Where next after the HE Bill? – Sean Wallis and Lee Jones

For a week or so it appeared as if the Conservatives had pulled the plug on the Higher Education and Research Bill (HE Bill) by calling a Brexit General Election on June 8th. Only negotiations with the Labour front bench could allow the Bill to become an Act in time for the enforced closure of Parliament.

The earlier ‘debate’ in the Commons had been lamentable. No notable amendments were accepted in the Committee stages in the Commons. The Conservatives simply kept to the party whip and refused any amendment.

Then the Lords set to work. Through a series of 240 amendments, voted on and accepted in the House of Lords, their Lordships took apart key elements of the legislation.

The position taken by the Conservatives in the Commons differed sharply from the position taken by a variety of Lords – Liberal, Labour, Conservative and cross-bencher.

The official Tory position on the Bill was expressed in the infamous Green and White Papers. Higher Education ‘reform’ was required to permit private providers to ‘access’ undergraduate students and full fees in competition with universities of long-standing. The UK Government should allow Group 4 or Pearson to compete with Cambridge or Liverpool. The market is king. Private companies must be allowed to enter this market, charge £9,000+ a year, and reap the rewards. As a result ‘standards’ would, miraculously, be raised.

To create ‘a level playing field’, the existing regulatory framework, including the Quality Assurance Agency and other bodies, must be disbanded. The standard of academic environment and the inspection regime required by the QAA were too onerous for precious new private providers. Hence the TEF. University teaching was to be evaluated not in terms of whether students were challenged and their minds expanded to the frontiers of human knowledge, but whether the experience of attending university was personally satisfying.

The ideas were so poorly constructed that most staff and students who actually read these Papers were perplexed at how little knowledge of education was on display. Absent from the Papers were any notion that education might be about teaching students difficult and challenging ideas, or encouraging them to develop their own ideas. At most, the implied conceptualisation was instrumentalist: spoon-feeding and teaching-to-the-test.

Indeed, what is striking about the so-called ‘debate’ about the HE Bill, is that – beyond the ideologues of the DfE and the direct beneficiaries of the Bill busy lobbying them behind the scenes and a few self-interested, renegade Vice Chancellors – the proposals gained no public support.

By contrast, the Lords’ position reflected something very different. In summary, their amendments were based on knowledge of university life in the UK and internationally.

Interestingly, these amendments threatened to split the Conservative benches. A group of Tory MPs were apparently prepared to rebel on the question of including foreign students in the immigration statistics. The government’s fragile majority was in doubt, and the clock ticking before parliament was dissolved before the election.

Nonetheless, the Bill passed in the dying days of the 2015-17 parliament. Why? Because, for reasons still unclear, the Labour Party – which had fought the government throughout the Bill’s early stages – opted to leverage the Lords’ amendments into (exceedingly minor) government concessions in exchange for not opposing its passage. This was a serious mistake, irrespective of the parliamentary rationale.

Already the Times Higher has described the Bill as “the most significant sector legislation in 25 years to further a market approach in England.” Had the Bill been stopped in April, the next Government would have had insufficient Parliamentary time to put another Bill together and deal with Brexit at the same time. Now universities face a perfect storm.

The consequences are already being felt. At the time or writing, the University and Colleges Union is engaged in a major battle at Manchester Metropolitan University, which decided to close its Crewe campus and axe 171 jobs, blaming the HE Act and Brexit. Manchester University has mirrored Man Met’s cut programme, announcing a further swathe of senior academic and academic-related job losses. London Metropolitan University management is citing the HE Act for its cuts programme. The UCU has launched an academic boycott of the university.

As we predicted, the first universities to make major cuts are post-92 Universities that have championed ‘widening participation’.

But the cuts are not limited to post-92. Pre-92 universities like Manchester University and UCL are also engaged in an active repositioning to recruit undergraduates at the expense of world-leading research staff. With research overheads limited to a ‘mere’ 80% of salaries, undergraduate teaching bankrolled by the state has become much more lucrative, provided that the staff-student ratio falls to 1:15 or so.

The Government claims that their Act was designed to encourage social mobility. If any social climbing does take place it would be by more students enrolling at so-called ‘top’ universities – not by standards being raised in other universities, or access to HE becoming easier. Woe betide any student whose ‘social mobility’ is limited by the financial cost of studying away from home.

What concessions did the Government make?

  • University title. The HE Bill said very little about what a university was for, what a new provider would need to do to qualify, etc. As a result of the ‘wash-up’ there will now be a full consultation on the definition of a university, following which the Secretary of State will issue guidance to Office for Students (OfS) on criteria for the award of university titles. The consultation must include consideration of university functions set out in legislation in other territories, as well as factors including teaching, research, strength of academic community, learning infrastructure, infrastructure, pastoral care and knowledge exchange.

There is a real opportunity to campaign to insist on a robust definition of University autonomy and a mission to defend Academic Freedom being written into University titles. This campaign should include citation of the Scottish HE Governance Act, which among other things stipulates that the chair of the Governing body must be elected.

  • Degree Awarding Powers. Degree Awarding Powers can only be granted, revoked or varied following advice by a designated independent quality body that the institution meets an appropriate standard. If no designated quality body exists, the OfS must set up an independent specific committee with a majority of members with no previous involvement with the OfS. There will be an automatic review of Degree Awarding Powers if there is a change of ownership or a merger at a University.

Again, there is an opportunity to campaign here to ensure that Degree Awarding Powers are only given to independent universities with provision for independent oversight, including but not limited to an independent academic culture and external examination.

