Skip to main content

University of London Bill [Lords]

Volume 647: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2018

[Relevant Document: Statement on behalf of the Promoters in support of the Second Reading of the Bill.]

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am very pleased to introduce the Bill. It is an important and, I hope, uncontroversial piece of proposed legislation. I do so partly as a constituency Member of Parliament whose constituency includes one of the prestigious member institutions of the University of London, the London Business School, and as a London MP who recognises the huge importance of the University of London overall to the economy and cultural life of our city and to our international standing.

The Bill’s primary purpose is to correct an historical anomaly and enable the various colleges and institutes that are currently members of the federal university to become universities in their own right, while also remaining a part of the University of London. The University of London was established by charter in 1836, although its history long predates that. It demonstrated an early commitment to diversity and to widening access by becoming the secular alternative to Oxford and Cambridge. The university’s present charter has been supplemented by a number of Acts of Parliament that prescribe its governance arrangements. The current arrangements are enshrined in the University of London Act 1994. I will be referring to the 1994 Act in the course of my comments.

The university was created as a federal institution in which colleges provided the teaching in accordance with the curriculum determined at the centre. For over 100 years, the university was directly funded as a single entity, distributing resources out to the colleges, all of which were originally also governed by centrally determined regulations on academic and other matters. Over the years, that position has wholly changed. The university remains a federal institution with 18 members, all of which are self-governing and autonomous, and most of which operate under separate royal charters.

I graduated from University College London in 1991, when of course that institution was part of the federation of London University. I always thought it rather odd that, when UCL left and the federation continued because of the 1994 Act, the remaining colleges in the federation were restricted. Does the hon. Lady agree that the colleges being able to obtain university status, subject to this proposed legislation passing, will increase their global standing, which is even more important as this country leaves the European Union?

In my role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, we are trying to sell educational establishments in such countries. It is very difficult to sell the University of London, because people do not see it as a university; they see the colleges as having university status. Does the hon. Lady think that this will make my life easier?

I believe that nothing is more important than to make the hon. Gentleman’s life easier, so I am pleased to broadly confirm—I hope—exactly what he is saying. There is a fundamental lack of clarity internationally. Many people in this country understand the importance of the University of London’s member institutes, which have fantastic reputations. However, particularly in the global marketplace for education, there is, as he describes, a lack of clarity about the overarching University of London structure and the institutes that are, in some cases, called colleges and schools. I went to the London School of Economics and some people will not understand the difference between that and a university, so the hon. Gentleman is completely right, as I will confirm even further as I work through my remarks.

The member institutes set their own academic criteria and in most cases have their own degree-awarding powers. In addition to the London Business School in my constituency, the colleges include University College London—called somewhat confusingly both a university and a college—King’s College, the London School of Economics, Birkbeck and the newest arrival, City University, which joined the federation only in 2016. Imperial College, on the other hand, left the federation in 2007, having no other option at the time for it to achieve university status.

The University of London provides a range of opt-in central services to its member institutions, including the university library at Senate House, in which I spent many happy hours, the careers service and collaboration with the university on its international academy programme, which provides distance learning to over 50,000 students worldwide. Members pay an annual subscription to the university and terms of federation membership are prescribed in the university’s statutes.

The key rationale for the Bill, as I said in response to interventions, is that it will facilitate the university’s member institutions becoming universities in their own right. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 changed the regulatory landscape for the higher education sector. It opened it up to new providers and shortened the process for obtaining degree-awarding powers and, crucially, for obtaining university title.

Without this Bill, relatively unknown higher education providers will be able to obtain university status while institutions such as the LSE, UCL and King’s will not. The Bill therefore ensures that such institutions are not placed at a disadvantage in the increasingly competitive market for students and teachers. Branding can matter, even for institutions with reputations as high as those I have mentioned, and some of the member institutions have found that their status as a college can cause confusion. The term “college” can suggest that the institutions are subsidiary bodies of the University of London, when they are in fact self-governing, setting their own entrance criteria and, in the majority of cases, having degree-awarding powers. They are therefore universities in all but name.

