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HE Bill must protect a national asset

The summer read of choice (or necessity) for much of the higher education sector this year has been the 110-page Higher Education and Research Bill, whose pre-summer recess passage through the Commons was somewhat overshadowed by the political fallout from the vote to leave the EU. But it's the start of a new term, and the serious – and we hope, rigorous – process of scrutinising the bill begins in earnest this week.

Universities UK (UUK) has urged government for some time to bring forward a bill to ensure a regulatory regime and sector architecture that gives greater emphasis to the needs of students and supports and enhances our world-leading reputation for excellence in teaching and research – and we support the bill continuing its passage through parliament in spite of the political turbulence of recent months.

While the broad outline of the regulatory regime set out in the Higher Education and Research Bill is similar to the recommendations advocated in UUK's 2015 report on regulation, Quality, equity, sustainability, we have a number of concerns about some of the provisions in the bill which could negatively impact students, undermine confidence in universities across the UK, and diminish the flexibility and autonomy on which the global success of the sector is built.

At the first evidence session of the bill committee on 6 September 2016, I will urge the committee members to pay particular attention to:

  • protecting students from the risk of early institutional failure and/or a devalued degree
  • the role and powers of the Office for Students, including the appropriateness of a regulator competing in the market as a validator of degrees
  • the lack of distinction in the bill between quality and standards, and the potential for government to make directions about the courses which institutions run
  • ensuring the creation and leadership of UK Research and Innovation does not damage the dynamism and impact of university research across the UK
  • ensuring the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation are required to cooperate on certain functions to enable a holistic view of the strength and sustainability of the sector which combines teaching, research and innovation excellence
  • ensuring the legislation preserves the autonomy of universities to act in the best interests of their students, the academic community and society.

We fully expect Clause 2 of the bill, which sets out the general duties of the Office for Students, to be carefully examined and debated in order to ensure that the new regulator – and successor to HEFCE – is fit for purpose for a dynamic, competitive and collaborative higher education sector.

While choice and competition – which are already included in the government's draft of Clause 2 – are important, there are other factors that our new regulator should be concerned with. We will therefore be calling for the OfS to have a duty to encourage collaboration as well as competition, to ensure that it supports part-time and other alternative modes of provision, and that is has a role in maintaining confidence in the higher education sector, and in the awards which they collectively grant, among students, employers, and the wider public.

We welcome the establishment of a single gateway for degree awarding powers, university title and awarding of grant funding for teaching for all those in the sector, but we have severe reservations about provisions in the bill which would lower the bar to entry. Appropriately robust market entry standards serve the interests of students by minimising the risk of early institutional failure or the need for intervention by the OfS.

The bill sets up the legislative framework for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), rather than the details of the TEF itself, but I am sure this won't stop political or media interest in this important new feature during the coming weeks. How the TEF should operate in the future is still being developed, but it must be an effective TEF, something which is meaningful for students, staff and institutions. Crucially, future iterations of the TEF, including piloting of discipline-level assessments, should not proceed until lessons about the costs and benefits of TEF 2 have been learned.

It will be some weeks before the committee gets to look in detail at the section of the bill concerned with the creation of the new body to take on (among other things) the research functions currently carried out by HEFCE: UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). But it is important that early on the bill committee understands the need for UKRI and the OfS to work together effectively to ensure the success and sustainability of the sector.

We must ensure also that in creating UKRI we do not damage the dynamism and impact of university research across the UK. It's essential, therefore, that those leading and governing UKRI should have experience from across the UK sector.

UUK's evidence to the bill committee highlights the areas we support, and those we seek to remove or improve. But for us, this is not about party politics. What is at stake here is the future of a national asset, a higher education system that has a global reputation for excellence in teaching, research and innovation. We need to ensure that the final act of parliament not only reflects diversity of mission and the strengths of the sector now, but is fit for the statute books for years to come.

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