First Lords amendment goes to vote, government loses
The House of Lords began its scrutiny of the Higher Education & Research Bill yesterday. Over two hours was spent debating the first of over 500 amendments. Proposed by Alison Wolf the amendment sought to specify what a university is understood to be.
“UK universities: functions
(1) UK universities are autonomous institutions and must uphold the principles of
academic freedom and freedom of speech.
(2) UK universities must ensure that they promote freedom of thought and
expression, and freedom from discrimination.
(3) UK universities must provide an extensive range of high quality academic
subjects delivered by excellent teaching, supported by scholarship and
research, through courses which enhance the ability of students to learn
throughout their lives.
(4) UK universities must make a contribution to society through the pursuit,
dissemination, and application of knowledge and expertise locally, nationally
and internationally; and through partnerships with business, charitable
foundations, and other organisations, including other colleges and universities.
(5) UK universities must be free to act as critics of government and the conscience
This amendment was to be inserted at the very front of the draft Bill and seeks to limit the government’s plans to relax conditions on the university title, while also defending universities from direct government interference (particularly around standards – of which we will hear a lot in days to come). The stress on a ‘range of high quality academic subjects’ is designed to head off a raft of entreprenerial training providers specialising in single subjects from accessing the protected title.
The government spokesman in the Lords refused to bow to the pressure coming from the benches and so a vote on the amendment was proposed. Those ‘content’ with the amendment won by 248 to 221.
While this isn’t the defeat of the Bill that the Guardian’s coverage might have you believe, it is a significant opening salvo. The next amendment – on the establishment of universities – opens with two clauses that will hurt the government further with their bar on profit.
(1) UK universities must be bodies corporate, primarily located in the United
Kingdom, and established on a not-for-profit basis.
(2) UK universities are public bodies, contributing to society through the pursuit
of education, learning, and research at high levels of excellence.
Jo Johnson has already responded with his normal rhetoric about burgers. He cites Dyson’s new degree apprenticeship scheme as an example of what his reforms have in mind, but neglects to mention that much of the demand in that new initiative derives from the involvement of Warwick, which will be teaching and awarding the degrees. Nothing legislative or regulatory has prevented more of these ‘high quality’ initiatives from being established.
Moreover, there is nothing to stop new training providers being established. Johnson continually fudges the main issue – access to public funding. What the new providers want is subsidies for their profit-making.
For-profits have access to government funding via tuition-fee loans, though it is also now already open to them to apply to become eligible for high-cost teaching, capital and research grant funding.(Attention needs to be paid to for-profit group structures, not the status of individual legal entities. It’s a straightforward matter to siphon money out of a not-for-profit into a for-profit parent, as detailed here in the case of New College of the Humanities. At present there is nothing to stop a for-profit corporation registered overseas for tax purposes accessing loan or grant funding).
Designation for student support as a policy and process grew out of the procedures whereby universities were trusted to validate provision at small and specialist institutions that offered something not present in universities (see the various controversies around the funding of alternative health and therapy courses). Pearson’s HNCs and HNDs were added to the mix and the coalition government raised the eligible fee-loan amount to £6,000. This set in train the uncontrolled expansion of alternative provision, which resuted in the National Audit Office investigation of 2014.
Given the mess inherited from the coalition, the need for regulation here is imperative but this current government can’t be trusted on that score until:
- it comes clean about what happened between 2010 and 2014 – how many qualifications were achieved for the billion plus squandered on its policy experiment?
- it publishes its proposed consultation on new regulations for the granting of degree awarding powers and the university title. As regulations these don’t need primary legislation so aren’t in the Bill, but interpreting the Bill depends on assessing the proposals for accelerating the procedure by which DAPs and title are gained. (A sixth-form college has to have 200 students, the government plans to set no minimum size for the university title). Until it does and makes the case for those proposals, we are left with the suspicion that the driving motive is to bring the timings of that procedure into alignment with investment cycles. Two high-profile title awards created University of Law and Arden University – the owners of both (hedge funds and venture capitalists) disposed of their new universities shortly afterwards.
It is not unreasonable to demand a track record from a provider before allowing them to access public funding. Whether that should be devolved to individual validating universities is another matter and the government should probably move to the establishment of a separate validating body for new providers that wish to award degrees. Like the old CNAA, this new validating body should have a core role for seconded senior academics or professors emeritus/emerita.
In truth, universities should be barred from validating degrees in subjects they themselves don’t teach and any university making more annually from partnership contracts than research should be subject to a higher level of quality assurance scrutiny.
As for HND’s and HNC’s these should be moved into FE funding, as Vince Cable realised. Even after the post-NAO clampdown the completion rate here is terrible. It is a mistake to see these figures as a sign of positive widening participation. The only significant innovation seen from alternative providers between 2010 and 2015 was in aggressive recruitment. Students who couldn’t benefit were enrolled onto HE courses, when they would have been better off on English language classes (and indeed some of them were mis-sold funded HE places as such courses). What we got was sub-prime HE English-style. The experimental HESA data on completions in 2014/15 tells us that government attempts to deal with HNC/HND hasn’t worked.