The process for institutions applying for university status is governed by the Higher Education and Research Act. Any member institution seeking to become a university in its own right will need to apply to the Office for Students for permission. How does the Bill facilitate that process? The 1994 Act described the University of London member institutions as colleges, and as I have explained, that is increasingly unhelpful, so clause 2 would define membership of the federation as including any University of London institution that has the “status of a university”. Not all member institutions will want or be able to become universities. Not all award their own degrees, for example, and that is a necessary condition of becoming a university. The definition of a member institution maintains the reference to an institution that has the status of a college under the University of London statutes. Whether a university in its own right or a college under statutes, all member institutions will enjoy an equal status within the University of London federation.

Twelve out of the 18 member institutions now wish to seek university status and are presently applying for such permission. As all 12 are long-established and high-quality providers of higher education, it is anticipated that the Office for Students will recommend to the Privy Council that the change of status be approved. The Government have insisted that Privy Council approval is dependent on the Bill obtaining Royal Assent, so to be clear: no member institution will be permitted to become a university in its own right unless the Bill is enacted.

I turn now to the provisions on the making of University of London statutes. These statutes set the objects and powers of the university and establish and define the powers of the university’s institutions. To explain the procedure for making statutes is immediately to identify why reform is needed. The prescribed procedure involves two defunct bodies and a procedure requiring the active engagement of the college governing bodies, which have made it clear that they do not regard such a process as appropriate to the modern federal relationship.

The power to make statutes is conferred on the council of the university—a body that no longer exists. The drafter of the 1994 Act anticipated changes in university governance, and the term used in the Act to refer to the council also applies to

“such other body as the statutes may from time to time designate as the governing and executive body of the University”.

Since 2003, the governing body has been known as the board of trustees, and so, in accordance with the flexible definition of “the council” in the 1994 Act, statutes may be made by the board. That is not clear, however, from the 1994 Act. Furthermore, under section 3 of the Act, the text of any proposed statutes must be sent to the University of London convocation, as the association of graduates of the university, but it ceased to exist in 2003. The Bill will ensure that the terms used in legislation reflect the actual terms now used to describe the various University of London bodies.

The 1994 Act allows statutory consultees a very generous period of four months in which to make representations on proposals. If the governing body then wishes to proceed to make the statutes, it must pass two separate resolutions, with an interval of not less than one and not more than six months, and the statutes only have effect following approval of Her Majesty in Council. That is how University of London statute is made. Whatever the virtues of the system, swiftness is not one. The university regards the process as cumbersome and unnecessarily protracted, and the college governing bodies do not wish to continue with a process that once made sense but which is no longer appropriate.

Is it right to say that the view of the university is that the other encumbrances in the process are what cause the delay, not the Privy Council stage, which is a very quick stage?

Absolutely. The cause of the difficulty is the combination of the length of the consultation and the notional involvement of bodies that no longer exist.

Quite simply, the ever-evolving relationship with 18 member institutions and the need to keep in line with the regular changes to higher education regulation mean the university needs to be able to refresh its statutes from time to time in a more dynamic way.

I want to be clear on one matter before I turn to the proposals for streamlining the statute-making powers. The university does not see the revision of the statute-making powers as an excuse to downgrade its obligations to consult. It is committed to undertaking effective consultation and understands this to be vital to the formation of statutes that command support and confidence. The Bill envisages that the initiative for making statutes will come from the board of trustees as the governing body of the university. Clause 3, however, also enables the collegiate council, which advises the board on all matters concerning the university, to submit its own proposals for consideration.

Ultimately, however, the board can reject the council’s initiative, reflecting the fact that it is the supreme decision-making body of the university. Statutes cannot be made unless the board has consulted the council—assuming they did not originate from the council—a recognised trade union and other bodies that the university considers appropriate. The explicit requirement to consult the trade unions was passed as an amendment in the other place and reflects the university’s commitment to ensuring proper consultation with all stakeholders.

