All 9 Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe contributions to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017

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Higher Education and Research Bill Debate

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Higher Education and Research Bill

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2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 6th December 2016

(7 years, 5 months ago)

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Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of council of two universities, Nottingham Trent and UCL. The Bill contains changes of great significance for the higher education sector. Many of them cut straight to the heart of what makes the UK’s higher education system such a success. I support a lot of what the Government are seeking to do: to regulate based on risk; to ensure quality is sustained across all providers; to broaden access; to enhance choice; and to strengthen strategic thinking in research. What I am much less sure of is that the Government have, in every case, chosen the right approach to achieve these aims. The number of speakers in this debate clearly shows that there is a lot of concern about the issues in the Bill. I hope that the Government will listen intently and respond positively.

The Minister in another place, Jo Johnson, has been very keen to hear views, and I know he has spoken to several of us in this House. He has stood with us today throughout this debate and I hope that that augurs well. Some changes, indeed, have already been made, as was shown in the recent letter circulated by the DfE. I was particularly pleased to see the reference to the Office for Students not only as a regulator but also as having a responsibility to bring matters of concern to the Government’s attention. However, I do not think it yet conveys the buffer-body, holistic concept that I thought the Minister was trying to achieve. I hope that the Minister in this House will signal in his response that the Government will look at that again.

I start, as so many other noble Lords do, from the premise that we have one of the finest higher education systems in the world. We have an enviable reputation here and abroad, as witnessed by our research collaboration record and the number of international staff and students we attract to our institutions. That said, I am not complacent. I have had a long involvement with the HE sector and know its warts as well as its glories. There are many ways it can do even better, and I hope the Bill, when it emerges from scrutiny, will ensure the sector does so in ways that do not jeopardise its undoubted quality, reputation and success.

The landscape has certainly changed since the last major piece of legislation, the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, in which I was also involved. Students now make a significant contribution to the costs of their education, and it is more important than ever that they can be confident they are making a safe and well-informed choice about where to study. As part of that, I hope the Bill will ensure that the new Director for Fair Access will retain the power to approve or refuse an access and participation plan. It is useful that the Bill will pave the way for a single gateway for degree-awarding powers and the “university” title, with all providers on an approved and maintained list.

I turn to my concerns about the Bill. There is time to signal only one or two. I have already mentioned the Office for Students. We need to have the strongest possible reassurance that the powers of the OfS, and, indeed, the Secretary of State, are compatible with the principle of institutional autonomy. That is the overriding basis for the success of our system and one that many international bodies envy. They see it as our USP: autonomy is critical to the flexibility, innovation, and quality they cannot match.

The idea of the Secretary of State or the OfS deciding, for example, what courses should be taught in a university undermines the very flexibility and responsiveness to the market that I thought the Government favoured. I cannot be the only one who sees a real conflict of interest in allowing the OfS to operate as a validator in a market that it is also regulating. Governments may get frustrated about universities not conforming on this or that, but they interfere with institutional autonomy at their peril. It is the spark for the innovation that drives the sector.

A further risk I see in the Bill relates to private providers. I am worried about the ease with which they might take on the “university” title and degree-awarding powers, as well as the prospect of probationary degree-awarding powers and the reputational risk these pose. Students need to be protected by maintaining a high bar when it comes to granting titles and degree-awarding powers. It needs to be based on rigorous criteria and a track record of delivering high quality. The real innovation I have seen, for example, in assessed work placements at Nottingham Trent makes me think these so-called challenger institutions should themselves be challenged on what value they add.

My last point is about teaching and research. The Bill seems to assume quality and standards are the same thing. It is essential to ensure that academic standards continue to be owned by the sector. I am very much in favour of students having as much information as possible, and I believe the teaching excellence framework could become a real encouragement to good practice, but those developing it must ensure it does not reduce to a few metrics the varied and complex outcomes and benefits of higher education. Will the Minister reassure us that it is not the Government’s intention to undermine institutional autonomy in relation to academic standards?

Others have raised the issue of research. I conclude with a plea that the strongest possible protection be provided to secure the dual support system of funding, which has so clearly enabled university innovation in research to thrive.

Higher Education and Research Bill Debate

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Higher Education and Research Bill

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Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Monday 9th January 2017

(7 years, 4 months ago)

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Lord Broers Portrait Lord Broers (CB)
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My Lords, I speak as a past vice-chancellor of Cambridge, but more importantly, I have associations with universities all around the world and other universities here in the UK. I support the proposed new clause but also support the need to give it further consideration. I will make just one point: it does not mention governance, and whether universities not only are autonomous but have the right to determine how they govern themselves. This has been a matter of some consideration over the years in various universities, and we debated it intensely in Cambridge at one time. Universities should be allowed to determine their own form of governance, and some words need to be included in a clause like this to say that. It would be a good idea not to go ahead immediately with the proposed new clause but to discuss it much further, particularly taking into account the independence of universities in determining how they govern themselves.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Stevenson for tabling this important amendment, and I join others in supporting it. I declare the interests that I declared in my contribution at Second Reading.

This is the first major Bill on higher education for a generation, and it will have far-reaching consequences. One of its aims, as we have heard, is to extend university title considerably. It is a matter of great concern to me that this legislation has so far made no attempt to define what a university is, its role in society more widely or, particularly, what we expect these new universities to do.

