Committee (1st Day) (Continued)
Clause 1: The Office for Students
3: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out “Office for Students” and insert “Office for Higher Education”
My Lords, I chair Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, which is part of the university sector. I feel, rising at this stage, a bit like an actor rising to play the porter in “Macbeth”. There have been hours of drama and extraordinary debate about matters of deep principle. I have to make a speech, if I can, that at the same time is amusing but makes a serious point. I am supposed to do it when three-quarters drunk. Unfortunately, I am not three-quarters drunk—there was not time during the dinner break to get that way—so I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I try to square this circle as the porter did.
A well-reputed blog of the higher education sector called, even more peculiarly than the office, Wonkhe, this morning said that there was no chance that the House of Lords would accept this amendment because the resulting body would be called OfHE. I must say that I thought that that was quite a strong argument for the name that I was proposing because “offie” is somewhere you really want to go down to—“go and buy a bottle from the offie”—whereas going for a meeting at the Office for Students sounds extraordinarily tedious and dull. However, it is not on that that I am relying in going for a change of name.
I say “going for a change of name” because I am not convinced that the name that I propose is in every regard absolutely perfect. It could be said that there are many things in higher education that lie outside the field of the OfS and there are certainly some things that lie within it—so I do not guarantee that the alternative that I proffer this evening, Office for Higher Education, is absolutely perfect. All I would say is that it is a great deal more perfect than the option that the Government have presented us with: OfS. I have no idea where “OfS” came from. I envisage in my “Yes Minister” mind a meeting with a special adviser there who said, “Yes, Minister, we could call it anything you like, but we did jolly badly in those university towns at the last election. OfS, so we appear to be on the side of students, would be a good title”—and these things tend to stick.
But the name is clearly inappropriate because much of what it is planned that OfS shall do has very little to do with students. Is registering universities a job for the OfS? Is removing the title from certain universities done in the interest of students? Is fee setting done in the interest of students? Actually, if you come to think of it, the strongest opponents of the Bill have been students, who are now trying to engineer a revolt against the teaching excellence framework. So if we must use this sort of title, perhaps it would be better to call it the Office against Students—which is the effect that I expect this Bill to have; I expect it not to be a successful Bill from the point of view of furthering the student interest.
More seriously, we have to be very careful before importing into our legislation titles which serve a propaganda purpose—who can be against OfS, against students or, in America, against patriots? Before long, we find that the whole of political language has ceased to be neutral in legislation and is starting to slip off into a language from the post-truth era where the titles of things no longer represent their reality but rather a sort of Orwellian other world in which things no longer mean what they are supposed to mean. Such propaganda reasons are not good reasons for the title of an institution.
At this time of night I do not want to detain the Committee further; this is a probing amendment to see whether the Government are at all interested in finding a better name. In the meantime, I will offer unconditionally to any Member of the House who can come up with a better title than I have—Office for Higher Education—a bottle of champagne, provided they can at the same time convince the Minister to accept it. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am a student activist in these things. If we are going to change the title, let us just call it OFFS. That is a suitable acronym. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, knows it well. His would be “Ofhed”, and I think the Minister would be that if he accepted the amendment.
I support my noble friend Lord Lipsey in deploring this title. Words are significant. My noble friend mentioned George Orwell. He knew how slippery language can be. In the fake news and post-truth era, getting words exact matters more than ever. We know that in the light of the Bill students could be called consumers and providers could be entrepreneurs—business men or women. We know that language is loose and being used loosely in politics generally. Hard, soft—when have these words ever been as powerful as they are today? We have to be very thoughtful about this title.
We have spent the day discussing a whole range of activities—knowledge, research, wisdom, range of scholarship, academic life, the global achievements of our universities—and the best we can come up with is the Office for Students. What about the rest of us? What about all the universities and their authority? What about the range of scholarship and achievement of which we are so proud? Finally, on a rather silly note, are the Government really pleased that this will become known as “Ofstud”?
