Committee (5th Day)
Relevant document: 10th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
143: After Clause 15, insert the following new Clause—
“Power to restrict enrolments
(1) If the OfS has reasonable grounds for believing that a registered higher education provider is in breach of an ongoing registration condition with respect to the quality of the higher education provided by the provider, or to its ability to implement a student protection plan which forms a condition of its registration, the OfS may place quantitative restrictions on the number of new students that the provider may enrol.(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision about the procedures for imposing such restrictions and about rights of appeal.”
My Lords, this amendment stands in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden.
Before explaining why this slightly technical-sounding amendment is the way it is, I should like to explain that I tabled it because quite technical issues are central to the purpose of the Bill and to the Government’s commitment to preserve and raise the quality of the higher education system, ensuring that students throughout the country and the system get a fair and quality deal from the institutions that they attend and to which many of them now pay a great deal of money.
One of the slightly curious aspects of the Bill is that the sanctions which it mentions, and which can be brought to bear by the Office for Students when an institution appears not to live up to its promises and commitments and to the requirements placed on it, seem to be either rather draconian or very restricted. The sanctions are either a draconian response of withdrawing degree-awarding powers or university title, or a whole range of fines, which might be in response to a fraud, on which there is a whole schedule allowing powers of entry. However, what is striking about the sanctions is that they are very different from the way in which, for example, the regulators in the health or school sectors tend to approach their task, which is much more about maintaining or improving something as a going concern—that is, how they might work with it.
I have raised the issue of certain powers, which we understand from the Minister are seen as not as relevant under the proposed new regime as they were under the old one, both because closing down an institution in which students are studying should be seen as an absolutely last resort—I think we all share the Government’s determination that institutions should be of high quality and serve their students—and because a bit of history is in order.
In recent years we have seen a very large increase in the number of institutions in this country that provide higher education. Some have been universities, where numbers have increased, and many have been alternative providers, where numbers have increased enormously. Some of the alternative providers have degree-awarding powers and some award higher national diplomas or certificates, but many of them also have tier 4 sponsor status, which allows them to enrol students from outside the EU. Between May 2010 and September 2016, no fewer than 968 institutions had their tier 4 sponsor status withdrawn. That is a fairly terrifying number, because all those institutions had students in them, who were studying and had paid money—and, basically, they had their education and their plans pulled out from under them.
As part of this recent history, there was also a somewhat fraught hearing with the Public Accounts Committee, which I seem to remember was not happy with the way that the Government had been regulating these institutions, and an NAO report. Following that, BIS, as it then was, took additional powers, which included imposing student number controls on alternative providers. One of the other things that has happened in the last few years is that student number controls for universities have been lifted, so universities can recruit and enrol as many students as they wish. I am not implying that an alternative provider is a bad thing—actually, I am strongly in favour of greater diversity and of an open, diverse and innovative sector—but, in a spirit of risk-based regulation, we have to take account of that recent history.
The Minister has said that in future he would not expect to use student number controls as they were used in the past. I have to admit that I am slightly unclear about the legal status of imposing any student number controls on anybody who has degree-awarding powers and university title. But is this wise? Is this very small repertoire of sanctions, which the Government seem to envision, really sensible? Is it in line with what we know about risks and is it fair to students? When something goes wrong, it is a personal tragedy and a catastrophe for the students who are involved. I found—quite randomly—a small story on the BBC website from March 2016, when the London School of Business and Finance, which is owned by Global University Systems and operates in this country, lost its tier 4 status. What was striking about this story was how terrible this was for the students who were involved. One student said:
“I paid £8,500 up front, which is a lot of money”.
It is, indeed, a lot of money. It is a great deal of money, particularly for the groups of students who—and this is highly commendable as long as it is properly regulated—come from families which do not have a history of higher education, or from recent immigrant groups, or minority groups, or from overseas and who have often saved up vast sums of money to come to the UK. They are, in other words, many of our most vulnerable students.
We also have to be aware that things can go catastrophically wrong. One reason why I am very conscious of the risks that can follow from inadequate oversight, inadequate care and inadequate powers to intervene before things go wrong, is because of much of what has happened in the United States where, with a great deal of optimism and in many cases, realised optimism, it became increasingly easy for institutions to set up and, above all, expand. We then had, a little bit further down the road, the catastrophe for students who were enrolled at Corinthian, which went bankrupt overnight. This happened because when you are going bankrupt, you wait until the last minute and you hope it will not happen, but suddenly your students are told that you do not exist anymore and that the institution to which they have given their money is now in the hands of the receivers. As a result, students have an incomplete degree and a debt which they cannot pay off. I am not saying that is not something that happens to all institutions—and I am not saying that the public sector is good and the private sector is bad. I am saying that these are areas where we know the risks are high and we therefore know the importance of having risk-based regulation and a whole repertoire of ways of responding and picking up on situations which threaten catastrophe for the students concerned.
That is why I have tabled this amendment. I do not expect for a moment for it to become law, but I would like to draw to the Minister’s and to your Lordships’ attention, the importance of making sure that, if we are having this integrated sector with a single regulator and a single register, we do not, in the process, abandon a range of sanctions, tools and approaches which were developed very recently by this Government’s immediate predecessor for very good reason. What sanctions will remain in the hands of the Office for Students, if it feels as if things are going wrong, other than imposing a fine and other than going for a draconian closure? Is the Office for Students expected to take any sort of active role in not only spotting risk but doing something to mitigate it and ensure that students are not left in the situation of that young man whose story I have just quoted? I beg to move.
My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, which is self-explanatory. She has set out very clearly the reasons behind it: to ensure that the OfS can place restrictions on the number of new students a particular higher education provider may enrol, if it has reasonable grounds for believing that the provider is in breach of a registration condition.
Given that the Bill aims to improve the student experience, it is particularly important that, if a higher education provider is falling short in the provision it should be offering, the OfS should, as part of its duty, have powers to intervene to prevent cohorts of new students being enrolled. The registration conditions in the Bill are important but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, set out, it is important that the OfS should have a range of sanctions available if a particular provider is not abiding by the registration conditions, and that those sanctions should be proportionate. On the amendment’s second paragraph, it is only right that that there should be regulations setting out the procedures, but only right too that rights of appeal for any such sanction should be added to the clause.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, set out very clearly, her amendment would allow the OfS to place,
“quantitative restrictions on the number of new students that the provider may enrol”,
if it has,
“reasonable grounds for believing that a registered higher education provider is in breach of an ongoing registration condition with respect to the quality of the higher education provided … or to its ability to implement a student protection plan”.
She went into some interesting and rather unfortunate detail about what can happen when colleges or providers get into serious difficulty.
The amendment has echoes of Amendment 142, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, last week, which sought to replace the words,
“it appears to the OfS”,
“the OfS has reasonable grounds for believing”,
relating to the power to impose monetary penalties in Clause 15. Restrictions on new students would be a new power following the provisions of Clause 15. In effect, it is another form of monetary penalty, which we support in principle, although we would be concerned if it were left open-ended. As soon as a breach is shown to have been brought to a conclusion, we believe the restriction should be lifted so as not to harm existing students, who are blameless but could be affected—as the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, graphically explained—to their detriment through the institution either being closed, or having fewer resources.
I read closely the Minister’s response to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, from our debates on Wednesday. I cannot say that he made a convincing case for rejecting the rather stronger words in that amendment. He basically stated that as the wording in the Bill is used in other legislation—he quoted the apprenticeships Act of 2009—there was therefore no reason to change it. He did not come up with any other reason, despite the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, saying in moving the amendment that “it appears to” was but one of the options available and one of the lower ones at that.