There has been so much change in the sector that I can see there is a need for regulatory reform, and I am in favour of it. I am in favour of raising the profile of teaching and of providing incentives for high-quality delivery. I am certainly not against change or challenge—universities have always changed in response to perceived social and economic needs—and new entrants to our higher education sector throughout its long history have ensured its diversity and the spread of excellence that we are so rightly proud of today.

We will have an opportunity to discuss university autonomy specifically and in detail in the next group but the threats to it contained in the Bill, and its proposals regarding university title, seem to undermine what we understand as the function and value of a university. They will endanger both the quality of our universities and the reputation of UK higher education overseas. So although I acknowledge the difficulties in providing a definition, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and others have suggested, I think we have to go down the path of having this clause at the front of the Bill. I believe it is an essential step in mitigating the risks that I perceive.

As others have said, the Minister could go some way to alleviating my anxieties by responding to some questions. Does he agree that offering an extensive range of high-quality academic subjects, delivered by excellent teaching and supported by scholarship and research, is what has given our universities world-leading status? Does he recognise that universities’ contribution to society, through the pursuit, dissemination and application of knowledge and expertise locally, nationally and internationally, is made possible by their status as autonomous institutions, free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society? Does he agree that UK universities must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech and ensure that they promote freedom of thought and expression? Will he tell us what his Government mean by a university and, if he cannot, will he allow the amendment, or something like it, to stand?

Attempts to articulate the meaning of a university have a distinguished history, from Humboldt and Newman in the 19th century through to the 1963 Robbins report and the Dearing inquiry in 1997. The proposed new clause echoes some of what Robbins said. He defined four objectives essential to any “properly balanced” higher education system. They included “instruction in skills”, balanced by the objective that universities must also promote the,

“general powers of the mind”,

to produce “cultivated men and women”. He said that teaching should not be separated from the advancement of learning and the search for truth, since,

“the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes of the nature of discovery”.

Robbins’ final objective was,

“the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship”.

Some of the wording may now sound arcane, but the principles are still profoundly right. Robbins recognised the importance of universities’ autonomy and the principle of academic freedom. He included in that the right of academics to be active citizens and to pronounce on political questions, making universities the home of public intellectuals and a creative and independent cultural force.

The Bologna declaration, signed by the heads of most European universities in 1988, further enshrined principles that the university is an autonomous institution with the distinctive mission of embodying and transmitting the culture of its society; that teaching and research must be inseparable; and that freedom in research and training is the fundamental principle of university life. For Dearing, the central vision was the need for the UK to develop as a learning society in which higher education would make a distinctive contribution through teaching at its highest level, through the pursuit of scholarship and research and, increasingly, through its contribution to lifelong learning.

Clearly, we attach a great deal to “the university”. Having the title “university” carries significant reputational implications because of all that is meant by the word. As UUK and others have warned, it is essential that new providers can demonstrate that they can provide high-quality education. Any new higher education provider awarding their own degrees or calling themselves a university must meet the same high requirements as existing universities. The bar to entry must be high in order to protect students and the global reputation of the sector. We need robust criteria for new entrants that reflect the role of universities in teaching, research and scholarship, as well as wider civic and social roles. I believe the new clause will help to achieve that.

Higher Education and Research Bill Debate

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Lord Giddens Portrait Lord Giddens
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My Lords, I am afraid that my comments on fair access reflect my general worries about the Bill, which in some respects seems like a dinosaur that has lumbered into the room. It seems to have no relationship structured into it in relation to the tremendous changes that we face in this disruptive period, which are bound to invade education and will crucially affect social mobility.

Fair participation is about social mobility. If the Committee will forgive me being a bit didactic, almost all mobility in the 20th century was what sociologists call absolute mobility. It was made possible by the decline of manual work and the creation of white-collar and professional jobs. As my noble friend Lord Winston mentioned, we have to take really seriously the possibility that this process will actually go into reverse for the next generation, and potentially in a relatively short time, as supercomputers, robotics and other aspects of the transformation of labour markets invade professions. What happened to manual work in a previous generation is almost certain to happen to large segments of professional work over the next 15 to 20 years.

This means that the so-called graduate premium, on the basis of which younger people are encouraged to amass huge levels of debt, reflects the market conditions of two or three decades ago. Somebody must think about the crunches ahead in the relationship between education, social mobility and massive technological innovation. Will that be one of those two offices, and how will it set about it? Why is there not more emphasis on planning in relation to the trends and transformations that we as an economy and a society face?

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, I hope that we are not going to lose the main point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. In light of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, I refer back to what the Minister, Jo Johnson, said to the Public Bill Committee about delegation by the OfS to the Director for Fair Access and Participation. He said:

“We envisage that in practice that will mean that the other OfS members will agree a broad remit with the future director for fair access and participation and that the DFAP will report back to them on those activities. As such, the DFAP would have responsibility for those important access and participation activities, including—critically—agreeing the access and participation plan on a day-to-day basis with higher education institutions”.—[Official Report, Commons, Higher Education and Research Bill Committee, 8/9/16; col. 136.]

That seems to me to deal effectively with both those points, although I would welcome the Minister confirming that.