I, too, support the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. The Office for Students was always a rather strange title for this all-encompassing and all-powerful body. It was particularly ironic because it took quite some effort to get students in any way involved with it or represented on it. The Office for Higher Education seems an eminently sensible title for it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said, that covers all the aspects that this strange body is going to be responsible for. The Minister should think very seriously about changing the title.
My Lords, I agree that the Office for Students is a very strange name for this body. I take this opportunity to remind anybody in the House who does not already know how very opposed to much of what it is going to do most of our students are, and publicly so. Although the automatic response one gets when this is pointed out is, “Oh, they just don’t want their fees put up”, that is not the sole thing they are complaining about—not at all. I also take this opportunity to put on record my appreciation of the University of Warwick student union, with which I have no connection whatever, which wrote an extremely well-thought-out critique of the Bill back in June, which was the first thing to alert me to many of the things that I have become very concerned about since. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that this is not an appropriate title and it would be very good if we could come up with another—but I do not think I will be collecting his champagne.
My Lords, of course the serious side to the light-hearted comments is that the name will conceal as much as it will reveal about what is going on here. I understand entirely my noble friend Lord Lipsey’s wish to raise this in a relatively light-hearted way and I do not want to be a party pooper but we need a lot more certainty about what exactly this new architecture, which was one of the great calling cards of the Bill when it was first introduced, is actually going to do and deliver.
A number of amendments further down the list will bear on this and we may well need to return to the name once—and only once—we have decided what we are going to have. For instance, we are now told that the Office for Fair Access will have a slightly different role in government amendments due to be discussed on the next day in Committee. That will change the nature of what the OfS does because, if the government amendments are accepted, it will not be allowed to delegate powers that would normally be given to the Office for Fair Access to anybody else, and it will have to ensure that the director of the Office for Fair Access has a particular role to play in relation to access agreements that are created under that regime. In that sense, the power of the OfS as originally conceived was already diluted at the Government’s own behest. We need to think that through before we make a final decision in this area.
The question of how registration is to take place is a quasi-regulatory function. We have an elephant parading around the Bill—it is supposed to walk around in a room but perhaps we ought not to extend the metaphor too far—in the role of the CMA, to which I hope the Minister will refer. If we are talking about regulatory functions, we need to understand better and anticipate well where the CMA’s remit stops and starts. The Minister was not on the Front Bench when the consumer affairs Act was taken through Parliament last year, but that Act is the reason why the CMA now operates in this area. It is extracting information and beginning to obtain undertakings from higher education providers regarding what they will and will not do in the offers they make through prospectuses, the letters sent out under the guise of UCAS, the obligations placed thereby on the students who attend that institution and the responsibilities of the institution itself. I do not wish to go too deep into it at this stage because there will be other opportunities to do so, but until we understand better the boundaries between the Office for Students and the CMA, it will be hard to know what regulatory functions will remain with the OfS and what name it would therefore be best put under. “Office” is common to many regulators but the letters in acronyms can also be changed.
We are back to where we were on the last group: we are not yet sure what the assessment criteria and regimes will be, but perhaps we know more about the criteria than the regime. It is one thing if a committee is to be established with responsibility for assessing the fitness to be on the register and the quality of the teaching as provided. But if an independent body were established and called the quality assurance office or some such similar name, as it would be under a later amendment, it would be doing a lot of the work currently allocated to the Office for Students. I do not have answers to any of these points. I am sure that the Minister will give us some guidance but it would be helpful, when he is ready and able to do so, if he set out in a letter exactly what he thinks the architecture might look like and what the justification therefore is for the name.
The most poignant point was that made by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden: that an Office for Students without student representation on it seems completely bonkers. I do not understand why the Government continue to move down this path. The amendment brought in on Report in the other place was one of sorts to try to move towards that. But it is a measure of the Government’s inability to grasp the issues here in a firm and convincing way that the person who is expected to occupy that place at the Office for Students, as provided for by the amendment, is somebody able to represent students. It is not necessarily a student, which seems a little perverse. I put it no more strongly than that.
