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The Queen’s Speech – what it means for universities

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Now that the Queen’s speech has been delivered, we finally have cast-iron confirmation (although it now comes as no surprise) that there will be a Higher Education and Research Bill in this year’s batch of legislation.

The sector’s wonks and lawyers will, however, have to wait just a little longer to see the details of the Bill which won’t happen until tomorrow, at the earliest. Having waited 24 years since the last time the legal basis of higher education was substantially revised, perhaps we can stretch to one more day; although given the bill may be being debated by MPs as soon as early June, it feels at this stage like every hour is crucial.

According to the Queen’s speech, the intent behind the bill is “to ensure that more people have the opportunity to further their education, legislation will be introduced to make it easier to form new universities, and to promote choice and competition in the higher education sector”.

Our Director of Policy Chris Hale and Programme Manager William Hammonds have already reflected on the content of the government white paper and the commitment to moving forward with market entry and the Teaching Excellence Framework.

While we’ve yet to see the Bill, the government’s briefing (and white paper and press release) cites as a ‘key fact’ that “Over 60% of students said they feel their course is worse than expected” citing the 2015 HEA / HEPI student survey. These results, in fact, state that 12% of students said that their experience was worse than expected and 49% said that their experience was in some ways better and in some ways worse.

Some would say that adding the two figures together doesn’t give a true representation of student experience, and, it’s worth taking into account the 2015 National Student Survey – one of the measures that the government will use for the TEF – which showed 86% overall satisfaction among students.

In the meantime, it is worth considering how the other bills announced in the speech may impact on universities. It would be easy to lose sight of reforms elsewhere that would receive far more attention if the whole architecture of higher education and research agencies wasn’t being redesigned at the same time.

In particular, some will nervously await the contents of the Extremism Bill, having fought bitter battles in Parliament on freedom of speech during the passage of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act last year. My colleague Jo Attwooll blogged earlier today on the work that UUK is undertaking to help the sector fulfil the ‘Prevent Duty’ created in that Act. The increasingly fractious debate on freedom of speech on campuses, ‘no-platforming’, safe spaces et al may emerge during debates on an Extremism Bill, as well as in the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill itself.

We will also need to make sure that the NHS (Overseas Visitors Charging) Bill doesn’t create further barriers on international students who want to study here – though with non-EU students now paying an annual surcharge for access to NHS services perhaps this group will be protected from further changes.

Local growth, and the infrastructure and skills that underpin this, are the subject of two bills: The Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill and the Local Growth and Jobs Bill. How exactly skills policy fits into the two bills isn’t exactly clear at this stage, but perhaps alongside the powers being devolved to elected mayors on infrastructure investment we will see some devolution of skills funding. If purse-strings are increasingly held at local or regional levels, the sector will need to make sure that it is seen as part of a ‘solution’ – fulfilling the skills needs of local economies.  See my colleague James Ransom’s recent blog on the role of universities in the English devolution agenda.

With universities being among the largest producers and consumers of intellectual property, any tinkering of protection or access through the Intellectual Property (Unjustified Threats) Bill and a new Digital Economy Bill may well be deserving of attention – perhaps particularly from innovation and commercialisation departments.

While attention will naturally be drawn primarily by the Higher Education and Research Bill, there will be plenty of other areas where universities should be seeking to put across the perspective of the sector.

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