Higher Education and Research Bill passes House of Commons

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Courtesy of UK Parliament via Flickr

On the afternoon of April 27th, the House of Commons passed the final iteration of the Higher Education and Research Bill that has been bouncing around committees, hearings, and the House of Lords for the past 18 months.

SCAN has followed this bill and its impact on Lancaster throughout this time, including the rise of Lancaster’s tuition fees for the coming years. Barring a change in the government after June’s election, the 2017 Bill is likely to guide the Higher Education sector and its policy basis for the foreseeable future.

Some of the most notable changes the Higher Education Act will implement is the creation of the Office for Students, which will hold responsibility for the quality and standards of the sector, including degree awarding powers.

With the talk around more private providers entering the sector, the Office for Student’s power to approve new entrants to the sector could be quite powerful. Student’s have questioned how “For Students” this office will be, and while lobbying from the NUS and other student groups have lead to the inclusion of student representation, little is clear as to how much the office will focus on student opinion.

Ant Bagshaw, Deputy Director of Wonkhe – a Higher Education think tank – explained to SCAN “The government is due to appoint the first Chief Executive of the Office for Students.

“This person will have a significant role in determining the organization’s culture and ways of working. They could choose to champion students so it’s not guaranteed either way.”

Another key change coming from the HE Act is the creation of the Teaching Excellence Framework. Already partly in place, the TEF is a very visible part of the HE act, noticeably the “Gold, Silver, Bronze” rankings that will impact universities ability to raise fees after 2020.

Mr. Bagshaw looks at the future of TEF as“just one initiative in a long line: complaints about universities prioritising research over teaching go back to at least the 1960s. TEF will limp along for a bit and might become an established part of the sector’s quality assurance activities but equally it might be killed off. If TEF doesn’t continue, something else will come along in its place.”

The ability for higher ranked universities to raise fees has brought criticism from across the sector as it could potentially exclude students from lower-income backgrounds.

Mr. Bagshaw addressed this, but saw there are a lot of unknowns with future fee increases. “The Act provides for all universities to raise fees until 2020 and then thereafter to have differentiation.

“Given that this is a long way away in political terms, there could be a new arrangement where there continues to be a single cap (so everyone across the sector has the same maximum fee level). We’ll have to see.”

SCAN asked Mr. Bagshaw what the most important impact the HE and Research Act was going to have on the sector.

“The HE and Research Act marks a major change from having a funding body which protected the interests of a universities to a regulator with a wide range of powers to ensure that universities comply with their conditions or registration. This marks a very different relationship between institutions and the state.”