Although the words “it appears to” are used in other pieces of legislation, few use the formulation in the context of a decision to take enforcement action, which is what raises concern with this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, stressed that the aim was to raise the legal threshold before the OfS was entitled to take action. In doing so, he was supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, one of whose cases was quoted. It seems at least odd that the Government feel that their lawyers, who I suggest probably do not have the noble and learned Lord’s expertise and experience, know better on this matter. The same applies to some extent to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf. Having had time to reflect, perhaps the Minister will—if not today, before Report—come to the view that it is appropriate to raise the standard required of the OfS in such situations.
My Lords, the Bill creates the conditions to improve the overall quality and diversity of the higher education sector, creating a level playing field through a risk-based approach to regulation. Clause 6 enables the OfS to impose specific, ongoing registration conditions on a provider. The practical effect of this is that the OfS will assess the compliance of all higher education providers with the appropriate conditions and will adjust its regulatory approach accordingly. This is central to the risk-based approach to regulation that the OfS is being established to provide.
In practice, we envisage that, if the OfS considers that an institution or an element of an institution, such as its financial sustainability, poses a particularly high risk, it can add, change or tailor the registration conditions applicable to that provider to address that risk. I hope I can reassure noble Lords that the Bill already provides for the OfS to set a student number control condition in cases where it is appropriate and proportionate; for example, an institution that the OfS considers may be in breach of registration conditions that relate to quality of provision could have a student number control imposed by the OfS as an additional specific registration condition, if the OfS believes that such action is reasonable and proportionate. The OfS may also exercise this power if it considers that there is a risk that the provider is recruiting more students than its student protection plan can properly cater for.
I am in complete agreement with the noble Baronesses, Lady Wolf and Lady Garden, about the importance of providing the OfS with the tools it needs to ensure the quality of higher education provision. However, given the powers already conferred on the OfS through Clause 6, it is unnecessary to include in the Bill one example of the conditions that could be imposed. Indeed, including one example of such a condition might appear to exclude other conditions which might be more appropriate in the circumstances of a particular provider, including those which have no plans to increase their student numbers. However, I appreciate the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, raising this and I hope I can provide some further reassurance for her, focusing particularly on overseas providers, which she mentioned. Our plans will speed up and streamline process without lowering standards. In order to become eligible for degree-awarding powers, any provider must register and pass rigorous entry requirements. It is a high bar which only high-quality providers will be able to meet. We welcome overseas providers which meet this test increasing choice for students. Providers that cannot meet the rigorous entry criteria will not be able to become registered or obtain access to degree-awarding powers or university title.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, asked what sanctions are available to the OfS. I start by saying that the best principles of regulatory practice will be adhered to. These include transparency, accountability, proportionality, consistency and, where issues are targeted, targeting only cases where action is needed. Specifically, the escalated suite of actions and sanctions available to the OfS includes: putting in place a support strategy or issuing a direction for a provider to take specified actions; imposing additional specific ongoing registration conditions—for example, as I mentioned earlier, student number controls; or imposing a monetary penalty. We envisage that most often this will be used where a breach has occurred but has now been remedied, but it can also be used alongside a suspension. Also—and by the way, this is as a last resort—the OfS can order deregistration. To further reassure the noble Baroness, this will be where all other efforts have failed or it is clear that imposing monetary penalties or suspensions will simply not be sufficient to deal with the provider. I hope that, with those reassurances, the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister most sincerely for what he has just told us and for—I do not want to call it a gloss—the additional information he has provided. I am extremely relieved to know that it is clearly the intent of the Government that the OfS should have a wide range of actions and get deeply involved not merely in risk regulation but in avoidance of catastrophe, which I have alluded to. I am extremely grateful to the Minister, I am delighted to have had the points of fact he has just given us placed on the record, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 143 withdrawn.
Schedule 3: Monetary penalties: procedure, appeals and recovery
144: Schedule 3, page 78, line 37, at end insert—
“( ) During the specified period the OfS must have due regard to the general desirability of keeping confidential the fact of, and reasons for, its intention to impose a monetary penalty on a provider, until it has issued a notice to the provider under sub-paragraph (1).”
My Lords, Amendment 144 in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Wolf, and the others in this group, Amendments 148 and 153, concern confidentiality during ongoing investigations by the Office for Students. I ask the Minister to consider that the OfS should be required to maintain appropriate confidentiality during ongoing investigations, because of the risks to the reputation of an individual provider. Such risks have huge implications for the provider’s students and graduates, as well as for its staff and the rest of the sector. There are risks of publicity in cases where, for example, an allegation or complaint may not be upheld. As we know, reputations are much more easily lost than they are restored. The reputation of a provider is critical to its students and graduates.
Will the Minster consider that the OfS should have a duty for its proceedings to remain confidential and to ensure that it will not announce that it is considering taking action against a provider until it has made a decision to do so, and until the provider has had the opportunity to respond to the points made in the initial notice from the Office for Students? I hope that this will be uncontroversial, because it will be of benefit to students as well as providers in the sector as a whole. I beg to move.
My Lords, we support the amendments in this group in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Brown and Lady Wolf. It is appropriate that until the OfS has issued a monetary penalty notice to a provider, has issued a notice to suspend a provider’s registration, or has issued a notice to remove a provider from the register, the OfS should keep its intentions and the reasons for them confidential, as already stated by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown.
Confidentiality is an important factor in situations such as these and it is necessary to protect against that all too common suspicion that there is no smoke without fire. Even if exonerated, an institution may never completely recover its reputation, and the ensuing stigma could have serious effects on its ability to attract students, academics and research funding. There could be significant risks in such situations, not just to the reputation of the individual provider but to the higher education sector as a whole. For that reason, these amendments are necessary.
My Lords, I first apologise for my voice. I have a heavy head cold and my remarks may be more impenetrable than usual.
I agree with the noble Baroness that it is important to protect provider reputation in the early stages of an OfS investigation while evidence is being gathered. We recognise that even the knowledge that the OfS is considering sanctions could have a detrimental effect on a provider in a number of ways. I hope I can reassure your Lordships that the Bill already contains safeguards to protect the interests of providers in the circumstances outlined, and that it is moreover highly unlikely to be in the interests of the OfS to disclose that it is considering sanctions.
When the OfS is considering action as a result of a perceived breach of registration conditions, the primary objective is generally to achieve compliance. I am sure your Lordships agree that the desired outcome, for the benefit of students and the provider alike, is that the provider takes the actions necessary to ensure compliance with the conditions of registration that have been placed on it. Providers are expected to be given guidance and time to enable them to take corrective action or make further representations to the OfS. Only in very serious circumstances would we expect sanctions to be imposed. Disclosing details of possible sanctions during this sensitive period, when the OfS has yet to decide to take action, and when discussions, representations, remedial action and evidence-gathering may be ongoing, would not generally be either appropriate or helpful.
I assure your Lordships that under the Bill, in Clause 2, the OfS must have regard to the principles of best regulatory practice and act in a proportionate, accountable and consistent manner. As the noble Baroness is aware, there are many regulatory bodies covering a wide range of areas of activity in the UK which do indeed implement and deploy that best practice. As such, the OfS, like any other public body, would not look to disclose information prematurely or unnecessarily that could have an adverse effect on a provider before a decision was taken. To do so would not be in accordance with regulatory best practice. Let me be clear: if a decision has been taken to impose a sanction, we would expect the OfS to consider making it a specific condition of registration that a provider’s governing body advises students promptly and accurately of the OfS’s sanctions. The OfS itself may also look to publicise the details if appropriate, especially where this may be in the interests of students.
I hope that this reassures the noble Baroness and I ask her to withdraw this amendment.
I thank the Minister for her reassurance that we have a common intent in how the Bill expects things to work and how these amendments try to ensure that things work. I hope she may consider adding a few extra words to the Bill, but I am very pleased to hear the reassurance and, in light of it, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 144 withdrawn.
