Higher Education And Research Bill Teaches Students An Expensive Lesson

Given that the government’s own representative, Jo Johnson, the younger brother of Boris and the Minister of State for Universities and Science, described it as ‘the most significant legislative reform of the sector for twenty-five years’, you would be forgiven for presuming that the Higher Education and Research Bill just passed by parliament at least possessed some semblance of academic rigour, a few high-minded goals and aspirations, and was forward-thinking and universalist in its sense of scope.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again however – you are stupid and have learnt nothing, but as long as you’ve paid take your degree and graduate cap. Instead all the bill does is open up the field of higher education to the nebulous ideas and greedy motives of a free-market approach.

Brexit is set to pose all sorts of problems for Britain’s universities. They stand to lose £1 billion a year in EU funding, amounting to 15% of their income which the government has so far declined to guarantee. The loss of EU students, who currently contribute £3.7 billion to the economy, and academics, who continue to worry over their long-term employment prospects, has led to fears of a ‘brain drain’. And disruption to programmes like Erasmus and Horizon 2020 threatens the quality of research British institutions are capable of producing, and the ability of British students to gain vital experiences abroad.

Of course with Brexit negotiations still to properly commence, it was not within the remit of the Higher Education and Research Bill to solve such problems or settle any of the myriad related concerns. But it shows a government with a curious grasp of higher education, and boasting a warped set of priorities, that they pushed the bill through despite a flurry of opposition simply to have it passed before Theresa May’s snap election forces parliament to dissolve.

The bill faced the prospect of numerous amendments in the House of Lords, but responding to the various issues raised by Labour MPs and cross-party peers, the government accepted several key alterations as they sought to reach a hasty compromise. They rejected out of hand a Lords amendment calling for students to be removed from net migration targets, even threatening to kill the bill if the matter was pressed too much, but in other areas they relented a little.

The government had wanted to link differentiated tuition fees with a new teaching excellence framework, effectively allowing universities to increase their fees as long as certain teaching criteria could be met. Now this link will not be implemented until 2020-21, with critics seeing the metrics-based teaching excellence framework as insubstantial, barely more than a ruse to allow universities to raise their fees unfettered.

But with the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill, universities will still be allowed to raise their fees in line with inflation, immediately and regardless of any link to teaching quality. Already this year fees will increase to £9,250, and student loans are meanwhile facing a sharp rise in interest, with their rates – which are tied to the retail price inflation figure – set to jump from 4.6% to 6.1% from the autumn.

So while many continue to benefit from record low interest rates, students – still tied to an inflation index which fails to meet international standards – will take an exorbitant hit. Not to worry though, because the government’s bill is set to offer precisely what so many students are always crying out for: not reduced fees, smaller classes, improved facilities, or a broader and bolder and brighter university experience, but competition in the marketplace, every capitalist’s favourite lot.

The Higher Education and Research Bill will create a new Office for Students, the somewhat misleading name for an office whose focus will be on regulating the market. The government’s plans would have allowed the Office for Students to grant new institutions the right to award degrees from the very outset of their operation, without first having to undergo four years of validation by a university. Pressed by peers, an amendment means that the OfS must now ‘request advice’ from a ‘relevant body’ before granting degree-awarding powers, an alteration that hardly seems stringent.

Johnson informed the House of Commons prior to the passage of the bill that the ‘relevant body’ indicated something akin to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, and that ‘the system we are putting in place will build on the QAA’s valuable work’.

But while Baroness Wolf of Dulwich – a cross-bench peer who tabled an amendment to the government’s original plans – praised the ‘additional safeguard’ implied by a new standards body, and said she was ‘happy to see’ the bill move towards the statute book, she also warned that it is ‘only too easy’ to grant access to public funds to for-profit providers whose ‘existence is hard to justify’ and can wind up doing ‘enormous harm’. She added:

‘It is not just this country – the United States has given us the largest and most catastrophic bankruptcies, leaving students stranded – but it is, after all, not very long ago that the Home Office moved to investigate and shut down higher education institutions in this country that were, not to put too fine a point on it, fraudulent.’

More vague still, the government made changes in response to another Lords amendment about the use of the title ‘university’ by new providers. There were calls for a definition of the functions of a university to be made part of legislation, but instead higher education providers will be allowed to claim the title ‘university’ according to guidance made after consultation by the secretary of state.

Johnson pledged a refreshed international engagement strategy to promote British universities overseas, as Dame Julia Goodfellow, the president of Universities UK, commended the improvements made by the final bill while vowing ‘to secure a more progressive immigration regime for staff and students’. With Brexit sure to impact on the student intake from inside the EU, and stricter visa regulations, fee increases, and stern limitations placed on the right to work post-study combining to result in a drop in the international enrollment for the first time in decades, a more progressive and outward-looking approach is urgently needed.

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