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The missing star of the show

Wilf_4x3.jpgWilf Stevenson on why the Higher Education and Research Bill is like Hamlet without the prince

The Higher Education and Research Bill begins its Committee stage in the Lords today, following a difficult Second Reading for the government last month where the proposals received a pretty rough ride.

That tricky start has since been translated into a huge number of amendments from right across the House. Amendments that in the round will expose the Bill to the scrutiny it needs if the government’s stated aims of strengthening our university sector -currently the second most successful in the world, with four universities ranked in the top ten – are to be achieved.

In preparing for Committee, we have to be mindful that the Bill has already been through the Commons, and indeed many of its provisions were in the Conservative’s 2015 election manifesto. The Lords however, not only has a duty to carefully scrutinise legislation placed before it but also the power to ask the government to think again if matters of public interest could benefit from further consideration. 

One such issue, and the subject of recent press reports, will come up in the first amendment to be debated today. Many peers who spoke at Second Reading felt that, as drafted, the Bill fails to understand the purposes of higher education. With the star of the show missing, there is a real danger that the new regulatory architecture, the new bodies and the revised research organisation set out on the face of the Bill could do permanent damage.

Universities across the world have multiple and complex roles in society and there is no doubt that we all gain from that. They are at their best when they are autonomous independent bodies, which have the freedom to develop a range of missions and practices. While at the same time being public institutions, serving both the knowledge economy and the knowledge society, as well as tools of economic progress and social mobility. 

Universities also use the precious safe harbour of academic freedom to seek for truth wherever it is to be found, and publish it for all to see and discuss. They transmit and project the values of openness, tolerance, inquiry and a respect for diversity that are the key to civilisation in our increasingly globalised world. 

The purpose of our amendment is simple: the Bill does not define a university and we think it is important that it does. We do not simply itemise some core functions of a university but also scope out the role, with implicit ideals of responsibility, engagement and public service.

A characteristic of all of this is the expectation that universities are independent, take the long-term view and nurture a long-term stake in their local communities and the wider world; that scholarship and original, independent enquiry are embedded into their activities; and that they demonstrate a sustained commitment to serving the public good through taking up a role as critic and scrutineer of society.

We hope the government accept the amendment but if not we are ready to press the issue to a vote, and Labour has the formal backing of other parts of the House. The Bill, as it stands, is like Hamlet without the prince. Our aim is to give the legislation a proper focus and let the UK’s universities be the true star of the show. 

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Shadow Higher Education Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @Missenden50

Published 9th January 2017

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