145: Schedule 3, page 79, line 14, leave out from “when” to end of line 16 and insert “—
(a) an appeal under paragraph 3(1)(a) or (b), or a further appeal, could be brought in respect of the penalty, or(b) such an appeal is pending.”
My Lords, I shall speak to the government amendments and wait to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Judd, before responding to his amendment. These government amendments relate to the various appeals processes contained in the Bill in relation to a decision by the OfS to deregister a provider, impose a monetary penalty, vary or revoke degree-awarding powers or revoke a university title. The amendments address points of inconsistency and are intended to ensure a smooth and clear appeals process. I emphasise that the amendments clarify and put beyond doubt various procedural points, including that no decision can come into effect while any appeal, including a further appeal, can be brought or is pending; that a provider may appeal against the decision itself, the date on which it comes into effect or both; and that a provider may appeal, in relation to degree-awarding powers and university title only, the exact sequencing of a decision, an appeal and any order which brings the decision into effect. These amendments further align the various appeals provisions across the Bill. They are not a change of policy but simply to try to iron out inconsistencies. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very interested to find my amendment surrounded by government amendments, and I am not quite sure whether to interpret that as good will from the Government towards my amendment or what. Due process sounds an awfully boring phrase, but it is often terribly important. My amendment is very brief and to the point and is about due process. I should remind the Committee that I am involved in the governance of three universities—the LSE, the University of Newcastle and the University of Lancaster. The rights to appeal in the Bill are somewhat patchy. In particular, there is no right to appeal against a decision not to register an academic provider or to challenge the suspension of registration. Decisions over the registration, suspension or deregistration of academic institutions represent significant examples of the exercise of discretionary power by the Office for Students. It seems only right that in the exercise of these powers the Office for Students is properly accountable, and my amendment seeks to ensure that. It is not right that it should be accountable to an appeals process for decisions about removal from the register and yet will not have the same accountability for decisions to suspend or not to register. This conforms to the norms of public law that bodies should be properly accountable.
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and ask the Government whether they have fully considered the appeal and legal implications of this new structure. There is already quite a body of education lawyers. I have no doubt, subject to correction by noble and learned Lords, that every single significant decision in the Bill will be appealed when it comes into force. The awards of gold, silver and bronze will immediately spark judicial review, as will the metrics used for the teaching excellence framework. Grant and non-grant of title are mentioned in the Bill. Registration, validation, numbers of students, access—every single vital decision is unprotected, quite rightly, from appeals and, in particular, judicial review, which could bring a whole system to a halt.
There is already a student complaints system which will, I am sure, expand, given the promises that will have to be made under the new structure being brought into effect by the Bill. Have the Government thoroughly considered all the areas in the Bill that will be open to judicial review and how institutions and the OfS will cope with it?
My Lords, it seems to me that my noble friend Lord Judd’s suggestion would be a very useful addition. The comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, just now support that.
In response to the previous group of amendments, the Minister stated that under Clause 2(1)(f) the OfS must give due consideration to “best regulatory practice”. Surely, offering somebody the opportunity to appeal a decision, which could have pretty far-reaching consequences, cannot be described as anything other than best regulatory practice. On that basis, I hope the Minister will accept the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Judd, along with the Government’s amendments, because it is undoubtedly a question of best regulatory practice.
My Lords, I note that a similar amendment to that proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has been tabled in relation to the provisions on degree-awarding powers, which we will come to in future sessions.
The appeals provision in the Bill has been drafted to cover specific scenarios where the OfS makes a decision that deprives providers of a status powers or imposes a monetary penalty. I understand the sincerity behind the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, but he is proposing something additional: extending the appeals provisions to unsuccessful applications to join the OfS register.
I was interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, say that her apprehension is that the justice system would become overloaded without this amendment. The Government’s contention is that extending the appeals provisions to unsuccessful applications could achieve that very consequence, which would be undesirable and could also encourage ill-prepared applications. But let me provide some reassurance—
It is not about just unsuccessful applicants but situations where a registration is suspended, having already been given.
I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I might observe that there is a distinction: suspension is a temporary compliance measure. Although there is no formal right of appeal, the Office for Students is required to notify an institution of its intention to suspend registration and allow 28 days for the institution to make representations. So there is a process, which means that the institution at risk of suspension has a right of comment and an opportunity to take remedial action.
I realise that the Minister is a lawyer—that is understood—but she seems to be making a significant distinction. It is not just about having a right to comment, saying “I wish you hadn’t done that”. This is about the right to appeal a decision—building an appeal and trying to have it overturned.
I cannot claim to be a lawyer— I am a very long since defunct lawyer—but what I am endeavouring to do, without reference to legal parlance, is to draw a distinction between the scenario I have outlined, where we understand that appeals could be competent and would be important, and that outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Watson. We think there is a difference between the scenario I have outlined and suspension, which by its very nature is an interim process—either it will be dealt with or it will not be dealt with.
I will try to provide some reassurance. Where the OfS proposes to reject an application to the register, or indeed to suspend a provider’s registration, the provider is afforded a minimum period of 28 days to make further representations to the OfS before the final decisions are taken. In these circumstances, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Judd, to consider not moving his amendment.
We consider a well-functioning decision-making and appeals process to be vital for the smooth running of this new regulatory framework. The Government amendments do not reflect any change in policy but merely clarify some points of procedural detail, with the aim of making the processes as clear and robust as possible.
I omitted to respond to a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who inquired about the assessment by government lawyers of the potential for claims arising. I do not have that information but I undertake to write to her.
My Lords, the Minister has not altogether reassured me. There is a very important principle in justice that it should not only be done but be seen to be done. There is also an anxiety that it would not be possible to have new applicants who challenged the established order because they were bringing a completely new or fresh approach. If they are refused recognition, surely the normal practice of law is that they should be able to appeal against that decision. I do not see why the Government should resist that, because it is in everyone’s interest that everyone can understand why the applicant was refused. Otherwise, anxiety might begin to build up about what was really happening, along with the anxiety that the Government were backing some of the existing club, as it were, in excluding new members. I am still anxious about the principle of justice in this context, but I will consider very carefully what the Minister has said. At this stage, I shall not move my amendment.
Amendment 145 agreed.
Schedule 3, as amended, agreed.
Clause 16: Suspension of registration
Amendments 146 and 147 not moved.
Clause 16 agreed.
Clause 17: Suspension: procedure
Amendments 148 and 149 not moved.
Clause 17 agreed.
Clause 18: De-registration by the OfS
Amendments 150 to 152 not moved.
Clause 18 agreed.
Clause 19: De-registration by the OfS: procedure
Amendment 153 not moved.
Amendments 154 to 156
154: Clause 19, page 12, line 27, leave out subsection (8)
155: Clause 19, page 12, line 29, leave out from “when” to end of line 30 and insert “—
(a) an appeal under section 20(1)(a) or (b), or a further appeal, could be brought in respect of the decision to remove, or(b) such an appeal is pending.”
156: Clause 19, page 12, line 32, at end insert—
“(11) Where subsection (9) ceases to prevent a removal taking effect on the date specified under subsection (6), the OfS is to determine a future date on which the removal takes effect.(12) But that is subject to what has been determined on any appeal under section 20(1)(a) or (b), or any further appeal, in respect of the decision to remove.”
Amendments 154 to 156 agreed.
Clause 19, as amended, agreed.
Amendment 157 not moved.
Clause 20: De-registration: appeals
158: Clause 20, page 12, line 35, leave out from “against” to end and insert “either or both of the following—
(a) a decision of the OfS to remove it from the register under section 18;(b) a decision of the OfS as to the date specified under section 19(6) as the date on which the removal takes effect.”
Amendment 158 agreed.
Amendments 158A and 159 not moved.
160: Clause 20, page 13, line 3, after “decision” insert “(including the date on which the removal takes effect)”
Amendment 160 agreed.
Clause 20, as amended, agreed.