Given that the current draft arrangements in the higher education sector for obtaining metrics relating to the grading of teaching quality in institutions has five students on the main committee and two or three students allocated to each of the working groups set up to look at individual institutions, there is obviously a willingness at that level to operate with and be engaged with students. Why is that not mirrored in the Office for Students? Regarding further use, it is really important that we get that nailed down. If it were a genuinely student-focused body—a provision which many governing bodies have—then the Office for Students might well be the right name for it. But until those questions are answered, I do not understand why the Committee would not accept my noble friend Lord Lipsey’s sensible suggestion.
My Lords, before I start, the Committee might be relieved to hear that my contribution will be somewhat shorter than previous contributions were. I start off, though, by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for his contribution to this short debate. I know how personally committed he is to ensuring that our higher education system is delivering for current and future students, and I value his insight.
This Bill sets out a series of higher education reforms which will improve quality and choice for students, encourage competition and allow for consistent and fair oversight of the sector. To keep pace with the significant change we have seen in the system over the past 25 years, where it is now students who fund their studies, we need a higher education regulator that is focused on protecting students’ interests, promoting fair access and ensuring value for money for their investment in higher education. I hope that noble Lords will recognise that the creation of the Office for Students is key to these principles. The OfS will, for the first time, have a statutory duty focused on the interests of students when using the range of powers given to it by the Bill. As Professor Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, said in his evidence in the other place,
“the Government’s idea to have an office for students that would primarily be interested in student wellbeing and the student experience is a good thing”.—[Official Report, Commons, Higher Education and Research Bill Committee, 6/9/16; col. 22.]
It is our view that changing the name of the organisation to the “Office for Higher Education” rather implies that the market regulator is an organisation that will answer to higher education providers alone rather than one which is focused on the needs of students. That goes against what we are trying to achieve through these reforms. Our intention to put the student interest at the heart of our regulatory approach to higher education goes beyond just putting it in the title of the body. The Government are committed to a strong student voice on the board of the OfS, and that is why we put forward an amendment in the other place to ensure that at least one of the ordinary members must have experience of representing or promoting the interests of students.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, mentioned that she thought that students were opposed to these reforms that we are bringing forward. I would like to put a bit more balance to that, because there is a wide range of student views about the reforms. There is some strong support for elements of the reforms as well as, I admit, some more publicised criticism—for example, supporting improvement in teaching quality and introducing alternative funding products for students. As I have already mentioned, we made that change at Report stage to make sure that there is greater student representation on the OfS.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, raised a point about the role of the CMA. To reassure him, we will set out more detail later in Committee about the relationship between the OfS and the CMA.
As a regulator, the OfS will build some level of relationship with every registered provider, and one of its duties will be to monitor and report on the financial sustainability of certain registered providers. However, this does not change the fact that the new market regulator should have students at its heart, and we therefore believe that the name of the organisation needs to reflect that. For this reason, and with some regret in withdrawing from potentially receiving the bottle of champagne, I respectfully ask the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but I have to say that if we are going to go on like this, it is going to be very hard pounding. I have great respect for the Minister, and I know he has the interests of education at heart. All he had to say was that the Government are prepared to consider alternative titles before we come back to this on Report and if we can find one better than OfS, they will be happy to consider it and we would all have gone home—if we can get a taxi—happy. Instead, he defended this with some arguments that I do not feel the force of.
The Minister said that if it was called the “Office for Higher Education” it would mean that it was acting in the interests of higher education providers only. Does Ofgas operate just in the interests of gas providers? Of course it does not. These regulators do not work in that way. “Office for Higher Education” is a wholly neutral term and means that it will be active in the interests of all those involved in every way in higher education and will not be just a representative of a particular group.
Incidentally, the Minister said the OfS would be representing a particular group and would be representing students because it is about fairer access. The whole point is that, at the time when people are trying to access universities, they are not students at all, or at least they are only school pupils. That is a very good object for a body of this kind, but is not one that can be said to be in the interests of students.
