Skip to main content

Higher Education and Research Bill

Volume 778: debated on Monday 16 January 2017

Committee (3rd Day) (Continued)

Amendment 118

Moved by

118: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—

“Freedom of information

The Secretary of State must use his or her best endeavours to ensure that all registered higher education providers are subject to the same freedom of information obligations.”

My Lords, although I am a thoroughgoing advocate of freedom of information, I am very conscious of what my noble friend Lord Willetts said shortly before supper: we must be careful of the degree and direction of obligations that we put on universities. This amendment is therefore very much phrased as not prescribing any particular outcome but saying that it must be equal. That is born of my experience, when, under the last Government, UCAS was deemed to have public functions and made subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I immediately requested some information from it and was refused, and went through the appeal procedure. The case having been ruled partially in my favour, UCAS went through two sets of tribunals, with QCs. It must have cost it about half a million quid to resist the commissioner’s attempts to pin it to the Freedom of Information Act obligations. That is perhaps why I reacted so fiercely to the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, when she quoted “commercial interests”. It was quite clear then that UCAS’s order of priorities was: first, making money; secondly, looking after the universities; and thirdly, the students. I did not think that was right and nor do I think it is right that universities put money first and other things second.

We are dealing—or ought to be dealing—with different kinds of institutions. On the bits that I did not get through the commissioner, some of which is information now being made available through this Bill, I failed because of the inequality of treatment of universities, which were subject to freedom of information, and other higher education institutions, for instance BPP, which were not. That inequality created a commercial tension between those who might have been asked to reveal information and those who were not subject to FoI, which prevented information being released under it. My recommendation to the Government is, whatever you do, do the same for everybody and then everybody has to comply. I beg to move.

My Lords, I have Amendment 238 in this group. It was proposed by Universities UK and follows on from what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has just been saying about equality of treatment. The Higher Education and Research Bill creates three types of registered providers—basic, approved and approved with a fee cap. Universities, as public authorities, are currently subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. However, to ensure a level playing field for access to information it is important for all registered providers designated for the purpose of student support under Section 22 of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 to be subject to the same level of public scrutiny. Schedule 11 to the Bill as currently drafted leaves open what categories of provider should be caught by freedom of information by leaving it to the Secretary of State to specify categories and regulations. If there is the appetite to be more prescriptive, the schedule could adopt the revised new Clause 4A wording as proposed.

Universities are currently subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We propose further consideration be given to whether adherence to the FoI Act should be a condition for initial registration for higher education providers designated for the purpose of student support under Section 22 of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. This new clause would amend the Freedom of Information Act to apply its provisions to all higher education providers designated for the purpose of student support registered with the OfS. This means registered providers eligible for public grant funding and/or access to student loans. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, I have not thought about this topic before, so I welcome the amendment. On the face of it, I very much agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, have said. It seems to me that there is a case for a level playing field in principle. It would be very interesting to know what the Minister regards as the argument against a level playing field on this question. I am relaxed about new entrants to the higher education market. I want to see more diversity and innovation in higher education but, if that is to happen, there will clearly be risks of the Trump University type, as we know from the United States. I do not believe that universities are public sector institutions—they are public institutions—but requiring everybody to be open in their dealings and comply with freedom of information obligations seems highly desirable.

My Lords, I am not certain whether the two amendments in this group will place a statutory duty on higher education providers or whether they are intended to enforce some kind of contractual obligation—that is, in order to be registered, they have to agree to do this and that, which would not be quite the same thing. There are important distinctions between universities and other providers of higher education. Whether the level playing field that has just been referred to applies across that divide is an interesting question, on which I would be glad to know the Government’s view.

It is incredibly important for students and for society as a whole that all providers of higher education are subject to freedom of information requests. I shall give your Lordships an example. A number of private colleges provide higher education, but if you wish to find out their progression rates, you are not allowed to do that—the books are closed. However, if you wanted to know the progression rates for students from year to year at a university, that could be obtained in a freedom of information request. There should be a level playing field. In higher education, the same should apply to universities and to any private provider.

