here is to represent Universities UK. I have led for UUK on regulation issues and in the responses to the Green Paper, the White Paper and now the Bill.

Gordon McKenzie:

I am Gordon McKenzie, chief executive of GuildHE.

Professor Joy Carter:

I am Joy Carter. I am chair of GuildHE and also Vice-Chancellor of Winchester University.

Pam Tatlow:

I am Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, the association for modern universities, with members throughout the UK.

Alex Proudfoot:

I am Alex Proudfoot, chief executive of Independent Higher Education, which represents alternative providers.

Paul Kirkham:

I am Paul Kirkham, chief executive of the ICMP, an independent higher education provider. I am also vice-chair of Independent Higher Education.

Thank you. We will open for questions, first from Mr Streeting.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

Q Good morning. Thank you for coming to give evidence to the Committee. I have a really simple question to start with, and it would be good to get the views of each organisation represented, if not each panellist. Do you think it is right that there should be student representation on the governing body of every higher education institution, on the board of the office for students, on the board of the quality provider and the quality committee? Would you like to see the scope of the Bill extended to make that provision?

Professor Joy Carter:

Absolutely. It has been a revelation to me to engage more with students in the delivery of higher education over the last decade. I think you make an important suggestion.

Pam Tatlow:

Yes, we think it is important, but I do not think it is the only answer. We have made some proposals that all members of the OFS board, for example, should have some knowledge of social mobility, widening participation and student interest.

Professor Simon Gaskell:

I think it is important to recognise the general point that students, quite correctly, see themselves as co-creators of their own education. That principle would suggest that their voice is extremely important. Your question covered everything from individual institutions to the OFS. As far as my own institution is concerned, we already have two student members on our governing body—one a member, one an observer, but the voice is very loudly heard. There are a variety of mechanisms for ensuring that the student voice is heard, often in conjunction with their own institutions. We can argue about the precise prescription of the extended membership, but the general principle of the student voice being first and foremost is absolutely the right one.

Alex Proudfoot:

It is very important that the student voice is heard, both on governing bodies and on the office for students. I believe that the mechanism for that voice being channelled into the office for students is for Government to decide at this juncture. At the moment few alternative providers have student unions that are formally affiliated to the NUS, so I think it would be problematic if a directly nominated NUS representative was on the board, as I would have difficulty finding confidence in their ability to represent the views of the full spectrum of students.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

Q Will you elaborate slightly on that final point?

Alex Proudfoot:

Yes. I think student representation is an excellent idea, as long as the views of the full spectrum of students are represented. Students at alternative providers tend not to engage in formal student unions; they tend often to be professionals or mature students or to have responsibilities outside their studies. For that reason, it is difficult to require representation, but it should be encouraged.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

Q Finally, I am interested in the panel’s views about the fairness of either institutions or Government being able to alter the repayment terms or the conditions of student loans—whether those are tuition fee levels or repayment terms and conditions—after a student has enrolled on a course or while they are still repaying the loan as a graduate. Do you think that enabling universities or Government to tinker with the terms and conditions has the serious risk that when students sign up as applicants, they do not necessarily know what they are signing up for? That has real risks for fair access and for basic fairness to consumers.

Gordon McKenzie:

I think it is unfair to change the conditions after the student has taken out the loan. When the Government changed the repayment threshold and decided not to uprate it annually by inflation, GuildHE commented that it was unfair—we think it is unfair.

Pam Tatlow:

I would distinguish between repayment and fees. Like GuildHE, we commented on and opposed the amendment to repayment conditions and indeed the proposal to abolish maintenance grants. In respect of fees, it has at times been the case under previous Governments that if fees increased by inflation, that could apply to the whole student body. We are dealing with a headline price, if I can put it that way, of £3,000. We might want to distinguish between fee levels and repayment levels. On repayment we have been very clear.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

Q Is there a Universities UK view on that, Professor Gaskell?

Professor Simon Gaskell:

The basic principle is that it must surely be right that students know what they are signing up to when they start their course. That places obligations on both institutions and Government. The general principle is that the terms of engagement, as it were, should not be changed after a student has started on their course and made a commitment to a university, as the university has made a commitment to them. The idea that the terms of engagement should not change seems to me to be a basic principle.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Public Services and Education)

Professor Carter and Professor Gaskell said that student representation is important and beneficial. Can I ask you to give us a quick example of how student representation has been beneficial and why we should have itQ ?