I really would ask the Minister to think again between now and Report. If he is not able to do so, we will take the winner of the champagne and put it to a vote on Report. I hope the House will support me, because if things like this become controversial, in a political sense, across the Floor of the House, I am afraid we are going to find the Bill very hard to digest. However, I beg to leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
Clause 1 agreed.
Schedule 1: The Office for Students
4: Schedule 1, page 70, line 12, after “appointed” insert “(subject to paragraph 4(Z1))”
My Lords, rather perversely, Amendment 4 is a drafting amendment consequential on Amendment 18, so I will start with the latter, which is about the important question of the structure of whatever we are going to call the OfS board, as it is currently named.
Amendment 18 brings parliamentary scrutiny into the question of who should chair this board. A very important theme, although perhaps one for another day, is that the Bill is relatively light in terms of its engagement with the parliamentary process. Although the intention is that the Bill should move away from scrutiny under the Privy Council and other similar regimes, it is not necessarily clear that the will is there on the part of Ministers to provide a different scrutiny arrangement, so we will definitely have to return to this issue. The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, who is in his place, made a very powerful speech at Second Reading in which he pointed out a number of drafting infelicities in relation to statutory instruments, the use of Henry VIII powers and similar matters. I am sure that the recent report from the Delegated Powers Committee will feature in our discussions going forward and that this is another issue we might need to come back to.
However, I am interested in the Minister’s response to the particular question raised by Amendment 18, which is why the Government do not wish the appointment of members of such a key organisation as the OfS to be subject to the scrutiny now commonplace for many public appointments of this type. As discussed, under the Bill as drafted, this body will have incredible power in relation to higher education, effectively opening and closing universities and deciding who should or should not be preferred. It is inconceivable that there should be no scrutiny other than that of the Minister. It is important that we consider including in the Bill the idea that the chair of the OfS should be subject to scrutiny in the process that is now taking place.
Amendment 5 picks up the themes that I elaborated on in the previous group in relation to student representation. It is not convincing for the Minister to simply say that this area has been dealt with by ensuring that at least one of the ordinary members of the OfS board must be capable of representing students. We are all capable of representing students, but none of us present today—unless I am very much mistaken and more deluded that I normally am—can say that they are an active student and can bring that experience to the table. There are many teachers and others around who I am sure would be prepared to stand up and say they could do it, but I do not think they would want to if they were ever exposed to the full fury of the student body. It seems completely incomprehensible to us that the board should not have a student representative—indeed, there should be more than one.
Amendment 6 would ensure that the related criteria for all OfS board members are taken to be of equal importance. The worry here is that there may be vestigial elements from the current regimes, which have been alluded to in earlier discussions today. There is the sense that research takes precedence over teaching competence, that somehow older universities have more authority than newer ones, and that ones with different missions should be discriminated against. Then, there is the question, which I am sure will be raised during this debate—if not, it has been raised in previous ones—of how we make sure that the very necessary representations from our smaller institutions, conservatoires and specialist institutions are made properly.
It is one thing to have a series of representations and an equitable and appropriate way of appointing people, but quite another to be clear that this is done in practice. The amendment is drafted so that the appointment processes—one hopes they will be of an extremely high standard—ensure that broad and equal importance is given to all the elements that make up our university sector and our higher education providers, and that there should be no perception that a hierarchy exists in respect of any of them.
Amendment 7 makes the point, although I am sure this will happen anyway, that there must be current or recent experience among those appointed. I am sure that would be the assumption, but there is no reason at all to suggest that that is always going to be the case. The Schedule seems the appropriate place to put this provision, rather than in the main Bill.
Amendment 8 suggests that the experience of higher education and further education providers should also be taken into account when appointing board members. We have a tendency to speak about higher education as being exclusively in the existing university arrangements but, of course, further education institutions and other institutions such as those we have been talking about in the last few hours all have a contribution to make to higher education, and it is important that board members reflect that.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that at least some of the members of the OfS should have experience of providing vocational or professional education. I am thinking here of the University of Law or BPP University, for example, but there are also wider groups that we would need to pick up on. I am sure the noble Lord will make that point when he comes to speak.
Amendment 10 contains a theme that will run in later amendments. We will be addressing ourselves in those amendments to the suggestion that the Bill is too narrowly constructed around traditional university syllabuses in particular, and to a model whereby students arrive at university having completed their school studies at 18 and then spend three years at university before graduating and going on to do other things. The reality is that the median age of students in our British universities is 22 or 23, that many students come in with different previous experiences, and that there is value in that. There is a real sense that the opportunity to build a structure that encourages people to take alternative routes to further education—to take time out to work, or to study while they do other things—has been missed. We need to address that opportunity. Amendment 10 would ensure that widening participation and associated issues are appropriately reflected in the membership of the board.
The final amendment in the group is Amendment 12, which suggests that the Secretary of State should have regard to the experience of higher education employees and teaching and research staff when making appointments. Valued contributions are made from that sector to boards of higher education institutions. Certainly, when I worked in higher education, there was very strong representation from the non-teaching staff—technical, clerical and administrative staff— who all felt that they were participating in the process of governing and managing the university. Why is that not also the case for the regulating body?
I look forward to the debate and to the Minister’s response. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 11 and 13. I am mostly interested in hearing the Minister’s views on these matters. It seems to me that it is important for a board such as that of the OfS to have experience of the main sets of people and tasks that it is going to be faced with regulating. Amendment 11 would ensure that its members had an understanding of what happens in vocational or professional education. That would be very important because some of its charges will be very much in that part of the world.
Most of all, the amendment would ensure that the OfS has representative people who understand how people end up at university. The business of advising school pupils, looking after pupils who are looking for careers, the limitations of that, the sort of information you need on how 16 and 17 year-olds are, which is very different from 19 and 20 year-old students at university—that is vital experience for a board to have. A great deal of what the OfS is doing is concerned with giving information to people who might come to university and providing structures in order that they should be well looked-after when they get there, so it needs an understanding of what pupils are like.
My Lords, I speak from my background at Birkbeck University on behalf of a sector that has not had much of a hearing today—I hope it will have a hearing throughout further debate on the Bill—which is that of part-time university study and of lifelong learning. It is my conviction that this is the shape of the future and will bulk far larger than is acknowledged in the future lives of people struggling to qualify and retrain in a population who will need retraining in new skills throughout their lives. Part-time education to university level, which is carried out at Birkbeck, is enormously popular with those who do it but, as the Minister will know, has recently suffered an enormous fall in recruitment. This followed the introduction of student fees, and we are examining reasons why that should be so and seeking to remedy them. We need to include in the essence of the Bill the fact that part-time university study is a valid, important and growing sector.
It is for that reason that I have tabled Amendment 5A, which adds emphasis to Amendment 5 by stating that one of the members of the board should be dedicated to the interests of part-time further education. This is very important because we find that a much higher proportion of the students who graduate from Birkbeck are from disadvantaged backgrounds than from any other university. This plays absolutely into the Government’s intention of increasing access, so they have a very strong motive to facilitate this kind of education, which has not figured very much in all of today’s extensive debate. It deserves a much higher profile and it will reap rewards. It will benefit not simply 18 to 24 year-old students; people are graduating from Birkbeck in their 50s, 60s and 70s with full-scale degrees. They are retraining, they come from every kind of background and they really appreciate the training they get. A dedicated member of the board for further education among part-time students is very much to be desired.
My Lords, I refer to my interest as pro-chancellor of Lancaster University. I very much regret that I was not here for the earlier debates. The reason was that I was present at the funeral of Lord Taylor of Blackburn, who was for many years deputy pro-chancellor of the university I presently chair and, more significantly, played a very important role in the foundation of the University of Lancaster, one of the Robbins universities. He saw that the creation of these universities enabled the extension of opportunity. We at Lancaster certainly think that that is the job we are doing, because of the high proportion of pupils from state schools we have, at the same time achieving high standards of academic excellence. I put that on record and apologise that I was not here earlier.
