Higher Education and Research Bill
The Higher Education and Research Bill was introduced to the UK Parliament in May 2016, it forms part of the wide ranging reforms that the UK Government are seeking to make to the higher education sector.
The Bill itself has just completed report stage, which means that various parliamentary committees have finished scrutinizing its contents and will report back to Parliament on any changes. It will then be voted upon and sent to the House of Lords.
The Bill itself is in four parts, however the two parts of interest are:
- Changes how universities in England are funded
- Establishes a new body, the Office for Students (OfS)
- Abolishes the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA)
- Creates a more streamlined process for private universities
- Changes how research is funded in the UK.
- Creates a new body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
- Creates a new sub-body, Research England.
- Research Councils become sub-bodies of UKRI
The Office for Students
The new Office for Students (OfS) will be the single regulator of higher education providers in the England.
Part of this role will be to establish a new central register of higher education providers, although it will be voluntary, only registered providers will be able to recruit international students for example.
The register will contain information about the different higher education providers including their financial health and OfS can require institutions to publish information about the demographics of their students.
Currently universities in England receive funding for teaching and research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).
HEFCE is the public body that regulates universities in England; its functions include providing funding for both teaching and research, ensuring that universities are compliant with their statutory requirements. It aims to promote high quality and financial health in the higher education sector.
.However, under the new Bill, HEFCE will be abolished and the Office for Students will take on responsibility for funding university teaching only; HEFCE’s research funding functions will be transferred to the new body, also created under the Bill, called Research England.
UK Research and Innovation
Currently the UK has a dual support system for administering public funding for research:
- > Higher Education Research Council for England (HEFCE) provide a block grant to English universities which is based on research quality; and
- > The seven Research Councils provide funding for specific research projects and programmes related to their remit
The public funding that the Research Councils distribute is provided from the ’s science budget, although other government departments can also provide funding for specific projects. The ‘block grant’ provided through HEFCE is quality assessed through the Research Excellence Framework but generally institutions can choose how this money is spent.
In 2016/17 HEFCE’s research funding allocation was £1.7 billion and the Research Councils distributed £2.7 billion.
Under the Bill, this current system will change and both of these functions will now come under UK Research and Innovation (UKRI); a new non-departmental public body which will have nine committees known as ‘councils’. The Secretary of State will provide UKRI with a budget and direction as to how that money should be allocated between its nine councils.
The structure of UKRI will be:.
.As HEFCE will be abolished under the Bill, a new body is required to take over the quality based research funding functions for English universities.
Therefore the Bill establishes Research England, which will be one of the nine councils of UKRI; its budget will be set by UK Research and Innovation. As well as this, UKRI and the Secretary of State can give direction as to how those funds should be distributed.
There are seven UK wide Research Councils that are currently separate public bodies by Royal Charter. They have the ability to determine their own priorities as to how their funding is allocated to universities.
The seven Research Councils are:
- > Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
- > Biotechnology and Biological Sciences (BBSRC)
- > Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPSRC)
- > Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
- > Medical Research Council (MRC)
- > Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
- > Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)v
In 2014 the UK Government commissioned the Nurse Review to look into improving the cost effectiveness of the Research Councils.
The review was completed in November 2015 and found that while the Research Councils deliver on their objectives, there is a lot of duplication in the administrative and day to day running of the councils. It was recommended that the Research Councils should be governed by a single body but that each council should retain decision making powers relating to funding awards.
Under the Bill, the seven Research Councils are to have their Royal Charters revoked and will now become seven of the councils of UKRI. The councils will retain their individual identities and branding, however UKRI will determine the budgets allocated to each council with direction from the Secretary of State.
Innovate UK is a public body that sets the strategy for the future of science and technology innovation in the UK. It primarily funds and supports British businesses to create innovation and to accelerate sustainable economic growth.
Under the Bill it will now become one of the councils of UKRI, this move was controversial, as rather than being directly related to higher education, Innovate UK’s work mostly focuses on the business sector.
LSESU's View on the Bill
One of our main areas of concern is that, initially, the Office for Students (OfS) did not have student representation on its main board. This was problematic as the decisions that the OfS make directly affect students. Not to have student views present undermines the very nature of the OfS being for students.
However, the government has said that one OfS board member will be required to have experience of representing or promoting the interests of students. While this amendment does not mean a designated student representative, it is a step in the right direction.
The UK Government are very explicit in their desire to open up the higher education sector to more private providers; this is something that the Students’ Union opposes. UK higher education has a reputation for being of an extremely high quality, and if the government persists in opening this up to more private providers this reputation could be put at risk.
Allowing less regulation for those that enter (or are already part of) the sector may result in institutions that are not financially sustainable. While the Bill does have provisions that attempt to protect students in institutions that may close, creating an unstable market in higher education could damage its reputation.
What is concerning about the Bill is that the provisions give the Office for Students the power to say whether universities exist or not; but also give the Secretary of State new, unprecedented powers to give instruction for what universities teach!
While there will be some safeguards, and the current Secretary of State has stated that she will not use those powers, it is still extremely concerning that the Bill will give this kind of power to Government Ministers.
These provisions undermine the very principle of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. The Students’ Union very much believes these provisions should be removed from the Bill; that the principle of academic freedom should be upheld, and that in no way should the power to impose what LSE teaches be given to the government.
The Students’ Union has serious concerns over the provisions in the Bill relating to research funding and believes that these represent an encroachment on research autonomy.
Firstly, the Bill allows the Secretary of State to have powers over the councils of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI); this can be to create or close research councils and to change the remit of what they research. In effect this could mean that the funding of research becomes more closely aligned to government priorities rather than societal need. For LSE this is concerning as this could potentially favour funding for Science, Technology and Engineering, and may mean less funding in the future for the social sciences.
Secondly, the merging of the Research Councils and HEFCE’s funding powers under the heading of UKRI could potentially mean the end of the UK’s dual support funding system. The very principle of this funding model is to ensure that the Research Councils and universities are able to control what direction research takes without political interference.
Generally it is the universities that direct how the HEFCE funding is spent, whereas the Research Councils fund specific programmes or projects. If the government is able to control the direction of both streams of funding this could have a negative impact on academic freedoms and may mean less money for social sciences research.