Clause 21: Refusal to renew an access and participation plan
Amendments 161 and 162 not moved.
Clause 21 agreed.
Amendment 163 not moved.
Clause 22: Voluntary de-registration
Amendment 164 not moved.
Clause 22 agreed.
Amendments 165 and 166 not moved.
Clause 23: Assessing the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education
166A: Clause 23, page 14, line 30, leave out from “may” to “of” and insert “appoint an independent body to make assessments”
My Lords, Amendment 166A and the allied Amendments 168A and 173 propose that the body that is to judge the quality of the teaching and the standard of assessment in universities should be independent of the Office for Students. Amendment 173 declares that no members of the body should also be members of the Office for Students.
These amendments are overshadowed by my noble friend Lord Stevenson’s amendments that give a detailed remit to a proposed independent office of quality assurance. No doubt he will speak persuasively to those amendments with his customary wit and wisdom, but in effect, they propose re-establishing the existing Quality Assurance Agency, or the QAA, under another name and on a different constitutional basis. This raises the question of why the role of the independent QAA should not be perpetuated. This is not a rhetorical question; it is a genuine request for a response from the Government.
However, I will not hesitate to suggest that, as it stands, the Bill will allow the quality assurance regime to become subject to much closer oversight and control from the Secretary of State than has been the case hitherto. If that were to be the case, I am bound to say that it would be likely to have very deleterious consequences. I should be honest at this point about declaring that, notwithstanding the respect that it has acquired, the effect of the existing QAA regime has been deleterious.
I can imagine that when it was first established, there was thought to be a need for a formal centralised system of quality control. This I would like to dispute. Despite many impressions that may have been fostered by the campus novels of the 1960s and the 1970s, universities were well regulated as regards both the quality of their teaching and their standards of assessment. As I mentioned at Second Reading, this was achieved largely through the system of external examining, whereby universities appoint persons from other institutions to monitor their examination procedures and to assess their methods of teaching.
The detailed findings of the external examiners were private to the institutions concerned, albeit that any lapses in standards would quickly become common knowledge throughout the university sector as a whole. The system of external examining not only served to keep the teaching within academic departments up to the mark, but also ensured a degree of uniformity in the standards within particular academic disciplines throughout the sector. With the advent of the formal quality assurance regime and with the duty to publish the findings of external examiners, a great pressure arose to ensure that any publicity would be good publicity. The quality assurance officers within individual institutions worked assiduously to this end and they often imposed upon the external examiners, asking them to amend any comments that seemed to be critical. Thus the purpose of the regimes of external examining has been utterly subverted. This is only one of the many ill effects of a formalised centralised quality assurance regime that I can instance; there are many others.
In view of these experiences, I have some misgivings regarding the prescriptions of my noble friend Lord Stevenson. Nevertheless I am bound to support them on the grounds that they emphasise the need for academic independence and that they tend to remove matters of quality assurance from the direct influence of the Secretary of State. I hope that in replacing the existing Quality Assurance Agency by a newly founded system there will be some regard to its failures and some recognition of the qualities of the pre-existing system that I have described. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have a significant number of amendments in this group. I thought that for the convenience of the House, I should introduce them at this stage so that the debate can be as full as it can be. I support the comments made by my noble friend Lord Hanworth. He is right in describing where my amendments would take us. I do not specifically say that I would rule out the continuation of the existing QAA. Indeed, this group is wide enough to allow a number of different interpretations and some of the amendments do concern the status quo ante. However, the amendment at the heart of this group would create a new independent body. This would probably be best achieved by transmogrifying the QAA but it does not require that.
The new clause in Amendment 170A sets up a body called the Quality Assurance Office, which has come largely from discussions and debates around the sector. It has gained considerably by comments made by the Council for the Defence of British Universities, an organisation that has attracted a lot of attention from Members of your Lordships’ House and more widely in the sector. I am grateful to it not only for its ideas and discussion but also for some of the drafting in these amendments.
Amendment 170A therefore sets up a new body. Amendment 201A sets out the functions of that body. It is a key point that it would be independent of the Office for Students and of the Secretary of State, with a focus on responsibility for qualities and standards. Amendment 213A inserts a revised schedule setting out the detail of QAO which replaces that which appears in the Bill for a committee to deal with standards. Amendment 217A sets out how the QAO will be funded. We are thus presenting a complete package. It would be relatively easy for the Minister to respond by saying that he accepts every word of it. I am sure that as I sit down I shall hear him say exactly that.
To be serious, the reasons for these amendments are in two groups. The first group is about the creation, in the Office for Students, of what I think is primarily a regulator. I say that partly because that is how it has been described by the Minister, although in his recent letter he tries to backtrack a little from that in saying that it is not a regulator as one would understand the term “regulator” since it will not acquire with its establishment any of the functions currently given by the code of regulators. This is neither one answer nor another. We shall have to come back to this problem. What we know is that the regulatory structure in higher education is becoming more complex because of the requirements in the Consumer Rights Act 2015 which made the CMA responsible—although there were powers before that—for obtaining undertakings from universities and higher education providers in order to ensure that they were operating with the proper integrity required of bodies offering services to those consumers who wished to take them up.
So we have a rather complicated field. The letter from the Minister dealt in part with this, but it does not quite answer all the questions. I hope we will get some more information from him during this debate. Either today, or at some future date, we will know that the Office for Students is indeed a regulator. However, in the Bill as currently drafted, it has responsibility for setting up committees or, in some cases, direct functions relating to quality assessment and fair access; the statistical underpinning of these areas and validation. Indeed, it is appointed as validator of last resort. This would be a situation which is unparalleled in the regulatory framework: a body which is not only responsible for the health, existence and support of the bodies which it is regulating, but also has the power to deregister them and shut them down. At heart, it is an all-singing, all-dancing model which has been tried in other areas and just does not work. Such a body is not right in principle and will not work in practice. That is the first strand—what the Bill is trying to set up is not the most efficient and effective way of operating in this sector.
My second point is a positive argument for why it is important to have an independent regulator in this area. The key issues we have been discussing, both at Second Reading and in Committee, are: how we establish the appropriate standards for the university sector in the United Kingdom—in this part of the Bill, in England particularly;—and how a body that wishes to become a higher education provider can be registered as such and how it will acquire degree-awarding powers. This is a key plank which we must get right as we go through the Bill. Secondly, it goes further than we currently do in providing quality teaching and research—this Bill is mainly about teaching—in a way which has not been tried before and using methods which are not yet in proper state, but we must all support the aspiration. This work is currently done by QAA, which at the moment is an independent body and not part of the HEFCE set up. We need to think about how we can find an addition to the structures which will enhance and encourage others to develop both quality and standards even further than they currently do, although the two are completely different.
In these amendments we argue that it is important to get an independent body for standards which is, therefore, outside any possibility of pressure from the OfS or the Secretary of State to do one thing or another; gives independent advice to the OfS and the Minister; can respond separately on innovation and enterprise and support them without having to be part of a broader corporate approach, reflecting what is happening on the ground and not filtering it through some other set of instructions or bodies organised through the OfS; and ensures, with the purity that only an independent body can provide, that threshold standards, and the knowledge of the institutions that are making up those who have threshold standards, and the assessment of the quality deployed by these bodies, is fully in accordance with the highest standards that can be achieved. If it being separate also enables the appeal mechanism—which we have just been looking at—to be improved that would also be a plus.
Those are the reasons behind these amendments and the primary points I wish to make at this stage. There are other amendments in this group which are mainly, as I said, about the status quo.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 171, 202 and 213 in my name. Amendment 171 proposes that the chair of the quality assessment committee should be independent of government and party politics and builds on the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, on the importance of independence. There are concerns that, throughout the Bill, the Government will have powers more than is healthy in the affairs of higher education institutions. It is important that the chair of the QAC should be a non-party-political appointment.
