Report (1st Day) (Continued)
20: Schedule 2, page 80, line 14, after “in” insert “the case of each provider and each qualifying course”
My Lords, I come to the campus of this Bill as a fresher, in the footsteps of my noble friend who, by contrast, is competing a postgraduate course. But I have had some taster sessions, listening to the Bill from the Front Bench, and I have read the exchanges in Hansard and in Committee.
It has always been our intention that the Bill will lead to greater diversity, choice and flexibility for students. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, proposed an amendment in Committee requiring the OfS to waive the fee limit condition in respect of accelerated courses. I have read his speech, which was highly persuasive. The Government, therefore, are introducing these amendments to support the growth of accelerated courses by enabling Parliament to remove a key barrier to them.
Amendments 46 and 202 create a clear definition of an “accelerated course” and allow Parliament to introduce a higher cap for these courses. Separately, the remaining amendments clarify that, when setting fee limits for any type of course under Schedule 2, whether accelerated or not, the Secretary of State may establish different higher, basic and sub-levels for different types of teaching provision—for example, sandwich and part-time courses. That reflects the approach taken under current legislation whereby, for example, the higher amount set for part-time courses is fixed at a lower level than for full-time courses.
Accelerated courses offer students the opportunity to study their course over a condensed period—for example, completing a three-year degree course over two years. We know that accelerated courses appeal to students who may not otherwise choose to pursue a degree. That includes mature students who want to retrain and enter the workplace faster than a traditional full-time three-year degree would permit, and those from non-traditional backgrounds.
An accelerated course must meet the same quality expectations and achieve the same outcomes as a comparable, traditional course. However, accelerated courses typically involve tuition through the summer period, requiring the same resources as a traditional course over a shorter period. Evidence from independent research and our call for evidence tells us that a number of English providers are interested in providing more accelerated courses. However, many providers are unable to grow or introduce accelerated courses because of the existing annual tuition fee cap; they simply cannot afford to offer accelerated courses. Therefore, these amendments will enable Parliament to set a higher annual fee cap for accelerated courses—and accelerated courses only—compared to the annual fee cap for standard degree courses. They also serve to provide flexibility with regard to other types of provision.
Let me be very clear: our clear intention is that accelerated degrees that are subject to fee limits under the Bill will cost students less than an equivalent degree, not least because students will claim less overall in maintenance loans. Students undertaking an accelerated course borrow less money over a shorter period and forgo less earnings, as they are able to enter the workplace sooner.
We are creating a new definition for accelerated courses, and we intend to consult with the HE sector on where to set the fee cap and how to grow further accelerated course provision. Any higher fee cap for accelerated courses will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny via the affirmative resolution procedure. We will seek to stimulate the market for accelerated courses by agreeing a fee cap that provides adequate funding for providers while ensuring the student and the taxpayer get a good deal. I beg to move.
My Lords, we welcome the fact that, as in respect of other parts of the Bill, the Government have listened to what has been said during the progress through both Houses. My noble friend Lord Stevenson moved an amendment in Committee that sought to allow funding flexibility and aimed to incentivise the provision of accelerated degrees. He made it clear at that time that it was a probing amendment and, in withdrawing it, invited the noble Viscount the Minister to come forward with one of his own to achieve something similar. So it is natural that we welcome this group of amendments, which should insist on ending the present rigid structure of the type of undergraduate courses on offer.
It is fair to say that we have had some concerns about the kind of new so-called challenger institutions that will appear as a result of the Bill. Our main concern is what might drive them—that is, the profit motive, rather than the education motive. It will not be the case with all but it could be the case with some. However, it is only fair to confess that I was particularly concerned until I met people from the Greenwich School of Management and spoke at length with them about what they offer. I now see that body as engaged in widening participation; it attracts students from backgrounds that have not traditionally engaged in numbers with higher education, which, whatever the situation, has to be welcomed. The university itself cannot validate its own degrees—that is done by Plymouth University—but that is an issue for a separate day.
I have to say that the Greenwich School of Management surprised me. My only knowledge of it prior to my meeting was that the hedge fund or venture capital company with which the noble Lord, Lord Nash, was involved had established it. That might explain to noble Lords opposite why I was somewhat doubtful as to the motives—but none the less I have to say that it is an example of a new university serving its community.
We accept that there is a need for courses that offer students the opportunity to complete full degree programmes in two years of intensive study, enabling them to enter or return to work as quickly as possible. That is key, particularly for those students from less well-off families, who simply cannot afford the time to be out of full-time work for longer than two years. That is a message that the Government appear to have accepted. We hope that the financial penalties that have prevented students from enrolling in two-year courses up to now will be brought to an end, paving the way for their increased and increasingly diverse participation.
