Manchester Metropolitan University’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Malcolm Press considers the new law, the most important sector legislation for a quarter of a century:
The Higher Education and Research Act passed yesterday in the ‘wash-up’ of parliamentary business before the House of Commons is dissolved ahead of the General Election.
The legislation received an exceptional deal of scrutiny throughout its passage, particularly in the House of Lords, where peers (our Chancellor Lord Mandelson among them) tabled over 700 amendments on a whole range of issues, ensuring that the legislation is in a significantly better state than when first introduced last year – with 31 substantial concessions granted by the government.
Among them is a new clause on institutional autonomy that will prevent the government from interfering in the governance of universities in various areas, and specific safeguards for academic freedom.
Numerous changes have ensured quality and standards are properly defined and separated, and that the independent ability of institutions to set their own academic standards is fully protected.
Manchester Metropolitan University’s strategy puts the student experience and quality outcomes for our students at the heart of everything that we do.
Our teaching will continue to be focused on the most innovative and inspiring ways to impart knowledge and skills, and bring the best out of everyone who chooses to study here.
While we await the results of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), most likely in June, the Act now calls for a review of the TEF in 2018 covering areas such as which metrics are used and the extent to which they are fit for purpose.
There will be a delay in the introduction of any form of subject-level TEF by a year, as well as an additional pilot phase prior to implementation.
We look forward to engaging with the Office for Students (OfS), which will be a regulatory body for the sector.
The broad aim has been to protect students and to ensure that all providers of Higher Education are regulated consistently and fairly.
There is a new duty on the OfS to encourage collaboration as well as to drive competition within the sector, reflective of the importance of partnership in our own strategy.
The Act also embodies changes in research structures.
The important point is that we should continue to focus on what we’re good at and not be distracted by the methodologies of external bodies.
The legislation provides new regulatory architecture for the sector that more properly reflects the competitive environment in which we operate.
We were pleased an amendment was added that directly states that the advancement of knowledge was a key purpose of the research councils – confirming that UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will serve not only science but the arts and humanities too.
Additionally, the UKRI and the OfS must report annually on how they cooperate, thus maintaining a nexus between research and teaching.
Regulations on degree-awarding powers and university title were tightened to protect students and the reputation of the sector and the Act secured the creation of a strong, independent scrutiny body and introduces additional ministerial oversight of new providers.
The case in favour of international students has won widespread support across the country and from MPs of all political persuasions.
It is disappointing that it was not possible to secure more positive steps for international students within the timeframe available but this is an area where collectively universities will continue to try to influence the thinking of the new government.
More broadly, I hope that the interest that the Bill attracted over recent weeks has demonstrated the important contribution that universities make to the life of the nation.