Professor Joy Carter:

It is about not so much representation, but the holistic sense of student engagement, of which representation is a part. If I can answer the question from a more holistic perspective, in my own institution—to give you one example—we have a student fellows scheme. Students work in partnership with members of staff on projects of their choosing to enhance the quality of the higher education that they are receiving. At any one time in my institution we have got 60 to 100 of those enhancement projects—real partnerships between students and staff—going on. The quality of enhancement that is achieved is beyond measure.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby

To ask a broader question, how important do you think this piece of legislation is, given that there has not been any legislation for more than 20 years? Which part of the Bill, from your perspective, is the most importantQ ?

Paul Kirkham:

As an independent provider, working with a very fragmented regulatory system for many, many years has been an absolute nightmare, so having a simple, straightforward, single regulatory system is absolutely crucial. The most important part is that we have a level playing field whereby providers are treated equally and correctly.

Pam Tatlow:

I think we should be looking at the Bill in a holistic way. There is a real risk that we look at the Bill in terms of a silo—the office for students, and then UK Research and Innovation. What we have got at the moment through the Higher Education Funding Council for England is some holistic oversight over the whole of the sector, in terms of reporting. Therefore, there are issues around OFS, and some of the hard corners need to be taken off the regulatory framework. We look at the Bill as a whole, because one impacts on the other. Teaching impacts on research and innovation, and vice versa.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby

Q How important is the Bill?

Pam Tatlow:

The Bill is very important because the Government want to table it. It would not have been our most immediate priority, but there are regulatory things that need to be sorted out, as colleagues to my left have pointed out. You can undertake the teaching excellence framework without this Bill—we should be clear about that—and HEFCE is already making preparations to do so. We do not necessarily need the Bill to deliver the Government’s commitment to teaching.

Gordon McKenzie:

I agree with Mr Kirkham that the Bill is essential. It was essential from 2011, when the Government made substantial changes to the fee regime. I think it is important to look at the Bill holistically. The essential part is the creation of the office for students and the ability to regulate all providers on a fair and equal basis, whatever their background and history. I have concerns that, in the approach taken—having the office for students on the one hand and UKRI on the other—some of the benefits of having a single body looking at higher education as a whole might be lost, but there are perhaps ways around that.

Photo of Roger Mullin Roger Mullin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Q In terms of the panel members who have already commented on the regulatory framework, some people have been criticising the proposals as being overly summative and not formative enough to enable or encourage proper development. Would you like to comment on that?

Professor Simon Gaskell:

I will come to your question in a moment. I just want to say, in terms of the need for the Bill, that clearly it is essentially replacing the 1992 legislation, which was appropriate at the time, although the times were quite different then. The argument for an upgrading of the regulatory framework for higher education is compelling.

Of course, it has to be admitted that throughout the coalition Government we survived on, frankly, a series of fudges, which nevertheless enabled the out-of-date legislation to allow the sector to continue. So one could not say that the Bill is absolutely essential, but it does have some important tidying-up aspects. The importance of the Bill derives largely from a measure advocated by Universities UK, which was to have a single entry into the sector through a well described and well regulated register of higher education providers. Whether one calls that a “level playing field” or some other term, that is an important aspect.

If I understood the most recent question correctly, it asked whether the Bill might perhaps be too permissive rather than directive in terms of its content. We at Universities UK and in our member institutions do have concerns about that. There are some aspects of the wording of the Bill which could be interpreted to enable directions from the office for students, or indeed from the Department for Education, that would allow measures to be taken which we think would not be in the best interests of the sector. These may be allowed rather than prescribed by the Bill. We are very aware of the need to get the wording and the detail right to make sure that something which may not be immediately intended would not be allowed by incautious phrasing in the Bill.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Since the Government presented the Bill, and indeed since it came before the House, we have had two major seismic shocks to the British political system. One of them, of course, is the impact of Brexit. The other, although perhaps not as seismic as Brexit, is nevertheless important for us: the changes to the machinery of Government which have moved this subject to the Department for Education rather than the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I wanted to ask the panellists if they would give us their views.

The Government have made certain commitments to underwrite funding which comes from the EU, particularly in the area of research, but have made no commitments about where we are going from there. I know very well from conversations with many university providers how concerned they are about this—not simply from the research side, but because community-based universities are worried about loss of funding from the European Social Fund and other things. I wonder if I could take a quick snapshot of whether you think that the Government are on top of this and doing enough about it already.

Pam Tatlow:

There are 120,000 EU students studying in the UK. We have a commitment to access to the student loan system only for this admissions year—that is, for students entering higher education in 2016-17. Ministers are, quite correctly, encouraging us to get on the Brexit bus, if I can put it that way. We are slightly worried that the best might leave before we have got all the commitments that we need in place. I think that my colleagues in Scotland also raised this with the Minister in Scotland. The commitments we need include the commitment to EU student funding beyond this academic year, however it is delivered in each Administration. Of course, there are also fairly major issues about how those students will be classified in the future.

The final point I would raise is that there are universities which are very engaged in structural funds. We talked with one principal last week, and there is now £50 million worth of structural funding in the west of Scotland. It is very important that the Government address these things, and that they are addressed not only in DFE but in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for International Trade and the Home Department. We need a joined-up approach.

Professor Simon Gaskell:

We could have a long debate about the effects of Brexit, which I am sure would be inappropriate in this forum. Just to add to the list of concerns, as it were, clearly we are concerned about the loss of EU students. We are concerned about the polls that indicate that overseas non-EU students now find non-EU Britain to be a less attractive place to study. I am particularly concerned not only about the loss of EU students and EU staff, but about the loss of UK students and UK staff, who are not as enamoured of the system and the environment as they were before.

Clearly there are important financial issues, but actually what is more insidious is the loss of talent, the loss of networking and the loss of engagement with European partners. That will be much less easy to quantify but, unless we are very careful, it will become quite a damaging development over the next few years.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

Q May I press you, Professor Gaskell, on that particular point? Members of the Committee will probably have seen the poll about the reaction to Brexit, which I think said that something like 40% of people between the ages of 18 and 35 were thinking about leaving the country as a result. That addresses one of the points that you made.

May I press you on the particular issues and concerns that you as a Russell Group member and also UUK generally have pressed the Government on? They relate to the very mixed position in terms of funding for research. We have heard all these stories about people being edged out. We know that the Government have supported Horizon 2020, but what is the position with the support they are currently not giving or are giving for beyond the 2020 process, while we are still in the EU and able to bid for these things?

I remind colleagues that there is a wide debate on Europe, but we have to keep it within the context of the scope of the Bill.

Professor Simon Gaskell:

You are absolutely right to be concerned. The assurances that have been given so far are welcome but do not go anywhere near far enough. Producing evidence will be very difficult, because my colleagues and I do not get phone calls saying, “We were going to include you in our research network, but now we are not.” They do not get the phone call. That will be the problem in amassing the evidence.

Paul Kirkham:

There are many issues surrounding Brexit that are important for the sector, but I do not believe they in any way undermine the need for the Bill or its importance. I would hate for things to be distracted in any way as a result of these discussions.

Photo of Amanda Milling Amanda Milling Conservative, Cannock Chase

Good morning. I have a question for Mr Kirkham. I want to pick up on the point you made earlier about the importance of the single regulatory framework and creating a level playing field. I was wondering whether you could elaborate further on why that is so important and the benefits from your perspectiveQ .

Paul Kirkham:

We do not think that the system as it exists is to the benefit of students, the taxpayer or a wide range of providers. There are myriad different regulatory bodies, conflicting data and information that need to be submitted in different ways, differences in fees, and differences in the tier 4 visa system—that is kind of outside the scope of this, but the differences exist.

From the point of view of the provider, having clarity on what we are expected to do is extremely useful. From the point of view of the student, having clarity on what a particular provider offers and how that compares to other providers is absolutely crucial. From the point of view of the taxpayer, where taxpayer funds are being used for student loans or other grants or associated support, it is absolutely critical to know where that is going and whether, for example, it is going to registered approved providers who are subject to equal quality assurance checks. At the moment, it is very difficult to differentiate between providers on all those issues.

Professor Simon Gaskell:

It is seductively attractive to talk about a level playing field, but we should recognise that implicitly or explicitly, we have expectations of our universities that go well beyond financial sustainability. One of the obligations I feel in my university is that we should cover a broad range of subjects.

