Draft Higher Education (Monetary Penalties and Refusal to Renew an Access and Participation Plan) (England) Regulations 2019 Debate

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Department: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Draft Higher Education (Monetary Penalties and Refusal to Renew an Access and Participation Plan) (England) Regulations 2019

Joseph Johnson Excerpts
Wednesday 8th May 2019

(1 year, 2 months ago)

General Committees
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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Gordon Marsden Hansard
8 May 2019, 2:58 p.m.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his observations, with which I absolutely agree. I also agree with the revisiting to which he refers. I have had conversations—I am sure the Minister has had similar conversations—with the Office for Students about the issues around adult students and how we deal with them in the context of standardised access and participation measures. I am not saying that the Government are not considering those things, but it would be useful as we move along to have a bit more detail.

There are a couple of other points in that particular area on which it would also be good to have clarity. For example, it would be useful to have clarity on what might happen regarding fines for providers, as detailed in the regulations, that are subsidiaries of larger organisations, some of which will be based overseas. I do not propose to reopen the debate I had with the hon. Member for Orpington about our concerns on how those processes with new providers might work, but it will be a fact—it is not necessarily damnosa hereditas—that a number of these new providers will be subsidiaries of overseas organisations. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister clarified how they will be dealt with and how the opportunities for evading such fines or instructions might be avoided.

We are talking today about a situation where we have come to the eleventh hour and various pressures have been put on by the OfS and the Department, and the institutions concerned have not budged. It is important that the Department and the OfS, in particular, keep a very close eye on how new providers, particularly those without much of a track record, go forward. That relates to the issue we most want to avoid. It is one of the reasons why we were concerned, and remain concerned, about the proviso that new providers can assume all the advantages of university status, including access to public funding, from day one.

I want to conclude by returning to a couple of points that we raised in the Bill Committee in September 2016. Those points related to how decisions would be made in the OfS. On that occasion, the hon. Member for Orpington and I had a detailed set of exchanges. We would have liked the issues to be resolved in legislation. They were not, but we had a number of assurances from him. However, with all due respect to him, I want to make the points again to the current Minister, because he is responsible for taking such things through.

One of the things we were most concerned about—something that was certainly given in evidence to the Committee by Professor Les Ebdon, the previous director for fair access and participation—was where the ultimate responsibility for decisions lies. That is not stated in the Bill. In said in the Public Bill Committee that

“the ability of the director for fair access and participation to negotiate with institutions...would be seriously compromised if the director did not have the ultimate authority to approve or refuse access and participation plans.”––[Official Report, Higher Education and Research Public Bill Committee, 8 September 2016; c. 132.]

We also pointed out that the way in which the director had operated under the previous structures had led to some useful improved targets at various institutions and an increased level of predicted spend.

I will not return to the debates about whether the Higher Education Funding Council for England did better than the OfS—they are different bodies designed to do different things—but how the functions will be carried out remains an issue. It is crucial that the director for fair access and participation has the independence to challenge higher education institutions robustly, particularly in such areas, so I would welcome any further thoughts or clarifications that the Minister can offer.

Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con) Hansard
8 May 2019, 3:02 p.m.

I welcome the regulations. They are an important part of the director for fair access’s powers in ensuring that people from all backgrounds have an opportunity to benefit from higher education. I understand that the Government have been very busy. We have had a lot of business and it has taken an awfully long time for us to reach this stage. I think it is two years since the Higher Education and Research Act received Royal Assent. Although it is good to see that it is still working its way through Parliament, the issue is of sufficient importance that we could perhaps have given a little more energy to ensuring that the director for fair access has the powers that he or she needs to enable everybody to benefit from the opportunities that universities can bring.

The Minister has exercised his judgment very effectively in coming down on the side of moderation on the scale of the penalties. I think that 2% of turnover or £500,000, whichever is the higher, feels about right, and I commend his good judgment on that.

I also commend the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Blackpool South, for being so diligent in scrutinising the Bill. It has been almost four years now that we have been at it. It was a big piece of legislation, probably the biggest overhaul of higher education legislation in a generation or more, but he has been incredibly thorough and reasonable in his approach to scrutinising the legislation over the many months that it has been taking place.

I agreed with everything the Minister said in his remarks, although I want to pick him up on one tiny point that he made. I think he said that the Higher Education and Research Act was the most amended piece of legislation in parliamentary history, which I am afraid is complete nonsense. Certainly it attracted a lot of excitement, especially in the other place, where their lordships, many of whom have connections to our great higher education institutions, lost no opportunity to table amendments. However, the tabling of an amendment does not mean that the Bill itself is amended. The Government accepted a few amendments that were proposed and the Act is much the better for it. When I was the Minister taking the legislation through the House, I welcomed all of the debate and expertise that the peers in the other place brought to bear, but by no means at all was it a record breaker. I can think of many other bits of legislation that could claim that title.

Lastly, given that we are now moving ahead with regulations that have a bearing on the upper limit that universities may charge in fees, is the Minister able to shed some light on where we are with the Augar review? By my recollection, it is getting on for two years since the launch of that review, which among other things was to opine on the upper limit. Given that the regulations touch directly on that, will he shed some light on whether the review is imminently to report, or will it require a much longer gestation?

Sir Oliver Heald Portrait Sir Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con) - Hansard
8 May 2019, 3:05 p.m.

On penalties, does the Minister have any estimate of what the total take is likely to be in money terms? What happens to those penalties? Is that money to be lost to higher education, or does it stay in the sector? Will it go back to the Treasury?