But in looking at that, I do not want us to lose sight of the practicalities of the negotiating position on the ground. There have been two very distinguished directors of OFFA—Sir Martin Harris and the current, excellent director, Les Ebdon—and the current director has made it very clear that having the independence to engage in negotiations free from conflicts of interest has been crucial in securing high levels of commitment by institutions to date and a key factor in OFFA’s success. We need to capture that particular element of the role, and I hope that when the Minister replies he can reassure us that the amendments he has down will accede to and confirm that point, so that this will be very clear to the rest of the Committee.

Baroness Cohen of Pimlico Portrait Baroness Cohen of Pimlico
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My Lords, I have a couple of perhaps slightly random points to make. Access and participation go together. If you do not enable participation either by disabled students—although access for physically disabled students is much easier if you have modern buildings—or by students who do not come in at your normal expected entry level, you have not widened access, because they will struggle and may well fail. You have to count participation as part of access. One talks about disadvantaged students in one breath, whether one is speaking of physical disadvantage or the kind of disadvantage that comes from being badly educated. Physical disadvantage is really not that difficult to cope with provided you have modern buildings—although it is horrendously difficult if you do not. It is also made a great deal easier of course by modern technology.

However, there is also the kind of disadvantage which means you are coming in with much worse academic experience and less academic practice than your colleagues—for example, people who turn up at Cambridge without the kind of essay-writing practice which the best schools provide are at a serious disadvantage and can struggle for the whole of the first year. Unless you support people, for example by getting them to come up early, as we are beginning to think about at Cambridge—any gradation from that to a foundation year—you have not widened access. It does not seem to me that this can be mixed up, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, suggests, or subsumed in general provision. It is specific.

Higher Education and Research Bill Debate

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Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard - continued): House of Lords
Wednesday 11th January 2017

(7 years, 4 months ago)

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Baroness Cohen of Pimlico Portrait Baroness Cohen of Pimlico (Lab)
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My Lords, I support the amendments. I would like to see something more definitive in this package of clauses. One of the most important developments in higher education is the growth of the degree-level apprenticeship. It has not had the fair wind that it deserves, but it is immensely important, because people come out of it without debt and, usually, with a good job, but there is a distinct feeling that it is looked down on as being in some way trade training rather than degree level. I have 2,000 such students in my university and we expect to expand, not as a matter of principle but in response to huge demand. There is very little in the Bill about degree-level apprenticeships, and perhaps there is not meant to be, but since it is such an enormously important development, I would like something in the Bill to say that we will encourage it.

That goes along with geographical diversity. We have eight establishments all over England—again driven, I fear, not by social purpose or a plan but by the market. We discovered that we had students coming to London who did not mean to be there. They were making great sacrifices to be in London and a lot of them seemed to come from York or Leeds. We thought that the local profession would have welcomed them and given them a hand to get started. So I fear that demand did that but, as many noble Lords have said, you cannot expect everybody to travel to London or the great southern centres to go to university. It is enormously helpful to a locality to have a decent university. Much of the demand for degree-level apprenticeships will not be in London; it will be outside London and geographically spread. I am looking for a way to say this in the Bill.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, several of the amendments seem linked to some of the issues that we were discussing on Monday. That is, there is a sense of unease in the sector that the system is not being looked at in a holistic way. That came through in an awful lot of the evidence that went, first, to the Commons Select Committees, but also came to us in this House, in the form of the briefing we received. I very much focus on the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on promoting choice and serving the public interest. It is entirely right to expect universities to serve the public interest, and it is a role for the Office for Students to try to ensure that they do that as a sector, particularly with regard to the need to maintain confidence in the UK’s higher education sector. There is a real anxiety that some of the major changes in the Bill will rather undermine the sector rather than maintain confidence in it.

I have one anxiety, which we can come back to later, about the role of OFFA. When I asked the civil servants whether there were any changes, and what the difference was between the new Office for Students and HEFCE, they did not perceive that there were any real, or major, differences. But there is one difference on which we should focus, and I hope the Minister will consider this—that is, the role of HEFCE as it is now, which I hope the Office for Students will be able to take on board, of reflecting the needs and interests of the sector to government, not necessarily formally but certainly to ensure that there is an unasked-for dialogue. I hope that the Office for Students, in knowing the sector as it will, will be able to transfer that to government. It all goes to the sense of maintaining confidence in the sector and the public that they are getting the value for money that their taxes, having been spent on higher education, really deserve.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern Portrait Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Con)
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The question has been raised with me as to whether the provisions of Clause 2, in preventing an intervention by the Secretary of State, may have the effect of preventing the Secretary of State coming in to try to support vulnerable subjects. We know that some subjects are very important—for example, physics—yet they are quite expensive to teach. So in the interests of economy, institutions might be inclined to abandon courses in these subjects. The restrictions on the Secretary of State are not, I think, intended to exclude that kind of provision, but I should like confirmation of it.

The other thing that I want to mention relates to Amendment 56, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Wolf and Lady Brown, about,

“the overall strength and quality of higher education provision”.

I am wondering what the “strength” aspect of higher education is. I would be glad of some clarification.

Higher Education and Research Bill Debate

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Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Monday 16th January 2017

(7 years, 4 months ago)

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Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts
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My Lords, briefly, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, on her lucid explanation of the thinking behind her amendments. She makes an absolutely correct point: quality and standards are distinct. As they were always put together in some of the original drafting, the understanding of their different functions in the system was being lost. She is right to remind the House of that. I do not know about the exact way in which her proposals have been drafted but the spirit in which she is trying to make that distinction much clearer must be right. We already have, through the QAA, a direct role in the regulation and inspection of quality, and that is right.