My Lords, I think that those in receipt of public money, with students with fees from government loans, should indeed operate on a level playing field. However, we should reflect on the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, in which he asked whether we want to add more requirements or take some of them away. Having recently been a vice-chancellor, I know that universities get numerous FoI requests, many of them relatively vexatious and from local newspapers in the area wanting bits of information about vice-chancellors, staff and other things. Is it really reasonable that we should spend students’ fees on responding to this sort of trivial request?

I think that the Bill will make sure that the kind of key data that you need to know about universities—things such as progression rates—are available from registered providers, and that is very important. It is not about universities trying to hide things; the Bill requires universities to provide the sort of data that students need to know. In levelling the playing field we should follow the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and think about taking off some of the requirements rather than adding more on.

My Lords, having blasted off at the noble Lord, Lords Willetts, on the previous amendment but one, I cannot possibly go back on that, so I shall not follow the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, on this amendment, although I have followed her on many others. Rather like the noble and learned Lord, I think that universities either come within the Freedom of Information Act or they do not. If they do not, we will in any case get the information in other ways, so that probably does not matter. However, it is interesting to look at the question the other way round. If a university sector of the size and prestigiousness of our institutions was not covered by the Freedom of Information Act, you would find that very strange.

My Lords, the Government have given careful consideration to the range of views expressed in response to our 2015 Green Paper in relation to the application of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to higher education providers. Over 100 consultation responses were received on this issue and, perhaps surprisingly, opinion was divided. The underlying principle behind freedom of information legislation is that people have a right to know about the activities of public authorities. Although not traditionally regarded as public authorities in the wider sense, the Act does currently apply to HEFCE-funded institutions in recognition of the fact that they are in receipt of direct public funding.

In seeking to apply the Freedom of Information Act equally to all registered providers, the effect of the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas—and I thank him for that—would either be to remove all higher education providers from the remit of the Act, or impose an additional freedom of information obligation on providers which are not already covered, irrespective of whether they receive direct public funding. This amendment would extend the scope of freedom of information obligations in this case to all registered higher education providers with courses designated for student support.

In the 2015 Green Paper, we considered the application of the Act and the regulatory costs it could impose on higher education providers, some of which may be relatively small organisations. Having considered the views expressed by a range of stakeholders, our decision was, so far as possible, to maintain the status quo by applying freedom of information obligations to those providers who, in future, are eligible to receive direct grant funding from the Office for Students—namely, approved fee-cap providers. As part of our overall principle of risk-based regulation and seeking to reduce regulatory costs and barriers to entry where appropriate, we did not consider that there was a strong case for expanding the scope of the Freedom of Information Act more broadly. We already believe that more higher education providers will be regulated through our reforms.

In this short debate, I wanted to address an interesting question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. The gist of his question was why the Bill does not seek to provide a level playing field of regulatory obligations. I would like to expand a bit on my answer. The Bill continues a rather different approach, whereby those that receive the most significant funding directly from the public purse are subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. This is a targeted approach to regulation, imposing requirements on those—

I am not trying to be difficult with the noble Lord, but when he talks about direct public funding, does he mean any institution where a student can receive a loan in order to carry out their studies? In my view, when anyone is eligible for a student loan, there is an element of public funding because, as we know, there are going to be write-offs of these loans in the future by the Government. I think this phrase about “direct public funding”, with the greatest respect for the Minister, is a bit of a cop-out.

It is slightly more complicated than that, and it may be that I should write a letter to clarify this, but there is the funding on the student side that the noble Lord is talking about, the tuition fee, where a private individual is receiving private funding, and on the other side, what we are talking about, funding that comes in the form of a grant to help with the top-up—for example, for a high-cost STEM course. I think it would be good if I wrote a letter of clarification on that. There has been some discussion outside the Chamber on this aspect and it gives me the opportunity to write further on this. Having said all that, there is a bit more I wanted to say about that.

Before the Minister finishes his speech, can he tell us whether “direct public funding” includes QR funding, HEIF and research funding from UKRI?

I would be delighted to add that to the letter for clarification. These are complicated aspects that require proper clarification.

