The initial and general ongoing registration conditions

Higher Education and Research Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 13 September 2016.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central 3:00, 13 September 2016

I beg to move amendment 165, in clause 5, page 4, line 8, at end insert—

“(2A) Subject to subsection (2C), initial registration conditions of all providers under paragraph (1)(a) must include a requirement that every provider—

(a) provides all eligible students with the opportunity to opt in to be added to the electoral register through the process of enrolling with that provider, and

(b) enter into a data sharing agreement with the local electoral registration officer to add those students to the electoral register.

(2B) For the purposes of subsection (2A)—

(a) a “data sharing agreement” is an agreement between the higher education provider and their local authority whereby the provider shares—

(i) the name,

(ii) address,

(iii) nationality,

(iv) date of birth, and

(v) national insurance data of all eligible students enrolling and/or enrolled with the provider who opt in within the meaning of subsection (2A)(a);

(b) “eligible” means those persons who are—

(i) entitled to vote in accordance with section 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, and

(ii) a resident in the same local authority as the higher education provider.

(2C) Subsection (2A) does not apply to the Open University and other distance-learning institutions.”

This amendment would ensure that the OfS includes as a registration condition for higher education providers the integration of electoral registration into the student enrolment process. Distance-learning providers are exempt.

I am pleased to introduce amendment 165, because although it is in my name alone, I know it enjoys cross-party support. That is not surprising, because it seeks to introduce a requirement on universities in line with the Cabinet Office’s work on electoral registration. The Cabinet Office has endorsed my approach and has been encouraging.

The amendment simply requires universities to make a minor change to their student enrolment systems to provide new students who enrol with the opportunity to have their names added to the electoral register in a seamless process. Like the Cabinet Office, Universities UK has endorsed the system and has been encouraging. The issue is certainly topical; today, to the comfort or discomfort of hon. Members, new boundaries have been published based on an electoral register that we all agree could have significantly more people registered on it.

Let me put the amendment in context. Members will recognise that when individual electoral registration was introduced in 2014, it created a substantial culture change, not least for universities. Before IER, universities used their role as head of household to block-register students who lived in their accommodation—a practice that was well established throughout the sector. When IER removed that opportunity for universities, there was a real concern that hundreds of thousands of eligible students would disappear from the electoral register, and that proved to be the case.

As the Member of Parliament who represents more students than any other, I have been keenly focused on the issue. In anticipation of the problem, I worked with the University of Sheffield and the Sheffield electoral registration officer. We looked into developing a seamless system at the point at which the university collected the data that the electoral registration officer needed to put people on the register. We piloted the system for the 2014 entry, and it was extremely successful. It turned a negative into a positive, reaching out not only to those students who might otherwise have been registered by virtue of living in university accommodation, but to all students. We managed to achieve a registration level of 65% of eligible students.

The success of the pilot led to its endorsement by Universities UK and the Cabinet Office. A number of other universities followed up on it in the 2015 intake, by changing their student enrolment systems, with even greater success than Sheffield. I think that Cardiff hit over 70% registration, De Montfort’s level was approaching 90%, and there have been one or two other examples. However, the sector has been slow to take the pilot up, and it seemed that this Bill, provided an opportunity to embed good practice across the sector, in terms of conditions for registration. That is what this amendment seeks to do.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hanson. I will speak briefly in support of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central. There are genuine issues around the registration of students. As many hon. and right hon. Members will be aware, effectively students can choose to cast their vote in their traditional home constituency or in the constituency in which they are studying, if those two constituencies are different. There is a good reason for that rule. Students spend much of the year away from home, and often find themselves away from home during a general election, local election or indeed the occasional referendum.

There are real issues about the way that individual electoral registration has disfranchised significant numbers of students. It is regrettable that the principled motivations behind individual electoral registration got rid of common-sense measures, such as university vice-chancellors being able to block-register students in university-run accommodation. The vice-chancellors clearly know who the students are; they clearly know that the students are resident at the university; and with the law of unintended consequences being what it is, individual electoral registration has led to additional bureaucracy and people missing out on being able to make their voice heard.