I very much support the thrust of what my noble friend Lord Stevenson is driving at in his amendments. If the Office for Students is to exist, it must be composed of people of the highest calibre. It must reflect the full range of concerns in higher education—and I very much agree with the speech that the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, has just made about the importance of part-time education. That has been reflected, and it is one of the things that I would like us to do far more of in my own institution.
I have one reservation about one of the amendments that my noble friend has proposed—the suggestion that the chairmanship of this body should depend on a resolution of either House of Parliament. I do not know what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, a distinguished constitutional expert, would make of that suggestion, but I have grave qualms about the institution of advice and consent procedures in the United States model for public appointments. The tendency of such a procedure is to politicise it rather than to get the best person. In Britain, we are working towards a better compromise on things like the Governor of the Bank of England, by making it possible for appointees or prospective appointees to be examined thoroughly by Select Committees. I would certainly support the idea that the prospective chair of this body should have to defend his or her experience and record before a Select Committee. I very much support the thrust of what my noble friend is saying, as I always do, but with that qualification on that point.
My Lords, I add my wholehearted support to these amendments. Further education is all too often the Cinderella of the education world, yet further education colleges do an absolutely phenomenal job across a very wide range of students and subjects, so having them represented on this body is absolutely essential. I also support the adult and part-time education students, who form a critical and very important part of the student body. They have different sorts of views and needs from those who are the typical 18 year-olds going to university.
There is also the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made about vocational and professional education, which often links very closely with higher education institutions but has a different sort of ethos and different cohorts of people. All these amendments to add to the membership of the OfS board are critical, and I hope that the Minister will look favourably on these amendments.
My Lords, I strongly support what the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said about part-time students. We will come back to that subject in more detail during these debates. Of all days, today we should think about that really seriously. London has been brought to a standstill by a transport strike, and it is only a matter of time before the drivers of those trains, not merely the people and guards and the other people on the platforms, will no longer be working, because science and technology is advancing rapidly. That is a model for our society, and people will have to retrain.
In my 15 years’ involvement with Sheffield Hallam University, one thing that I have learned above all is that people taking part-time courses have transformed their lives in gaining skills, coming from relatively manual jobs, or jobs with a low level of skill. It is vital that we find every possibility of supporting those students. I urge the Government to consider that during the passage of this Bill. I also briefly defer to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and congratulate him on his interest in school students, which has been long-standing and of great importance.
From my experience, I cannot emphasise enough the lack of aspiration that so many school students have because they do not really believe that they can go to university. That is why it is so important that we have the bridge between school and university which this minor amendment would help to promote. There are all sorts of reasons why that is important. We may have the best school teachers in the world, but so many children go home to a desert where there is no aspiration. Their parents ask them: “Why aren’t you going out to work; why aren’t you earning money; why aren’t you supporting the household?”. It is extremely important to find ways of encouraging people from those sorts of backgrounds to understand that they should be considering further or higher education. Having people on this new body who can help universities interface with schools and teachers to give better career guidance would be a blessing and it should be incorporated in the Bill.
My Lords, it is with great relief that I rise this time to support the amendments proposed by own side; I have confidence in all of them. I also emphasise the importance of part-time students. They are a key part of the business of BPP University—and, like other universities, we suffered a great fall in numbers without changing our offering. We have changed our offering in every way we know how but we are still not increasing the numbers and it will take some work to find out why. In passing, I observe that I have great respect for the work of Select Committees, but I am really not sure that submitting the prospective chairman of whatever this body is going to be called to one is depoliticising the appointment. Select Committees are a fairly political way of doing anything and I do not have much confidence in that suggestion.
My Lords, I speak in support of the amendments which relate to the representation of people with experience of non-standard and non-typical students, including part-time and mature students. In particular, I support Amendment 10 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. One very good thing about the Bill and about my discussions with the Minister of State has been the very strong commitment to improving widening participation in higher education. We all know what a fantastic driver of social mobility higher education qualifications are, leading to higher employability, higher earning capacity, better citizenship and even things such as better health in future life. For all these reasons, having a non-executive member on the Office for Students board—in addition, of course, to the Director of Fair Access—who has strong experience of improving equality of opportunity, social mobility and widening participation is, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said, crucial.