To complete my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, providers, as he would probably guess, will come in the future in many shapes and sizes. A one-size-fits-all approach to regulation risks would impose an unwarranted cost on smaller providers and new entrants that could stifle the positive effects of competition in the sector. The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, concluded that the current application of the FoI Act is appropriate. It considered evidence that it may place traditional universities at a competitive disadvantage compared with alternative providers and found it unpersuasive.

In addition to comments made by my noble friend Lord Willetts, I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, put it rather succinctly. That backs up the equivocal aspect of this debate. I believe that there is a balance, and it has been helpful to have this discussion.

Given the importance of information to the effective regulation and scrutiny of higher education providers, we have introduced provisions elsewhere in the Bill to provide a high degree of regulatory oversight and transparency. For example, Clauses 8 and 9 would require the Office for Students to impose ongoing registration conditions on higher education institutions to provide it with the information it requires in order to carry out its functions and to publish specified information.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, raised a point about information availability and I will attempt to deal with that. Through the Bill, we are making more information available to students than ever before, as I hope he will know. For example, both approved and approved fee cap providers will be subject to the transparency duty in Clause 9, which we discussed earlier in Committee, and the TEF will make much more information available for students. With that, I hope that my noble friend will agree to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that answer, if a little disappointed. As I learned in making my application for information and in going through the tribunal and afterwards, if you allow this difference of treatment, you are effectively saying to all the institutions covered by the Freedom of Information Act that all they need to do is claim “commercial confidentiality” and they will not have to publish anything. Anything that is commercially confidential is information that might affect a student in making a decision about which institution to patronise. Therefore, anything really important and interesting becomes unpublishable, and so the freedom of information registration has no function—except to find out what the vice-chancellor had for breakfast, which is clearly not commercially confidential and therefore we can continue to plague them on that. There is no point in registering institutions for the Freedom of Information Act if you then disapply it on such a large scale by failing to register their competitors. I understand that the Government have reached a decision and I will not trouble them again at Report, but I think that they have gone down the wrong road on this. For now, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 118 withdrawn.

Clause 10: Mandatory fee limit condition for certain providers

Amendment 119

Moved by

119: Clause 10, page 6, line 26, at end insert—

“(1A) The OfS may, with the approval of the Secretary of State, waive the fee limit condition in respect of courses which in its view would enable a student to achieve an honours degree within two years of full time study.(1B) For courses to which subsection (1A) applies, the governing body of the provider concerned shall be required to obtain prior approval of the OfS of any fee to be charged.”

My Lords, for the convenience of the Committee, I will attend to Amendments 119 and 120 together. If it is then possible for the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to follow me on that, that will be helpful.

These are probing amendments, the background to which is that the Bill contains aspirations—and may be amended to contain even more aspirations—to see the current rather rigid structure for undergraduate curriculum and courses in this country changed so that there are, for example, more two-year degrees and more flexibility towards taking part courses, or “credits” as they are sometimes called, to build up an entitlement to the award of a degree. This is common in many other higher education systems and has been much talked about on all sides of the political spectrum in recent years, though progress has been quite slow. The amendments seek to probe the idea that part of the delay on this is due to of the way in which the financial regulations for higher education are structured. The finance works in sessions—there is an academic year, as defined in Clause 11, to which we are coming—but the funding for courses is done in relation to the whole course rather than any part of a course. That is the way we have done it historically and there is no particular reason why that is wrong or right. However, it will not be flexible and if a student attempts to do half a course, with a view perhaps to stopping after a bit and then coming back and doing the rest at some later date, or if a new institution was attempting to provide a different type of course, they would have to do it in years; they could not do it in part years.

That seems to me to speak to a discourse of inflexibility and difficulty. It is no surprise that those who currently occupy the position of challenger institutions, or are from smaller independent institutions, have been vigorous in arguing that the current arrangements for the provision of funding for courses do not allow them to do the sort of work that they would like to do. They would be interested in seeing a way of getting a more flexible approach, whereby perhaps, as set out in Amendment 119, a student could get an honours degree in two years, because that was the way it was taught and examined, and that was appropriate for the subject and agreed with by all the regulators and everybody else involved—all the people the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, does not like. Yet it would still not be possible to do it, because the fee limit would be for a four-year course and not for a two-year course, or a three-year course and not a two-year course. The student would get money for only two years, not for the third year.