Amendment 202 brings us back to a may/must debate—so beloved of your Lordship’s House across a whole swathe of legislation. Here we propose that the OfS “must consult”, rather than “may consult”, about whether there is a body that is suitable to perform the assessment functions. This should not be a matter of choice. Amendment 213 adds additional conditions to any directions given by the OfS to a designated body, such as ensuring that the powers of the OfS to give directions to a designated body do not adversely impact on that body’s suitability to carry out assessment functions, must be compatible with other duties, and must not relate to operational activity without previous concerns having been raised. These measures are designed to safeguard the authority and autonomy of the universities while acknowledging the duties of the OfS. I hope they will be seen as helpful additions to the Bill.
I support the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for the quality assurance office. Without doubt, with the new measures in the Bill, we need a really robust quality assurance system, and I think the measures proposed could provide that.
My Lords, I support an independent quality assessment process, and I believe it is right that an organisation independent of the Office for Students should undertake this role. Most importantly, it needs to be a body that has the confidence of the sector to undertake assessment of quality on behalf of the OfS. As others have said, I would like to see a continuation of the co-regulatory approach to quality assessment, which would allow the QAA to continue in its current role. It is important to ensure that the relevant stakeholders, including the OfS, the Secretary of State and the sector, respect the principles of co-regulation.
Sector ownership of the QAA, with HEFCE and other devolved bodies as essential stakeholders that also fund and direct some of the QAA’s activities, has until recently been highly successful. It has ensured sufficient buy-in from the sector and the academic community, while providing processes for assuring the public about standards and quality that are seen as world-leading outside the UK. Also, the UK is a member of the European Higher Education Area, which is quite separate from the EU, and its standards and guidelines require that the body responsible for quality review be entirely independent of the Government.
I am rather anxious that a body appointed on a statutory basis would be for England only, so would undermine a UK-wide approach to quality. I hope that in his reply the Minister will address both those points. I also reiterate a point that has been made by others: I certainly would not want to see a quality assurance system that was vulnerable to political interference and would undermine the sector’s own vital role in quality assurance.
My Lords, I am sure that I am not the only one for whom the particular solutions that have been presented are not ones that we wish to support wholeheartedly. However, the reason for them is, I think, one that would attract support across the House. We live in a society where the dangers to our liberal system become daily more obvious, so we should not do anything that would enable those who would use the system for anything other than the free, liberal debate of which our universities are so central a part. We do not want a system that could in any way inhibit that.
One difficulty of discussing these issues is that no one is suggesting that this Government, or these Ministers, are of that kind. But a lot of things have happened over the past two or three years that have led many of us to be much more worried about those fundamentals that we have taken for granted. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will understand that there will be a considerable lack of ease if he cannot assure us about the independence of that part of the structure which ensures both quality and independence. As I say, I am not entirely delighted by the various suggestions as to what one might do, and I am concerned about the proliferation of bodies, groups and persons; I am never quite sure how such things can be totally divorced from party politics, but I certainly think we ought to try. I hope that the Minister will understand that there is an underlying concern, which may demand a different answer, but which must be assuaged, because we live in times when none of us is any longer willing to risk any of the things that we hold so fundamental and so dear in our liberal society.
My Lords, Clause 23 establishes powers for the Office for Students to assess the quality and standards of higher education. It updates and modifies the current duty on HEFCE to do this.
I should like to say a few words about standards. As the Committee will know, we have already had a useful debate about the inclusion of standards in Clause 23. I reiterate that the intention here is not to weaken or undermine current sector responsibilities and ownership in relation to academic standards. I recognise noble Lords’ concerns. I have been listening, and continue to do so carefully, considering the points that have been raised.
These amendments touch on the importance of co-regulation and how that will be supported through the roles of the designated quality body and the quality assessment committee. They all give welcome recognition to the value of having an independent quality body to undertake the assessment functions under Clause 23, with effective independent oversight built into the quality system. That is why under the Bill the OfS must establish an independent quality assessment committee to provide quality oversight, and is given powers to designate a quality body which is independent from government. I hope that reassures my noble friend Lord Deben. The functions of the OfS and the quality body in this area are overseen by an independent quality assessment committee. Clause 24 will ensure that the majority of its members are not members of the OfS, while offering it the flexibility to draw on the expertise of individual OfS members.
I wish to address the points raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, who was supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. The general theme was that we needed a body which was independent, like the QAA. However, amendments to create a new body on a statutory footing, solely responsible for quality assessment without any links to the OfS, would remove the important ability for the system to operate as one and abolish the system of co-regulation, which has endured for almost two decades, by removing any possibility of a truly independent sector-owned body, such as the QAA, from the regulation of quality; instead creating a statutory body whose chair and chief executive are appointed by the Secretary of State. I reassure noble Lords about the independence of the designated quality body. Although the OfS, in having ultimate responsibility for the register of higher education providers, has to retain appropriate oversight and contact with the designated quality body, the Bill is specific about how this relationship can work; for instance, granting information powers in certain instances will also allow the OfS to give the designated quality body directions which can be general only, such as when advice may be required to fit with the registration cycle. This is only on the condition that it does not undermine the quality body’s expertise.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, raised an important point about the independent quality regulator. I thank him for the amount of work and thought that have gone into his huge number of amendments. The body already has to be independent of the Crown and individual higher education providers but it has to have the confidence of a broad range of higher education providers—tests it would be unlikely to meet if it was not independent. There are safeguards in the Bill which allow it to operate independently on an ongoing basis, including that the quality assessment committee will advise on the work of the OfS and quality body; that the body must have the confidence of the sector to be considered suitable, as the noble Baroness stated; and that directions from the OfS can only be general. Therefore, Clause 23 is key to maintaining a high and rigorous bar for entry into the system, while reducing the burden on those high-performing providers. I reassure the Committee again that there are safeguards built into the quality system that allow an effective co-regulatory approach to function without oversubscription from government, which noble Lords have made clear that they want. With this balance in mind, I therefore request that Amendment 166A be withdrawn.
My Lords, I do not believe that the speakers in this short debate will be entirely reassured by what the Minister has told us. It is clear that there is work to be done in this area of the Bill. I trust that the Minister will take the opportunity to react to what he has heard today and bring something back to us on Report. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 166A withdrawn.
Amendments 167 to 170A not moved.
Clause 23 agreed.
Clause 24: Quality Assessment Committee
Amendments 171 to 173 not moved.
174: Clause 24, page 15, line 21, at end insert—
“( ) At least one member of the Committee must, at the time of their appointment, be engaged in the representation or promotion of the interests of individual students, or students generally, on higher education courses provided by higher education providers.”
My Lords, this is a further development about quality assessment—this time, focusing on the committee. First, picking up on the remarks made at the conclusion of the previous debate by my noble friend Lord Hanworth, I agree with him that some issues remain in the mind after the Minister responded to that debate. I suggest to the Minister that it might be helpful if we could have a little more detail, when he has had time to reflect on the debate, on how “independent” is defined. If he is correct in saying that the OfS has the responsibility for assessment of standards, but that an independent committee of the OfS is set up in order to maintain the threshold standards in the institutions and the quality of the teaching that is provided in those institutions, it needs to be clearer than it is to me—and I think to many people—how exactly that independence is to be guaranteed. In conventional terms, if you are a member of a committee of a body, you are subject to the rules and regulations of that body. It seems to me on that basic analysis that the independent committee is not independent but a creature of the OfS operating in an independent way but not totally independent. These matters are perhaps too abstruse to debate today. I would be grateful if the Minister might focus on this in a letter, and I look forward to receiving that from him.
