There was much rejoicing back in January when the government was defeated over the first amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill to be put to the vote in the House of Lords. That amendment introduced a definition of the functions of UK universities into the text of the bill which included their freedom “to act as critics of government and the conscience of society”. Its effects were dispersed and diffused in subsequent re-wordings, but it was the first of several major amendments to command support in the Lords.
At the end of April, however, in the “wash-up” before parliament was dissolved on May 3rd, the bill became law, and much of the effect of those amendments was lost. What should we note about that process, and where does it leave us?
It is worth recalling that the bill was always intended as a consolidation on the new system for funding university teaching, based primarily on tuition fees and loans, that was introduced in 2012. It was widely recognised during the parliamentary debates that some adjustment to the regulation of the higher education sector was needed in the light of that, and that students who were being required to invest financially in the courses they took needed access to adequate information about those courses and an appropriate regime of consumer protection. But the bill that had been brooded over in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) for five years before it was presented to parliament in May 2016 was much more ambitious than that. It sought to make it easier to establish new institutions that would provide training in particular specialised skills considered necessary to drive the economy forward, and it included measures to incorporate the research councils into a new overarching funding body, along with the agency that acts as a facilitator for the practical application of research outcomes, Innovate UK. Continue reading