If I was concerned about financial sustainability, I would close our medical school and certainly would not engage in science and engineering—far too expensive. I would have a management school, a law school and an economics school. I would be wonderfully financially sustainable and attractive to the private sector, but we take on that obligation. That means that we are not on a level playing field with other providers who do not accept that responsibility. We need to be very careful nationally to understand what our expectations are of our universities, because that will help inform a term—“level playing field”—that can otherwise be flippant.

Pam Tatlow:

We absolutely endorse that. You can have the lowest common denominator and have a level playing field. Actually, we want high criteria to protect the student interest. It is not so much about protecting the institutional interest; we have got to protect quality and standards for our students. We have also got to maintain a system in which we can maintain confidence. It is in nobody’s interest in the independent sector or the more established sector if any provider goes under. That would undermine confidence and therefore the global reputation of UK higher education. I know what my colleagues mean. They clearly want a level playing field, but we have to unpeel the onion a bit as to what that actually means.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

Q Would the panel accept that, if we are looking at another playing field, we should consider something beyond regulation and maybe have a set of expectations about what institutions are actually delivering, so that, if it is a level playing field, it goes beyond regulation?

Professor Simon Gaskell:

We certainly favour inclusion in the Bill of a clause that indicates that there is a responsibility for the public good of institutions that wish to call themselves universities.

Pam Tatlow:

This is properly addressed in terms of the general duties of OFS. For example, we have proposed a reference to confidence and the public interest. In other words, we know that Ministers are very clear that they want a more competitive market. The risk is that we just see students as consumers. Students, and we ourselves, see students as much more than that, and higher education has got a wider purpose.

One way to address the issue would be to knock off what I call some of the hard edges around the general duties of OFS to ensure that there is a wider commitment, which I am convinced Ministers actually have.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

Q Can I press a little further on the regulatory framework? I think there is a consensus that we need a new regulatory framework and it is welcome that the Government are bringing forward a Bill to enable us to debate that. The Bill has also been brought forward in the context of trying to change the terrain of higher education and encourage greater diversity of providers. In that context, do you think that the regulatory framework as presented in the Bill is fit for purpose? Are there any risks involved in the proposals before us?

Gordon McKenzie:

I think it is broadly fit for purpose. There are risks in some of the detail. Although I know the Government released some further information yesterday evening, which I have still to look at in detail, I do not think the Government are yet saying enough about how they will ensure that the new entrants to the market and sector are high quality.

I do not think the Government are yet convincing about their proposal that some people may be able to have the power to award their own degrees on a probationary basis, because I do not think that the Government have yet answered the question of what happens to the students if the provider fails probation. Who awards their degree? What have they got for their three years?

I think there are elements of the detail that require scrutiny. I do have concerns that at the moment the promised role of the office for students as taking an overview of the sector is not really there or enabled by the Bill. I think those things could be fixed—so it is basically fit for purpose, but with further work.

As there are six members of the panel and time is limited, could you give relatively succinct answers? We have other Members who wish to ask questions.

Professor Joy Carter:

I echo what Gordon said. For me the risks are in three broad categories. One is speed: are we moving too quickly to give the power to award degrees—the provisional degree-awarding powers and so on? The second category is around university title and the notion that we have already discussed about academic community and public engagement. The third category of risks is about autonomy and the power of the office for students and the power of the Secretary of State in relation to autonomous and successful universities.

Paul Kirkham:

I would say that there is greater risk in leaving it as it is and not adjusting this right now. There are significant risks to student and taxpayer of a very static, non-changing universe of providers and way too much emphasis on the three-year, on-campus degree.

The biggest risk for me in the Bill is that it has not properly addressed the issue of student financing. We currently have a student loan system, which is essentially based around a calendar year and predicated primarily on the traditional three-year degree system. Until such time as we have proper reform of the finance system, we will not get proper innovation into the sector. I personally advocate some form of credit-based financing, which will give students much more flexibility, and when combined with more effective credit transfer will also give them much more mobility across the sector.

Pam Tatlow:

I simply refer to clause 2, which we think extends the Secretary of State’s powers; we have an explanation around that if the Committee wants a supplementary submission on it. We have particular reservations around OFS being a validator and a provider. In other words, it seems almost to be the validator of last resort. You can’t have it both ways—the OFS being a regulator of the sector as well as a validator and provider. That is a contradiction in terms. We have specific queries around that.

We welcome part 2 on a sharia-compliant loan system, but it does absolutely nothing if you want to deliver accelerated degrees, for example. It is a missed opportunity.

