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Government tables new amendments to HE Bill in the face of peers' criticisms

Jo Johnson

Universities minister Jo Johnson has announced amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill tabled as the government prepares to steer it through a crucial stage in Parliament.

The Bill is facing opposition from Labour and Liberal Democrat peers as well as from the former Conservative Party Chairman Lord Patten as it moves to Committee Stage in the House of Lords.  The Committee Stage is being taken on the floor of the House, meaning all peers will have the chance to speak on it.

Announcing on Twitter amendments tabled by the Department for Education’s Lords spokesperson on higher education, Viscount Younger of Leckie, Mr Johnson said these would “clarify the strengthened role of Director for Fair Access and Participation” and confirm the government’s “commitment to supporting knowledge exchange across the research and innovation landscape”.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have accused the government of attempting to “marketise” the sector through the Bill, and have tabled their own amendments.

They have also criticised plans for the creation of the Office for Students, which some see as potentially too powerful and a threat to the independence of universities.

Lord Patten, writing in The Observer, said the Bill “gives the secretary of state greater power than ever to direct the course of research” and that “integrity and autonomy should be preserved at all cost”.

The government says the Bill will “increase competition and choice in the higher education sector, raise standards and strengthen the United Kingdom’s capabilities in research and innovation” and by improving standards, give students better value for money.

The Bill will link tuition fees to teaching quality, bring in changes to research funding and also make it easier for new and alternative providers to get degree-awarding powers and university status.

Some, including Higher Education Policy Institute Director Nick Hillman, believe the sector is overdue for changes to its regulatory system, which has remained the same since before tuition fees were increased.

One of the government amendments confirms that the Director of Fair Access will continue to have responsibility for the approval or refusal of an access agreement, which determines whether universities are allowed to charge higher tuition fees.

That change has been welcomed by the MillionPlus group of universities and by the director of OFFA Les Ebdon. He said: “This is crucial - because it will ensure the Director remains free to negotiate with universities and colleges to ensure the best possible access agreements. These changes are an important step to meeting the Minister's aim that fair access issues should be integral to the new Office for Students.”

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, told HEi-know: “The government’s amendments undoubtedly strengthen the Bill, although ministers will need to do more to allay widespread concerns about other aspects of the legislation.

“They would be wise to accept that there is no mileage and no good rationale to weaken the criteria for university title and taught degree awarding powers or allow providers to award degrees on a provisional basis.”

She added that peers were “very concerned about the government’s policy towards international students” and would question the introduction of gold, silver and bronze ratings for the Teaching Excellence Framework.

Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of the University Alliance, welcomed amendments responding to a call for knowledge exchange activity to be explicitly recognised as part of Research England’s remit within UKRI.

“This will ensure critical funding for business-led innovation activity.  Alliance universities work with thousands of businesses, helping them solve technical problems, develop new ideas and grow. We believed that it was important to make it clear that UKRI can continue to support knowledge transfer that is not directly connected to research as well as that which is.

“We hope that this indicates that the government is now in a mood to respond to the other important amendments requested by the sector,” she said.

Commenting on the same amendments, Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said:

"There were legitimate concerns over the omission of knowledge exchange from UKRI’s responsibilities. That the government has now made it clear the new body will have a duty to promote knowledge exchange is very good news.

"This legislation will shape the future of higher education in the UK for decades to come and it is important that we get it right. Today’s announcements are welcome but there is still more work to be done when the Bill returns to Parliament next week."

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