Viscount Younger speaking at the House of Lords

The Higher Education and Research Bill completed its torturous passage through Parliament yesterday, introducing sweeping changes to the higher education sector.

The Conservatives - who first promised the reforms in their 2015 manifesto - have championed the bill as much-needed reform that streamlines regulation and increases competition within the sector, but its critics argue that the new law allows the ‘marketisation’ of education and risks damaging the UK’s universities.

Following the announcement of the snap election, government ministers came to a compromise with Labour in order to clear opposition and attempt to pass the bill before Parliament is dissolved next week. With Labour agreeing to withdraw previous opposition to the bill, the government’s new amendments were swiftly approved by both the Commons and the Lords.

Earlier this week the Commons rejected many of the amendments made by the Lords to the bill, including one to remove students from immigration statistics. However, ministers agreed to defer a proposal to link rises in tuition fees to a university's results in the Teaching Excellence Framework until it has been evaluated by a further review, in response to a a Lords amendment which severed this link.

TEF will allow participating universities to raise fees in line with inflation, and will also see institutions being awarded gold, silver and bronze ratings. Eventually, these gold, silver and bronze awards will dictate the fee limit a university is allowed to charge, with the highest rated being permitted to charge higher fees.

The TEF was severely criticised in the Lords, including from the government benches, Lord Lucas calling the gold, silver and bronze ratings a “ranking system for turkeys”. Lord Watson of Invergowrie, the Labour Party’s education spokesman in the Lords, cited the University of Cambridge’s criticism that the proposal to link the TEF to fees was “bound to affect student decision-making adversely and in particular it may deter students from low-income families from applying to the best universities”.

Before the ministers' concession, Universities Minister Jo Johnson had told the Commons that the Lords amendment would “render the TEF unworkable” and that “for the TEF to work properly… there must be reputational and financial incentives”.

The government’s final amendments to the bill mean the link between the TEF and tuition fees will now only be introduced in 2020 and requires an independent review of its impact to be presented to parliament after it commences. Any fee increases linked to the TEF will only take place after the independent review.

In an effort to sabotage the TEF, CUSU has been running a campaign to boycott the National Students Survey (NSS). The survey, given to all finalists, will be used to rank Universities with the best-ranked permitted to raise their tuition fees in line with inflation. However, a spokesperson for the Department for Education told Varsity the assessment process is based upon last year’s NSS results and so is unaffected by the boycott.

The Lords had also passed an amendment to the bill that removed international students being classified as long-term migrants in official migration statistics, but the government removed the amendment arguing that it was too restrictive.

Prime Minister Theresa May had even been pressed by Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, and Boris Johnson, foreign secretary, to remove students from official migration statistics, but according to the Times, during the negotiations over the bill May refused and even threatened to scrap the bill entirely over the matter.

As part of the legislation the current higher education regulator the Higher Education Funding Council, will be replaced by a new body, the ‘Office for Students’ (OfS). Originally the government wanted the OfS to be able to grant degree awarding powers to new institutions, including for-profit colleges.

But the OfS’s powers were trimmed during the bill’s battle through parliament. The final legislation requires the OfS to request advice from the relevant body before granting degree awarding powers.

CUSU has campaigned against many of the provisions of the Bill. Speaking to Varsity about the bill’s passage through Parliament, Robert Huldisch, who is CUSU Education Officer, said that she was “disappointed” with the outcome: “The way the bill was rushed through Parliament with little attendance in particular showed great disregard for the impact of these reforms and students’ and academics’ vehement opposition to them. This bill takes us a huge step away from an education that is public and accessible towards a system of privatisation and artificial competition.

“However, we did manage to win on some points, including the concession that the link between the Teaching Excellence Framework and differential fees will be delayed for another year, while an independent review of TEF is conducted.”

She insisted that students will continue to fight the reforms, saying: “As TEF is reviewed over the next years, we need to continue voicing our discontent with the Government using our feedback to raise fees and fuel inequality within the higher education sector. Boycotting the National Student Survey is one way to do this.

“Whatever happens next, I am proud of the campaigns we have run and the wide-ranging conversations that students have started about the sort of Higher Education we want to see. We fought hard in a fight that was always going to be incredibly difficult to win, and I hope we can keep building on our passionate and creative movement instead of losing hope and giving up.”

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