Alex Proudfoot:

Briefly, I think the OFS needs to have a power reserved in order to validate degrees because, unfortunately, the current validation system in the UK is so broken. That would not be necessary if the autonomous institutions in the UK that currently validate new provision acted as if they had a public interest in diversifying the landscape of higher education and making new provision available to students. Unfortunately, we find that, quite rightly within their own autonomous priorities and strategies, some institutions draw back from validation, leaving institutions and students high and dry. We see institutions blocking new courses from being validated because they compete with one of their own courses or, indeed, one of their own partner’s courses. Unfortunately, we see a very high cost and very limited transparency in the process across the sector.

We are currently doing some work to try to improve the situation, but it is important that the OFS has this as validation of last resort, as Pam referred to it. If nothing else, it should encourage validating institutions to take their responsibility seriously.

Pam Tatlow:

May I come back on that? More than 100 institutions can validate throughout England. If you cannot be validated as an independent provider by one of those, what is the matter with what you are delivering? That is the point. This is not a closed shop.

Alex Proudfoot:

In some cases, the matter—

Order. Professor Gaskell?

Professor Simon Gaskell:

I think the Bill is right and that the fundamental point is establishing a regulatory framework and pre-eminently the register of providers. That is overdue and very welcome. We need to get the entry standards to that register absolutely right because the key risk here is the reputation of the UK higher education sector. It was pointed out in the press earlier this week that the UK is second to the US in two areas of activity: winning Olympic medals and higher education. I think the second is probably more important to the country than the first, but that is a personal view. We risk that at our peril, which is why the detail is so important. The framework is right; the detail is critical.

We do not have a university in my constituency, but we do have a gold medal winner.

Photo of Ben Howlett Ben Howlett Conservative, Bath

One of the key areas of regulation proposed in the Bill obviously relates to participation, and for a long time social mobility has been lacking in many areas of the regulatory system.Q

I want to unpick a bit, following on from the last question, your views on the Government’s ambitions for improving participation and also the regulatory framework around improving participation.

Professor Simon Gaskell:

I speak as head of an institution where two thirds of our students are from ethnic minorities and 89% are from state schools, so I can speak with some authority on this. That of course is a set of achievements of which we are very proud and that have been achieved in the current framework—regulatory and otherwise.

My personal view is that widening participation is not enough. We need to do much more and indeed we are doing more at Queen Mary to ensure that students not only get into university and succeed academically while they are at university but, despite a lack of social capital in many cases, succeed after university. There is a lot to be done and we are doing it in universities. I do not think it needs legislation to enforce it.

We have had encouragement through the Office for Fair Access, which has been entirely aligned with our aspirations as an institution. Other institutions have perhaps needed more encouragement in that direction. Fundamentally, I think some universities at least, including my own, are leading the way in recognising what needs to be done in social mobility. Widening participation is not enough.

Pam Tatlow:

We support the Government’s ambitions 101% and we would add that experience to that of board members to be taken into account.

We think clause 9, which deals with some of the participation figures and information, does not go far enough and, in fact, it should discuss some of the protected characteristics. It does not talk about age: one in three higher education students enter university for the first time when they are over 21, often entering modern universities. That must be reflected in the diversity of the sector. We are proud of that and should do more about it and, therefore, I think more could be done on clause 9.

Professor Joy Carter:

Widening the market to alternative providers is often good for widening participation students, because many alternative providers focus on WP students and offer products and prices that are particularly attractive to them. That is good.

My concern about the marketplace and the effect on WP is about the work at primary school and the work of individual institutions at primary school. There is a lot of research that says young people are made or broken at that age and lots of universities already do fantastic work with primary-age children. In the new world allowed by the Bill, how much of that will continue?

Paul Kirkham:

Obviously we support this ambition. Independent providers are, traditionally, very good at this in the main. Where you have a fee cap of £6,000 you have two choices: either you deliver a different kind of experience or you have to charge cash, up front, to students, which is not exactly a widening participation exercise. In many cases, we are disadvantaged in the work we can do when we would like to do it given that we have that fee cap of £6,000, but we understand the reasons why that is there.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Public Services and Education)

Q The OFS as the regulating body will be funded by subscriptions from higher education institutions. New providers or new entrants, by their nature, will be a higher risk than the more established institutions. Is it right that all institutions pay the same amount of subscriptions or should there be some sort of sliding scale?

