How to turn the hot air of parliamentary debate into real change

Originally published on wonkhe

So the second reading of the HE Bill is complete – and thank God for the so-called ‘Labour right’, without whom scrutiny on the Bill would have consisted of Shadow Minister Angela Rayner tumbling her way through a list of old lefty tropes better suited to the student demo going on outside the House than the debate in the chamber.

With the opposition in mild disarray, it was left to a collection of MPs linked back to the sector in one way or another to provide analysis and comment, and many of the contributions touched on ideas and issues raised by students that a once-in-a-generation HE Bill presents the opportunity to solve.

As such I’ve tried to build on the points raised with ideas for amendments and improvements to the legislation that MPs and their colleagues in the Lords could press for before the Higher Education and Research Bill hits the statute books.

Given that the proposals are in part designed to address regulatory gaps in the wake of fee increases, curiously missing from the government’s plans are any individual protections for students: a situation highlighted by Stella Creasy who used her speech to call for a student ‘Bill of Rights’. At a national level that might be too generalist to be useful, but the Bill could easily be amended to cause OfS to both require universities to adopt student charters of rights and responsibilities, and to set out the areas such a charter ought to cover (like contact hours and coursework turnaround times).

Ex-NUS President Wes Streeting made a remark that sums up many students’ feelings on the proposed Office for Students: “the name is on the door, but there is no seat at the table”. He went on to argue for student representation on the OfS board, other sector bodies and on the governing body of all institutions. The first few of those are easy fixes that Johnson could just announce, and the governing body measure could be easily built into the Bill’s section on the ‘public interest governance condition’ that will apply to HEIs. Doing so would provide reassurance in the traditional sector and important safeguards in the emerging sector where student representation is not so familiar.

Streeting also raised the prospect of the Education Act 1994 being caused to apply to new providers. In other words, it would mean that student representation or students’ unions would be required in the emerging sector. It would be remarkable to hear a real argument against such a move from a minister given it was Tory legislation in the first place. Perhaps more usefully, the OfS could be charged with ensuring that students have access to independent advocacy in the event of a complaint or appeal. It’s a given in the traditional sector, but an often-forgotten aspect of students’ unions that is arguably more important to learners in new providers than clubs, societies or student sabbatical officers.

Streeting also raised concerns with the transparency duty in the Bill, arguing that “the transparency revolution should extend to outcomes and graduate success”. This is an easy fix – the government could simply extend the list of transparency conditions listed on the face of the Bill to include retention, success and graduate destinations, and it should probably require that that data be published at subject-cluster level to stop strong averages hiding poor pockets. That would ensure a proper link between the Bill’s requirement to publish data on the full student lifecycle and the duty to publish a plan to do something about it.

Ex-Labour universities spokesperson Liam Byrne hit a particularly raw nerve with graduates who’ve been realising just how much freedom the government has to change the terms and conditions of their loans after signing on the line. I remember a naïve fees salesman Martin “Money Saving Expert” Lewis telling me students didn’t need that protection in law because “the government would never have the nerve to change the terms after the fact”. He was wrong, and the government should work to protect current and future borrowers now in the Bill.

Perhaps the most disappointing facet of the day was the sheer lack of MPs in the chamber. We might have expected someone to spot that the TEF will intensify the process by which HEIs focus on subjects that are cheap and easy to teach – an effect seen in health and in FE where the metrics start to influence the scope of provision instead of improving it.

There’s another easy fix for this: give the OfS the duty to kill the cold spots, taking steps to ensure access to an appropriate range of subjects in a given geographical area. That would be easy, doesn’t threaten autonomy, would balance against the competition duty and would ensure that students who can’t or won’t “go far away” to uni can still do the subject that’s best for them.

So many of these things probably wouldn’t be proposed by Jo Johnson. But after a bit of pressure, might also not be things he’d fight to resist. But that would require the opposition to be doing its job: negotiating, proposing, scrutinising and working often bilaterally as real parliamentarians do.

Above all else, this afternoon’s sparsely-attended and poorly-led display from Labour highlighted vividly what the legislative process is missing when the official opposition is in disarray. Let’s hope the handful of enthusiasts that turned up to support Gordon Marsden today can pull something out of the bag in coming weeks.

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