Alternatively, might it be possible to do it more flexibly with credits? An element of a course could account for perhaps four credits in a year, and the student would have to pay for a full year’s course, within which they might take only two or three credits. These things do not stack up to a more flexible system. There is no particular model in mind, but I hope the amendments give the Minister the opportunity to respond in a way that might open this up in future. I beg to move.

May I add my tuppenceworth in support of the amendments? This seems crucial to the socially progressive innovation in higher education many of us on these Benches would like to see. The truth is that there has not been much attempt to enable people to do courses faster than the standard three or four years. Creating the financial possibility for this to happen would be a very good thing.

My Lords, I wish to respond to Amendments 119, 120 and 121. The Government are committed to encouraging more accelerated degrees and other flexible provision. Indeed, we stated this in our last manifesto and I hope there will be an element of agreement between us on this.

The Bill will level the playing field for high-quality new entrants, making it easier for new specialist and innovative providers to enter the sector. Accelerated degrees are a particular strength of new and alternative providers, and this will help to ensure that students can access learning in the form that suits them. For example, Buckingham, BPP, Condé Nast College of Fashion and Design and the Greenwich School of Management all offer students the opportunity to complete an honours degree over two years. This means that the student incurs less debt and can enter or re-enter the workforce more quickly.

We are interested in understanding what more we can do to support flexible provision. We carried out a call for evidence in the summer seeking views from providers, students and others. This call for evidence resulted in more than 4,500 responses. A clear majority of these came from individual students and we were delighted to see this level of engagement. Many of the responding students expressed an interest in accelerated degrees, so this is clearly an important issue and the demand seems to be there.

On 20 December 2016, the Government published a summary of the call for evidence. This is a complicated policy area and we are now fully considering the evidence. Let me reassure noble Lords, however, that we are looking carefully at the options to remove barriers to accelerated degrees. While we certainly sympathise with the underlying intention of this amendment, as we continue carefully to consider the key issues, I ask that this amendment be withdrawn.

I move on to the amendments spoken to by my noble friend Lord Lucas. In a very similar approach, they both seek to link funding to academic credits as well as academic years. Again there is considerable sympathy with the issues that are raised here. The Government are committed to improving diversity of provision and to increasing student choice. Supporting students who wish to switch a higher education institution or a course is an important part of our reforms.

We also recognise the importance of part-time study, and this gives me another opportunity to trumpet this aspect of our reforms. There should be no doubt about our intention to promote this side. Studying part-time and later in life can bring enormous benefits for individuals, the economy and employers.

This area is also being considered as part of the call for evidence and is all part of us looking closely at the 4,500 responses. Again, it is complicated and I hope the Committee will indulge me and remember that it requires quite a bit of time to gather all the information. We will do that and return with the response in due course. Overall, the Government are already taking action to address some of the key areas of student choice as well as working to support students and their diverse needs.

I assure the Committee that we are actively considering all options in this area. I hope these warm words will be helpful. As we continue to consider the key issues as highlighted in our call for evidence, I ask that the amendment is withdrawn.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. If I get the support of the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, who is quite mean with his support for some of the things that come from this side of the Committee, I am obviously on a winner. We will jump over that.

I make two points. If I gave the impression that this was about only new entrants, that was a mistake. I did not want to say that. I think the Minister accepts that the interest is there from all institutions that might follow what the student demand is. If the demand is for that, courses will follow.

I am puzzled why it takes so long to process 4,500 submissions. I understand that due attention must be given to them but the Minister has about 4,500 sheets in his file and has probably read it for today’s debate. I cannot believe it will take him much longer to get through the submissions. In the course of the debate on this amendment, we have now discovered a fifth way of the Government saying that they are not quite sure whether or not they will bring this back on Report. The Minister simply says he is spending more time reviewing the evidence before him before considering how he might bring it forward. He will only have to tell us and we will happily put it down on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 119 withdrawn.

Amendments 120 and 121 not moved.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 9.08 pm.