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Higher Education Bill reaches Commons report stage

Nicky Old

Nicky Old

Director, Communications and External Relations
Universities UK

The Higher Education and Research Bill reaches an important milestone in the Commons today as it enters Report Stage, meaning that the bill – with the (minor) amendments made by a group of MPs in committee – now comes back for debate by all MPs. And from our perspective, there is still much to do to turn the current bill into the right bill.

Over 300 potential amendments to the bill were debated in the course of the public bill committee. No opposition amendments were passed, but a number of government amendments – mostly of a technical nature – have now been inserted into the bill. What the long hours of bill sessions did provide, however, was an opportunity to hear more from the Minister, Jo Johnson MP, about the policy intent behind some of the ideas put forward in the bill with further factsheets published to provide additional clarification.

Today's sessions will feature further discussions about the key areas of policy, and an opportunity to debate a slew of new amendments tabled by government, Labour and the SNP.

Last week's amendments tabled by the Secretary of State for Education represent a positive step in the right direction – particularly the amendments concerning a new duty for the Office for Students (OfS) to monitor the financial sustainability of the sector, restrictions on the Secretary of State's ability to frame guidance in relation to particular courses, and changes relating to the new body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), including the addition of postgraduate training in UKRI's functions and the requirement for at least one UKRI board member to have experience of research, science or business in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

This is further evidence, on top of the reassurances given during committee stage, that government is listening to the concerns raised by universities, students and those working in the sector. But there is still a long way to go. Even if Report Stage fails to make much progress on key areas, we can expect serious and informed consideration of these matters when the bill passes shortly to the Lords (second reading, 6 December).

So what is it that Universities UK wants to see changed in the bill? There are seven areas where we believe there is more to be done:

  1. Ensuring the powers of the Office for Students and the Secretary of State are compatible with the principle of university autonomy
  2. Separating 'quality' and 'standards' in the bill, and ensuring that academic standards continue to be owned by the sector
  3. Protecting students, employers and the reputation of the sector by ensuring a suitably high bar to for new entrants
  4. Strengthening checks and balances for giving and removing Degree Awarding Powers and University Title
  5. Removing the ability for the OfS to validate degrees and clarifying its role as regulator
  6. Ensuring the duties of the OfS reflects the diverse range of activities carried out by universities
  7. Ensuring that the autonomy of the research councils is protected within the new UKRI structure.

Our briefing for MPs ahead of Report Stage goes into further detail on these points and why they matter for students, for society and for our members. The UK's autonomous universities are some of our most successful and ambitious institutions, with a strong track record of serving students and society well. Our job is to work with government and parliamentarians to ensure that the bill is properly amended to keep this the case.

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