I should emphasise again that all the member institutions were consulted on the Bill and have unanimously endorsed the proposal to legislate. As under the 1994 Act, the board does not have the final say. Reflecting existing arrangements, the Bill provides that the statutes will not be effective until approved by the Privy Council. The Privy Council’s remit over the approval of university constitutional arrangements was restricted under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. Once section 56 of that Act comes into force, English universities established other than by royal charter—those limited by guarantee—will no longer be required to seek Privy Council approval for amendments to their governing documentation. If the requirement for such approval to amendments of statutes of chartered universities is also ended, clause 4(2) of the Bill allows for the alignment of that.

That, in essence, is the main reason for the streamlining of statutes and the ability of member institutions to call themselves universities in their own right. I hope very much that the House will support this important but, as I have said, hopefully uncontroversial legislation.

Last year, the Government passed the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 with the aim of opening up the higher education market. The Act enables high-quality providers of higher education to gain degree-awarding powers more quickly, and also allows those with an excellent track record to achieve university titles.

I recognise, however, that existing legislation poses problems for the colleges in the University of London federation. Under the current rules, colleges that wish to obtain university titles will have to leave the federation altogether, which could undermine both its provision and its reputation. If, however, colleges remain under the current arrangement, their lack of university title may also undermine their prestige and standing, which could have an adverse effect on their ability to recruit students, particularly those from overseas. I therefore fully support this private Bill, which seeks to correct technicalities in existing legislation and allow the colleges of the University of London to become universities in their own right, while remaining part of the university’s federal structure.

Does that mean that Birkbeck College, for instance, will become “Birkbeck University, University of London”, or will it be “Birkbeck University”? How will we refer to it in future?

That will depend on how Birkbeck chooses to refer to itself, but I anticipate that once this Bill gains Royal Assent, most of the University of London’s prestigious colleges will apply to gain full university title, and they are very well placed to be successful. The colleges are already fully compliant with the financial sustainability, management and governance requirements that apply to all directly funded higher education institutions, and they also already have their own degree-awarding powers.

The University of London is one of the very few providers whose powers are set out in a private Act. The primary purpose of the Bill is to correct technicalities in the current Act, which disallows the colleges from applying to become universities in their own right. Given that it is uncontroversial—I hope—and long overdue, I expect it to be passed, with a significant number of colleges taking full advantage of the opportunity to gain university status.

I am very aware that the university and its colleges have already invested considerable time and expense in rectifying the existing situation. Any further delay in the Bill’s progress will be a significant setback to them, and will become increasingly harmful. I therefore encourage the House to allow the Bill to proceed with all reasonable speed.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who I gather is, according to the nomenclature, the promoter of the Bill. She cut through the thicket of a highly technical and somewhat convoluted selection of arguments with a crisp and concise message—the Minister has just echoed it—which is that at the moment, in technical and practical terms, there are significant concerns for the colleges concerned that, to use the old adage, they are neither fish nor fowl. For all the reasons that my hon. Friend set out and the Minister reiterated, at a time when it is so important that the international reputation of our existing universities and institutions is understood and held in high esteem, especially given the situation in which we find ourselves with Brexit and other challenges from competitor countries with universities, our institutions must not be hampered or impeded with regard to the way in which they are understood by people not just in this place or even in this country, but internationally. That is an important part of the process.

I want first to declare a triple interest, albeit an historical one, in this debate. First, I am a former postgraduate of London University—from the Warburg Institute—which serves as a reminder that the University of London consists of not only colleges, but a number of separate institutions and institutes, many of which found themselves in quite a difficult position in the 1990s and 2000s when the changes that we know about began to take place in the relationship of the central university and the colleges. Secondly, of course, this took place some time ago, and, thirdly, to illustrate that, in the 1990s I was a member, by virtue of my editing the magazine History Today, of the board of the Institute of Historical Research. At that time, the debate about the relationship of the university to the various colleges, and what would happen to the university and its institutions, was a strong and fevered one. Thankfully, in the years since, there has been a coexistence—I suppose that that would be the word—between the central register of the university and the colleges, and that coexistence has brought about the uncontroversial Bill before us today.