Amendment 20 agreed.
21: Schedule 2, page 80, line 26, leave out “applicable”
Amendment 21 agreed.
Amendments 22 to 25 not moved.
Amendments 26 to 28
26: Schedule 2, page 80, line 36, leave out “this paragraph” and insert “sub-paragraph (2)(a)”
27: Schedule 2, page 80, line 37, leave out sub-paragraph (6) and insert—
“(6) “The sub-level amount” means such amount as may be determined by the Secretary of State for the purposes of sub-paragraph (2)(b)—(a) as the sub-level amount in respect of the higher amount, or(b) where different amounts are prescribed as the higher amount for different cases or purposes by virtue of section 115 (5)(a), as the sub-level amount in respect of each higher amount. (6A) Different amounts may be determined under sub-paragraph (6) for different descriptions of provider.”
28: Schedule 2, page 80, line 40, after “descriptions” insert “of provider”
Amendments 26 to 28 agreed.
Amendments 29 to 31 not moved.
Amendments 32 and 33
32: Schedule 2, page 81, line 9, leave out “as the floor amount” and insert “—
(a) as the floor amount in respect of the higher amount, or(b) where different amounts are prescribed as the higher amount for different cases or purposes by virtue of section 115 (5)(a), as the floor amount in respect of each higher amount.( ) Where different amounts are prescribed as the higher amount for different cases or purposes by virtue of section 115 (5)(a)—(a) the reference in sub-paragraph (8)(a) to the higher amount is to the higher amount in respect of which the sub-level amount is determined, and(b) the reference in sub-paragraph (8)(b) to the floor amount is to the floor amount prescribed under sub-paragraph (9) in respect of that higher amount.”
33: Schedule 2, page 81, line 10, leave out sub-paragraph (10)
Amendments 32 and 33 agreed.
Amendment 34 not moved.
Amendments 35 to 38
35: Schedule 2, page 81, line 21, leave out “applicable”
36: Schedule 2, page 81, line 25, leave out “this paragraph” and insert “sub-paragraph (2)(a)”
37: Schedule 2, page 81, line 26, leave out sub-paragraph (5) and insert—
“(5) “The sub-level amount” means such amount as may be determined by the Secretary of State for the purposes of sub-paragraph (2)(b)—(a) as the sub-level amount in respect of the basic amount, or(b) where different amounts are prescribed as the basic amount for different cases or purposes by virtue of section 115 (5)(a), as the sub-level amount in respect of each basic amount.(5A) Different amounts may be determined under sub-paragraph (5) for different descriptions of provider.”
38: Schedule 2, page 81, line 29, after “descriptions” insert “of provider”
Amendments 35 to 38 agreed.
Amendments 39 to 41 not moved.
Amendments 42 and 43
42: Schedule 2, page 81, line 38, leave out “as the floor amount” and insert “—
(a) as the floor amount in respect of the basic amount, or(b) where different amounts are prescribed as the basic amount for different cases or purposes by virtue of section 115 (5)(a), as the floor amount in respect of each basic amount.( ) Where different amounts are prescribed as the basic amount for different cases or purposes by virtue of section 115 (5)(a)—(a) the reference in sub-paragraph (7)(a) to the basic amount is to the basic amount in respect of which the sub-level amount is determined, and(b) the reference in sub-paragraph (7)(b) to the floor amount is to the floor amount prescribed under sub-paragraph (8) in respect of that basic amount.”
43: Schedule 2, page 81, line 39, leave out sub-paragraph (9)
Amendments 42 and 43 agreed.
Amendment 44 not moved.
45: Schedule 2, page 82, line 11, at end insert—
“(1A) The Secretary of State may not make any of the following—(a) the first regulations under paragraph 2 prescribing the higher amount;(b) the first regulations under that paragraph prescribing the floor amount;(c) the first regulations under paragraph 3 prescribing the basic amount;(d) the first regulations under that paragraph prescribing the floor amount,unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
My Lords, it is important that regulations that are made pursuant to powers are subject to the appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny. We have thought very carefully about such powers in this Bill, particularly in the light of the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The government amendments in this group implement three of the recommendations that the DPRRC has made.
Specifically, Amendment 197 makes regulations under Clause 10, prescribing descriptions of provider to whom the transparency condition applies, subject to the affirmative procedure. Our policy intent, as set out in the White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy, published in May 2016, is that a transparency condition will apply to approved and approved fee-cap providers on the register of higher education providers.
