Higher education shake-up gets go ahead from MPs

The higher education reform bill has been pushed through parliament with some last minute compromises to secure assent before parliament disbands for the General Election campaign.

The bill heralds the biggest shake-up of higher education in decades, marking a shift towards a market approach.

It will establish a system for rating teaching quality at universities, the Teaching Excellence Framework or TEF, which will help aspiring students choose which universities to apply to, and will allow high-performing institutions to increase tuition fees by the rate of inflation.

However, in a concession, implementing this key link between ratings and fee levels charged has been postponed for three years until an independent review has been carried out into the metrics on which the ratings will be based, whether the names of the ratings are appropriate, the impact of the TEF on the ability of providers to carry out their research and teaching, and an assessment of whether the scheme is in the public interest.

On Thursday in the House of Lords, where the bill met its strongest opposition, and was blocked at an earlier stage, Viscount Leckie (Conservative) said: “The crux of our debate has always focused on the operation of the TEF. A TEF that has no reputational or financial incentives would not focus university attention on teaching or help students to make better choices.”

He stressed that the government remains committed to ensuring that the TEF will evolve to assess the quality of teaching at subject level as well as at institutional level.

Under the original proposals, universities and their departments were to be graded using published data from surveys of student satisfaction, student retention rates, graduate employment rates and other sources.

The knock-on effect of the postponement of implementing the link between ratings and tuition fee levels is that most universities in England will be able to raise tuition fees annually in line with inflation until 2020.

Migration data

Despite widespread support from across the higher education sector, a proposed amendment to remove international students from immigration figures that are used to set targets to reduce immigration numbers was batted away by the government.

But the government did agree to look at the data on students and immigration at a future date.

One of the positive changes for universities was agreement to set stricter conditions on institutions seeking to gain the title of university and award degrees.

This was a concession made in lieu of a Lords amendment to provide robust and meaningful protection of institutional autonomy.

Universities had been concerned about risks to the independence and autonomy of universities and the potential for the secretary of state to intervene in areas such as academic standards and course funding. There were also question marks about who would decide if new providers could be called universities and on what criteria.

Viscount Leckie for government explained that under the new change, the title of university can only be given with regard to guidance given by the secretary of state. That guidance will only be made after consultation with providers and students and may include factors such as track record in excellent teaching; sustained scholarship; cohesive academic communities; interdisciplinary approaches; supportive learning infrastructures; dissemination of knowledge; the public-facing role of universities; academic freedom and freedom of speech; and wider support for students and pastoral care.

Baroness Brown of Cambridge, a cross-bencher, said she was disappointed that the government had not accepted the argument for a definition of the key functions of a university in the bill.

“Many other countries – including, for example, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, the Canadian provinces, Germany, Spain and India – have a definition of a university, or its functions and activities, in legislation,” she said.

The overarching objective of the failed Lords amendment had been to protect the reputation of universities in a way that would “communicate to the world, which is particularly important at a time when we are leaving the EU, that our higher education system is open for expansion and innovation, but that [the] university title in England is not given easily”, she added.

'Significantly improved’

Responding to passing of the Higher Education and Research Bill, Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, said: “We are pleased the bill has now passed providing new legislation, and stability during a time of uncertainty, for our world-class university sector.”

She said there were concerns over the original draft but the final bill had been “significantly improved”.

“In particular, we’re pleased with changes which protect university independence and standards and set a high bar for giving degree-awarding powers and university title.”

She said Universities UK was also encouraged by the minister’s statement that there will be a refreshed international engagement strategy to promote British universities overseas, “but we will continue our efforts to secure a more progressive immigration regime for staff and students.”

Recognising that subject level assessments are more challenging than institutional level assessments, their introduction has been postponed to allow an additional year of piloting and the first assessment will take place in spring 2020.

Under the reforms, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access are to be abolished and replaced by a single regulator of universities called the Office for Students, or OfS.

The OfS will be an “arm’s-length public body” with duties including “operating the entry gateway” to the sector for private providers; “assuring baseline quality”; running the Teaching Excellence Framework; “widening access and success for disadvantaged students”; “ensuring student protection”; and “assuring financial sustainability, management and good governance”.

The Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson has said he hopes the new Office for Students will have a clear remit to champion value for money and student interests in its decision-making.

Independent advice

In the Lords debate last week, Baroness Wolf of Dulwich, a cross-bencher, said under the new amendment a quality assurance process will be instituted that “focuses the attention of the Office for Students on a number of critical issues when it is granting or varying awarding powers, and clarifies the importance of independent advice from outside an institution”.

She said without safeguards it is only too easy to create a situation in which institutions arise and gain access to public funds but whose existence is very hard to justify and that can do enormous harm.

“It is not just this country – the United States has given us the largest and most catastrophic bankruptcies, leaving students stranded – but it is, after all, not very long ago that the Home Office moved to investigate and shut down higher education institutions in this country that were, not to put too fine a point on it, fraudulent.”

However, she welcomed the potential strengthening and improvement of the advice that the Office for Students will get from outside, which “will potentially be more independent and therefore both add an additional safeguard and add substantively to the process”.