The duty proposed by the amendment is common sense. It would be welcomed by the sector, including by students unions, and probably by lots of electoral registration officers in local authorities up and down the country, who could probably do with some assistance in getting people registered. In and of itself, it will not address the broader challenge, which is that once students are registered to vote, how on earth do we get them to turn out at the polling stations? It is a perennial frustration of mine, having run all sorts of student voter registration campaigns over the years, that students and young people generally do not cast their vote in the same numbers and proportions as older residents, which has an impact on public policy. This amendment would not solve that particular challenge, but it would at least help more people to engage in our democracy and to exercise their democratic right to vote. Surely that can only be a good thing. I hope that the Minister will give us a favourable response.

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

I obviously rise to support strongly the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central. He had his mind concentrated on this issue by the circumstances in his constituency, but we should all have our minds concentrated on it, given the importance of students in national life.

What has happened over the years—it has sort of been potentiated by the introduction of IER—has meant that we have had a lottery regarding who gets on the register and their ability to know about it. The modest proposals, on which I hope there is consensus, arising from the excellent pilot that my hon. Friend took forward give the Government an opportunity, in this part of the Bill, to take the pilot forward in a relatively straightforward way. There will always be issues about the capacity of higher education providers to do that—and, in some cases, about their proactiveness—but earlier in consideration of the Bill, we talked about the public interest of universities, as did my hon. Friend this morning. Surely it should be part of universities’ public interest to ensure that their students, when at that university or higher education provider, participate in the electoral process. I strongly commend the amendment to the Government.

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) 3:15, 13 September 2016

I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central for his amendment, which he was kind enough to flag to me last week. The Government fully share his aim of increasing the number of younger people registered to vote. Participating in elections at all levels is essential if we are to have a healthy democracy. Indeed, the Government have demonstrated their commitment to that aim by supporting and contributing financially to the pilot project of the University of Sheffield, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, as he mentioned.

The pilot project sought to integrate electoral registration with student enrolment. I congratulate the University of Sheffield on its commitment to devising a workable solution to the problem. It achieved the successful outcome of integrating online electoral registration and university enrolment using the university’s bespoke in-house enrolment software. The vice-chancellor should be commended as the driving force behind the successful pilot. However, this is not a case of one size fits all. Integrated registration is just one option that the Government will consider alongside others in determining how best to increase student registration. Those options will include working in partnership with student-facing organisations and local authorities.

The process should be voluntary. It would not be right to force all providers on the register to adopt such an arrangement. Administering such an arrangement will incur costs, which larger institutions such as the University of Sheffield may find easier to accommodate than smaller specialist providers. Moreover, it would not be appropriate to include such a condition in the Bill. The conditions of registration are primarily to provide proportionate safeguards for students and the taxpayer, and to take forward social mobility policies. Requiring providers to carry out electoral registration, particularly when there are other means of students enrolling on the electoral register, is not the best way forward.

In addition, the introduction of online electoral registration by the previous Government has made it simpler and easier than ever to register to vote. Since the introduction of individual electoral registration in June 2014, there have been more than 20 million applications to register. Some 78% of electors currently apply to register online, and that figure rises to 86% for the 18 to 24 age group. That demonstrates that the way in which electors engage with electoral registration is evolving.

The Government are looking at modernising and streamlining the annual registration canvass. Impacts on students from the current process will be picked up as part of the modernising electoral registration programme. We are looking at the lessons learned from enrolment pilot schemes, such as the one conducted successfully at the University of Sheffield, to see whether they have wider application. We are also considering other options to increase student registration, including as part of the Government’s democratic engagement strategy, and we expect to set that out early in 2017. Ahead of that, I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I note the Minister’s points and I am grateful for his acknowledgement of the role that the University of Sheffield has played. I endorse it and reiterate how grateful we were for the support, both in encouraging the pilot and getting it off the ground financially.

The Minister highlighted the fact that the University of Sheffield used the opportunity to tweak its bespoke software, which is right. In a sense, that makes it not easier, but more challenging for the university, because the overwhelming majority of providers buy off-the-shelf software that is designed in partnership with user groups, and it is relatively easy to tweak that off-the-shelf software to minimise the cost for individual institutions.

The Minister said that the process should be voluntary. The important thing that should be voluntary in the process is students having the choice of whether to register. That is the important voluntary element, and that is what this system provides for. It simply draws students’ attention, when they are enrolling, to the opportunity to register and explains a little bit about that. They tick one box, which leads to another stage of providing a national insurance number. The important principle of voluntary engagement with the democratic process is at the heart of this system. I do not think it is unreasonable to expect providers to make such a minor adjustment when we are all committed to the principle.

The Minister makes the very fair point that this is not central to the purposes of the Bill, but I reflect back to him that the Government—and previous Governments—have on occasion been known to bung stuff into a Bill that was not central to its purposes when there was a convenient opportunity to do something that we all wanted to do. This is something that we all want to do.

Notwithstanding those reservations, if the Minister would commit to meeting me and the relevant Cabinet Office Minister to talk a little about how we can move this forward, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

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 am happy to discuss further with the hon. Gentleman how we can involve the Cabinet Office. We have already had quite detailed discussions with Cabinet Office Ministers who are sighted on the hon. Gentleman’s amendment. They are aware of the status of our Bill, but I am happy to discuss this further outside the Committee.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

On the basis that we can meet with the Cabinet Office Minister responsible, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment 146, in clause 5, page 4, line 11, leave out

“if it appears to it appropriate to do so”

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 147, in clause 5, page 4, line 13, after “providers”, insert “, staff and students”

This amendment would ensure consultation with bodies representing higher education staff and students.

Amendment 148, in clause 5, page 4, line 17, after “institution”, insert

“and the students and/or student body of that institution”

This amendment would ensure students and their representatives are informed of changes to their institutions registration conditions.

Amendment 150, in clause 6, page 4, line 41, at end insert—

‘( ) The OfS may also consider other representations from relevant stakeholders as the OfS considers appropriate.”

This amendment would allow for relevant stakeholders to be consulted if the OfS deems it necessary.

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

I rise to speak to this miscellany of amendments which has a common theme. Clauses 5 and 6 are about the registration conditions. The Minister has quite rightly put emphasis on the innovation of having a central register and everything that goes with it. It is therefore incumbent on us to consider that when registration conditions are made the OFS has considered the broadest range of recommendations about what will be very important decisions, either to allow a registration to go forward, or to revise it, sometimes in a minor way, but sometimes perhaps in a major way, or sometimes, of course, to refuse it. Because of that, the principle behind these amendments is that everybody who is involved in the life of that institution—insofar as practically possible—whether students, teachers, or the workforce that supports those institutions should have some input to that process.

Philosophically, that is a really important thing that the Bill and Ministers need to grasp. If we want to engage people more broadly in higher education, whether to work, to teach or to study in it, we have to give them a stake in the decisions that affect the institution where they are working. That is the principle behind the amendments.

Amendment 146 on the consultation of HE providers would omit, as far as the OFS is concerned, the phrase,

“if it appears to it appropriate to do so”.

This terminology is more redolent of an absolutist monarch such as Louis XIV, the Sun King, than of a new transparent organisation. The language is, to use the French, de haut en bas. The Minister has excellent French, so he will know what I mean. To be honest, it is daft to say

“if it appears to it appropriate to do so”.

Of course it is appropriate to consult higher education providers in such circumstances.

Amendment 147 is very specific, and it states that in clause 5, after the word “providers” we should insert for the avoidance of doubt, as the phrase has it, “staff and students”. The amendment would ensure that there is some consultation with bodies or informal groups representing higher education staff and students. I refer to informal groups because again I am conscious, not least because the Opposition do not want to be accused of stopping progress and innovation, that some of these new providers will be relatively small and may have relatively informal groupings. It is therefore not unimportant that the position of their staff and students is taken into account.

Amendment 148 is probably the most vital of the three proposed amendments to clause 5. If there are to be changes to an institution’s registration conditions, its students and student body should be informed. Members of the Committee might think that is unnecessary, as the students and the student body are bound to be informed, but as I have said previously, we should legislate for the worst scenarios and the worst employers and not for the best. There are recent examples or allegations relating to major changes to London Metropolitan University’s terms and conditions. I once sat on a Committee down the corridor that was talking about providers, and people from London Metropolitan were eloquent on this issue. It is essential that the OFS has a proper information process—the OFS needs to take responsibility for this—that ensures that students and their representatives are properly informed of changes to their institution’s registration conditions. That is crucial.

Finally, clause 6 addresses the specific ongoing registration conditions. Subsection (6) currently states:

“The OfS must have regard to any representations made by the governing body of the institution…in deciding whether to take the step in question.”

