(Parliamentary copyright reproduced with permission)
Dear Members of the House of Lords,
The Higher Education and Research Bill has its Second Reading in the Lords on Tuesday, 6th December 2016. It is an opportunity to discuss the overarching themes in the proposed legislation and any potential improvements. There is an expectation among universities that the Bill could be amended in significant ways in the Lords, and not only because the Government lacks a majority there. Several peers have expressed concerns about parts of the Bill and Ministers made only limited changes in the Commons, leaving room for manoeuvre.
There is a strong case for a new legal framework for higher education to reflect the funding changes of recent years, but as the Bill proceeds the university sector’s representative bodies will propose amendments on specific issues, as they did when the Bill was before the Commons. In addition, our recent work at the Higher Education Policy Institute (www.hepi.ac.uk), the UK’s only independent think tank devoted exclusively to higher education, has identified some broader areas where the legislation could be improved.
We hope you might feel able to raise some or all of the following issues during the Second Reading debate. (The embedded links provide further information on each issue.)
- The student loan repayment conditions, particularly for those who leave the UK: There is considerable leakage in the student loan system among graduates who choose to work abroad. Recent legislative changes in New Zealand show this can be solved in cost-effective ways.
- Including mental health improvement plans in Access and Participation Agreements: Students have lower wellbeing than the population as a whole. Sharing and spreading good practice would be one effective way to boost retention and attainment.
- Informing students how their fees are spent: The annual HEPI/HEA Student Academic Experience Survey shows three-quarters of full-time undergraduate students would like to know more about how their tuition fees are spent. It could also help universities convey the breadth of opportunities on offer.
- Giving the Office for Students a remit to consider the public interest of higher education: As the higher education sector comes to resemble a market and as institutions deepen their engagement with local communities after the Brexit vote, there is a need to consider if the system as a whole is serving the public interest.
- Encouraging more innovative provision: The Bill encourages diverse higher education provision, but includes nothing specific to encourage the supply of accelerated degrees – for example, the annual fee and loan caps are set to remain the same whether a degree is taken in two years or three.
One other policy area that could benefit from considered debate is the categorisation of institutions. The Government has suggested three sorts of higher education provider should be recognised in future: Registered; Approved; and Approved (fee cap). Approved providers will have uncapped fees but no entitlement to direct public funding for teaching or research, while their students will have restricted access to student finance. In contrast, Approved (fee cap) providers will have their fees (and loans) capped at £9,000 per annum (plus inflation where applicable) and may receive public funding for teaching and research.
There has been minimal public debate about these impermeable boundaries and whether they are being set in the right places. On the one hand, they resemble existing practice but, on the other, they could risk inhibiting variety – for example, an Approved provider who can demonstrate excellence in research will continue to have no entitlement to public funding for research. As new higher education legislation tends to occur only once every dozen years (1992, 2004, 2016), the Bill provides an important opportunity to debate this issue before putting the boundaries in aspic.
Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute