De-registration by the OfS

Higher Education and Research Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 15th September 2016.

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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) 4:00 pm, 15th September 2016

I beg to move amendment 36, in clause 18, page 11, leave out line 26 and insert

“breach (whether or not they have been, are being or are to be, exercised in relation to it).”

This amendment clarifies that the requirement in one of the pre-conditions for de-registration of a provider that the OfS’s powers to impose monetary penalties or suspend registration are insufficient to deal with the breach does not prevent those powers being exercised in relation to the breach.

Clause 18 sets out two types of case in which the OFS must deregister a provider. The first is when a provider, having previously been suspended or fined for breach of an ongoing registration condition, breaches the same condition or another of its conditions. The second case is when the breach of an ongoing registration condition is so serious that neither the imposition of a monetary penalty nor a suspension will be sufficient to deal with it. The amendment simply makes it clear that the OFS can come to a view that a fine or suspension would be insufficient to deal with a breach and then move to deregistration without first having had to take any action to impose those sanctions. That allows for appropriately speedy action in particularly serious cases—for example, cases of large-scale fraud. Of course, it will always be the case that the OFS could take such an approach only if the facts of the case justified it.

Amendment 36 agreed to.

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

I beg to move amendment 175, in clause 18, page 11, line 37, at end insert—

“(8) The OfS must submit any list produced under subsection (7) to the Secretary of State who shall lay it before Parliament.”

This amendment would ensure the list of providers removed from the register is laid before Parliament.

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 5—De-registration: notification of students—

“(1) The governing body of a higher education provider must inform all students enrolled on a course if it—

(a) is notified by the OfS of its intention to suspend the provider’s registration under section 17(1),

(b) is notified by the OfS of its intention to remove it from the register under section 19(1),

(c) is notified by the OfS that it will refuse to approve a new access and participation plan under section 21(2), or

(d) has applied to be removed from the register under section 22(1),

(2) The governing body of an institution must notify students under subsection (1) by the date on which—

(a) the suspension takes effect,

(b) the de-registration takes effect, whether enforced or voluntary, or

(c) the expiry date of any existing access and participation plan that will not be renewed and the period of time for which approval of a new plan will be refused,

whichever is applicable.”

This amendment would require that any students still undertaking courses at that provider are notified if the provider becomes deregistered.

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

This amendment, again, is in line with transparency before Parliament, particularly transparency in serious cases. That is what it would be, in our opinion, if a provider were removed from the register. We had a run-around on this subject in another context on Tuesday. The Minister said to me then, perfectly reasonably, that the register would be done in real time, that it was an ongoing process and so on. I observed that things done on a rolling basis day by day are often things that people do not pick up on.

After all, if a provider is to be removed from the register, there must be substantial reasons for doing so, and it is in the public interest, let alone the interests of students and other stakeholders, that that should be made clear. They should not be constrained to look on a website every day to see whether their institution has not made the grade in some way. As a de minimis process, it should be the case that the OFS must submit, according to the terms of the amendment,

“any list produced under subsection (7) to the Secretary of State who shall lay it before Parliament.”

That is not onerous—indeed, one might say that stronger things could have been put into the Bill. However, it is important for the sake of transparency and confidence in the sector, particularly if we are going to be dealing with a significant number of new and alternative providers over the next 10 years, that the public and students have confidence, and that the communities in which those new providers provide higher education have confidence. That is why we tabled amendment 175 as a probing amendment. I hope that the Minister will understand the difference between simply putting something on a register in real time and having a fixed period in which to lay it before Parliament.

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

I will speak to new clause 5. The clause continues the argument set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South that in the event of deregistration, the interests of students must be paramount. In particular, students and their degrees must be protected, and they must be able to prepare and decide what to do if their institution is deregistered or their course is removed.

The purpose of new clause 5 is to ensure that something is put on the face of the Bill about how and when students will be informed that there is a problem with their institution. It will ensure that the governing body of a higher education provider informs students enrolled on one of its courses if it is notified by the OFS of its intention to suspend the registration of the institution or remove it from the register, or if it refuses to approve the new access and participation plan, which would have the effect of removing it from the register. It stresses that the governing body must notify students if a suspension or deregistration is to take place, when it will take effect, whether it is enforced or voluntary and, critically, whether there is an expiry date for any existing access and participation plan.