However, to just comment on what the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said, there also is and has been a legitimate role in standards. Of course universities and higher education institutions have to be responsible for the specific decisions about standards, but threshold standards have been part of the QAA’s remit. At the moment, for example, in response to I think widespread concern about the effectiveness of the external examiner system—a concern raised by the Minister for Universities and Science, who it is good to see with us again today—HEFCE is investigating how that system operates. It is absolutely not, and should not be, intruding on the autonomy of individual institutions, but it is undoubtedly, in a broad sense, investigating and considering standards.

Provided that we have the capacity for that type of engagement in standards to occur—as we heard from what the Minister said in the other House, the threshold standards is a legitimate function as well—I hope it will be possible to find a way forward which embraces the spirit of what the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, is doing but at the same time recognises that any regulator has some legitimate role in standards, not just in quality.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, I support the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, in urging the Government to think again about the way in which they reflect their intentions for academic standards in the Bill. This picks up the point that the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, made, which I will come back to. In his recent letter of 11 January, the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, helpfully clarifies several points, but again seems to muddle up “quality” and “standards”—and is not clear to which “standards” he is referring.

There are many other issues in the Bill that have attracted more attention. This is, however, possibly the single most significant issue. Those with long memories know that this is a subtle but significant red line in the relationship between universities and government. The distinction between quality and standards is often misunderstood or missed entirely, but it is one of the defining features of a system in which universities have the freedom to determine the content of the courses they offer, to differ from each other, to innovate and to offer variety to students. The current system requires universities to meet commonly agreed threshold standards, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said, but avoids the straitjacket that is an inevitable consequence of defining standards across the board.

It is worth setting out why this matters. The disagreement with the Government reflected in this large number of amendments is not just a rather precious academic conceit; it is a fundamental underpinning of academic autonomy. Academic standards are the levels of attainment associated with specific awards and the grades required within those awards: in other words, how well Judy Doe has done against the requirements of her psychology course at, let us say, Reading, and whether she merits an Upper Second. It has to be that specific because different universities teach different curricula that reflect the specialisms of their particular institution.

These judgments are made by groups of academics who are subject experts and who are best placed to judge a student against academic criteria. The decisions against those standards are and have always been the prerogative of universities themselves, acting autonomously, freely and independently of any government or quasi-government interference. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said in last Monday’s debate, it is unfortunate that she was given such a disingenuous, rather flip answer to her question about degree classification by some academics involved in these judgments when they said that they trusted their gut feeling. In fact, their judgments are made within a clear framework of sector-owned national principles and are backed up by the external examiner system, although it has its weaknesses—as indeed the noble Baroness subsequently discovered.

That setting of academic standards I have just described is separate from the threshold standard or the minimum requirements that every degree course must meet in order to reassure students that they are studying at degree level. These requirements include the robustness of the processes that underpin them, and the design and delivery of courses. This process is driven by the Quality Assurance Agency through the sector-wide quality code. Here the Government have a role, in partnership with the sector’s designated body, in ensuring that a degree is worthy of the name.

It would be helpful if the Minister could put beyond doubt that when the Bill talks about “standards” it is referring to threshold standards and not to academic standards as they are normally defined and as I have described. In the other place the Minister did just that, very clearly—as the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, indicated. Given that the Minister is in what is now his very familiar place, the Bar of our House, I do not want to quote him again. Since this clarity has not yet been reflected in the wording of the Bill, I hope that the Minster here will undertake to bring back amendments to achieve this. Amendments 136 and 167 offer ways of doing this, as do others.

UK higher education has an international reputation for excellence, due in no small part to the attention given to the management of both standards and quality. Governing bodies of institutions take both very seriously. They are, of course, interlinked: a high-quality learning environment is necessary for students to attain the levels of knowledge, understanding and skills required to obtain their awards, as the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education points out in its advice to governors on these matters.

“Quality” is a broad term, applied to the overall academic provision for learning, including teaching and assessment, student learning opportunities, the nature of academic programmes, the design of the curriculum and student engagement. It is worth remembering that each institution has its own agreed criteria for assessing the quality of learning and teaching. By international standards, as the former chief executive of the quality assurance body has said, mechanisms of internal control are really quite elaborate.

As yet the Government have provided little in the way of concrete reassurance that they understand the significance of the issues I have described. At this late stage in the passage of the Bill, we really need to see some evidence that the Government understand that it is precisely because universities have the freedom to determine the standards that they require of students in relation to the enormous range of programmes on offer that we have one of the strongest university systems in the world. The argument for greater comparability is superficially attractive but masks the inevitable consequence: a more limited range of provision, which is less open to change as academic subjects evolve. I cannot believe that the Government are deliberately doing that, given the high expectations they have of our universities to support innovation, to support local, regional and national economic priorities, and indeed to support social cohesion.

The higher education system is changing at an unprecedented rate, and the quality assurance system needs to change with it. That is surely what the Bill should seek to do. The challenge is to keep the best features of the current quality and standards systems but also adapt to the new conditions. There are some key principles that will keep reappearing in our debates: non-interference by government in what is taught, a high threshold for degree-awarding powers and university title, encouraging innovation to flourish, the provision of excellent public information and, in the case of this part of the Bill, autonomy over academic standards. This is one that the Government, through the Minister in the other place, have already explicitly accepted. It is one that the Minister in this House ought to be able to ensure is included in the Bill—and I urge him most strongly to do so.