It looks like I am going to be the last speaker, noble Lords will be relieved to know. I support the general tenor of all the amendments in this group, particularly Amendment 7 and the idea that people’s experience should be current or recent. That is extraordinarily important, particularly in an area such as higher education which changes very fast. A number of noble Lords have talked about the importance of further education and the importance of—and decline in the number of—part-time students. We are concerned about these extraordinarily important things, yet it seems that none of the current authorities and institutions which deal with higher education has much idea about why this has happened. We did not intend to have the decline in part-time students that we have. Government after Government have talked of the importance of increasing the role of further education colleges in higher education, because they are central to the availability of part-time courses, retraining and lifelong learning. Yet the role of further education has not in fact increased. The numbers have not increased and the proportion has tended to decline.
So these are real challenges. But it also seems to me that one of the reasons we have got ourselves into this situation is that we do not have enough people with current and recent experience involved at the highest levels of policy-making. Therefore, of all these amendments, I most strongly support the proposal that the Office for Students should look for people to join its board who are deeply involved in the sector in the areas which it is looking for, not people who can tick a box because 20 years ago they were on the board of governors of something. I hope very much that the Minister will take that point away and think about it. I cannot see any way in which it undermines the purposes of the Bill and of government policy. That one small thing might make a big difference to the effectiveness of the Office for Students.
My Lords, I say at the outset that once again I have shortened my comments, bearing in mind the hour. Nevertheless, these amendments need to be properly addressed, so I hope that the Committee will bear with me.
I reassure noble Lords that the Government are committed to a fair and open appointment process for the OfS chair. The final appointment will be made by the Secretary of State, but the process will allow for scrutiny of the appointment by Parliament. We have previously stated our openness to a committee of Parliament scrutinising the nomination of the chair of the OfS before the final appointment is made. I confirm that there will be this opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny in the appointment of the first chair—for whom the selection process is well under way, as noble Lords may know. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, agrees that the chair of the OfS should not be ratified by a resolution of Parliament but that there should be parliamentary scrutiny. That is correct, despite some comments made this evening that were not particularly in favour of that.
Amendments 4 and 18 would be a departure from the accepted practice set out in the governance code. It is standard practice for the chairs of regulators to be appointed by the respective Secretary of State. We believe that our plans for scrutiny are sufficient and that it is right that the Secretary of State should retain the power to appoint the chair of the OfS board.
Throughout the development of this legislation, the Government have engaged and consulted widely with students and their representatives and we are committed to ensuring that this approach is reflected in the final OfS structure and arrangements. We have already amended the Bill in the other place to ensure that at least one of the ordinary members of the OfS must have experience of representing or promoting the interests of students.
As regards the comments just made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, and the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, requiring one member of the OfS board to be currently engaged in representing students, as proposed by Amendment 5, would narrow the choice of potential candidates for this role. It could potentially exclude someone who has excellent recent experience of representing students but who has since gone into the working world or further study, thus gaining valuable experience and skills. Furthermore, the standard length of term for public appointments is four years. As such, insisting that the student representative be a current student risks being incompatible with the standard time lines of most courses of study or sabbatical roles as student representatives. That is why we chose the form of wording that we put forward on Report in the other place.
I turn now to the desirability criteria for the OfS board appointments. The Government believe that it is essential that the OfS board should be representative of the broader range of stakeholders in the higher education system. The current legislation that sets out the appointment process for appointments to the current HEFCE board requires the Secretary of State to have regard to experience of higher education, business or the professions. I reiterate that this has worked well for many decades. None the less, this legislation goes further in ensuring a diverse range of board members by setting out seven desirability criteria. These include experience of providing higher education and experience of creating, reviewing, implementing or managing a regulatory system. The seven criteria have been framed broadly so that they allow for flexibility to include board members with the breadth and depth of experience and skills. The Bill in its current form preserves the crucial flexibility for the Secretary of State to constitute the OfS board in the most appropriate way for the challenges and opportunities of the particular day. I reiterate that we need to form a framework that allows us to look ahead a long period of time.