Amendment 198 makes regulations under Clause 38, prescribing descriptions of provider who will be eligible to receive OfS funding in the form of grants, loans or other payments, subject to the affirmative procedure. Subjecting these regulations to the affirmative procedure adds to the oversight Parliament has, compared with the current legislative arrangements.
Amendments 45, 200 and 201 ensure that the first set of regulations prescribing the higher, basic and floor amounts for the purposes of determining providers’ fee limits, will be subject to the affirmative procedure.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and the members of the DPRRC for their thorough consideration of the Bill’s powers. I beg to move.
My Lords, it seems wrong to intrude on a private conversation between the two noble Lords. We are grateful to the Government for bringing forward these amendments, as recommended by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee.
Amendment 45 agreed.
46: Schedule 2, page 82, line 36, at end insert—
“(6) Sub-paragraphs (2) to (4) do not apply to regulations where—(a) the higher amount, basic amount or floor amount in question is in the case of an accelerated course, and(b) paragraph 5 applies to the regulations.(7) “Accelerated course” in sub-paragraph (6)(a) has the same meaning as in paragraph 5.5 (1) No regulations may be made under paragraph 2 prescribing—(a) the higher amount in the case of an accelerated course at a level which is higher than what would be the higher amount in the case of that course if it were not an accelerated course, or(b) the floor amount in the case of an accelerated course at a level which is higher than what would be the floor amount in the case of that course if it were not an accelerated course,unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.(2) No regulations may be made under paragraph 3 prescribing—(a) the basic amount in the case of an accelerated course at a level which is higher than what would be the basic amount in the case of that course if it were not an accelerated course, or(b) the floor amount in the case of an accelerated course at a level which is higher than what would be the floor amount in the case of that course if it were not an accelerated course,unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.(3) An “accelerated course” means a higher education course where the number of academic years applicable to the course is at least one fewer than would normally be the case for that course or a course of equivalent content leading to the grant of the same or an equivalent academic award.”
Amendment 46 agreed.
Clause 14: Other initial and ongoing registration conditions
Amendments 47 and 48 not moved.
49: Clause 14, page 8, line 38, at end insert—
“(aa) a condition relating to the systems and processes the provider has in place to ensure appropriate standards are applied to the higher education it provides;”
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 49, in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, and give my wholehearted support to all the government amendments in this group.
Amendment 49 is a reinforcement of the registration conditions for higher education providers. It requires that it is not only the quality of provision and use of sector standards that can be subject to registration conditions but also the systems and processes that a provider has in place to ensure quality and standards are upheld. This provides an additional level of assurance of the ongoing maintenance of quality by a provider to the benefit of students.
I thank the Minister and the Bill team for their thoughtful work in bringing forward the government amendments on quality and standards. They effectively address the concerns of the sector, and of many noble Lords, that the definition of academic standards must be owned by the sector and not be in the remit of the Office for Students. The government amendments are, indeed, quite innovative in that they provide an implicit challenge to institutions in the sector to work together to define standards in other key areas—plagiarism might be a good example. These would be standards which the OfS could then use in its registration conditions. The Minister and the Bill team are to be commended for this forward-thinking approach, and I repeat my strong support for the government amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, has introduced this important group of amendments with great skill. Like the questions we had earlier on institutional autonomy, this issue was raised by a substantial number of individual institutions as being a barrier to them engaging more widely with the purposes of the Bill. It became a bit of a block to progress. We had a good go at it in Committee and we have had several meetings with the Minister, the Minister from the other place and the Bill team.
As the noble Baroness said, the Government have not only stood up to the plate and agreed to move on this but they have actually gone a little further. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, I commend the idea that, within this apportionment between individual institutions and the sector, individual institutions have academic standards reserved to them. There is an implication that that work will not be deemed satisfactory unless it is done through collaboration, the development of an appropriate process and bringing forward something which we do not currently see—a better understanding of how every individual institution is not only independent and autonomous but part of a wider whole.
In that sense, this plays back to our debates on new Clause 1, which has been inserted in the Bill and which deals with the much wider context in which higher education institutions—universities particularly, in this case—must operate. We are very pleased with these amendments. We support them and look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I thank noble Lords for their engagement with the issue of standards in the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, this is an important matter, and in Committee I undertook to consider what more we could do to address the concerns raised. I am pleased that this is another area where we seem to have been able to find common ground.
Throughout the passage of the Bill we have been clear that the standards that the OfS will use are those that are owned by the sector and contained within the framework for higher education qualifications. We are now amending the Bill to put this beyond doubt.