Lord Smith of Finsbury Portrait Lord Smith of Finsbury (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I remind the House of my interests, which I have already declared. I support the amendments in front of us, and I thank in particular the noble Baronesses, Lady Brown and Lady Warwick, for so clearly setting out the tissue of issues around quality and standards. Unhelpfully, the Bill conflates the two at many points.

We are talking here about three different points. First, there are threshold standards, which are legitimately a matter for the Government on behalf of the British public in ensuring that there is a basic threshold, a sine qua non, in order to qualify as a university. Secondly, there are academic standards, which are surely a matter primarily for academics to determine, with a robust system in place to ensure that the process is testing, challenging and accurate. Thirdly, there is quality, and there must be a role for the Office for Students. Indeed, the entire Bill is largely focused on ensuring a proper assessment of quality. There must be a role for government in that process and we will doubtless be discussing this further on quite a number of occasions. Making clear the distinction between the three different things is very important, and the Bill sadly does not do so at the moment.

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Baroness Goldie Portrait Baroness Goldie
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My Lords, I fully understand the motivation behind this amendment, which seeks to give the OfS an independent voice in the future policy-making process. The OfS, as the principal regulator of the HE sector, will have some level of relationship with every registered provider and will gather a comprehensive set of information about the sector. Indeed, as the operator of the register, the OfS will engage closely with new market entrants, and because of its duty to monitor the financial health of the sector under Clause 62, it will have a clear and detailed understanding of how the market is operating and developing. I think that was a point of particular concern to the noble Lord, Lord Storey. Because of its duties to operate in the interests of students under Clause 2, it will also have a clear understanding of demand-side issues.

No sensible Government would want to make major policy decisions on the registered HE sector without engaging with the OfS, and we confidently anticipate that the OfS will be involved, where appropriate, in the policy-making process, just as HEFCE has been. There is nothing in the Bill which prohibits the OfS from giving advice to government on matters within its regulatory remit and there is no reason to suggest that it would be constrained in giving such advice or not be able to provide open and honest analysis. My noble friend Lord Willetts was concerned about whether the OfS will be able to give advice to the Secretary of State and I hope that observation reassures him. Further, there is also a specific duty in Clause 72 for the OfS to provide information and advice to the Secretary of State when it is requested.

I do not think that it is necessary to give an additional explicit statutory power in the Bill for the OfS to be able to give unsolicited advice to the Secretary of State. Nor do I think it would be wise, as I believe there could be unintended consequences of doing that. It also could lead the OfS to spread its limited resources too thinly across its core role of delivering a fair and effective regulatory system and additional role of developing policy advice. In addition, the sector is well represented by a large range of representative bodies, mission groups and other organisations, which engage in debate and dialogue with the Government about policy decisions. It is the Government’s aim that the OfS remains independent of the sector if it is to regulate providers fairly. The OfS will also in part be funded by registration fees paid by registered providers, so it will be held to account by them, and must operate as efficiently as possible.

I am confident that the provisions in this Bill will make the OfS an indispensable source of expert analysis and advice on which the Government will want to draw in the formulation of future policy. In these circumstances, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe
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Can I ask the noble Baroness to reflect on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, about the role of the current body, HEFCE, as a buffer body? She said that the new Office for Students will fulfil much the same function as HEFCE. When the Minister reflects on this debate, will she consider the way in which the requirements on HEFCE express that role as a buffer body and see whether it is also reflected in the way in which we are asked to confirm the role of the OfS?

Baroness Goldie Portrait Baroness Goldie
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I thank the noble Baroness for raising an interesting point. I am sure it is one on which I and my colleagues will want to reflect.

Higher Education and Research Bill Debate

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Baroness Deech Portrait Baroness Deech (CB)
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I declare an interest as former principal of St Anne’s, Oxford, and former independent adjudicator of higher education. I am speaking in support of Amendment 122. I have three very brief points to make.

First, it has been alleged that the whole purpose of the Bill is to enable universities to raise fees, and that all the contortions that we are going through in relation to the Bill is centred on this one element—that one will be able to raise fees if the teaching is good. That seems to me not a healthy way to approach it.

Secondly, there is profound disagreement about what is good teaching. One metric is likely to be the prevention of drop-outs and helping students from non-traditional or underprivileged backgrounds to get through the course without failing. This must tempt tutors and lecturers to spoon-feed and it is simply not clear in higher education whether the temptation for spoon-feeding—a brief term but I think all noble Lords understand what I mean—will be enhanced by some of the metrics, as I understand them.

My third point is related to the question of teaching students from less-privileged backgrounds. What will this link do to social mobility? The better universities, however they are judged, are quite likely to be Oxbridge and the Russell group, are they not? They will be able to charge higher fees. Some other universities, which will be taking more of those from underprivileged and less-traditional backgrounds, and may be doing more spoon-feeding, may well find that their teaching is not rated so highly, for reasons that all of us who have ever taught such students very well understand. They will charge lower fees. It will become a reinforcing division: the so-called “best” universities charging the higher fees will attract those students who can afford them and the not so good under this scale—the bronze—will likely get the not-so-good students who cannot afford the fees. This will really damage social mobility and parity of esteem, not to mention the fact that this is coupled with the abolition of maintenance grants, meaning that more students will be forced to go to their local university. So my question to the Minister is: what effect do the Government think the linking of fees to teaching quality will have on social mobility?