I do not want to repeat the points made by my hon. Friend and the Minister about the technicalities of the Bill and the processes, but I do want to make one or two observations about the 1994 Act and where this new settlement might take us. In the promoter’s statement of support for the Bill’s Second Reading, we are told:

“The current arrangements are…unnecessarily cumbersome. The 1994 Act allows consultees 4 months in which to make representations”,


“if the governing body wishes to take forward its proposals, it must pass two resolutions with an interval of at least one month.”

That is all very true, but I believe that it has a broader relevance than simply today’s technical debate, as it puts the onus on all the member institutions, when they are changing elements of their statute in the way my hon. Friend has explained will happen under the new set-up, to consult strongly with all their workforce—all their academic staff and students. The Minister will be well aware of the Opposition’s concerns in this area in the light of all we said in the debates on the Higher Education and Research Bill with his predecessor, and the various exchanges that he and I have had about this area since.

The importance of giving the colleges university status cannot be overstated, and I understand the concern of all hon. Members and those involved with the colleges that they should not be hampered externally. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), citing his role as a Government envoy to Nigeria, was worried about this, which I can understand, but in defence of the central functions of the University of London, I would like to reassure him that the status of the university as a brand is still very strong internationally. I pray in aid of that argument the tens of thousands of graduate students whom I see every year at the enormous graduation ceremonies, which are often presided over by Her Royal Highness Princess Anne, the chancellor of the University of London. I do not think we should entirely set aside the brand value, if I can put it that way, of the University of London.

Clause 3 of the Bill refers to conferring a general power on the university’s governing body—the board of trustees. The Bill was amended in the House of Lords, and I have taken the time to look at the evidence given to my noble Friend Lord McFall over two sessions in February and March this year, which was very interesting. In putting forward its proposals, the university made a number of claims about the existing process being unnecessarily cumbersome and protracted and the need to refresh its status in a more dynamic way. I pay tribute to the diligence of my noble Friend, because he pressed the university quite hard on the relationship between the university and the colleges. In particular, he was concerned that there should not be a sense of mission creep regarding to what needs to be done to establish that relationship. As a result of my noble Friend’s probing, two amendments were tabled, one of which restored the right of the trade unions at the colleges and the university to be consulted—[Interruption.]

I am hoping that the hon. Gentleman can have a short break to get his cough under control. I should like to ask him, and indeed the Minister, how much these changes are going to cost. Has there been a cost analysis of the changes?

That is a good point. I do not have the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, but the Minister might be able to give him an indication. I would simply say that it is important that these processes are taken forward as economically and speedily as possible, which will obviously involve some degree of expense. I hope that no one would wish to see flights of enthusiasm for spending lots of money to promote new titles and logos, for example, especially at this time. That is not the official Opposition’s view; it is just my personal opinion.

I shall return to the question of amendments having to go out for consultation by recognised trade unions. This needs to be widely and substantially understood, particularly by the heads of the colleges and particularly in relation to the two unions involved—the University and College Union and Unison. It is important that the workforce should be involved in the process.

The second change relates to the Privy Council, and I understand the need for that change. As a general principle, however, we remain sceptical about the diminution of the role of the Privy Council in the position of universities. Members of the other place made that point when the Bill was going through. This goes back to the old Bagehot definition of the monarchy: it is not the powers that it confers, but the powers it denies. The Privy Council has historically been a useful backstop against the flights of fancy of higher education administrators, and I will be sorry to see its role entirely extinguished. That said, I understand the reasons given in the Bill.

I am with the hon. Gentleman on that. When evidence was given to the other place, every time there was a challenge that these new powers could be abused, the defence was that, ultimately, there was the safeguard that approval would need to be given by the Privy Council, yet clause 4 envisages a time when the Privy Council will no longer be able to exercise its power.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I do not want to prolong the debate unduly on this subject, but the Minister will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said and my generic misgivings, which are not specific to the particular issue in the Bill. We remain not entirely persuaded that there is not a role for the Privy Council.

