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The Higher Education and Research Bill 2016-17 was presented in the House of Commons on 19 May 2016 and its Second Reading took place on 19 July 2016. The Bill seeks to bring forward a range of measures to increase competition and choice in the higher education sector, raise standards and strengthen capabilities in UK research and innovation.

Provisions in the Bill will:

  • create a new body to regulate the higher education sector (the Office for Students);
  • establish a new single gateway into the higher education sector;
  • permit the administration of the Teaching and Excellence Framework;
  • introduce a new non-interest bearing student finance product called an alternative payment; and
  • make changes to the research infrastructure.

Full background on the Bill as originally presented is provided in Library Briefing Paper 7609, Higher Education and Research Bill 2016 [Bill No 004 of 2016-17].

Committee Stage

The Committee stage of the Bill took place over fourteen sessions between 6 September and 18 October 2016. During the first three evidence sessions a range of spokespersons from public, private and further education providers, university mission groups and other higher education sector bodies, such as UCAS, appeared before the Committee. In the remaining sessions, the Committee conducted clause by clause scrutiny of the Bill.

As of 16 November 2016 no date had been given for the Bill’s Report Stage.

Divisions and amendments accepted

There were 17 divisions during the Committee Stage and a number of amendments were agreed; all the accepted amendments were Government amendments – most of which were minor technical or drafting amendments. The only substantial amendments agreed were:

  • to allow the immediate suspension of providers from the register of higher education providers where public funds are at risk; and
  • to permit TEF ratings to be given to higher education institutions (HEIs) in the devolved regions.

The closest division on a non-Government amendment was on an amendment moved by Gordon Marsden MP which would have required at least one member of the OFS board to be a student; this amendment was negatived by 9 votes to 11.

Areas debated

The main areas of debate during the Committee Stage were:

  • the lack of student representation in the Bill;
  • access and participation under the new system;
  • the Teaching and Excellence Framework (TEF);
  • collaboration and competition in the sector; and
  • the new research system being created by the Bill.

Student representation

The issue of student representation was raised in many amendments. For example, Wes Streeting MP moved amendments to provide for student representation on the boards of the OFS and the new designated quality assessment body, and to make the establishment of student unions an ongoing condition of registration for HEIs. Dr Blackman-Woods MP moved an amendment requiring HEIs to consult with students over access and participation plans. The Minister, Jo Johnson MP, gave a similar response to many of these amendments: that students would be consulted and that having these proposals set out in legislation could restrict flexibility of the Bill.

Access and participation

Access and participation in higher education was covered by several amendments. Issues raised included:

  • the role and accountability of the Director for Fair Access and Participation;
  • the drop in participation among part-time and mature students; and
  • making access and participation plans mandatory for all higher education providers.

Wes Streeting MP moved amendments to require access and participation plans to include targets and to give the Director for Fair Access and Participation power to set targets. Mr Johnson’s response to these types of amendments emphasised the need for institutions to retain autonomy over their admissions.

Teaching and Excellence Framework (TEF)

There were a number of lengthy debates over the TEF, in particular concerning an alleged lack of detail in the Bill and the linking of TEF results to increases in tuition fees. Gordon Marsden MP, for example, contended that the Government was attempting to avoid proper debate on the TEF.

The Minister reassured the Committee that Parliament would retain control over tuition fees and they would, at most, rise in line with inflation. He further said that the lack of detail in the Bill was necessary to allow flexibility and to allow the TEF to adapt over time.

Amendments were also moved on the TEF metrics and the impact of the TEF on the devolved administrations.

Research Infrastructure

The main areas of debate on research were:

  • how co-operation between UKRI and the OFS would be ensured;
  • the balance of funding between quality-related funding and funding allocated through the research councils;
  • the relationship between UKRI and its councils, in particular how the autonomy of the councils would be ensured;
  • the integration of Innovate UK; and
  • postgraduate students.

Several technical Government amendments and new clauses were agreed to these areas which would: enable collaboration between councils and facilitate joint working with the devolved regions.   

Other areas of debate

Amendments tabled to the Bill were also used as a means of debating areas of recent controversy in the higher education sector more generally, such as the removal of student maintenance grants and the freezing of the student loan repayment threshold.

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