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the council of two universities. Like others, I am in something of a quandary on this part of the Bill; I have several concerns about the TEF, but I support enthusiastically any attempt to improve the status and excellence of teaching in universities. As chief executive of Universities UK, way back in the 1990s, I was instrumental in helping to develop the Quality Assurance Agency, which has gone on to do such a great job of encouraging institutions to take teaching much more seriously. It has developed the extensive framework for assurance and quality enhancement that characterises the HE sector today and which is admired around the world.

Despite the fact that there is an enormous amount of good teaching in universities, producing excellent learning outcomes, it has long been a dilemma that—at least in certain institutions—research and not teaching has become the means of individual advancement and the basis for institutional reputation, reinforced by league tables. That is not to say that researchers do not make good teachers—many do—but it is research that garners the accolades. Not enough weight is given to the support of students through good teaching, although I am heartened to learn that there has been much more emphasis recently on showing students how research and scholarship links with undergraduate learning.

The HE system is changing rapidly. It is already a diverse system and is becoming ever more diverse as new providers enter the sector. I was astonished to learn in a recent report that, on one count, there are 700 alternative providers; I gather that the more reliable figure is 400, but that is still more than double the number of established universities and clearly offers students a great deal more choice than was available, say, five or 10 years ago. Inevitably, though, there is a greater risk of poor-quality provision if these providers are not subject to the same extensive quality assurance process or regulatory regime as existing providers. So it is wise, in this new and changing environment, to review the way in which the quality assurance system deals with this much more complex world. Talking to people in the sector, and from what I read, I believe that the teaching excellence framework—the TEF—has the potential to provide more encouragement and support for teaching, to produce useful information for students, and, hopefully, to raise the status of teaching in all HE providers. But some of its provisions worry me—those worries have been reflected by other noble Lords.

We have been given a very useful briefing from the department on this part of the Bill and I thank the civil servants, some of whom I recognise in the Box, for the careful, helpful and comprehensive way that they have guided us through this Bill before each of our sessions. However, the recent briefing highlighted some of my concerns. The range of metrics described in the briefing, while voluminous, do not seem related to good teaching. They seemed much broader than a framework for teaching excellence would suggest. The metrics on employability and equality of opportunity—while perfectly good—suggest, for example, that the TEF is really about the student experience, or indeed about any provision that is not evaluated by the research excellence framework—the REF.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe
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My Lords, several noble Lords around the Chamber—probably all of us, actually—are anxious about the risks associated with this process; that is what we have been trying to describe. We are not resisting the way forward but trying to assess the extent of the risk. Can the Minister tell us whether there has there been a risk assessment and whether he can publish it if there has?

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie
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I will reflect on what the noble Baroness has said. It may give her some comfort if I say that we are not rushing this in. The proposals that we have are not all in the Bill; that is why this is an iterative process. I will continue to engage, as will the team and my honourable friend in the other place, on rolling out the TEF.

Higher Education and Research Bill Debate

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Higher Education and Research Bill

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Committee: 5th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Monday 23rd January 2017

(7 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait Baroness Garden of Frognal
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 171, 202 and 213 in my name. Amendment 171 proposes that the chair of the quality assessment committee should be independent of government and party politics and builds on the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, on the importance of independence. There are concerns that, throughout the Bill, the Government will have powers more than is healthy in the affairs of higher education institutions. It is important that the chair of the QAC should be a non-party-political appointment.

Amendment 202 brings us back to a may/must debate—so beloved of your Lordship’s House across a whole swathe of legislation. Here we propose that the OfS “must consult”, rather than “may consult”, about whether there is a body that is suitable to perform the assessment functions. This should not be a matter of choice. Amendment 213 adds additional conditions to any directions given by the OfS to a designated body, such as ensuring that the powers of the OfS to give directions to a designated body do not adversely impact on that body’s suitability to carry out assessment functions, must be compatible with other duties, and must not relate to operational activity without previous concerns having been raised. These measures are designed to safeguard the authority and autonomy of the universities while acknowledging the duties of the OfS. I hope they will be seen as helpful additions to the Bill.

I support the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for the quality assurance office. Without doubt, with the new measures in the Bill, we need a really robust quality assurance system, and I think the measures proposed could provide that.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, I support an independent quality assessment process, and I believe it is right that an organisation independent of the Office for Students should undertake this role. Most importantly, it needs to be a body that has the confidence of the sector to undertake assessment of quality on behalf of the OfS. As others have said, I would like to see a continuation of the co-regulatory approach to quality assessment, which would allow the QAA to continue in its current role. It is important to ensure that the relevant stakeholders, including the OfS, the Secretary of State and the sector, respect the principles of co-regulation.

Sector ownership of the QAA, with HEFCE and other devolved bodies as essential stakeholders that also fund and direct some of the QAA’s activities, has until recently been highly successful. It has ensured sufficient buy-in from the sector and the academic community, while providing processes for assuring the public about standards and quality that are seen as world-leading outside the UK. Also, the UK is a member of the European Higher Education Area, which is quite separate from the EU, and its standards and guidelines require that the body responsible for quality review be entirely independent of the Government.

