Throughout the last Parliament it seemed as though many in the HE sector were waiting with baited breath for the coalition government to publish an HE Bill. I always thought this was unlikely, and I still think it is now that a majority Conservative Government has been elected. There are a number of reasons for this.
1) The barnacle to beat all barnacles!
One of Lynton Crosby’s most notorious actions on taking over the Consevative Party’s campaigning operations in the UK was to clear the ‘barnacles off the boat’. By this, he meant removing all the clusters of policy and legislation that was getting the Government stuck in the mud but was not making a big contribution to the big agenda and messages that the Conservatives wanted to communicate, i.e. getting the economy on track. Who now can remember what all the fuss was about with forest sell-offs?!
I think this is one of the very best lessons anybody has taught a party of government, focus on your big ticket items because there’s only so much you can do in a few years. I don’t see why this Government would want to waste any political capital on legislating HE which never, ever gets positive coverage!
2) It is not required to deliver manifesto pledges
Read the Conservative’s manifesto. There is no mention of anything that would require legislation. The expansion of the sector to include private providers has probably not moved ahead as quickly as David Willetts would have expected in 2010, but it is progressing slowly. There have been numerous calls for an HE Bill to tidy up some of the regulatory anomalies that are left over now that the Governement barely funds teaching, most notably from the HE Commission and backed up recently in article by Professor Roger King.
The Conservatives have pledged to do not very much (directly) with HE and this is exactly what I expect to happen! There was some vague comment about a framework to recognise excellence in teaching. That won’t require legislation. The, regrettable, clampdown on student visas might need legislation but it will be steered through by the Home Office and not as part of an HE Bill.
3) HE has stayed with BIS
BIS, and its predecessor departments, has not been a legislative powerhouse. It is an influencing department, working with the sectors it ‘represents’ to bring about change. Sajid Javid as Secretary of State has given a raft of interviews since the election and every single one has focussed on his determination to cut red tape and reduce burden on business. Why, in that case, would the department trigger a piece of legislation that is all about creating and regulating a sector more closely?
4) It is not required!
The argument that is made by some in the sector, and by the HE Commission report, is that the landscape for HE has changed so much in the past 10-15 years, that a new legal settlement is required. I am doubtful. What has changed?
i) Fees and funding – yes students now pay almost all of the cost of their education, but that hasn’t changed anything that needs new legislation. The money now follows the student rather than coming in a block grant; there would need to be a vote in Parliament if the fee cap were to be lifted or removed, but that could be taken as a single issue. I suspect the only changes that will be made are to the thresholds for repayment of loans and to link the £9k to inflation; neither require a full piece of legislation and could be mopped up in one of George Osborne’s budget Bills.
ii) Legitimacy of Funding Councils? – now that HEFCE barely funds teaching, its authority to regulate the sector is gone, so the argument goes! The relevant law states that each funding council shall “secure that provision is made for assessing the quality of education provided in institutions for whose activities they provide, or are considering providing, financial support”. So HEFCE isn’t quite dead yet and we can see that in the way it has asserted its role in reviewing the work of QAA.
iii) Private Providers – yes they have come to the fore and a few private/for profit organisations have gained degree awarding powers. They are not funded by HEFCE but they are bound into the system because they need to be reviewed by QAA in order to gain Tier 4 sponsor status and to access student loans. A case is made that legislation is required to set the bar high for private providers to enter the market. It is already high and could be made higher without legislation! Degree Awarding Powers are actually very (and rightly) difficult to achieve. These are granted by the Privy Council, on the advice of QAA. The Privy Council could toughen its expectations and the level of scrutiny required without legislation.
5) We shouldn’t want this!
There is only one direction in which regulation of UK Higher Education could go. That is the same direction as pretty much every other HE sector in the world, where Governments and state departments regulate and interfere far more than we have grown used to in the UK. That would be extremely unwelcome. Any cosy ideas we might have that new regulations would ‘go easy’ on established providers and focus on new/private/for profit providers is nonsense and we should not delude ourselves.
So the current legislative and regulatory landscape is messy and unkempt, but it just about covers all bases and keeps Secretaries of State at bay. We should celebrate that.