Amendment 6 requires the Secretary of State to have equal regard to all the criteria, therefore implying equal representation from all of the list of areas, all the time. However, this would inhibit the ability of the Secretary of State to make appointments that reflected the priorities of the time. It could also unnecessarily expose the OfS to legal risk should it be seen to attach unequal weight to each criterion. It also does not recognise that some people will satisfy more than one of these criteria.
On Amendment 7, it is indeed important for board members to be in touch with current issues in the higher education sector. Current or recent experience is of the greatest value, and the Secretary of State will of course be looking to appoint board members with such experience. However, to require this for all board appointments would be too restrictive. It could prevent the Secretary of State from appointing someone with experience from several of the areas listed. Further education colleges provide a small but not insignificant amount of higher education. We would welcome representatives from the further education sector on the OfS board. However, I disagree that this needs to be specifically differentiated from other education providers.
On Amendment 10, we have placed a duty on the OfS to have a regard to equality of opportunity as it relates to access and participation in higher education across all its functions. The new Director for Fair Access and Participation will be at the heart of the new regulator, sitting on the board and appointed by the Secretary of State, reflecting the high priority that the Government give to widening participation. We would welcome this experience among ordinary members.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell, Lady Cohen and Lady Garden, raised the important topic of part-time and lifelong learning. On Amendment 5A, therefore, the Government recognise the importance of part-time education and lifelong learning to provide choice for students to pursue the type of provision that is right for them and to widen participation. I therefore thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for raising this important issue—which we will return to in Committee, to give her some reassurance of the importance that we attach to this topic.
We expect that board members will have a broad range of experience covering different types of provision at different institutions. But it is essential that the Secretary of State maintains flexibility in appointments to the board.
On vocational education and professional accreditations and Amendment 11, which was spoken to by my noble friend Lord Lucas in particular, the Government recognise the important role of vocational education and professional accreditations. Again, just because it is not specifically set out in the legislation, as proposed by Amendment 11, does not mean that people with this experience would not be represented on the board. I disagree that this needs to be specifically differentiated from other higher education providers. As I said earlier, it will be left to the Secretary of State to decide on the precise balance of the skills, experience and background that make up the board.
On Amendment 12, I believe that representatives of providers will also be representatives of the staff of those providers, and it would be presumptuous to consider otherwise. They may be current academics or administrators, or senior leaders who none the less have the interests of higher education staff firmly in mind. To the extent that higher education staff need separate representation relating to their rights as employees, I would not see that as being the role of the OfS board, but rather the responsibility of the providers themselves.
The OfS will need to draw on expertise in advising students, as envisaged by Amendment 13. However, the Government believe that this experience will be drawn upon at a working level in the organisation, or in the designated data body which is responsible for publishing information. The OfS is not intended to be a student advice service; there are several other organisations which already do this, which the Committee will be aware of, including UCAS, the National Careers Service, schools and colleges.
This legislation goes further than past legislation in setting desirability criteria but also recognises the varied experience people have in their lives. It therefore safeguards the Secretary of State’s flexibility to appoint OfS board members based on the entirety of their experience. This flexibility is critical to the success of the new body. I therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I thank those who have participated in this brief debate and I particularly thank the Minister, who has dealt with each of the amendments in some detail. I am grateful to him for that. However, there is a pattern emerging, as we saw in the other place. The Government are determined to get this Bill through and they are showing no signs at all that they are sympathetic to any of the issues raised, even those by Members of the Minister’s own side. Although I understand that, I think that my noble friend Lord Lipsey was right that it would have been helpful at least to have had some acknowledgement of the points that have been made, given the expertise, knowledge and experience represented in your Lordships’ House. It is a little sad that we are not getting a bit more purchase on some of the debates about the issues raised here. However, we will come back to these points and no doubt debate them again.
I thank those who have spoken and I thank the Minister for his response. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Amendments 5 to 8 not moved.
House adjourned at 10.21 pm.