I am rather anxious that a body appointed on a statutory basis would be for England only, so would undermine a UK-wide approach to quality. I hope that in his reply the Minister will address both those points. I also reiterate a point that has been made by others: I certainly would not want to see a quality assurance system that was vulnerable to political interference and would undermine the sector’s own vital role in quality assurance.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, I am sure that I am not the only one for whom the particular solutions that have been presented are not ones that we wish to support wholeheartedly. However, the reason for them is, I think, one that would attract support across the House. We live in a society where the dangers to our liberal system become daily more obvious, so we should not do anything that would enable those who would use the system for anything other than the free, liberal debate of which our universities are so central a part. We do not want a system that could in any way inhibit that.

One difficulty of discussing these issues is that no one is suggesting that this Government, or these Ministers, are of that kind. But a lot of things have happened over the past two or three years that have led many of us to be much more worried about those fundamentals that we have taken for granted. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will understand that there will be a considerable lack of ease if he cannot assure us about the independence of that part of the structure which ensures both quality and independence. As I say, I am not entirely delighted by the various suggestions as to what one might do, and I am concerned about the proliferation of bodies, groups and persons; I am never quite sure how such things can be totally divorced from party politics, but I certainly think we ought to try. I hope that the Minister will understand that there is an underlying concern, which may demand a different answer, but which must be assuaged, because we live in times when none of us is any longer willing to risk any of the things that we hold so fundamental and so dear in our liberal society.

Higher Education and Research Bill Debate

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Committee: 5th sitting (Hansard - continued): House of Lords
Monday 23rd January 2017

(7 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD)
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My Lords, in the absence of the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, who is unable to introduce it herself this evening, I shall speak to Amendment 269, to which I have added my name. I support all the amendments in this group that have already been spoken to. This amendment creates a new clause which confirms the role of the Advisory Committee on Degree Awarding Powers within the designated quality body to provide independent, expert advice before degree-awarding powers and university title are conferred, or creates a committee of the Office for Students which fulfils much the same function as the current Advisory Committee on Degree Awarding Powers where no body has been designated. This provides independent, expert scrutiny and advice to the OfS.

The Bill amends the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 to give the newly created Office for Students the ability to give and remove institutions’ degree-awarding powers and to award or remove the use of university title. This power currently sits with the Privy Council, which acts on the basis of guidance and criteria set out by the department for business, with advice from the Quality Assurance Agency. It is important that any new higher education providers awarding their own degrees, or calling themselves “university”, meet the same high requirements as existing universities. Appropriately robust market entry standards serve the interests of students by minimising the risk of early institutional failure or the need for intervention by the OfS, and we are not reassured that this is currently the case in the proposals put forward by the Government. Of course, we support new providers in the system, but we need particularly to scrutinise the fast-track private providers, as proposed in the Bill.

We propose a new clause legislating for a degree of independent oversight of the OfS in awarding degrees and university title to provide checks and balances on these very important decisions. In practice, this would require the OfS to take the advice of an independent specialist committee within the designated quality body or, where no quality body is designated for the OfS, to set up a statutory committee along the lines of the existing Advisory Committee on Degree Awarding Powers. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the various amendments in this group.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, I strongly support the comments made by the noble Lords, Lord Norton and Lord Kerslake. I preface my contribution to this debate by reiterating my concerns about the Government’s proposals to make it easier for alternative providers to award degrees and subsequently to achieve university title. I have not been reassured by any of the Minister’s explanations or by the detailed letters he has so courteously sent us during our debates over the last two weeks. The Government want to further diversify the sector. Yes, we need to reach potential students with different offerings and different types of courses, and in parts of the country that are poorly served. Of course, I support that, but not at the risk of selling these students a pig a poke.

There are enough examples from the States in particular which should give us pause for thought. There is one very familiar name, which I will not mention, but the closure of one of the largest for-profit providers, Corinthian Colleges, has left 16,000 students without certificates or degrees. The risk that the same could happen here does not seem even to be acknowledged by the Government. The Government’s commitment to diversifying the sector will be undermined by introducing this additional risk for students, because the loss of reputation will send a very negative ripple across the whole sector and abroad.

Students are at the heart of the Bill, yet it is students who will suffer if private providers that are going to be given the benefit of the doubt with probationary DAPs cannot deliver, or go under. A recent QAA report highlighted the importance of new entrants working closely with existing providers through the well-established validation procedures. On the whole, these validation arrangements have worked very well and we have not been offered any convincing evidence to the contrary. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Cohen, whose university has successfully gone through this process, said that it worked well and that they learned a lot from it. Of course, if the Bill can improve these validation relationships for the benefit of students, so much the better.

I can understand that potential entrants to the market are frustrated that they have to prove themselves against strict criteria. But it is surely far better for students, and probably in the long term for the providers themselves, that there are high standards for entry which minimise the risk of institutional failure. Why do we need to fast-track? It is not as if we are desperately short of universities. There are around 130 well-established institutions; nor are we short of alternative providers. Nobody seems to know the exact figure, although I hope the Bill’s provisions on registration will correct that. The DfE thinks that there are about 400 which receive some sort of taxpayer funding. A much smaller number has been awarded degree-awarding powers. So far these providers have made a limited contribution to diversity. They are focused largely on law, business and finance, and BPP, we were told, is going into nursing. They are mostly in London and the south-east, rather than in the so-called cold spots, where provision is limited or non-existent. That is scarcely surprising as they need to be in the more lucrative markets to satisfy shareholders of the business’s viability. I do not see that that is changing, even if these new arrangements are introduced.