Professor Simon Gaskell:

Some thought needs to be given to this because you are right, not every institution will require the same degree of scrutiny. You could argue that the most established and most reliable institutions should pay least. To be fair, there is some offset against that, building on my earlier point: we are all concerned with the reputation of the sector and we all have an interest in the sector. I would not suggest an exact proportionality, but some system that takes note that the greatest demands on the OFS will come from the providers who represent the greatest risk seems to me a reasonable principle.

Pam Tatlow:

I understand there will be a consultation if this remains in the Bill, but the more general point is that this is a direct switch from funding from what is now the Department for Education to universities and the average would be about £62,000. If you look at the White Paper, it shows that over several years, the bulk of funding for the OFS will come from providers.

Paul Kirkham:

To be clear, not all independent providers are new and pose that kind of risk. Many have decades, if not hundreds of years, of experience in provision. My second point is that it should be equitable in terms of the cost. Many of the incumbent universities’ perceived lower risks have been achieved through decades of taxpayer support and I think it would be grossly unfair if a sliding scale were applied on the basis of some form of perceived risk.

Gordon McKenzie:

As well as risk, it is also important to take account of a university or a provider’s size and resources.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Conservative, Boston and Skegness

This is a question specifically for Professor Gaskell. I should begin by declaring that my wife is technically a student at Queen Mary University London.Q

Professor Simon Gaskell:

What does technically mean?

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Conservative, Boston and Skegness

Technically in the sense that she is on maternity leave, but she is still part of it.

The Universities UK report on sustainability and the future of higher education regulation was recently a tangential part of the Science and Technology Committee’s review of the future provision of skills. How do you feel the Bill addresses the concerns you brought up in that report?

Professor Simon Gaskell:

I think I have covered some of those things already, in the sense that we were looking for a simplification of the system—an assurance of equity of treatment of all providers, whether established or new. That led us to propose a tiered register of providers, which would go well beyond the current HEFCE register, which is essentially a list. A key point that was emphasised in the UUK report was that the register has to have very clearly defined entry standards to protect both the reputation of the sector and, crucially, the position of students at less secure institutions. Indeed, it is often overlooked, but we also need to protect the interests of the alumni of those institutions. If you graduate from an institution that lasted for four years and then disappeared in a puff of smoke, you have a degraded qualification.

The need for a register was emphasised so much in the UUK report because all those things add up to the need not to simply try out a new institution, as it were, or give it an opportunity to fail. The failure of an institution is very problematic for students and the general public, and for the locality in which that institution is placed, because institutions often make critical contributions to their locations. To us, all that adds up to the need not only for a register, which the Bill certainly includes, but for a clear indication and a secure prescription of entry standards for that register, in the interests of students, the public and the locations in which universities are based.

I am sorry to rush you, but we have nine minutes remaining and four Members want to ask questions. I am going to turn first to Roberta Blackman-Woods, then Valerie Vaz, Roger Mullin and Gordon Marsden. No Government Members have indicated that they want to ask any further questions.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

Q In the interests of brevity, I shall push two questions together. As you know, the OFS will have a remit to cover standards as well as quality. Do you foresee any issues that might emerge from that? The Bill also puts in place provisions on market exit. Do you envisage many institutions exiting the market?

Professor Simon Gaskell:

There is some apparent confusion in the current wording of the Bill. I believe that some amendments have been suggested to correct this, but the distinction between standards and quality is critical. In higher education parlance, quality refers to the quality of the provision, while standards refers to the achievements of the students who receive that provision. That clarification needs to be made much more clearly. I, and UUK, would argue that standards are the fundamental responsibility of autonomous institutions, whereas quality is something we need to be very much concerned with nationally and as a sector.

Q Does any member of the panel have a view that is different from that?

Witnesses:

indicated dissent.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

Q I think the UK leads in the league table of Nobel prize winners, so we need to protect that.

On the split between education and research, do you think there is enough protection for, for example, postgraduates who do some of both? What are your views on the split between the two departments?

Paul Kirkham:

I think some consideration should be given to how those two arms of the regulatory system will work together.

Pam Tatlow:

We are at risk of forgetting that HEFCE has funded postgraduate students and undertakes the research excellence framework exercise. There are implications for the devolved Administrations as well. There has to be on the face of the Bill a very clear idea of joint working, because some things are not referred to. The section on UKRI very much concentrates on what are currently the research councils. We have to do better on what we think those responsibilities are.

One final thing is that I have no idea why students should not be on the board of UKRI as well. I do not agree with the idea that students have no interest in it. We want not only the great and good scientists there, but people who deliver innovation and who are very engaged.

Gordon McKenzie:

I agree with that. There is an opportunity to make it clearer on the face of the Bill that both the office for students and UKRI have a joint responsibility for the sector as a whole.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

Q A quick question about clause 2, which is on general duties. Subsection (1)(c) refers to

“the need to promote value for money”.

Do you know what that means and do you think it would help to include a public interest amendment there?

Professor Simon Gaskell:

That covers a lot of things. I think universities absolutely do know the value for money. Certainly my finance and investment committee is very keen on value for money and we work on that all the time. In a sense, this addresses a general point—the fiction that the universities do not work in a competitive environment. The current environment is highly competitive. Talk to my colleagues who worked like Trojans a couple of weeks ago on confirmation and clearing—hugely competitive. All this adds up to a very significant current demand for value for money. So, yes, universities do understand what that means.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

ThisQ is about seeing if we can have new providers in the sector. Mr Proudfoot, what is your assessment of the level of demand for new providers?

Alex Proudfoot:

The level of demand is clearly significant because already between 250,000 and 300,000 students are currently studying with alternative providers. I do not foresee a deluge of new providers opening up the day after the Bill passes. At the moment we have 700 institutions in the UK which are not considered part of the mainstream framework. We need to be able to bring them into the mainstream framework and provide effective regulation for the benefit of students and taxpayers and provide information that students can use to make choices between the providers.

I think there will be some new providers interested in coming into the sector and some interesting innovations. Already we have seen in the past few years, for example, large employers starting their own colleges and higher education programmes, simply because they were not finding the graduates they needed to take the jobs they had available. That should be encouraged and the opening of overseas higher education institutions could, of course, be a positive effect.

Professor Joy Carter:

Current demand requires an environment where bold, innovative, new higher education flourishes. The Bill allows us to do that, but we have to maintain the reputation of UK higher education and the autonomy which leads to that reputation.

Photo of Roger Mullin Roger Mullin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Q The way in which discussions about diversity have been confused with the need for new entrants has been very unhelpful. I come from a Scottish tradition where I would say that quality enhancement of existing institutions is the way to create diversity. When I look at the landscape in Scotland with everything from the University of the Highlands and Islands to traditional universities such as Edinburgh and newer universities such as Stirling, there is plenty of diversity through quality enhancement.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education)

Q This is a very specific question for Mr Proudfoot, but other colleagues might want to comment briefly. Mr Proudfoot, you have expressed your exasperation with the present system. You must therefore be very pleased that the Government are preparing to give you most of what you want in being able to start off with university-like things from the beginning. Given the issues around security, what extras, representative of those organisations, do you think that alternative providers now need to put into the pot in terms of public interest? Specifically, do you think that issues around size and track record of new providers should be a contingent part of the registration process?

Alex Proudfoot:

A great many quality assurance and regulatory burdens are already placed on alternative providers. I think the new system would make that more transparent, clearer and more consistent across the sector. I agree there should be a high bar in quality for new entrants and a very high bar for degree-awarding powers with close monitoring.

Alex Proudfoot:

I think not necessarily track record of higher education delivery. There may be education providers in other parts of the sector who have not had a higher education track record who would be well placed to deliver higher education from day one. There could be overseas institutions that would be well placed to deliver higher education from day one. What we need is a flexible system which has proper monitoring in place but a range of options—

Paul Kirkham:

It is very frustrating—my institution has 30 years of history and many have much longer than that. Every institution has to start somewhere. Look at the history of the university sector—look at the history of King’s and UCL, for example, look at the red bricks. Everybody has to start somewhere. I think if a provider is capable of providing something that a student needs and the wider economy needs and the regulatory framework is correct, why should they not?

Q Final comment, Miss Tatlow.

Pam Tatlow:

The issue here is not that we do not want competition, nor that we cannot accept new entrants into the sector; the issue is on what terms and conditions they are allowed to flourish. That is a real challenge for the Committee as it works through the Bill.

Gordon McKenzie:

Briefly, diversity—yes, agree with that. We have suggested an amendment that would help protect the existing diversity including specialist institutions and those founded by the churches.

Order. I thank the panel for their attendance and stand them down.