In paying tribute to my noble Friend Lord McFall, I repeat some of the things that he said in persuading the university to restore these points:

“the focus should be on what values our society expects to see reflected in our universities; it is not just value for money”—

important though that is. He continued:

“In that context, I am very pleased that there will be the opportunity for the widest consultation on this Bill”—

I believe that that has been the case—

“so that it is transparent and we can see exactly what universities will be.”

Finally, I have a warning with wider relevance not just for the University of London but for the Government and other universities. The promoter’s agent, writing to the House of Lords Clerk on 27 February 2018 after the Lords Deputy Speaker had requested evidence that member institutions and trade unions were aware of the couple of procedural changes in the Bill, stated:

“We did not specifically draw the Member Institutions’ and trade unions’ attention to the effect of the Bill in reducing the size of the quorum”—

that would, of course, have made it a lot easier for the board of trustees to make alterations in statute without consultation—

“since it was not a matter we thought it necessary to highlight in the way that it was framed”.

I hope that I am not being unkind, but I detect a slight degree of administrative arrogance in the idea that people who are intimately involved, day by day, with the activities of the university should not be consulted. That way madness and disconnection lies. That said, we support this necessary and proportionate Bill.

I will be brief. I merely wish to thank the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for her opening remarks and for explaining the need for this Bill. She gave a good account.

I support the Bill. In this country, we are rightly proud of our universities, which are a symbol of our soft power that attract people from all over the world. As both the shadow Minister and the hon. Lady said, this is about attracting people from all over the world to share in the culture of our great nation. I am glad to see the Bill has attracted support from both sides of the House, and I look forward to seeing it complete its passage.

This debate would not have taken place had I not blocked this Bill going through on the nod on Second Reading, and the contributions we have had today show that it has been a worthwhile exercise. I do not believe Bills should go through this House without being discussed, particularly when they are opaque. When the Bill was being debated in the other place, it was conceded that the foremost reason and key rationale for it was that it would facilitate universities becoming universities in their own right in London, and it was conceded that that was not clear in the Bill. If something is not clear in the Bill, how are we going to get to the bottom of it unless we start debating it? That is where the value of what we are doing this evening lies.

At the moment, there are 18 self-governing institutions within the University of London’s federal structure, a lot of which are, in many respects, regarded as universities in their own right. For example, if one looks at the 2019 university league tables, one sees that the London School of Economics is third, University College London, of which my late father was a graduate, getting first-class honours in Latin, is 10th—

Far better than me. King’s College London is 26th, Royal Holloway is 28th, Queen Mary is 38th, the School of Oriental and African Studies is 46th, St George’s is 52nd, Goldsmiths is 62nd and City, which has recently joined the University of London, is 66th. The college to which my hon. Friend referred, Birkbeck, is 125th. We are told that other colleges, beyond the ones I have mentioned, are aspiring to become universities in their own right. They may include the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, which this league table puts top of the arts and drama institutions. The question I would like to ask is this: what is going to happen to the other colleges within the federation of the University of London? They are probably not going to be in a position to become universities in their own right, and may not even aspire to do so. What is going to be done to protect their position? Obviously, they operate on the basis that they are part of the University of London, with all the prestige that that brings to their activities. A number of the 24 Russell Group universities are in fact colleges of the University of London—King’s College, LSE, Queen Mary and University College. A lot of these colleges are already seen as universities in their own right, so is it really going to make an enormous difference when this Bill is enacted? I am not so sure about that.

I was disappointed that the Minister did not address one of the hot topics of the moment, which is grade inflation. To what extent are these 12 new universities, instantly created as a result of this legislation, going to engage in grade inflation? A report was produced by Reform, and Tom Richmond, the senior research fellow who was its author, has said:

“Rocketing degree grade inflation is in no one’s interest.”

It continued:

“Universities may think easier degrees are a way to attract students but eventually they will lose currency and students will go elsewhere, even overseas.”