It is important that the OFS may also consider representations from other relevant stakeholders it considers appropriate. I hope the Minister will note that we are not advocating an absolute duty on the OFS to consult such people, but we would ask it to do so on a case-by-case basis. It is important to establish the principle in the Bill that stakeholders other than the governing body should be able to make representations to the OFS. Those other stakeholders are people who have invested two or three years of their time and money in studying. They are people whose livelihoods depend on the institutions in question. It is surely not too much to ask that the OFS should be prepared, where appropriate, to consider their representations, too.

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 the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful suggestions.

To ensure a level playing field, the Bill will require the OFS to determine and make public the conditions that institutions must meet to gain entry to the register and to remain on it. The conditions of registration, both initial and ongoing, will form the formal basis of the regulatory requirements on higher education providers under the new system. Those conditions include provisions relating to quality assurance, widening participation and data and information requirements. It is clearly the case that students, as well as providers, need clarity on the tests that the OFS will have required providers to pass in order to gain entry to the register, and the ongoing conditions that are in place, so that they can be confident about what it means for a provider to remain on the register.

Amendments 146 and 147 seek to make it mandatory for the OFS to consult each and every time it revises the general, initial and ongoing registration conditions, and to widen the base of those it should consult before doing so from higher education providers to also include staff employed by those providers, and students.

Amendment 148 seeks to place a duty on the OFS to notify students, as well as a provider’s governing body, if the OFS decides that a general ongoing registration condition should not be applicable to a provider. These amendments may constrain the OFS from acting effectively and in the interests of students and the taxpayer.

We envisage that over time the OFS will need to change both the initial and the ongoing registration conditions, and some of those changes are likely to be minor and technical. Others may be needed urgently in the event that loopholes appear and providers seek to exploit them. Requiring the OFS to consult each and every time it needs to make changes to initial and ongoing conditions would be unhelpful. I expect the OFS to consult when it first determines what the initial and ongoing conditions should be, and also to consult on significant subsequent changes. Such consultations will involve a wide range of interested parties representing the interests of students and providers, and will also consult directly with students themselves. This will include detail of the various conditions providers will have to meet.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education) 3:30, 13 September 2016

I entirely accept what the Minister says about not wanting to have major consultations on minor changes. I do not want to prolong the exchange, but can I take it that he is going to place that in the guidance to the OFS, or possibly illustrate—although I know that illustrations can never be exhaustive—what sort of circumstances would require that sort of consultation?

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, we expect to provide guidance to the OFS to give exactly those sorts of examples of the kinds of occasions on which it would be expected to consult widely on the changes to conditions required. In addition, more generally, the OFS will strongly encourage providers themselves to engage and consult with key stakeholders, including students, as a matter of good practice. Whether or not a general registration condition applies to a provider will be made clear on the OFS’s publicly available register.

Amendment 150 seeks to enable the OFS to take into account, when it thinks fit, representations from students and other stakeholders, as well as the provider itself, if the OFS decides to impose or vary a provider’s specific registration condition. The OFS does not need a power in the Bill to do this. It will always be able to listen to representations on various matters from various quarters if it thinks that doing so would add value. The effect of this amendment in reality is likely to be to give representations made by other stakeholders and students an elevated status above representations made by any other party that may have a legitimate interest. That is because students and staff representations would be the only ones mentioned in the clause.

I am clear that, in certain circumstances, it will be in students’ interests that they are informed of a particular change to a provider’s registration conditions, and why that change has happened. The OFS already has the power, when it is appropriate, to compel a provider’s governing body to make sure that students are promptly informed about changes to a provider’s registration conditions. It is my clear expectation that the OFS will act in the interests of students, and will use its powers under clause 6 to make it a specific condition of registration that significant changes to a provider’s registration conditions are communicated promptly and accurately to students. On this basis, while I understand the intentions here, and fully agree with the need to promote these important issues, I do not believe the amendments are necessary as the Bill already makes relevant provisions for them. I therefore ask hon. Members to consider withdrawing their amendments.

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

I thank the Minister again for his constructive approach to outlining some of the circumstances in which access to broader areas would be made available. The truth of the matter is that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The OFS is not yet constituted. In its first few months and years, people will watch carefully as to how things proceed. If the general duty proves not to be working as it should—there are sometimes high-profile cases that illustrate faults in legislation that no one had thought of—the Government of the time may wish to return to it, and there are mechanisms for doing that. For the moment, on the basis of what the Minister has said and based on the fact that clear guidance will be given to the OFS, I am content to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7