White Paper, UK Legislation and TEF Update

One of the primary purposes for having a PVC’s blog is to keep colleagues at Swansea up to date with developments around the UK government’s White Paper ‘Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’, the subsequent legislation, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), and the response to this from various relevant bodies in Wales. As part of this I will be asking Phil Brophy to provide a blog next week outlining the key elements of the TEF as they affect Swansea University. In this blog I will simply aim to give as clear a picture as I can of where things sit in the bigger picture.

On 19th July the Higher Education and Research Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons with a government majority of 294 votes to 258. This was three days before parliament broke up for the summer recess, and the fact that the government chose to put this through despite all the issues and concerns following the Brexit vote says something about the importance that they still attach to this legislation. In technical terms the next stage of the process is the so-called ‘committee stage’ where the legislation is scrutinised line by line. This will occur between September 6th and October 18th, after which the legislation will return to the House of Commons and then be bounced back and forth between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, with the possibility of further amendments, until everybody is happy with the results.

What is clear is that some elements of the reforms as outlined in the original White Paper will need legislation, and are included in the bill. Other elements will not. The TEF, as such, does not need parliamentary approval and will go ahead irrespective of the passage of the bill through parliament. The question of whether Universities in England will be allowed to raise their fees without further legislation, or at least a ‘statutory instrument’ that needs to be brought before parliament, is more contentious and there appears to be some dispute over this. Jo Johnson has already announced what the maximum fee might be for those who would be entitled to raise their fees (£9250, assuming a 2.8% inflation rate), and some universities have already announced that they will raise their fees for 2017/18, although no formal approval has yet been given for this. This is all part of the wider confusion.

In Wales there is very little likelihood that we will be allowed to raise our fees, for 2017/18 at least, and nothing at all will be decided until after the publication of the Diamond report, which is due in autumn.

The Higher Education and Research Bill, however, contains much more than the TEF and the permission to raise fees. It envisages a very significant shake up of the Higher Education sector within England and one that will inevitably have important knock on effects for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Looking at the legislation as a whole I can see two areas where there will be significant changes that will lead to the growing divisions that, if implemented, will be very difficult to bring back together.

The first of these will be between research and teaching, at a time when most Universities are actually beginning to develop a balance and coherence between these two vital aspects of their work. By transforming HEFCE into an Office for Students and by removing all research elements of HEFCE’s current role and placing them into a new body proposed in the Nurse review (Research UK), the legislation is separating the two arms of the Higher Education Sector. The recent restructuring of departmental responsibilities following Theresa May’s reshuffle only entrenches this further, with Higher Education going in with the Department for Education, while responsibility for science and research staying with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the successor to BIS. Jo Johnson, as the minister for Higher Education now finds himself answerable to two separate Departments and all of us in the sector, will, I fear, suffer the same fate, finding our teaching role and our research roles pulling in very different directions under very different scrutiny and expectations.

The other divide that has the potential to derive from the legislation is that between the Higher Education sector in England and that in Wales. Much is being said about the need to work together and for individuals from the various Welsh institutions to sit on relevant consultancy and decision making bodies as the TEF and other elements of the legislation go forward. However, sitting at the heart of the Higher Education and Research Bill is a mechanism for the expansion of the English HE sector and the means by which private and other independent education providers can attain degree awarding powers and so effectively, to become Universities. Looking at these proposals in detail, and comparing them to the information provided in the Higher Education (Wales) Act 2015 that was approved by the Assembly last year, it is immediately apparent that the very definition of what a University is, and the underlying structure of the HE sector in England and Wales are going to begin to diverge considerably. This may not have any significant effect if the independent sector remains relatively small and marginal, but if, as the UK government is hoping, this sector becomes a far more significant player in England, and as future initiatives in teaching excellence, quality management, governance and related matters are developed to meet the needs, or concerns, of this new part of the sector, then the danger is that English and Welsh Higher Education (and probably post-compulsory education as a whole) will begin to look very different. This is something that we will have to watch very carefully indeed.

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