Moving to Amendment 174—and to Amendment 203, which is primary in this group—I will not speak to the clauses stand part because the issues raised there are reflective of the earlier debate and the clauses would have had to be removed, I think, had those amendments been accepted. The focus of this group is the familiar issue that if we are having an independent body within the OfS, but separate in some magical way from it, it should have its own focus and functions. We suggest in Amendment 174 that at least one member of the quality assessment committee should be representing the interests of students. We also think that the interests of staff, and higher education staff more generally, should be engaged as well. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for his contribution. This debate is on clauses that lay the foundations for a risk-based, co-regulatory approach to quality assessment. That is important, as the noble Lord has rightly conceded. As set out in the higher education White Paper, we believe in the principle of co-regulation, which the BIS Select Committee also endorsed strongly in its report earlier this year, saying:
“We believe it essential that the quality assurance of universities should remain administratively and visibly independent from Government or the new regulator”.
Turning to the amendments, I thank noble Lords for raising the importance of having staff interests fully represented in the quality system. That does matter. I turn first to the amendments concerning student representation on the OfS quality assessment committee. First, I reassure noble Lords that students are at the heart of our reforms. The OfS will bring together the regulatory levers that will enable us to improve quality and allow students to make informed decisions. For that reason, we listened to points raised in the other place and amended Schedule 1 to the Bill to ensure that at least one member of the OfS board must have experience of representing or promoting the interests of individual students or students generally.
The quality assessment committee will play a similar role to the current quality, accountability and regulation strategic advisory committee, established under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which advises HEFCE about the way it undertakes its quality assessment functions. HEFCE’s committee currently includes direct student representation. Students are also represented on the QAA’s board of directors, the QAA has a student advisory board, and students are included in review and scrutiny processes for DAPs. I assure your Lordships that we see no reason why such student representation would not continue in future. We would not want to reduce the future flexibility of the OfS or the designated quality body to respond to future changes in the nature of the sector. It is better to allow the OfS discretion over the membership of the quality assessment committee. To be clear, we would expect this to include people who can represent students, unless there are some very strong arguments for not doing that.
On the amendments to Schedule 4 regarding the views of higher education staff, again, I hope I can reassure your Lordships that, given the way the sector currently engages its staff, we would absolutely expect higher education staff to be involved in consultation. These amendments would introduce unnecessary additional complexity. I realise that that is possibly not the consequence of the changes but I will try to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. We would expect higher education staff to be actively engaged through their provider or by directly engaging with the OfS in any consultation. Of course, the OfS is not precluded from adding to the list of people it consults.
Amendments 204 and 205 return to the theme of standards, on which we have already had a thought-provoking debate. Noble Lords will recall that the Government have set out that this is an issue on which we are actively considering the views that have been raised in this House. I will therefore be brief in summarising that under no circumstances do we want to undermine the prerogative of providers in determining standards, but we want providers to meet the standards that are set out in a document endorsed and agreed by the sector, currently embodied by the frameworks for higher education qualifications.
The standards should be those that are set with the sector, rather than prescribed narrowly within legislation. The amendment limits the standards to be embraced in the consideration of whether a quality body is appropriate to be designated, so that rather than referring to standards applied to higher education in general, it refers to the standards of higher education provided for the purposes of registration—a narrower definition. Our legislation is deliberately not this narrow because of other important functions the designated quality body would undertake under Clause 23, such as baseline checks for degree-awarding powers. Amendment 205 seeks to amend Schedule 4 to clarify that the definition of standards that applies is that within Clause 13. I reassure the noble Baroness that this is already the case under Part 3 of Schedule 4. For these reasons, I ask that Amendment 174 be withdrawn.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her comments and for engaging so fully with these issues. I look forward to reading exactly what she said in Hansard. That is not because I could not understand her—she was very clear—I just want to reflect on how she made them and the way they came across.
It strikes me as ironic that a set of reforms aimed at putting students at the heart of the system is still struggling to try to keep students away from the points at which they can have the most impact on the key bodies and committees that will run the whole system. I am sure that this is more “small p” political than something that will in any sense organisationally be defendable, but it is wrong. The same approach applies to the question of whether the interests of staff should be involved. It is fine to consult people, but if they are intimately involved and care about it, seeing themselves at the centre, you will get much more out of them. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 174 withdrawn.
Clause 24 agreed.
Clause 25: Rating the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education
Amendments 175 to 186 not moved.
187: Clause 25, page 15, line 32, at end insert—
“( ) The scheme introduced under subsection (1) must be laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament before it may come into effect.”
My Lords, I start by apologising for the absence from this debate of the noble Lord, Lord Bew, who has been delayed on his flight from Northern Ireland by weather. He was very keen to be here and will greatly regret that he has missed this debate.
I have four amendments in this group, beginning with Amendment 187. I can describe them most concisely as a range of options to de-fang the National Student Survey as an ingredient in the TEF. The options range from requiring parliamentary approval of the scheme proposed under Clause 25, to an independent inquiry into the statistical validity of NSS data and, finally, the nuclear option—that the Committee does not agree to Clause 25 standing part of the Bill.
I shall start where we left off in an excellent debate touching on these issues last Wednesday. That debate had a rather wider proposition at its heart: that the link between the TEF and the ability of universities to raise fees should not come into being straight away. They would be given time for the TEF—and the statistical ingredients and metrics within it—to be properly got right. I sympathise very much with that view, but it is not the question today.
In the debate last Wednesday, a majority were certainly critical of the metrics being used—of whether the things the National Student Survey asks students are indeed a good way of measuring the quality of teaching in an institution. Some pretty key difficulties were raised. For example, there seems to be very little correlation—or no correlation, according to a paper by the Royal Statistical Society— between the scores achieved in the NSS by an institution and the quality of its degree results. That seems a bit worrying to many people. Those who defended the NSS did not actually argue that it was perfect—the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, was very frank. It is not perfect. They made the reasonable point that if we wait for perfection on this earth we get nowhere very much, and therefore argued that we should include these metrics.
As I said, I shall not go over that argument again in detail this afternoon, though we shall probably come back to it on Report. However, I have to be absolutely clear: my worries about the NSS are not primarily related to whether the metrics are good metrics for deciding teaching quality, or whether they are the best available, or any of those things; they are pretty well purely statistical. When the NSS survey results are compared, they do not reliably reflect the opinions of students in differing institutions as to the quality of the teaching they are getting. These are statistically flawed results, as well as, arguably, being flawed as metrics.
I am in danger of going on all night and being extremely boring. I know the Committee will have a limited appetite for a great deal of statistical discourse—although if there is anybody who shares my nerdish love of these things, they should read two documents by the Government’s own ONS on the statistical basis. They should also read the excellent document by the Royal Statistical Society, which analyses this matter in detail.
I shall just mention one or two problems that are relatively easy to comprehend. The response rates to the NSS vary greatly between different institutions. It is perfectly clear from what we know that the non-responders are not the same as the responders and, in particular, that ethnic minorities are greatly under-represented in the responses. This can have a terrific effect on the results. Let us suppose that in one year there is a 70% response rate, giving a result of 60% satisfied. If that 70% response rate had gone up to 100%, the whole of the remaining 30% might have been satisfied or all of the non-responders might have been not satisfied. So the true result could vary by 30% each way—60% in total—from the result given by the NSS. There are particular problems with sample sizes in small institutions such as my own—Trinity Laban. Music students are our biggest group of students—there are 112 of them—and the statistical margin of error for that number is very large.
A rather more complex but very important point is that in the NSS the results for nearly all institutions are very clustered, so very tiny changes, which may be no more than statistical noise, can make enormous differences to where you appear in the league table. They could very easily move you down from gold to silver or from silver to bronze. These are simply not reliable statistics on which to base facts. The ONS concluded that,
“given the confidence intervals … it is likely that comparisons of raw data … at this level would not be … significant”,
yet the Government are using insignificant data to make a very significant decision about the category into which a university falls and therefore, in time, how much it will be able to charge in fees, as well as how immediately attractive it will seem to students thinking of applying to it.