The new clause is straightforward: it simply seeks to set out in the Bill some basic protections for students to ensure that they are informed well in advance. Although the new clause does not say this, students should be notified before something inaccurate gets into the media that might alarm them. They should be informed well in advance of anything leaking out and be given clear information about whether there is going to be a suspension or deregulation, and when. Critically—this was the purpose of the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South—students must be enabled to take relevant and appropriate action early enough to safeguard their current and future studies. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

That is your cue, Minister.

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 do not want expectations to rise too high.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the deregistration of providers. The OFS list of deregistered providers will be a single, comprehensive record of English HE providers that have been removed from the register. As such, it will be updated in real time as and when additions are made to it. The list and the information in it will be publicly available and hosted on the OFS website. In that sense, there appears to be little value in placing a duty on the Secretary of State to make available information that the OFS will place in the public domain. The OFS will take steps to ensure that the register and the list of deregistered providers is well publicised.

On new clause 5, the powers that the OFS is given in the Bill to impose sanctions, suspend a provider’s registration and, ultimately, to deregister a provider are a powerful incentive for providers to adhere to their registration conditions. When the OFS proposes to suspend or deregister a provider, or to refuse to renew a provider’s access and participation plan, this is primarily a compliance measure to ensure that providers take necessary steps to comply with the conditions of registration that have been placed upon them. Providers are given time either to take corrective action or to make further representations to the OFS before any sanctions are imposed.

I understand the reasons for the new clause, but it would not be right for there to be widespread publicity when the OFS has yet to decide to take action, and when discussions, representations and evidence gathering may still be ongoing. Such publicity may cause reputational damage that would not easily be repaired, even if the provider addresses the OFS’s concerns and no action is ultimately taken. It may also dissuade those giving evidence from doing so and lead to the provider not being fully co-operative. That is not desirable, given that our aim is, whenever possible, to work with providers to improve their performance, and for them to continue to provide high-quality higher education.

Let me be clear: when a decision has been taken, if the OFS considers it appropriate that students should be informed of the actions taken, it already has the power when appropriate to compel a provider’s governing body to ensure that students are properly and promptly informed.

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

The Minister is being characteristically generous in giving way. We have already expressed our concern about the phrase “if the OFS considers it to be appropriate”. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham does not want to place huge burdens on the OFS, but I do not think “if the OFS considers it to be appropriate” is the right phrase. If an institution is in that situation, it should not be a question of whether the OFS considers it appropriate to notify students; it must do so. If I were the new chief executive of the OFS, I would consider it a dereliction of my duty not to do so. I see no reason, therefore, why we are not talking about “must”, rather than whether it is appropriate.

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 understand the hon. Gentleman’s point but, as I have said on previous occasions, the OFS will be a public body that has to respect general public law principles and will need to act reasonably and proportionately in everything it does. I assure him that it is certainly our expectation that the OFS will act in the interests of students and will consider making it a specific condition of registration that a provider’s governing body advises students promptly and accurately of OFS proposals to take action against it. Where a provider applies to the OFS to be voluntarily removed from the register and students are still on such a provider’s courses, they will be notified through actions set out in the provider’s student protection plan. On this basis, I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider withdrawing the amendment.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education) 4:15 pm, 15th September 2016

I thank the Minister for his response. It is clear that, if not a philosophical, there might be a slight ideological division for us on whether it should be “must”, or “considers it to be appropriate”. He will be relieved to know I will not go down that route again. I accept the thrust of his arguments and am glad that he has been induced, if I may put it that way, to speak as passionately on the subject as he has, because that will enable a much clearer steer to go to the OFS. I think that steer is important, as I have said before, with any new institution, notwithstanding the wisdom of the Secretary of State in appointing whoever she does to those particular posts. On that basis, for my own part—my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham must speak for herself—I am prepared to withdraw amendment 175.

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

I listened carefully to what the Minister said. I think that he was assuring us that the protection plan will contain clear guidance about how students are to be informed in the event of an impending deregistration or suspension. If that was indeed what the Minister was saying, that suffices for the moment and I will not press new clause 5.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 18, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 19 and 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21