It went on to say:

“Restoring the currency of degrees would also mean better value for money for the £18 billion that universities receive each year in tuition fees.”

That report recommended that universities are stripped of their powers to award degrees and that final-year students should instead sit new national assessments for each degree course. The Bill will do quite the reverse by increasing the number of organisations that will be able to award degrees, with the perverse incentive that they will want to be able to make their degrees easier and engage in the grade inflation about which so many people are concerned. I am interested to hear the Minister’s response to that point.

I thank my hon. Friend for pursuing this line of argument but suggest that he is making several leaps in his assumptions. The receiving of the university title, and in this case correcting an anomaly, do not in themselves entail the university lowering its standards. University standards are incredibly important, not only for new universities but for existing universities—indeed, for all universities. We can do a lot using the quality bodies, such as the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, to ensure that the problem of grade inflation to which my hon. Friend refers is dealt with, but grade inflation is not an argument against an institution gaining the university title when it does exactly the same work as another institution that has that title.

I am grateful to the Minister for responding to my point with that long intervention. I shall not engage in a long argument about it, but he is talking about all 18 colleges of the University of London being able to become universities in their own right. Why are they going to want to do that? Currently, the collegiate council can deal with issues relating to grade inflation within the University of London. I am surprised that my hon. Friend the Minister does not think that that is an important issue with which the council should be able to deal. In itself, the creation of a new university obviously does not mean that it will indulge in grade inflation, but when a report has been produced that suggests that fewer, rather than more, universities should award degrees, the Bill seems to me to be going in the wrong direction.

I remind the House that we are not talking about institutions that just arrived yesterday. All these colleges have already demonstrated fully, in practice, that they are compliant with the financial sustainability, management and governance requirements that apply to all directly funded higher education institutions. My hon. Friend should keep that in mind when he comments on these institutions and whether they may or may not indulge in grade inflation or should have the title of university.

Obviously I always take such things into account, but my hon. Friend has not actually told me what the Government are doing to counter grade inflation in universities. From what he has said, it seems implicit that he regards it as a serious problem. If he wishes to intervene again, I would be grateful if he told me what he is going to do about it.

I am trying not to be drawn into that particular issue because it is not germane to this debate, but a significant piece of work is currently being done on quality in higher education, looking into grade inflation, unconditional offers, the quality of teaching and value for money in degrees. All are important to ensure that we safeguard our world-class university system, but I have not dwelt on that because it is not the subject of the debate.

It may not be the subject of the debate, but it would be very much a pertinent subject for each college that wishes to acquire university status in its own right.

Before I finish, let me refer to clause 4(2), which enables the disengagement of the Privy Council from having to approve what comes out of the collegiate council’s consultation process. It seems to me that what was said in the other place—I referred to it in an intervention—was absolutely germane. We are talking about relaxing the control of the governing body over what happens within the University of London federation. If the safeguard against abuse of that relaxed control is the involvement of the Privy Council, why does the Bill also legislate to do away with that Privy Council involvement? It would be helpful if the answer to that was available now.

We could perhaps also be told at some stage to what extent the Privy Council’s engagement in this process over the years has resulted in changes to processes that would otherwise have taken place without the approval of the Privy Council. Has the Privy Council’s involvement been a pointless exercise, or has it brought pressure to bear to ensure that the only changes carried through are those that are sensible and in the best interests of all 18 members of the University of London’s federal structure?

I fear that colleges in the University of London not becoming universities in their own right will have the consequence of putting tremendous pressure on the other colleges, which may be to their detriment. However, I have to accept that, so far, they do not seem to have complained about it, so all one can do in such a debate is to raise the issue and see what flows from it.

The Bill will now obviously go to an Unopposed Bill Committee, because there are no petitions against it. In recent Unopposed Bill Committees, pertinent questions have quite often been asked about private Bills. I hope that that process will be gone through again, and that, if the Bill needs to be amended in any way, that process will not be avoided but will be facilitated as a result of today’s debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.