by GK Strategy 8th August, 2016

The Silent Passage of the Government’s Higher Education Reforms

Despite the political turmoil, economic uncertainty and constitutional crises of the last months, the Government’s higher education reforms have steadily processed forward surprisingly unscathed. The introduction of the Higher Education and Research Bill in May this year saw Cameron’s Government set out a raft of new proposals looking to fundamentally alter the higher education sector. The Bill will increase competition in the sector and aims to provide greater choice, raise teaching standards and strengthen the UK’s capabilities in research and innovation. However, to what extent is the Bill receiving the scrutiny and oversight that would be expected of any major education reform?

The referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union has knocked Westminster into a spin. Following the unexpected result, David Cameron’s resignation and growing economic uncertainty, the Bill has moved through its first and second reading in Parliament without great fanfare or commotion. Since the referendum, the media’s focus has, unsurprisingly, been on the political and economic fallout of the historic event. Rumours of thousands of jobs moving from London to other European countries, combined with news of major international companies, such as Nissan, publically pausing greater investment in the UK, have dominated the journalistic bandwidth. Granted, when you compare these stories with the news that the Government is introducing structural changes to the regulatory bodies in the higher education sector, the media’s apparent oversight of the Bill seems understandable. However, when these proposals introduce a competitive marketplace where institutions are expected to fail into a highly publically subsidised sphere, one might imagine that the Bill ought to attract greater media coverage. Nevertheless, whilst Cameron’s resignation honours list has been front and centre, the Bill has taken a back seat in the eyes of most political commentators.

Although the first reading of the Bill is merely procedural, with no debate actually taking place, the second reading provides a lengthy opportunity for MPs to interrogate Government Ministers. Despite extensive speeches, the Government emerged unhurt from what many of the Bill’s opponents had predicted should have been a political bloodbath. The shift of higher education policy oversight to the Department for Education (DfE) from, what was, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) could be seen as a contributing factor to the tameness of debate. Despite relatively longstanding Universities Minister Jo Johnson sitting amiably by her side, Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, took to the dispatch box to conduct the substantive defence of the Government’s proposals. Even though she had only been appointed to her new post a number of days before, Greening’s substantial grasp of the Bill dispelled hopes from opposition benches that she would be found lacking under the more experienced scrutiny of education old handers. In fact, any complacency that might have been expected from challenging such a newcomer was fundamentally misplaced. Furthermore, Greening’s considerable personal popularity within her own party, who heralded her successes as Secretary of State for International Development during her four year tenure, helped to alleviate the urge from any disgruntled Government backbenchers to land an easy cheap shot on May’s new legislative agenda.

Arguably more significantly though, the Labour Party’s current political nightmare helped the Bill pass through these early stages without the expected level of scrutiny of such major reforms. Although passionate opposition speeches were made from well-briefed Labour MPs from university cities such as Cambridge and Oxford, the frontbench of the party failed to land any significant punches. The Bill now heads into the Public Committee stage, where expert evidence will be heard and amendments will be made by a cross-party group of MPs. However, due to Summer Recess it is, as of yet, unclear to what extent the Bill will receive the attention that it deserves when it comes before the House in September. Will the economy provide any space for higher education to elbow its way onto the front pages? Will Labour MPs still be fighting a factional war against their own members? Or will a piece of Government legislation opposed by significant portions of the higher education sector simply be bulldozed through on the back of the new Government’s honeymoon period.

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