The government’s legislative agenda includes reforms to higher education and measures aimed at levelling up and driving local growth. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which did not complete its passage through Parliament in the 2021-22 session, has been brought back to continue on its legislative path.
- A Higher Education Bill is aimed at “ensuring that our post-18 education system promotes real social mobility, helping students onto pathways in which they can excel, and is financially sustainable” (p63)
- This will include, subject to the conclusion of the higher education reform consultation, setting minimum qualification requirements for eligibility to student finance support to enter higher education (p63)
- It will also fulfil the manifesto commitment to tackle “uncontrolled growth of low quality courses” by taking specific powers to control numbers of students entering higher education at specific providers in England (p64)
- A main element of the bill is the Lifelong Loan Entitlement which give adults access to a loan equivalent to four years of post-18 education (£37,000 in today’s fees) that they can be used over a lifetime for a wider range of studies, including shorter and technical courses. The Government’s ambition is for the lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) to replace the two existing systems of publicly funded higher education loans (p63)
- The government is bringing back the controversial Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. It will seek to ensure that universities in England are places where freedom of speech can thrive and ban student union no-platforming (p131)
- The Bill is also aimed at “ensuring academic staff feel safe to question and test received wisdom and put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without risking their careers”. It creates a complaints scheme to provide redress for people who are “cancelled” (p131)
- A Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions Bill, which will apply across the UK, will ban public bodies from imposing their own boycott, divestment or sanctions campaigns where these are inconsistent with official UK foreign policy (p133)
- The Bill will prevent “divisive behaviour that undermines community cohesion” and stop the “undue politicisation of public institutions”. It cites concerns that such boycotts may legitimise and drive antisemitism as campaigns “overwhelmingly target Israel” (p133)
- By 2024-25, the Government will be investing £20 billion per year in research and development to drive innovation, including establishing the Advanced Research and Invention Agency. The Government has announced reforms to Research and Development tax reliefs and will continue to reform and improve these tax reliefs at the next Budget (p14)
- On levelling up, the Queen’s Speech mentions a bill to “drive local growth, empowering local leads to regenerate areas”. There is no mention of education in this section beyond the Levelling Up White Paper core mission of “raising educational attainment” (p30)
Implications for governance:
As expected, the forthcoming Higher Education Bill mentioned in the Queen’s Speech contains a number of controversial elements that universities across the sector have already expressed concerns about, including minimum entry requirements and student number controls.
In the briefing published alongside the Queen’s Speech, the government’s ambition to channel young people into technical education and away from “low quality” HE, is underlined.
It states that “the skills system has been very efficient at producing graduates but there is still a need to ensure people get the quality technical skills that employers want”. It is perhaps interesting to note the choice of words, describing a “skills system” rather than an education system.
The briefing document cites figures showing that “only four per cent” of young people achieve a qualification at higher technical level by the age of 25 compared to the 33 per cent who get a degree or above. It points out that “only 66 per cent” of working-age graduates (not including postgraduates) were in high-skilled employment in 2020. In the same vein, it quotes OfS research showing that at 25 providers, fewer than half of students who began a degree could expect to finish it and move on to professional employment or further study.
Governors will be aware of current OfS consultations on all these elements that will feed into the detail of the new Bill, such as entry requirements, number controls and the proposed numerical baselines on dropout rates, completion and graduate employment.
The bill also contains the lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) which will unify the two systems of government-financed loans for level four to level six courses.
UUK has said it welcomes the reform but has asked for the government to relax rules prohibiting loans for students with equivalent or lower qualifications to “allow progression both up and down levels”. At the moment, students are prevented from accessing loan funding for a second degree in a non-science subject.
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill has returned, presumably giving the OfS the green light to take forward the hunt for a new director of free speech and academic freedom.
Critical reaction from the University and College Union warns that the real threat to academic freedom comes from the use of precarious employment contracts, a lack of staff representation in university governance and a management culture which dictates the research that academics undertake.
A new Bill revealed in the Queen’s Speech to prevent public bodies engaging in boycotts, divestment and sanctions that “undermine community cohesion” could have implications for universities. One of the examples offered in the briefing document is of an unofficial boycott involved a student union voting to block the creation of a Jewish student society.
Some universities are under pressure from student and academic groups to divest from companies involved in the Jewish settlement in Gaza and the West Bank, for instance. It is unclear at this stage whether if such divestment was undertaken, it would breach the proposed legislation.
Finally, two bills – the Social Housing Regulation Bill and the Renters Reform Bill – along with a forthcoming white paper for reforms in the private rented sector, could potentially have ramifications for student housing, as they pave the way for greater regulation and more rights for renters, presumably including students, to challenge poor and unfair practice.
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