It has been 22 years since the last Higher Education Bill, yet we have seen a flurry of activity this week as the Government has confirmed its intentions to legislate – publishing a White Paper, two technical consultations and the actual Higher Education and Research Bill in the space of three days. This marks swift progress since the Universities Minister consulted on proposals in November last year. Given we are now just weeks away from Parliament scrutinising the Bill, what is the process it will follow, and what risks does it face over the next nine months?
The Chair of the BIS Select Committee, Iain Wright, has been pressing the Government to submit the Bill to his Committee for pre-legislative scrutiny (PLS). As I outlined in my speech to the HEPI conference last week, whilst PLS is both more common and seen as a good thing, it does have disadvantages. It would delay the Bill’s passage, with Government having to wait for the Committee’s report instead of starting formal Parliamentary scrutiny. It would also tie up Departmental resources and allow the Official Opposition and other opponents a chance to get organised. Given the rapidity with which the Government has moved in the last week, they are unlikely to allow the Committee to undertake PLS for the next four months.
If the Bill starts in the Commons, there is a day long ‘Second Reading’ debate, where the principles of the Bill are debated and a vote is taken on the entire package. We should expect this around June or July. There is then detailed line by line scrutiny by a Public Bill Committee of around 18 MPs, where witnesses may be called and amendments can be proposed and voted on over the course of about a month, probably straddling the summer recess until September.
The Bill will then move to Report Stage, lasting one day in around October or November, where the whole House can vote and debate on amendments, selected by the Speaker with priority given to the Official Opposition. After this, the whole Bill is then debated and voted on at Third Reading on the same day. If agreed, the Bill will move to the Lords, where a similar process happens over the following three months. Any disagreements between the Commons and Lords must be resolved at ‘ping pong’, with the Bill likely receiving Royal Assent and becoming law in the early spring of 2017.
Just before the Bill was published, Jo Johnson would have reassured his Ministerial colleagues that the Bill was in good shape and unlikely to need further amendment. I heard many such assurances in the past during my time as Special Adviser to the Leader of the House, and I can guarantee that this Bill will not pass through Parliament unscathed.
Partly this will be because the Government will voluntarily change its policy as it reflects on feedback from the HE sector. However, the principle threat is its small working majority in the Commons of just 18, and the fact that the Conservatives have just 30% of peers in the Lords, compared to the combined opposition of Labour (26%) and the Liberal Democrats (13%), who can easily outvote the Government without even allying with the Crossbenchers.
There are significant policy risks too. The detail in the Bill around the OfS is sketchy at best and requires fleshing out, and the Shadow Universities Minister, Gordon Marsden, has made it clear that Labour will “take advantage” of the Bill in relation to fees.
We are likely to see a series of battles over the next nine months, and only those institutions which understand the process, and which audiences to speak to, will be able to ensure their interests are reflected in the final legislation.