Mike Watson on the need for ministers to engage better with peers on university sector reform
Monday’s opening day of Lords Committee on the Higher Research and Education Bill provided what may turn out to be the first of many government defeats on this ill-considered and poorly-focussed piece of draft legislation.
Today’s second session will focus on perhaps less contentious issues – with 40 of the 100 or so amendments carrying the name of our Bill spokesperson, Wilf Stevenson. Most of these relate to the establishment of the proposed new regulator for the sector, to be called the Office for Students (OfS). As it stands, this body is to be given a duty to encourage competition and value for money in higher education, while promoting equality of opportunity in access to, and participation.
While ministers claim their aim is to use a more competitive system to improve quality standards and outcomes for both students and taxpayers, the evidence from the United States shows the opposite is more likely. Closure of colleges, with students left out of pocket and with no qualifications, suggest the path is a risky one on which to embark.
Perhaps most controversially, the OfS would take over have responsibility for granting degree awarding powers and university status from the Privy Council.
There are also amendments relating to the Director for Fair Access and Participation, designed to strengthen the powers of that office and give it extra responsibilities beyond what is in the Bill. For example, overseeing the performance of OfS functions in these areas and reporting directly to its board members. We wants to ensure the Director rather than the OfS decides on the approval or rejection of participation plans, and allow the postholder to appeal direct to the Secretary of State to overrule OfS decisions on widening participation.
In a move that may answer the question ‘Who regulates the regulator?’, a further group of amendments seek to clarify and firm up the general duties of the OfS. These include the need to work with student representatives, and co-ordination with the regulatory authorities on further education and skills – a sector which the Bill pays little attention towards.
One major issue to be covered today is the Bill’s apparent conflation of quality and standards, which are of course not the same thing. At a later stage of Committee, an attempt will be made to establish a body with responsibility for both that is separate from the OfS. Our focus now however, is on ensuring government guidance does not relate to the standards applied to a particular course or definitions of when qualifications are merited.
Today may turn out to be one of the less lively days on this Bill, but it will put the Minister on the spot over the role of the OfS – something that assumes the government has a clear vision on this. As it stands, the jury is out on whether it wants a simple regulator or an all-encompassing monolith that will not command the confidence or support of the majority of institutions.
On Monday, Viscount Younger of Leckie spurned an opportunity to take away for consideration the definition of a university and the guarantee of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Having paid the price with a government defeat, perhaps we will see some demonstration today that the Minister understands that to make progress, he must make concessions.
Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords
Published 11th January 2017