The Higher Education and Research Bill was debated at Committee Stage in the House of Lords for the first time today.
During the day’s debate, Clause 1 was debated but not approved.
An Opposition amendment moved by Opposition Whip Lord Stevenson of Balmacara was approved with 248 votes in favour and 221 against. The amendment introduced a new Clause before Clause 1 and outlined the functions of UK universities.
Lord Stevenson argued that the Bill failed to understand the purposes of higher education, and suggested that the purpose of universities needed to be defined because “there is a danger that the new regulatory architecture, the new bodies and the revised research organisation will do real and permanent damage”.
Universities, he stated, were “at their best when they are autonomous, independent institutions which have the freedom to develop a range of missions and practices, while at the same time being public institutions, serving the knowledge economy and the knowledge society as well as being tools of economic progress and social mobility”.
In addition, he emphasised the importance of universities encouraging openness and tolerance, and being autonomous institutions which held Government to account.
He added that the Bill lacked ambition, and argued that a definition of universities was needed to improve the Bill.
Lords Government Higher Education Spokesperson Viscount Younger of Leckie emphasised that the Government was working to address the concerns raised by peers during the Second Reading of the Bill.
In particular, he noted concerns about the pace of reform and explained that the changes proposed by the Government would mean the Office for Students would begin accepting and assessing applications in time for the 2019-20 academic year rather than the 2018-19 academic year as was previously planned.
Discussing the amendment, he said that it “imposes many more legal obligations on universities than it does government”. He added that the Bill contained many provisions which were already consistent with the need to recognise institutional autonomy.
While he agreed with the spirit of the definition given, he argued that universities should be free to determine how best to meet the needs of their students and employers, and to support wider society. In addition, he suggested that universities might struggle to interpret the standards as a matter of law.
Thus, they could prove a much greater intrusion into institutional autonomy, he argued.
“The Bill defines explicit new protections for the freedom of English higher education providers,” he argued, stressing that the Government did not believe this would put their autonomy under threat.
Discussing the powers to revoke the "university" title, he provided an assurance that it would be used rarely.
The Amendment would be a regressive step, he argued, because it would go against the changes made in 2004, which removed the requirement for universities to need to award research degrees and also removed the requirement for a university to have students in five different subject areas.
He added that it was important to leave room for different approaches - “perhaps ones that we cannot now even predict”.
The Bill will continue at Committee Stage on 11 January 2017.
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Oliver joined DeHavilland in 2014 as a Monitoring Consultant on the DeHavilland UK Service team. A graduate of the University of Birmingham, he has previously worked in party political campaigning.