Finally, who really benefits from probationary DAPs? It is not students, who are essentially paying to be guinea pigs for a new provider; but possibly not even new providers, who may find the label “probationary” more of a challenge when recruiting students and staff than they might as new institutions with robust validation arrangements. I urge the Government to think extremely carefully about this. In doing that I support Amendments 251, 252 and 259.

Lord Bishop of Durham Portrait The Lord Bishop of Durham
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My Lords, my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth is unable to be in his place this evening, but in his place I bring before your Lordships Amendment 268A. I endorse all the general comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, about the Cathedrals Group of universities. While I am not armed with the expertise, his amendments appear to make sense for the particular purpose.

I am sure that almost all noble Lords in the Committee are aware that the Archbishop of Canterbury has possessed the power to confer degrees since the Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533. Certainly the landscape of higher education has changed in the almost 500 years since then, when the only other English degree-awarding institutions were Oxford and Cambridge. The Higher Education and Research Bill that we are rightly considering so carefully is very welcome in recognising that changing landscape and legislating to ensure that the sector continues to evolve as successfully as it has done so far.

Amendment 268A deals with a particular corner of that landscape and it may help to indicate briefly how this power is exercised. Lambeth degrees, as they are often informally called, are now issued in one of two distinct ways. The first is following examination or thesis, under the direction of the Archbishop’s Examination in Theology, usually referred to as the AET. Since 2007, the AET has been offered as an MPhil research degree, with the opportunity to extend to a PhD. These research courses are offered at a level that meets QAA requirements but at a reasonable cost and with user-friendly access. Although allocated research supervisors will be fully qualified to offer guidance and criticism, the emphasis is on individual research, requiring a high level of self-motivation and commitment to study. Students on the AET have access to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and although, as one document rather charmingly puts it,

“the Archbishop is not a university”,

this provision is included within the current HEFCE register.

Higher Education and Research Bill Debate

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Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 25th January 2017

(7 years, 3 months ago)

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Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, I was going to speak early in this debate, but the intervention by the Lord Speaker, with his new approach to managing business, saved your Lordships from that—although I did have a wonderful anecdote that I was going to share and a few jokes that I thought might get us off at a good speed to what will be a very long session. However, we have all benefited from the two excellent speeches from the noble Baronesses, Lady Wolf and Lady Garden, against the clause standing part. It is also good to see the noble Lord, Lord Browne, in his place. His report continues to send waves through this area, and it is good to hear, in his voice, what he would have done had he been in a position to deliver the rest of the recommendations in it.

These issues were raised on the last amendment on the previous day in Committee, but we are still left with some questions that need to be answered before we can make progress in this area. Although the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, made it clear that the evidence that has been provided is only anecdotal, there may be problems in this area and it may be that we need a new validating system involving an independent validator like the OfS, which was set up to take away any hint that there might be some competitive pressures or any other issues that might interfere with innovation and challenger institutions of a new type coming into the system. However, again, I am not sure that that answers the problem of how the Office for Students, if it is the regulator, combines its responsibilities for validation with its responsibilities for overseeing standards, publishing statistics and overseeing fair access. The more we think about the OfS as some sort of Gilbertian character, reflective of all the various issues for which it is responsible and which are needed in the higher education sector, the more we lose touch with the reality of how that system will work. The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, is quite right to ask how we got into this mess and whether this is really the right solution to get us out of it.

The issue that needs to be sorted out is whether the validation that is required in the system can be provided from within that system or whether it has to be provided from outside. If it is outside, surely it should be independent and available on the basis that it is not responsible for those who might benefit from any decision or other action that is part of it. But we have others that could do this job. The professional bodies all have a stake in the success or otherwise of the institutions and students for which they are responsible. Professional bodies do a lot of validation of institutions and courses, and their expertise could be used and harnessed. As we discussed on a previous amendment, and again today, the CNAA is still, in a vestigial form, present in the Open University, and maybe that would be a way forward. Alternatively, it may need to be a body completely independent of the system currently set up for the purpose. Whatever it is, I do not think Clause 47 has taken the trick that needs to be taken. It will not sort out the problem that we have and it should be taken back by the Government and reviewed.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, I support that final point, because we have to get at the principle of whether it is appropriate for a regulator to participate in the market it is regulating. That is the key issue. Based on the very effective arguments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, I urge the Government to think very carefully about this. There was an enormous amount of consultation on the Bill prior to it coming to the Commons and to this House, and yet, although there are lots of other areas where there could have been conflict rather than simple disagreement with the sector, this is the one area where the whole of the sector seems to have come together to suggest that the Government really need to think again.

As the former chair of a regulator, and having worked with other regulators, I cannot think of any regulator which is empowered to act in this way. This seems the key issue that the Government need to address. The current validation process seems to have worked pretty well, but if private providers are having problems, we should address those problems and, if necessary, have an independent validator—possibly more than one if we are going to give the range of processes that might be needed, as described by other speakers, for different courses, for example. We really need to think very carefully about that principle and address it.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern Portrait Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Con)
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My Lords, I wonder how this works in view of Clause 47(6):

“Regulations under subsection (1) may include power for the OfS to deprive a person of a taught award or foundation degree granted by or on behalf of the OfS under validation arrangements”.


What sort of validation of a degree is it when it can be taken from you—after you have got it, I assume?