The Office for Students

Higher Education and Research Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South 2:00 pm, 8th September 2016

I beg to move amendment 119, in clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out “Office for Students” and insert “Office for Higher Education”.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 120, in clause 1, page 1, line 6, leave out “OfS” and insert “OfHE”.

Amendment 121, in clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out “OfS” and insert “OfHE”.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

Thank you, Mr Hanson. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. My amendment is intended to be helpful; obviously, if Members do not like what I say, they can just trash me in the press. “Office for Students” is a misnomer. First, this body is not about being an office for students; as various clauses make clear, the body is about registration and regulation—a registration procedure—and not about students. It is certainly not about having students as part of the office for students.

Secondly, from the written and oral evidence given to the Committee, the situation of postgraduate students has clearly not been acknowledged or mentioned in setting up this body, and, with the new changes in the Government, we now have two responsible Departments. Postgraduates do a fantastic job of not only research, but teaching, so they are split between the two. There is a gap there, which has been acknowledged. Postgraduate students have to be somewhere in the Bill.

Furthermore, there is nothing about subject-specific support—the strategic and vulnerable subjects, which require a higher level of funding. That is why I say that this body is not about students. There is nothing about skills, the skills deficit or protecting the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths. I liken the office for students to the Care Quality Commission. This is like calling the CQC the “office for patients” when its responsibility is not actually about that, but about regulating healthcare providers.

The office for students appears to set up regulation and registration processes. We can see in the Bill a power to impose monetary penalties and a power for the suspension of registration. Higher education providers will have to pay for the benefit of being part of the register. If we continue to look through the Bill, we see clauses titled “De-registration by the OfS” and “De-registration by the OfS: procedure”. Higher education providers are going to be spending all their time on bureaucracy, and all that money will be taken away from front-line services—away from the students themselves. That is why I say, again, that it is not about students.

According to clause 2(2), the Secretary of State has to give guidance. Again, there is no clarity. We need to change that, because we now have two Secretaries of State. If the OFS was for students it would be about fees protection, because students who were having to face bills of £27,000 are now being provided with invoices for £45,000. It would also be about students’ wellbeing, the skills shortage, retraining, returners, and all those people who do not classify themselves as students as we imagine them to be. Our time as a student is actually a very short part of our lives. There are people who do not fit the student mould, yet who will be students at some stage during their lifetime.

I want to pick up on the Minister’s remarks earlier about my being the only one who wants to pause the Bill. I do so because I am a lawyer, and was a Government lawyer. It is important to have clarity on the face of the Bill. Currently, that is not the case. The Minister helpfully told us that he has been living with the Bill for 14 months. I sympathise with him on that, but there have been a lot of changes, not least the new grammar school policy that might be coming through. What happens at the early stages of education filters up. The abolition of the Office for Fair Access and what happens to young people as they go through the education system will have a great impact. I know that it is not part of the programme motion, and I have been told that we cannot discuss this, but what happened on 23 June is vital. I say again that the machinery of Government changes.

There is no clarity on the face of the Bill. “Office for Students” is a misnomer. I would prefer to work with the Minister to find another way to describe the body, not least because it is not about students.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

I echo the hon. Lady’s pleasure at serving under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.

I shall move straight to the points raised by the amendment, with which I fundamentally disagree. I do, though, appreciate the hon. Lady’s efforts to be helpful and am pleased to have a chance to address the points she made. The Bill sets out a programme of reforms for higher education that will improve quality and choice for students. It will encourage competition and allow for consistent and fair oversight.

As I said when I gave evidence to the Committee this morning, there have been several significant changes to the higher education system since the last legislation was introduced to overhaul the regulation of the sector, all the way back in 1992. The majority of funding for the system used to come directly from the Government, in the form of grants. We have now moved to a system in which students themselves fund their studies.

The regulation of the sector clearly needs to keep pace with developments if confidence, as well as our international reputation and standing, are to be maintained, so we need an HE regulator that is focused on protecting students’ interests, promoting fair access and ensuring the value for money of their investment in higher education. That has been a central tenet of Government reforms since the publication of the 2011 White Paper, “Students at the Heart of the System”. Ensuring that the student interest is at the centre of the sector’s systems and structures is a cardinal principle of our approach.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I thank the Minister for giving way; it is probably the first of many occasions. I wonder whether he could not give some reassurance to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South on the issues she is raising by indicating that he views our amendments sympathetically. They would give life to what he just talked about—putting students at the heart of the system—by providing for effective student representation both at the top on the OFS board and throughout the system.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

Yes, I will certainly come on to that issue, which is the subject of a number of later amendments, but I will happily touch on it in answering the hon. Gentleman.

In its written evidence, University Alliance states that:

“As the organisation responsible for regulating the higher education sector, the OfS will need to ensure that institutions operate in the interests of students.”

