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House of Commons Report Stage and Third Reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill 2015-16
The Report Stage and Third Reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill 2015-16 took place on 21 November 2016. The debate covered many areas that were raised previously during the Committee Stage of the Bill.
Changes made to the Bill
The Government made 36 amendments to the Bill, many of which were in response to issues raised by the Public Bill Committee. No non-Government amendments were agreed.
Below is an overview of the substantive amendments made to the Bill at Report Stage – other amendments made were minor or technical in nature and are not discussed.
Monitoring the financial sustainability of higher education providers
New clause 1 places a statutory duty on the Office for Students (OFS) to monitor and report on the financial sustainability of all registered higher education providers in England which are in receipt of, or eligible for, OFS funding or tuition fee loans. The Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson, said that the amendment was made in response to “stakeholder evidence and to the Committee debates”. The amendment aims to ensure that the OFS effectively monitors the overall financial health of the sector and informs the Secretary of State, so that the Government can take appropriate actions.
Academic freedom and institutional autonomy
Amendments 1, 12 and 13 concerned academic freedom and institutional autonomy. These issues had been raised during the Committee Stage. The Minister said that “academic freedom and institutional autonomy are keystones of our higher education system”, and that the Bill introduced additional protections in that area. However, in response to concerns voiced by the Public Bill Committee, the Minister moved these amendments to strengthen the protections further. The amendments aimed to ensure that the Secretary of State could not issue guidance about the opening and closing of specific courses.
Student representation on the board of the OFS
Amendment 21 was made in response to the Bill Committee’s concerns about student representation on the board of the OFS. The Minister said that the amendment “clarifies beyond doubt that at least one member of the OFS board must have experience of representing or promoting the interests of individual students or students generally”.
Publication of student protection plans
Amendment 4 increases the protection for students by creating a requirement that student protection plans should be published.
Breakdown of higher education (HE) admissions data by ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic background
Amendments 2 and 3 clarifies that the OFS can ask HE providers to publish and share with the OFS the number of applications, offers, acceptances and completion rates for students, each broken down by ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic background.
UKRI and the devolved administration
Amendment 35 related to the board of UKRI and ensures that, when making appointments, the Secretary of State will have regard to the importance of the board having experience of the research and innovation systems in one or more of the devolved Administrations.
Although no non-Government amendments were agreed, Members pressed a several amendments to a vote. Some of these concerned areas of general debate in higher education and were not specific to the provisions in the Bill. Many of the issues raised by the amendments had been debated during the Committee Stage of the Bill.
New Clause 2 was moved by Wes Streeting (Labour). This amendment would allow the appointment of three independent advisers, who would look carefully at any proposals that, retroactively, make changes to student loan repayment conditions. This new clause was proposed in response to the freezing of the student loan repayment threshold. Mr Streeting said that the change to loan terms was retrospective and regressive. The Minister said in response:
the key terms and conditions are set out in legislation—it is the law that binds us—and are subject to the scrutiny and oversight of Parliament. FCA regulation is therefore unnecessary, as students are already protected. [HC Deb 21 November 2016 c658]
The new clause was negatived by 278 votes to 180.
New Clause 5 was moved by Gordon Marsden (Labour), it aimed to revoke the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 which abolished maintenance grants for students. The Minister said that revoking the regulations would reduce the support for students on the lowest income. The new clause was negatived by 278 votes to 181.
New Clause 14 was moved by Carol Monaghan (SNP), it aimed to ensure that an evaluation was undertaken of the impact of the absence of post study work visas on the UK economy. Mr Johnson said that the Bill was not an “appropriate vehicle” for commissioning research on this issue. The new clause was negatived by 280 votes to 211.
Amendment 47 was moved by Gordon Marsden (Labour), it concerned the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and aimed to ensure that TEF measures were subject to scrutiny by, and approval of, both Houses of Parliament. Concerns had been expressed by Members of the Bill Committee about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the TEF. The Minister responded that the amendment would hamper the development of the TEF. The amendment was negatived by 277 votes to 216.
Amendment 40 concerned the process by which the OFS would grant foundation degree awarding powers. The amendment aimed to ensure that in granting degree awarding powers the OFS would have to ensure that providers are maintaining standards and operating in the interests of students and the public. Speaking to the amendment, Gordon Marsden said that he was concerned about “new providers and those that could go for opportunist, fast-buck courses”. The Minister said that providers would have to meet high standards to make such awards and that the amendments were unnecessary. The amendment was negatived by 281 votes to 212.
Amendment 56 was moved by Carol Monaghan (SNP), it aimed to ensure people with relevant experience of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland higher education sectors would be represented on the UKRI board. In responding the Minister said that the issue of UK wide research was a reserved matter, he also said that it was the Secretary of State’s duty to work for the interests of the whole of the UK. The amendment was negatived by 275 votes to 217.
In the Third Reading debate the Minister stressed that the Government had listened to all the points made during debates on the Bill and, in response, had made changes in areas such as institutional autonomy, student representation and the role of the devolved administrations in research. The Opposition responded that the government had done “too little too late” and that the Bill “failed in its overarching aims for social mobility”. Gordon Marsden said that the Opposition could not support the Bill. Carol Monaghan, speaking for the SNP, said that they “had concerns about many aspects” of the Bill and could not support it.
The Bill passed its Third Reading by 279 votes to 214.
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