  • A review of TEF. The Government must undertake a review of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) within one year of the Bill passing, conducted by an independent person ‘commanding confidence of the sector’ and reporting to the Secretary of State and Parliament. The Government cannot vary fees linked to TEF until after the review has reported. The review must assess the suitability of the TEF’s metrics and methodology, its overall impact on providers and even whether it is in the public interest. Fee regulations will be subject to greater scrutiny under the ‘affirmative procedure’, i.e. subject to the formal approval of both Houses of Parliament.

This could become a repeat of the previous review, but this is an area which is ripe for campaigning jointly with the National Union of Students. There are good arguments to argue that the TEF is broken and cannot be fixed, and is therefore not in the public interest. However, the Government will attempt to find some mechanism for ‘evaluating’ the performance of universities to replace the up-front quality assurance of the QAA

  • International students. A new designated data body will publish numbers of international students. The Government will not limit a university’s ability to recruit genuine international students, whether based on its TEF rating or on any other basis.

The publication of international student numbers carries risks of becoming a political football, so it should be treated cautiously. The Lords’ Amendment was clear: international student numbers should be taken out of migration statistics. This clause highlights a very real need to campaign publicly in favour of continued international staff and student recruitment – which would have been required irrespective of the HE Bill.

The Government’s U-turn on limiting overseas student recruitment by TEF score is welcome, both because it represents a very public retreat by the outgoing Home Secretary, and because the general principle of employing the TEF to cap student numbers is likely to become the next turn of the screw in the Government’s artificial tuition fee marketplace.

There will also be a requirement on higher education providers to cooperate with Electoral Registration Officers to facilitate student electoral registration as a condition of providers to register to claim tuition fees.

In conclusion

The Government’s Bill represented both an instrument for privatisation and a culmination of a programme of privatisation that had already started well before the Green Paper was published.

Frustrating as it is for those of us who campaigned so hard against it – and for a few days found ourselves so near to a complete withdrawal of the Bill – we must put the passing of the Act in context.

The Willets Plan was launched in 2010 with the raising of tuition fees to £9,000 and the partial abolition of block grants. Private providers became profitable overnight, but they were still limited to charging £6,000 until they gained university title. Crucially, from this point on, student numbers determined the financial stability of university departments.

Then in 2015 the Government removed caps on student numbers (with some notable exceptions such as medicine), which meant that universities could compete to recruit unlimited numbers of students, in theory anyway. As long as universities chose to advertise places, there was no limit to the numbers of £9,000 fees the university could pocket.

The scramble for students had begun. From now on, universities would be liable to go through swings of boom and bust. There are even stories of some students ‘window-shopping’ in London colleges, attending lectures without paying fees, and then disappearing at the point they needed to enrol.

Undergraduate recruitment is increasingly sensitive to factors beyond universities’ control. Brexit has thrown the question of EU student recruitment in doubt. The Government’s decision ahead of the HE Bill debate to let fees rise while freezing the repayment threshold can only exert downward pressure on student recruitment and dissuade working-class students. The result is intensified competition between universities, with rapid expansion of marketing budgets at the expense of academic resource.

This is a zero-sum game. While expressing support and solidarity to colleagues facing job losses and closures, we have a responsibility to make it clear that this ‘market’ is an artificial political creation subject to central Government manipulation.

The Conservatives now have a serious problem. They have to implement the Bill and they have to take the political consequences of their actions.

It is one thing to pass the Bill – it is quite another to implement it.

The Government got its Bill through Parliament but lost the argument in sector. The Bill was pushed through in the teeth of opposition from university staff and students. Unusually, several Vice Chancellors spoke out against the Bill (although as a group, VC opposition was quietist, selective and self-interested).

But our campaign against the HE Bill failed because the arguments against it did not get on the radar of Conservative MPs. Bluntly, because we struggled to connect with the public, Tory MPs did not feel any pressure from voters, or fear the blame for market failures.

In the US, by contrast, students with huge debts and worthless degrees from bankrupt colleges routinely lobby senators and congressmen (and even incoming presidents). Politicians are publicly challenged for their roles in allowing market failures and blighted lives. This has not happened in the UK.

This is about to change.

Previously we had tried to explain that unregulated market competition would drive universities to pile students high and teach them as cheaply as possible. The market would, sooner or later, lead to departments or whole universities going bust. The HE Bill would enable this process by making market entry and exit easier.

Whether we like it or not, our predictions are going to come to pass.

We have to make sure that it is Conservative and Unionist MPs who are held responsible for the consequences of their actions in supporting this Bill. This is not written out of some kind of party-political spite. It is because actions have consequences, and their slavish following of their parties’ whips has created the crisis in our universities.

We must continue and intensify the campaign to defend the Public University. We must campaign to repeal the Higher Education and Research Act, and to reverse the damage that the entire Willets market experiment has wreaked on our universities.

To do this we have to patiently explain the Willets Plan to the public. If undergraduate tuition fees were cut to £3,000 (for instance) and the block grant restored (subject to quality inspection), the private sector would have no motive to set up for-profit universities. This is why we wrote a letter to the Guardian commending the Labour Party for proposing to cut tuition fees. There will be similar opportunities in the coming months to get our arguments into the realm of public debate. We have to keep fighting for our sector.

It seems to us we do not really have a choice about this. Higher Education, like the NHS, will only exist “while there are folk around who are prepared to fight for it.”

And, as the NUS used to say, “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”


About Sean

Principal Research Fellow, Survey of English Usage, University College London
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