Government push through controversial Higher Education Bill

The government rushed to pass the Higher Education and Research Bill before Parliament dissolved on Wednesday last week.

The change will allow all universities to implement annual inflation-linked rises in tuition fees, starting with an increase to £9,250 from this September.

By forcing through the final debate, amendments and royal assent on the same day on 27th April, the government have avoided the Bill being scrapped at the end of Parliament. If the Bill had not passed the proposed changes would have been potentially delayed until 2018.

The Department for Education defended the measure in December by arguing that universities would only be allowed to increase fees “on the proviso that they meet a strict quality bar”, which would be determined by the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities, stated that the TEF was “essential for driving up standards of teaching”.

Graduates from English universities are already the most debt-ridden in the world and the recent Brexit induced inflation will cause interest rates for student loans to soar to 6.1%.

However, pressure from the House of Lords and concerns about the adequacy of the TEF have led the government to delay the link between fee rises and quality until 2020, meaning that all universities will be eligible to raise fees this year.

The rise in fees no longer depends on the success of the survey

The government had planned to use the results of this year’s National Student Survey (NSS) to grade universities as ‘gold’, ‘silver’ or ‘bronze’ under the TEF, with universities being allowed to raise fees by more or less depending on their rank.

This led to a national boycott of the survey by 25 student unions, including UCL, LSE, SOAS, KCL and Goldsmiths. The boycott was intended to reduce the response rate below 50%, making the data legally unusable for ranking universities. The government’s last minute amendment to the bill, however, means that the rise in fees no longer depends on the success of the survey.

The University and College Union, which represents university staff, have welcomed the delayed implementation of the TEF. Universities opposed the TEF due to concerns over the suitability of the criteria used to measure performance, and the damage to universities that do not achieve a ‘gold’ rating.

The government compromises are a “minor detour on the road to privatisation”

According to UCU, 76% of university staff oppose the link between the TEF and fees. The government have compromised by promising an independent review of the TEF to be issued within one year of it coming into effect.

Sally Hunt, UCU General Secretary, described the government’s compromises as a “minor detour on the road to privatisation”. UCU sees the new legislation as increasing competition in higher education. Giving evidence to Parliament, they cited studies which suggested that greater competition in the USA had increased pressure on universities to attract students at the expense of front-line delivery and educational quality.

The Union argued that this had led, in the UK, to universities taking on “unsustainable” loans for ambitious expansion projects. In order to fund its new Stratford campus, for instance, UCL have raised student rents by over 50% and borrowed an unprecedented £2.1bn from the EU since 2010, money which is at risk due to Brexit.

Concerns have also been raised over the Bill’s regulation of new universities. The government has argued that this easing of regulations will “create a level playing field for new providers”. Critics, however, claim that this could pave the way for a “Trump University this side of the Atlantic”, as for-profit institutions will be able to access taxpayer’s funds before having awarded a single degree.

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