The Blog

Peers Should Stand Up For Quality And Amend The Higher Education Bill

This week, the House of Lords will turn its attention once again to the controversial Higher Education and Research Bill.

When it was last considered, the bill faced an opposition defeat and staunch criticism from peers expressed in over 500 amendments. It's little surprise, then, that the government has moved a suite of its own amendments in an effort to smooth the passage of the bill.

Many of these changes are welcome and seek to enshrine important principles on the face of the bill. They include the need for institutional autonomy, academic freedom, collaboration between institutions, and use of the Haldane principle in disseminating research funding. So far, so sensible.

However, there are still big problems to be addressed. While the minister has talked repeatedly about the importance of ensuring excellence in higher education, the government seems intent on keeping two of the biggest threats to quality within the draft legislation.

First, plans to remove crucial safeguards for new providers entering the higher education sector remain unchanged. These would allow private institutions to award their own degrees without having to demonstrate any track record of success - despite substantial evidence that encouraging expansion of private education providers leads to worse outcomes for students and taxpayers. Repeated warnings from the University and College Union (UCU) and others appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

Second, the link between tuition fees and teaching quality remains central to the bill. UCU has been heavily critical of the Teaching Excellence Framework (Tef), warning that it is based on flawed metrics which don't actually measure teaching quality at all. The risk, then, is that institutions will focus on ticking boxes for Tef to secure higher fee income, rather than supporting staff to deliver their best teaching to students, with quality actually suffering as a result.

That's not to say that we're against students having more information upon which to base their choices - quite the opposite. But that information should include details of how lecturers are treated by their institutions. UCU has been pushing for amendments which would expose the proportion of teaching at each institution delivered by staff employed on insecure contracts, many of whom have to rush between jobs to make ends meet. In our opinion, that would be much more useful to students in judging quality than a gold rating based on dodgy metrics.

In short, then, we mustn't let a zeal for reform threaten quality and undermine the sector's international reputation - which is more important than ever in the face of falling international student recruitment following Brexit.

Peers from across the benches have already suggested some sensible amendments which would help address these issues. So, as they return to scrutinise the bill once more, UCU is urging peers to stand up for quality and improve the bill.