I outlined my concerns about the Higher Education and Research Bill in Parliament during the Parliamentary debate on the principles in the Bill (see here) and then joined the Public Bill Committee going through the Government’s planned reforms line by line for two months. While we secured some reassurances, all of the amendments moved by me and my Labour colleagues on the Bill Committee were rejected by the Government. But our efforts to improve the Bill didn’t stop there. We pressed them again at Report Stage in the Commons (see my speech here) and then with colleagues in the House of Lords, where we secured important amendments. Unfortunately the unexpected decision to call a General Election meant that we lost the chance to debate the amendments and the Bill went into a procedure called ‘wash-up’ for outstanding legislation.
Below is a summary of the issues I’ve particularly taken up with the Government.
The proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and fee increases
The Bill sets out a new framework for assessing teaching in universities, but with my Labour colleagues I challenged the Government on its plans to link TEF ratings with tuition fee increases.
There is wide support for focussing attention on teaching excellence, but we need to get any new system right. The Government proposal to use career outcomes, for example, is as likely to test family connections as it is to evaluate teaching quality. So I tabled an amendment to the Bill to make sure the metrics used to assess teaching excellence can be shown to be measures of teaching quality and not other factors. My amendment echoed a recommendation made by the cross-party Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, of which I was a member, but the Government refused to support it. There were helpful amendments in the Lords on this and, as part of the ‘wash-up’ procedure Labour secured a legal commitment to a review of the TEF.
Access and participation
The Government claims to want to double the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education from 13.6% in 2009 to 28% in 2020. But I have concerns it won’t meet its targets, and I proposed changes to the Bill to strengthen measures to widen participation.
I proposed giving the new university regulator, the Office for Students (OfS) a specific responsibility to address the fall in the number of part-time students, for example, and proposed a system for modular loans, to let people try university study without making too big a commitment. I also sought to make the OfS look into how changes to student funding affect access and participation, and to protect the role of the Director of Fair Access and Participation to ensure he or she has the authority to secure action on widening participation. The Government didn’t support my proposed changes, but did make subsequent amendments in the Lords which addressed some of my concerns.
Ensuring robust criteria for degree awarding powers
The Government wants to shake up the system by making it easier for new providers, including commercial operators, to set up universities. It hasn’t provided convincing evidence of the benefits, but wants to relax the rules for new providers to get the power to award degrees. This comes with huge risks for students who might be at an institution that turns out not to be up to scratch, or who have already got their degree from one that subsequently loses its university title or degree-awarding power. We challenged these changes and, learning from experiences of companies buying out universities in the US, I proposed an amendment to the Bill to make sure that if a university changes ownership, the regulator automatically reviews its right to grant degrees, to ensure we keep on top of who’s running our universities. Again, it was rejected by Government, but we did secure some concessions to strengthen the process in the ‘wash up’.
I’ve led activity in Parliament to change the Government’s approach to international students (see here) who create thousands of jobs and enrich our universities. I used the opportunity of the Bill to table an amendment, seeking to take them out of net migration targets as a first step towards developing a more positive approach to their recruitment. My amendments was defeated in the Commons, but Lord Hannay took the issue up and won strong support for an amendment which sought to achieve this objective. I was confident we could win support for it in the Commons, but the chance to vote was lost because of the election and the Government refused any meaningful compromise in the ‘wash up’. I will continue to push the issue.
Together with my Labour colleague Wes Streeting MP, I proposed an amendment to the Bill to prevent the Government from being able to change the terms of student loans retrospectively. This followed Government alterations to loan repayment thresholds which will force graduates to pay back more than they had been expecting; an injustice that a huge number of constituents have got in touch with me about.
I also used the opportunity of the Bill to extend access to higher education to some refugees, arising from problems raised with me by constituents. Working with the Refugee Council, I moved an amendment to end the unfairness of people granted humanitarian protection here in the UK being denied access to student loans and having to pay higher tuition fees. It would have extended the right already given to those granted formal refugee status to other categories of those taking refuge here. Although the Government opposed my amendment in the Commons, they compromised in the Lords by extending that right to Syrians who had come to the UK under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement programme, which accounted for most of those affected.
Building on my work with the University of Sheffield and with Sheffield Hallam University to give students the option to register to vote when they enrol at university, I proposed an amendment to the Bill to make this a requirement in all universities. Again, the Government refused to amend its Bill, but Labour Peer Baroness Royall won an amendment in the Lords which aimed to require universities to adopt the ‘Sheffield model’. The Government continued to oppose it, but we did secure a concession to require universities to work with Electoral Registration Officers in local councils.