No Higher Education Bill
Last year’s White Paper Students at the Heart of the System promised us a Higher Education Bill in this parliamentary session. It has not materialised.
That’s no great surprise, given last week’s local election results. Liberal Democrats were reluctant to go anywhere near legislation which might reopen old wounds over fees, even before the collapse in the Lib Dem vote. The question now is, what are the chances the appetite for the Bill will return any time this side of a general election?
While I wouldn’t absolutely rule out the possibility that a Higher Education Bill will appear in draft at some point in the next couple of years, it is looking increasingly unlikely.
This matters because at the moment we have a situation in which there is a growing number of private higher education providers with access to public funds via student loans, but which remain largely unregulated.
For example, these private providers will not be subject to the £9,000 fee cap, financial scrutiny by the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) or oversight by the Office for the Independent Adjudicator.
From September, students at such institutions will be able to access loans of up to £6,000 if their course is one of those which has been ‘designated’ (to use the jargon) for student support.
We have no objection to this. But, because of the delayed introduction of the Higher Education Bill, the government will not be able to control the student numbers on such courses.
Those numbers are, at present, relatively small – about 6,000 full-time students in 2009. But applications are growing rapidly, partly because of constraints on student numbers in the publicly-funded part of the sector. We don’t know a great deal about enrolments in private providers because they don’t provide data to the Higher Education Statiscs Authority (HESA), but we do know that the government spent about £33 million on loans to students at these institutions in 2010-11.
With the maximum loan students at these institutions can access almost doubling to £6,000 in September, we know that expenditure will increase to somewhere in the region of £100 million – and this is without factoring in any significant expansion.
In the absence of the Higher Education Bill – or some alternative legislative mechanism - there will be no means of either controlling costs or protecting student interests. And, if there is a cost over-run, it will almost certainly result in money being clawed back from HEFCE budgets – from research or widening participation funds, for example.
Draft Communications Bill
A quick mention of the Draft Communications Bill. You won’t see this in the headlines, but we hope that, amongst other things, this Bill will implement the recommendations of the Hargreaves Review, introducing new copyright exceptions for research activity such as text and data mining. This is important because our copyright regime currently prevents academics from making use of technology to search and compare published research. New exceptions would also allow digital archiving and make it easier to provide open access to research publications. Universities UK was pleased that the government supported Hargreaves’ recommendations on this, and hope they won’t be nobbled by the publishing lobby before these measures reach the statute book.