I outlined my concerns about the Higher Education and Research Bill in Parliament when it was presented for a Second Reading (see here) and then joined the Public Bill Committee where we’ve been 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 won’t stop there. Below is a summary of the issues I am particularly taking up with the Government.
The proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and fee increases
The Government wants to introduce 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.
Access and participation
The Government has set itself some ambitious targets to get more people from under-represented groups into university – including doubling 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.
Ensuring robust criteria for giving the power to award degrees
The Government wants to shake up the system by making it easier for new providers, including companies 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.
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 changes 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 proposed 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. Again, the Government didn’t take on board our proposals.
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 I have secured a meeting with Ministers to discuss the issue further.
For a full transcript of the Bill Committee sessions see here.