Break in Debate

Chris Skidmore Portrait Chris Skidmore - Hansard

I am unable to comment on decisions that may yet have to be taken. I expect a report of this magnitude to be published and, when it is, I am keen to ensure that the sector—as I have said to it—has the opportunity to engage with the report and its consequences. I am on record on specific issues and rumours. I will not prejudge the contents of the report.

Joseph Johnson Hansard

Has the committee that was producing the Augar report delivered its final report to the Department, and does the Department intend to publish it?

Chris Skidmore Portrait Chris Skidmore - Hansard
8 May 2019, 3:19 p.m.

I have not seen the report or been made aware of its being fully delivered. All I know is that any decisions that will need to be taken on this interim report into the overall post-18 review will need to be taken by the Department, the Prime Minister, who is fully aware—she commissioned the review in the first place—and Her Majesty’s Treasury. That will be subject to future discussions. It is probably unwise for me, as Universities Minister, to speculate any further on the process, but I know that the sector is keen to engage.

On data use, which speaks to the wider arguments about how we can improve access and participation, that is not a political issue. We share a common desire on both sides of the Committee to ensure that we do more to raise access and participation for under-represented groups and disadvantaged groups.

The hon. Member for Blackpool South mentioned care leavers, and I am equally passionate about looking at that particular group. With the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), I published the care leaver principles. They look at what universities can do and try to spread best practice, such as that which can be seen at Kingston University and the University of Winchester, as well as the academic research looking at how to raise the attainment of care leavers.

I am also keen to ensure that young carers are not ignored and that estranged students are taken into account. I am now in my fifth month as Universities Minister and there is always another group that comes up on the horizon that I feel that I have not considered. I am determined to make sure that nobody is forgotten about in this mix, and that brings me to a wider point on admissions.

I made a speech where I said that I think, when we move forward, we will look beyond access and participation to what I call a student transition experience and progress framework. That sets out that providers must be held to account not just for bringing students through their doors but also for outcomes—for students who are leaving being able to progress successfully through higher education. We probably share that common endeavour. The evidence and impact exchange that has been set up at Nottingham Trent and King’s College London will examine how we can spread best practice and ensure that while the sector is improving at a rapid rate, we continue to ensure that we do not take our foot off the accelerator.

I know that the hon. Member for Blackpool South is fully aware of my comments on the record on minimum entry requirements. I do not believe that there are too many students going to university. If we look at the international context, we need more students going to university and we certainly need more students going into postgraduate education. In my first speech, I set out a road map towards 2.4% being spent on research and development by 2027. I am a passionate believer in the opportunities that higher education brings, and to introduce a minimum entry requirement would cap off the knees of students who should be able to access higher education. Someone might be a victim of domestic violence, or an Army returner, or a student with mental health problems. Just because someone does not achieve the A-level grades that they are expected to achieve does not mean that they should be denied opportunities for the future—I know I probably share that view with other hon. Members on the Committee.

Birkbeck was mentioned. I am very keen to ensure that the post-18 review does not lose sight of the fact that it needs to ensure that we bridge the opportunities between FE and HE. It also needs to ensure that those students who do not go to university at 18, who perhaps enter the world of work and then go back to university when they need to achieve a qualification in order to progress—for example, someone who has been a nursing assistant who needs to go to university to be a qualified nurse—are able to achieve their dreams.

I congratulate Tim Blackman, who has just been announced as the new vice-chancellor of the Open University, moving from Middlesex. I know that he will do an excellent job. It is the 50th anniversary of the Open University. It presents a paradigm—an opportunity—for looking at how lifelong learning can be done as well as possible.

I do not see new providers as a threat or as organisations that should not be given the opportunities of other universities—the Open University was a new provider at one point—and it is right that we allow those new providers to breathe. The regulations provide accountability for new providers, which makes sure that the OfS can work with them and ensure that, if anything untoward takes place, it will be able to hold them to account. That is where responsibility should lie.

I agree with the point the hon. Member for Blackpool South made on the director for fair access and participation. Chris Millward is obviously an excellent individual who has strong ideas about how to expand access and participation. Institutionally, we want to ensure that the director for fair access and participation will be responsible for overseeing the performance of OfS access and participation functions, and for reporting to other members of the OfS on the performance of such functions.

It is right to say this is a delicate balance. When setting out access and participation aspirations, we must not infringe on institutional autonomy, which is one of the hallmarks of our world-class higher education system. We have a duty to protect academic freedom, including in relation to admissions, when carrying out those access and participation plan functions. In continuing with the previous approach, the intention is that the OfS will agree the targets and benchmarks that HE providers set for themselves. This year, the OfS has for the first time put together a common access and participation dataset, which it expects providers to use and set targets with their plans.

The hon. Member for Blackpool South is a fellow historian and obviously equally as interested as I am in the uses of data. I recently set up an HE data advisory committee in the Department for Education to look at some of the wider issues. On the participation of local areas classification, or POLAR, as an effective measure, we agree that more work must be done on the geographical location of disadvantaged pupils, on looking at household income and on what more we can do to ensure that we have a more granular and fine-tuned dataset in order to ensure that we are effectively targeting the students who we want to have opportunities to enter higher education. Should a provider fail to meet the requirements of the access and participation plan, the OfS will be able to hold the provider to account. Where appropriate, the OfS may consider the use of its sanction regime for breaches of registration conditions.

In discussing the regulations today, I hope I have set out the opportunities for the OfS to be held to account when administering the process of whether it should use its fining powers. There are a range of opportunities for the OfS to engage with providers to have that dialogue before implementing any particular penalties. Having had this discussion, I urge Committee members to support the regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the draft Higher Education (Monetary Penalties and Refusal to Renew an Access and Participation Plan) (England) Regulations 2019.