I last wrote about the Higher Education and Research Bill back in September. Back then, the bill had just entered the committee stage in the House of Commons, and the committee were taking evidence, before the bill was subject to intense, but ultimately futile, scrutiny.
To briefly recap what HERB is: The bill proposes the most significant changes to higher education and research in more than two decades. It sets out new regulatory infrastructure for higher education, including more risk-based regulation and reducing the barriers to entry for new providers. It sets up new architecture both in higher education governance and in research – creating the Office for Students (OfS) to oversee higher education and teaching, and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to manage research and innovation.
The creation of these bodies means the dissolution or merging of HEFCE, the seven research councils, and Innovate UK. The functions of HEFCE will be split between the two organisations, while the research councils and Innovate UK will fall under the auspices of UKRI alongside Research England, which will take on many of HEFCE’s research-facing responsibilities.
Since September, the bill has gone through the House of Commons relatively unchanged. Bar some government amendments, including some that solved some of physics researchers’ concerns, it entered the House of Lords with no further changes due to the government’s majority in the Commons.
The bill entered the Lords in December, and since then has been met with intense scrutiny across seven days of sessions. However, there was just one non-government amendment agreed – and this is likely to be challenged by the government.
The Lords seem to have used this process to judge how far the government was willing to go to come to agreement, and to see where support lay for various amendments. A number of peers suggested that they would bring back amendments in some form during the report stage.
Among the most contentious issues during the committee stage were the impact of the bill on institutional autonomy, its passages relating to the Teaching Excellence Framework, and the position and autonomy of the research councils and of Innovate UK.
The bill bug
Working with physicists – and researchers more widely – the IOP had identified a number of broad aims on which we built recommendations.
These were to:
- Protect the identities of existing research councils, Innovate UK and research communities, and ensure that effective good practice is maintained
- Enhance provisions on widening participation and access
- Maintain and support existing programmes that are essential for the effective teaching of STEM subjects
- Ensure that links between teaching and research and strengthened, particularly in the nexus between the OfS and UKRI
- Strengthen accountability and scrutiny measures to ensure effective Parliamentary oversight and wider community consultation on appointees and organisational changes
We submitted evidence to the Public Bill Committee last year, and have been keeping track of progress on the changes we recommended.
Of the 21 recommendations we made, seven have been largely met with either amendments to the text of the bill or clear assurances given by relevant ministers; 11 with partial progress, including some assurances by relevant ministers or significant support from opposition peers or MPs; and three either have not made any progress or have not been raised at all. None are completely opposed by the government.
We have since worked with the Royal Society of Chemistry to focus these original recommendations down to three, where progress was still needed and where we both agreed, and included further recommendation on basic research. These took the form of a briefing for the Lords. We have been pleased to see a number of these recommendations taken forward as amendments in the Lords, and will be speaking to peers in order to see them returned at report stage.
The report stage takes place on 6 and 8 March, delayed due to the demands of the bill on Article 50. While each amendment can be heard by the whole house at this stage and there is no time limit, it is likely that this stage will be quicker, and more focused, than the committee stage, as peers coalesce around a few specific areas.
One peer says that the most interested Lords are “having meetings to identify six or seven key amendments” during report stage. Following this, the bill will now inevitably enter a process of ping-pong with the House of Commons to reach agreement on amendments. This is due to the peers having already voted to pass an amendment opposed by the government on the definition of a university.
The bill is then likely to become legislation by Easter, or at the latest, by the summer. However, the next stage in the Lords will be telling as to how much change the bill undergoes in the meantime. Many peers have been frustrated at a level of government intransigence, refusing to agree any non-government amendments. They will be looking for them to acquiesce on a number of areas, else we could see a number of amendments pushed to a vote, resulting in significant changes.
Whatever form the bill takes in its final incarnation however, the true test of its impact will be in its implementation. With the government’s chief scientific advisor, Sir Mark Walport, recently announced as the chief executive of UKRI, we’ll be continuing to engage with the process and the changes to higher education and research to ensure that the voice of physics is at the forefront.