If passed in its present form, the 2016 Higher Education and Research Bill that is currently before parliament will enact huge constitutional changes that will undermine the autonomy and vigour of the UK’s universities and research base.

We want you to write to your MP to ask for amendments to the bill that will protect the health of our system of higher education and research by ensuring that crucial decisions have full parliamentary oversight.

As it stands, the bill concentrates power in the hands of the Secretary of State and significantly weakens the ability of Parliament to scrutinise and challenge decisions that could abolish particular universities or research councils or undermine existing freedoms to teach and direct research.

Our UK’s universities and research base are world-leading, but they are already under threat from stagnating budgets and the risks from leaving the EU. In such circumstances, we need to think very carefully before making changes to how this ecosystem functions.

The Higher Education and Research Bill in its current form would cause widespread changes to this landscape, undermining the independence of our universities and research communities (as explained in more detail in this article in the Guardian by Science is Vital Advisory Board member, Professor Stephen Curry).

To remedy the bill’s most significant flaws we propose the following amendments:

  • Remove the provision (Part 1, Sections 2(2) & 2(4)) allowing the Secretary of State to give guidance to the Office for Students on what courses may be taught by universities. (But see update below made on 16 Nov)
  • Change the provision (Part 1, Section 43(1)) allowing the Office for Students (a body appointed by the Secretary of State) to revoke the right of institutions to grant degrees and retain the name ‘university’, so that each such decision requires parliamentary assent.
  • Change the provision (Part 3, Section 87(5)) allowing the Secretary of State to create or abolish a research council, or to alter their remits without parliamentary assent.

Since this bill needs to be passed by MPs in Parliament, this would be an ideal topic about which to write to yours. As luck would have it, we’ve just produced a guide to writing to your MP. Please check it out, write a letter, and let us know what your MP says.

If you want to see an example letter, please have a look at the one Stephen sent to his MP.

Update (14th Nov 2016): We are now also asking supporters to target a key groups of parliamentarians: present and former university Vice-Chancellors who are members of the upper house. Full details on how do so are given here

Update (16th Nov 2016): Yesterday the government published a series of amendments to the bill (see p2 of this PDF) which include the clarification that “Guidance framed by reference to a particular course of study must not guide the OfS to perform a function in a way which prohibits or requires the provision of a particular course of study.” This is a welcome move to protect university autonomy. The concession illustrates that public pressure backed with strong arguments can work to make this legislation better. But we need to keep pressing to ensure that further improvements are made. 

Update (6th Dec 2016): Another piece by Stephen Curry in the Guardian, taking account of the amendments now agreed by the government but also explaining the important challenges that remain. 

Categories: News

3 Responses to Higher Education and Research Bill: what needs to change

  1. Ildiko Gyory says:

    I have written to my MP recently about the threat of losing foreign students, but I got no answer whatsoever.

    • StephenCurry says:

      Did you mention in your letter that you are a constituent? That often gets their attention, though replies can sometimes be slow. Another way to get through is to phone their office (see here for instructions on how to do that)

  2. Sean Wallis says:

    There is one further area I would suggest Science is Vital needs to challenge. This is the removal of Privy Council oversight with respect to the amendment of University Statutes.

    Since such statutes provide additional protection for academic staff, and thus research specialists, above and beyond the limited protections offered by employment law, these statutes need defending. Some universities have watered down protections for quasi-tenure from the 1988 Model Statutes, others like my own institution UCL, have been rebuffed by campaigns from staff.

    At the heart this is a debate that says that science needs the opportunity to grow with protection from institutional managers that might prefer to divert resources into undergraduate teaching now that each undergraduate represents a £9k pa income stream.

    Jo Johnson apparently responded to the CDBU that ‘not very many’ universities had Royal Charters that needed protection. I don’t know who has been advising him, but this shows what we are up against.

    See also https://heconvention2.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/par

    Best wishes,

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