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University of Oxford. sidharth bhatia/Unsplash

Six things you need to know about the Higher Education Bill

The Higher Education and Research Bill is due to be read for the third time in the House of Lords, where peers will vote on their amended version.

Although this is the final reading of the bill in the Lords, its parliamentary journey may not be over. This is because of the likely prospect of much back and forth between the Lords and Commons – known as parliamentary “ping-pong”.

While that plays out, here’s an update on what’s happened so far.

What is the bill?

The Higher Education and Research Bill aims to improve competition and choice in higher education.

It follows on from the white paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, and sets out the government’s plans to reform the organisation and regulation of the sector.

These changes include making it easier for new providers to offer degrees alongside existing universities.

What is the Teaching Excellence Framework?

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is a new assessment designed to “measure” and “improve” the student experience and teaching quality in higher education. The TEF results will be used to award gold, silver or bronze ratings to universities. These are intended to help students select where to study.

But the government wants the TEF results to do more than this. For example, the home secretary said the number of visas for international students would be restricted. And for the government, TEF ratings provide an easy and transparent way to decide which universities get to award these places. Universities that do well in the TEF can recruit international students.

Changing the face of higher education. Davide Cantelli/Unsplash

In this way, the TEF is about rewarding organisations on their performance. And this can also be seen in the link between TEF results and fee increases. If universities can demonstrate they are performing satisfactorily they will be rewarded with the power to raise fees – but only by inflation.

This “reward” of raising fees acts as an incentive, encouraging universities to prioritise and deliver on the government’s objectives, as embodied in the TEF. It also creates competition, as universities compete for the rewards on offer.

In theory, competition drives service improvement and efficiency, so the TEF – however flawed it may be – can be seen as a way to address performance issues in higher education. And this is done by providing a “performance measure” with consequences attached.

Why is it so controversial?

For the Conservatives, this is a long awaited opportunity to more extensively apply the principles of Thatcherism to higher education.

In 1982 the Conservative government commissioned a report to guide higher education policy thinking. This report recommended a series of market based strategies to challenge the “inertia” of academia.

But it was deemed so controversial it was kept secret, and only came to light when released following a 30-year confidentiality classification. Yet some 35 years later, the ideas in the report don’t seem so radical – with the current government pushing for the opportunity to implement change along these lines.

What are the changes?

Since January, the House of Lords has debated the most controversial aspects of the bill, where the TEF received particular criticism.

The details of the TEF were deliberately kept out of the bill – enabling the TEF to evolve overtime and not be set in stone by legislation. However, where the TEF relates to other parts of policy was subject to scrutiny.

Specifically, the Lords voted for an amendment prohibiting TEF results from informing fee increases or the number of students a university could recruit.

Reforming the sector. Tm Gouw/Unsplash

Peers also voted to enshrine in law a requirement for the TEF to be “independently evaluated” – to ensure the validity of the data and metrics. And that any future design changes to the TEF would require full parliamentary approval – removing the government’s discretion to revise it.

These proposed changes were welcomed by those who are oppose to the idea of the TEF being linked to fee rises – such as the National Union of Students.

Peers also voted for amendments which require new providers of higher education to have four years of experience before receiving degree-awarding powers.

What’s happened so far?

The government doesn’t appreciate these attempts to scale back the scope of their reforms. In March the universities minister, Jo Johnson, wrote to peers reaffirming his commitment to the TEF as the government proposes it – indicating that they will try and resist the changes proposed in the Lords.

However, the government has shown it will compromise. In February it made modest modifications to the bill. These amendments were designed to win over peers – but they are largely technical and don’t undermine the big ideas driving policy.

What happens next?

The House of Lords’ amendments are extensive, looking less like minor revisions and more like the recasting of higher education policy. And the government is more likely to reject significant amendments that frustrate their ambitions.

After the third reading in the Lords, the amended bill will go to the Commons for consideration by MPs. Here, the government will be in a stronger position, as, unlike in the Lords, the Conservatives have a majority.

The political and policy factors behind the government’s reform agenda explain why they will not embrace the Lords’ amendments. But the Lords cannot be ignored as both houses must agree the final text of the bill. This means there will be much more political manoeuvring in the coming weeks.

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