LegislationAccording to news reports last week, the Government might not be planning to introduce an HE Bill after all. I hate to say I told you so . . . but I did predict back in May that there would not be an HE Bill. I stand by that for all the reasons I set out there.

Since then, things have moved on a lot. The Government has made clear that the Teaching Excellence Framework is definitely to be delivered and will be here to stay. The Green Paper sets out the Government’s broad ambitions; these turned out to be more significant than originally anticipated and so there was much excitement again about the prospect of an HE Bill.

I think this is unwise. We should not want the HE sector to subject to any more legislation or regulation than it is already. As a proud, card-carrying HE policy nerd, I would thoroughly enjoy the politics, debate and intricate analysis that would follow the publication of an HE Bill and the subsequent Parliamentary scrutiny. I’m sure that the ‘we’re all going to hell in a handcart’ polemicist-nerds would have a field day too! That would all be fun, but writing Back in May, I said 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.

I haven’t changed my mind. Look at the suffocating way the FE and Schools sectors are regulated. We should not try to bring the same upon ourselves.

Dennis Farrington, of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies wrote an excellent and very thorough piece on WonkHE detailing the issues that could be resolved through primary legislation. I would say two things in response though.

  • The first is that everything listed in that article are things that could be resolved or clarified by the passage of primary legislation, for example defining higher education and the types of higher education provider. But, just because a piece of legislation could do these things, it does not mean we should want it to. The definition of HE has been and will be debated for as long as universities exist, is a piece of legislation really going to help the effe,tive delivery and provision of HE?
  • The second  is that almost everything in the green paper, if not all, can be delivered without changes to primary legislation. Lets remember that the key objective here is the delivery of a Teaching Excellence Framework, that is what was contained in the Conservative Manifesto. Other proposals are all up for discussion and could be amended or adapted following consultation.

This second point is important. The rise in fees in 2010 was passed as a Statutory Instrument, linking that fee level to inflation could be passed in the same way. The fact that the Government are introducing some challenge to institutions who wish to charge up to the inflation-linked fee level does not require legislation, any more than the WP and access requirements associated with the £9,000 fee rise in 2010.

As for the other changes. I suspect (and hope) that the left-field and random insertion of questions about Students’ Unions will be dropped; changes to the degree awarding powers process can be introduced by the Privy Council under existing powers; and I suspect that the proposed shuffling of sector bodies can be achieved using existing legislation.

HEFCE is a body established by the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act; it has two key responsibilities, the administration of funds and the assessment of quality of education. OFFA is not a statutory body, it is the post of Director of Fair Access to Higher Education that is established in statute, in the 2004 Higher Education Act. QAA was not established by statute, it is sector owned, commissioned and part-funded by HEFCE. UCAS was not established by statute, it is entirely sector owned and funded.

Scrapping HEFCE and the Director of Fair Access to be replaced by something new would require legislation. So my hunch is that these responsibilities will be combined, perhaps by appointing a single individual as Director of Fair Access and CEO of HEFCE. A little rebranding and shift in emphasis to focus on students and regulation . . .

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