I accept that the Government have slowly started to recognise the inadequacy of these numbers. In their latest instructions to assessors, they said:
“Assessors should be careful not to overweight information coming from the NSS”.
I would put it a lot stronger than that—I might even say, “Throw it in the waste paper basket”—but they did make the concession that it should not be overweighted and that other things should be relied on. One thing on which they can rely is the submissions made by institutions, in which they lay out, according to a formula, the strengths of their teaching. To my mind, that submission procedure should be accorded much more weight than the statistics of the NSS in particular, and the metrics much less weight, if we are to get a TEF that works.
I conclude with two brief observations. Once upon a time, everybody thought that opinion polls were to be relied on, but we all know now that they were not. I am in quite a fortunate position because I said before the 2015 election that the polls were unlikely to get it right and they did not. I distrusted the polls on Brexit and they were wrong. I also distrusted the polls on the American presidential election, and those too were wrong. That is due to perfectly simple statistical things—which, again, we see in relation to the NSS—such as unrepresentative samples, poor response rates and so on. The opinion polls got it wrong and the NSS will get it wrong for the TEF. As a result, the TEF will be damaged and I shall be sad to see that.
Finally, as I said, I am a nerd, and I have peculiar Sunday reading. Last night I was reading a rather remarkable book called Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil, who has a PhD in maths from Harvard and is an ex-quant in the financial services industry. On page one, she describes the introduction of a scheme to improve teaching in the worst schools in the worst areas of Washington DC. That is something we would all want to do, just as we all want to see an effective TEF improve teaching in our universities. She follows through the steps by which that system, based on wrongly interpreted mathematical statistics, had led to the sacking of one of the best teachers in one of those deprived areas. It did not hurt the teacher, who got a job straightaway in one of the best schools and areas of Washington DC, but, my God, it hurt her pupils. This is the kind of road I fear we are going down. Your Lordships will find many other examples in her book.
The NSS in the TEF is using—or rather, abusing—statistics for a purpose for which the NSS was never designed. My amendments are designed to reduce that risk for good colleges with good teaching that are in danger of falling foul of a statistical lottery. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to briefly comment on the interesting and important observations we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. I completely support his commitment to using statistics with integrity. There are issues about the NSS. I would argue—as I did in Committee last week—that the NSS itself is changing and increasingly has genuine questions about student engagement and academic experience. For example, I know from speaking to many vice-chancellors that how their university does on the metric of academic feedback is something they pay a lot of attention to; it reflects genuine concern among students sometimes when they do not get essays back in time and they do not get prompt feedback.
I would like, however, briefly to comment on the noble Lord’s specific point as to whether the use of the NSS, as proposed in the TEF, meets the required standards. He briefly gave a quote from the ONS on its views, saying that it would not be right to use the raw NSS data. I would like to assure him that, to my understanding, the TEF does not use raw NSS data. Using raw data simply means taking all the universities and seeing how they stand. Instead, the way in which the TEF is being constructed is to benchmark universities against similar universities. Using his own example of students from ethnic minorities, it would be possible to compare groups of universities that all have roughly similar proportions of students from ethnic minorities, so the data that will be used are not raw data. Universities will find themselves being assessed and compared with a peer group. That itself, interestingly, raises a new set of questions, but at least it means that the TEF is not exposed to the charge which the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has levelled this afternoon.
My Lords, I find myself in agreement with the noble Lord. There is a slight danger that this will become a club of former higher education Ministers. However, as a vice-chancellor and former Minister, I found that the National Student Survey was a rather useful device—in a rather broad-brush way, admittedly—for telling us something about what students perceive about their own experience as undergraduates. It is not done for graduate students. I am somewhat at loggerheads with my noble friend Lord Lipsey, and I am sorry about this because normally we agree on many things. I would say that a 70% response rate that—if I understand correctly—my noble friend was quoting to be unacceptable, is a rather high response rate in most surveys of this kind. It is sometimes possible to do deep dives and find out a bit more about the group that had not responded to see whether they are in any way different in their views or backgrounds. I had not read the critique that he quotes by the ONS and the RSS. It is important that the Minister comes back and tells us whether the Government have looked at those criticisms. If not, why not, and will they in future?
I have a lot of concerns about the TEF and how it should be done. The Government are taking on a very difficult and complex task. I am not sure whether they realise how difficult it is to get reliability and validity in the responses provided. I look forward to hearing what Professor Chris Husbands, who has a lot of expertise on this, will say. I would also like to hear his response to the criticisms and comments of the ONS and RSS.
We cannot entirely take out and ignore what the NSS tells us about students’ experience. There is only a small number of questions about teaching, but there are some. There are many other questions about things that are relevant to the successful completion of their courses, including how they are assessed and examined. I hope we can look at this in a bit more depth and not completely rule out the contribution that a rethought NSS can make to any assessments of how our universities, and departments within them, are teaching, and whether it meets the kind of quality that we expect it to meet.
I shall speak to Amendment 197, which would ensure that the TEF has to be reassessed before it is introduced. We welcome a focus on teaching. It is vital that any student in a higher education establishment gets the highest level of teaching. Given the fees they pay, it is not acceptable for students to be in a lecture of more than 100 students where the lecturer is unable to inspire or inform those students. It is not acceptable to have the practices that go with poor teaching, whether it be poor marking of dissertations and essays, or late return of those pieces of work. Teaching quality has to be at the heart of the university experience for young people.
Our concern is that employment outcomes do not give an insight into teaching excellence, nor does retention. We have had this discussion on previous amendments. I am not totally averse to a student survey—it is about the questions that it asks. If it asked questions that challenged the student to think properly about their teaching experience, about how they were challenged and how the subject was put across to them, rather than easy tick-box answers, that would be a proper student survey. The student survey would have to be a very small part of the metrics.
As I said, Amendment 197 would ensure that the TEF has to be reassessed before it is introduced. It follows an amendment tabled by Paul Blomfield in the Commons on Report. He stated:
“Amendment 50 reflects concern over the reliability of the metrics used to measure teaching excellence”.
He emphasised many times in Committee, that,
“we all welcome the Government’s focus on teaching excellence, and we can all work effectively together on the principle of the teaching excellence framework. However, the metrics on employment outcomes, on retention and on the national student satisfaction survey have been identified by the Government themselves as a proxy for teaching excellence.
The amendment simply seeks to add to the Bill a requirement that the metrics used by the Government to determine teaching quality should have a demonstrable link to teaching excellence. This was the unanimous recommendation of the then Business, Innovation and Skills Committee … We all agree that employment outcomes do not necessarily demonstrate teaching excellence. There are also enormous regional variations in employment outcomes and salary levels. The Minister will know that someone who comes from the right family and goes to the right school and university could have an awful teaching experience but still get a decent job. The converse is also true. People who do not come from the right family and who do not go to what many see as the right university could have an excellent teaching experience but not command such high salary levels. So employment outcomes are a crude and almost perverse proxy measure of teaching excellence. I would therefore welcome the Minister’s observations on why this simple amendment to introduce a demonstrable link between the metrics and teaching excellence would not strengthen the Bill and will not be accepted by the Government”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/11/16; cols. 626-27.]
My Lords, I have a few questions stemming from annexe B, which the Minister circulated last week but which unfortunately I did not see until after our debate. I apologise that I was not able to attend the briefings that officials provided; I might have got the answers then. My first question relates to the point made by my noble friend Lord Lipsey. The note that was circulated said that the assessment framework stresses to assessors that they should not overweight the NSS, but of course the only metrics on actual teaching quality—this follows on from the points just made—relate to the National Student Survey. My noble friend suggested looking, therefore, at individual submissions from providers for that evidence of teaching quality, but those submissions are going to be up to only 15 pages for a whole institution. I would be grateful if the Minister would give us some indication of what kind of evidence it is anticipated that providers will present in those submissions that will focus precisely on the quality of teaching.
