The progress of the Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) through Parliament has dominated higher education news since last summer. Having passed through the Third and final reading in the House of Lords on 4 April, the HERB is currently subject to the process of parliamentary ‘ping pong’ – an intense period in which Peers could maintain pressure on the Government to approve key amendments to the Bill before it passes into law.
As if ‘ping pong’ wasn’t dramatic enough, Prime Minister Theresa May has thrown the biggest obstacle to date in the HERB’s path towards achieving Royal Assent by announcing plans to call a snap General Election for 8 June. If approved by MPs, according to convention, Parliament will be dissolved on 3 May and all Bills not yet passed will be dropped pending the General Election.
As it stands at present, the amended HERB is due to return to the House of Commons for consideration by MPs in the final week of April. If a General Election is to go ahead as expected, according to the present schedule, this only leaves one week for the Government to push the HERB through. In the normal way, passing a Bill in such a small window of time would be tight enough. Yet, given the scale of the opposition to the HERB from the Lords in recent months, pushing the reforms through without some considerable compromises from the Government could be nigh on impossible.
If the HERB is to pass at all, then, what is needed now are some hasty decisions from Government and Opposition whips as to what parts of the Bill can be pushed through quickly. Given the current Government’s commitment to the higher education reforms, it is difficult to see it being content to let the HERB die a sudden death. As such, we should expect to see some speedy concessions made by the Government in the coming weeks to give the reforms – or at least part of them – the best chance of achieving Royal Assent.
Creating a ‘market’ for higher education in England was always going to be contentious. For the new market regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), to pass with minimum objection, the Government would be wise to refine some of the powers it had planned for it – particularly those which are seen as threatening to the institutional autonomy and quality of our universities. Clarifying the OfS’s ability to revoke the degree-awarding powers and university titles of some of our most prestigious institutions ‘as a last resort’ was a step in the right direction. But has enough been done to ensure the OfS can defend the sector against a rise of poor-quality, for-profit providers?
Similarly, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – set to be administered by the OfS – has long come under criticism for its Olympic-inspired ‘gold-silver-and-bronze’ ranking system and the metrics used to measure teaching success. Yet, all could be forgiven if the Government ditches the formal link in the HERB between TEF scores and the ability of high-achieving universities to raise tuition fees in the future.
The thorn in the side of the HERB, nevertheless, remains the question of international students and plans to include them in the Government’s net migration targets. The tightening of student visa regulations is already seen by some as damaging the UK’s global competitiveness and ability to attract international talent. With Article 50 now triggered and the UK’s journey toward Brexit already underway, perhaps it would be better to leave this as a battle to fight again another day in the corridors of Whitehall, rather than risking another lengthy showdown between the Commons and the Lords.