That point was reiterated by Professor Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire in his evidence to this Committee, when he said that

“the Government’s idea to have an office for students that would primarily be interested in student wellbeing and the student experience is a good thing.”––[Official Report, Higher Education and Research Public Bill Committee, 6 September 2016; c. 22, Q31.]

We also heard from Alan Langlands, vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, who concurred when he said:

“I think the Government have struck a reasonable balance, and putting students at the centre is sensible”.––[Official Report, Higher Education and Research Public Bill Committee, 6 September 2016; c. 27, Q41.]

The creation of the office for students is about putting students at the heart of the system. It has been a consistent theme of Conservative and, formerly, coalition policy for a considerable time. The OFS will, for the first time, have statutory duties focused on the interests of students and equality of opportunity when using the range of powers given by the Bill.

In addition, unlike appointments to the HEFCE board, the Secretary of State must “have regard” to the desirability of the OFS’s members having proven experience of representing the interests of students when appointing the OFS board. That goes straight to the point that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central raised. Schedule 1 of the Bill captures the intent of many of the amendments that have been tabled for later clauses. We feel that schedule 1 fully meets those intentions of ensuring that the OFS board has people with the experience of representing student interests.

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

May I repeat my delight in serving under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and that of Sir Edward? On the very specific reference that the Minister has just made, some might say he is just trying to defend the indefensible. It is “Hamlet” without the prince, but we will come on to that in a moment.

Is it not the case that the specific phrase “have regard” offers the minimum in draftsmanship, not the maximum? We have to legislate not for the best universities—I am sure the Minister will in due course become part of them—but for the most unexcellent. Just saying “have regard” will not be sufficient to give the guarantees that students need.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

I completely agree that for the OFS to function effectively in students’ interest, they should be represented properly on it. We have had a crack at that in schedule 1. I am certainly receiving a lot of representations from Opposition Members and from student unions and so on saying that we have not gone as far as we might in entrenching that core principle with which we are in basic agreement: students need to be properly represented in the governance of the office for students.

I have understood the messages we are being sent, but I point out that at board level we will be recruiting those with experience of representing or championing the student interest. A critical feature of the OFS as it is organised is that overall it must have members with experience of representing the full diversity of the sector, including students. It is essential that the individual appointed can act on behalf of the wider student interest. That reflects common practice: board members are typically appointed for their breadth of experience and representation.

OFS members will have significant responsibilities in taking decisions, many of which will ultimately impact on all students, so it is essential that each member brings more than an individual perspective to the decision-making process to ensure that the diversity of stakeholders is fairly represented.

Student interests are genuinely at the heart of our reforms, and we will continue to engage with our partners as the implementation plans are developed. As seen from the Green Paper onwards, we have sought the engagement and thoughts of all involved in the sector.

I return to the amendment of the hon. Member for Walsall South. Changing the name of the organisation to the “Office for Higher Education”, as she suggests, implies that the market regulator that we are explicitly creating with the office for students is in fact a creature of the sector that answers to higher education providers, rather than one focused on the needs of students. It would achieve the very opposite of our objectives for the organisation.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby 2:15 pm, 8th September 2016

Does the Minister agree that the Opposition are focusing far too much on the institutions themselves? The whole point of the Bill is to focus on students. By calling for such a change, the hon. Member for Walsall South is missing the entire point of the Bill.

Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

I thank my hon. Friend for his point. That is right. HEFCE is a brilliant body. As we discussed this morning, it was set up in 1992 as the successor body to the Universities Funding Council. It is in the tradition of being a funding council at a time when the Government no longer principally funds the universities, so it is doing its job in a regulatory environment that reflects a bygone era. We need a regulatory structure that reflects the fact that students are now the primary funders of their education through the student loan system. This is a market, as recognised in law, so we need a market regulator. The office for students is the body that we believe is best placed to do that.

A change of name of the kind that the hon. Member for Walsall South suggests would go against the main principles that we are trying to achieve through these reforms. I note that none of the stakeholders who gave evidence to the Committee on Tuesday or today asked for a change of name.

As a regulator, the OFS will need to build relationships across the sector. Part of its duties will be thinking about the health and sustainability of the HE sector. However, that does not change the fact that the new market regulator should have students at its heart, and I believe that the name of the organisation needs to reflect that. For that reason, I ask that the hon. Lady withdraws her amendment.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

The stakeholders may not have asked for it, but that does not mean that people cannot have an idea of their own, take soundings or look at the face of the Bill and see what strikes them. I have not missed the point, as the Minister said, because clause 2(1)(b) says that the OFS is needed

“to encourage competition between English higher education providers in connection with the provision of higher education”.

Anything to do with students, universities or higher education is also about collaboration and public good. I wanted to flag up the fact that the name, as it currently stands, does not incorporate the idea of putting students at the heart of it, for reasons that I will not go through again. It is open to very clever civil servants to come up with something that reflects this debate. With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1