My second question relates to the statement immediately following—that the assessment framework mitigates the risk that courses could be dumbed down to encourage providers trying to gain the NSS. The document says that, to ensure that does not happen, the Government have included rigour and stretch as one of the criteria for the TEF and explicitly warned assessors that this may be inversely correlated with the providers’ NSS scores. I am delighted: I think it is absolutely right that rigour and stretch should be included. I remember teaching a course on theory and concepts in social policy and I think the students felt they were being stretched like elastic bands and did not always appreciate it. I think it is really important that we stretch students to think critically and assess what they are being taught, but how is this going to be assessed? It is not clear to me. It is very important but how is it going to be assessed?
My final question is: how frequently will this assessment process be carried out? We heard last week about the gold, silver and bronze system and many of us had problems with it. The Minister was not really able to satisfy our concerns. Although the Minister presented bronze as if it was the equivalent of a bronze medal in the Olympics, noble Lords here saw it as the equivalent of failure, because there is nothing underneath it—no kind of “tin” assessment or anything. If someone is classified as bronze, they may well want to try to climb out of bronze into silver as soon as they can. How quickly will it be open to them to have another go and be able to show that they have improved the quality of teaching and can then be reassessed as silver or gold? Has the Minister had the chance to reflect on what was said about the gold, silver and bronze categorisation last week? All we got was the answer that the Government think this is right. That smacked to me a bit of “I told you so” and there was no real explanation as to why, if bronze is the lowest, it will not be seen—to the outside world at least, and to potential students, here and overseas—as something to be avoided.
I am glad to support the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. I have the National Student Survey in front of me. It raises profound questions about what higher education is and how it has become perverted, in that we see the student now as a consumer, because the student is paying at least £9,000.
I draw attention to some statements in the survey. One says that the workload on the student’s course is manageable. We ought to think about what that means: manageable for whom, whether you are a lazy student or an avid one? Another says that the course does not apply unnecessary pressure on the student. I am not sure about that either. There is another that says that all the compulsory modules are relevant to the student’s course. Even now, 50 years after completing a law degree, I am still pondering whether Roman law was really relevant to my course, but I yield to those who thought it was. That was long before we joined the European Union, which in a way made Roman law and the continental system more relevant. These questions would be better addressed to someone going on a package holiday. I am not sure that as it stands this student survey should play a part in the most profound questions that we face—about what a university is, what sort of young people we wish to turn out and by what process. So I hope that the survey will not be included, or that if it is it is thoroughly revised, bearing in mind the outcomes for which we are looking.
My Lords, I support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, on the National Student Survey, and will speak to Amendments 194 and 201 standing in my name. Before doing so I would like to underline that we are talking about the use of measures to give ratings. With respect to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, I think that there is a huge difference between what is useful internally and what is suitable for a high-profile, high-stakes national rating system. In my first amendment I have suggested, or requested, that any measures used should be criteria-referenced, and therefore provide a substantive rating and indication of attainment or degree of attainment. I am slightly alarmed that this is even at issue, and take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, when he suggests that benchmarking is the way forward.
I have an example from the rail regulator. We can be told what proportion of trains are late, which is a substantive measure: we can have a target—which in fact it has—which says that it is reasonable that there should be X per cent, and then you fall this far short. We can be told whether a given rail company is doing better or worse than the others. This year it is really pretty easy for everybody to do better than Southern, but does that mean that they are all doing well? I do not think that you can conclude that.
If you have benchmarked or relative measures, the problem is that all that you are being told is how people stand relative to each other. We might have a system in which the quality of teaching was excellent across the board, yet in which half the institutions would by definition be below average; or we could have a system in which all the institutions were doing rather poor-quality teaching, yet in which half of them would be above average. That is not the sort of system that we wish to use. We would not wish to imply to students that that gave them helpful information. A measure that is bad does not become good by being made relative; and a measure that is good is good in its own right, not simply by being turned into something in which you rank people on the curve. That is an important aspect of how the Office for Students approaches the sorts of ratings that it gives and the way in which it conceives of them.
Does the noble Baroness accept that her objection is the opposite of the one raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey? His objection was that these are raw data that cannot be trusted. As a result of that concern, they are being benchmarked, and that indeed raises the valid questions which she has raised.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, meant a number of things, but I am not saying that raw data are the problem. I think he was also referring to aspects such as whether you have a decent sample size. Benchmarking is not the answer. I am somewhat alarmed that it seems to have become a major part of what is under discussion.
My second amendment is something that is not an exceptional ask in the world of regulation. Before elaborating, I have a request for the Minister. If at the end of this debate he does not think that the Office for Students can and should report on whether its statistics meet the UK Statistics Authority’s code of practice, will he explain why? Most regulators which I know that are involved in collecting statistics for information and regulation proudly boast on their websites that their statistics meet the code of practice.
Things that we can be proud of in this country are the UK Statistics Authority and that we have a record of knowing what makes a good-quality statistic and of making sure that among public bodies and for public purposes we do our very best to meet those criteria. One thing we know, for example, is the importance of sample size. We know about the importance of the reliability of measures. We know that in many things it is quite difficult to get a valid measure and that it is just as well to say that we cannot measure them properly.
Another thing we know is that the quality of statistics can change over time and that you have to keep looking at them. One thing that has clearly changed over time is the degree to which one can assume that a standard that was used in one time and place has been carried over to another. Many of us in these debates have been standing up for the quality of university education. It is pretty clear that in North America, this country and many other countries over time there has been grade inflation and that the proportion of people getting higher-class degrees and higher marks cannot be fully explained by harder working students, miraculous teaching or any other splendid innovation. There has been a slippage. One of the reasons there has been grade inflation and one of the reasons why we need to be very careful about this—this is why I raise the point quite clearly—is that students like easy grades. Since student satisfaction is quite important for promotion, particularly in North America, it has also been studied a great deal. We know that student satisfaction judgments and scores rise the more easily instructors, lecturers and examiners grade. We also know—these are statistics that I use a great deal in my teaching because students like them—that lecturers and professors get higher student satisfaction scores if they are good looking. This applies to both men and women; it is completely gender-neutral.
So there are things we know about specific statistics, and we also know more broadly that there are things we need to look at to know whether statistics are valid, reliable and fit for purpose. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has indicated, there are aspects of student satisfaction measures which require careful attention before they are used for something as important and high-stakes as a rating of teaching quality issued by the regulator.
The final thing I want to say about the importance of observing a code of good practice—and I have no reason to suppose that the Office for Students will not, but it would be nice to have reassurance that it will—is that you cannot add up completely unrelated statistics to make a meaningful total grade. This is often described as “apples and oranges”. Apples and oranges are relatively easy to add up, but trying to take a large number of different measures with different levels of validity—different levels of reliability in terms of whether you would get the same thing if you measured it again; different types of statistics, some with clear numbers attached and some judgmental—and adding those all up into a single judgment is a pretty dicey affair, at best. It is interesting that it is something that on the whole has not been done in research. It has always been done at a much more disaggregated level. However, it is also something which we need to be very careful about because, among other things, it risks not informing students but misleading them.
I find it very strange that, at the same time as saying that we want to give maximum information to students, we are also saying that the Government in their wisdom—or the Office for Students in its wisdom—are going to pull it all together into a single-rank order which cannot be unpacked. What is really useful to students is to have lots of different information on different aspects, so that they can look for the things that they most want.
Is there any reason why we should not expect the Office for Students to follow the code of good practice that we already have in this country and which many other regulators follow? I also suggest that, once again, we only use statistics which actually have substantive meaning. That in itself makes it extremely unlikely that a gold, silver, bronze all-encompassing, all-singing, all-dancing rating is going to fit the bill.