These amendments remove the previous definition of standards, which I recognise was the cause of some concern. Instead, we are making it clear that the standards against which providers are assessed, and to which registration conditions can refer, are the standards that are determined by, and command the confidence of, the higher education sector, where such standards exist. I reassure noble Lords that where sector-recognised standards exist but do not cover a particular matter, the OfS cannot apply its own standard in respect of it. This approach is in the spirit of co-regulation and allows the sector to develop its standards as it sees fit, to meet the challenges of the day.
We are also legislating to clarify that, where a quality body is designated, it will have sole responsibility for the assessment of standards. This keeps standards assessment at arm’s length from government in a truly co-regulatory way. I assure noble Lords that the quality body—or the OfS where there is no quality body—must have regard to the advice given to it in this area by the independent quality assessment committee that we are setting up under Clause 25 of the Bill.
When my colleague, Jo Johnson, announced these amendments on 24 February, they were widely welcomed by the sector. Universities UK said that they are a,
“very positive step and show the government has listened to the concerns of the higher education sector around academic standards and the independence of universities”.
I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, have also indicated their support for our approach by putting their names to the amendments we have tabled. Given this support, and that the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, has withdrawn other related amendments to Clause 14, Amendment 49 will not have the effect of limiting the registration conditions of the OfS. I therefore ask that Amendment 49 be withdrawn.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for his comments and the Minister for his. This and a number of others, including the work with the Government on autonomy, are hugely important examples of the effective work of the House of Lords at a time when we have come in for some bashing in the press in other areas. This is something to celebrate and I reinforce my positive comments about the hard work of the Bill team and the Minister, which is very much appreciated. In that light, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 49 withdrawn.
Amendments 50 and 51
50: Clause 14, page 9, line 4, leave out subsection (2)
51: Clause 14, page 9, line 6, at end insert—
“(2A) Where there are one or more sector-recognised standards, the condition mentioned in subsection (1)(a), so far as relating to standards—(a) may relate only to the standards applied in respect of matters for which there are sector-recognised standards, and(b) may require the application of sector-recognised standards only in respect of those matters.(2B) In this Part, “sector-recognised standards” means standards that apply to higher education and accord with guidance which—(a) is determined by persons representing a broad range of registered higher education providers, and(b) commands the confidence of registered higher education providers.”
Amendments 50 and 51 agreed.
Clause 15: Public interest governance condition
52: Clause 15, page 9, line 16, at end insert—
“(2A) The list of principles must include a requirement that every provider—(a) provides all eligible students with the opportunity to opt in to be added to the electoral register through the process of enrolling with that provider, and(b) enters into a data sharing agreement with the local electoral registration officer to add eligible students to the electoral register.(2B) For the purposes of subsection (2A)—(a) a “data sharing agreement” is an agreement between the higher education provider and their local authority whereby the provider shares the—(i) name,(ii) address,(iii) nationality,(iv) date of birth, and(v) national insurance data,of all eligible students enrolling or enrolled (or both) with the provider who opt in under subsection (2A)(a);(b) “eligible” means those persons who are—(i) entitled to vote in accordance with section 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, and(ii) a resident in the same local authority as the higher education provider.(2C) Subsection (2A) does not apply to the Open University and other distance learning institutions.”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 52, I must apologise to your Lordships for not having been present to move it in Committee. Naturally, I read Hansard carefully and have to say that I was disappointed by the Minister’s reply.
This is a simple amendment that would make it mandatory for all higher education institutions to offer their students the option of being placed on the electoral roll at the point of enrolment or re-registration. I know that a few universities are already doing this and I am particularly proud that this includes the University of Bath, of which I am pro-chancellor, and the University of Oxford, where I have been elected the next principal of Somerville. I understand that the Minister, Mr Chris Skidmore MP, has recently been at the University of Bath to discuss the issue.
The amendment would provide the best means of achieving the objective I share with the Government: to improve the level of voter registration among students, which fell dramatically as a consequence of individual electoral registration, when thousands and thousands of students dropped off the register. We have a duty to do this for three reasons. First, we should enable students to have a vote and a voice. As my noble friend Lord Smith of Finsbury said in the previous debate, many of his students who, by 23 June last year, were convinced of the need to vote in the EU referendum were unable to do so because they had not registered. By exercising their democratic right to vote, young people are able to influence policy and shape their future. Secondly, it would help to instil the voting habit in young people. While I realise that there is still a big step to be taken between registering to vote and voting, there is evidence that when someone has voted once they are more likely to vote again. I still get a tingle down my spine when I put a cross on a ballot paper, and I am always grateful to those who fought for our right to vote. Thirdly, it would ensure that when constituency boundaries are redrawn in future, they will better reflect the size of the population.
It is also in the public interest of universities to do their utmost to ensure that students participate in the electoral process. I pay tribute to the work of my honourable friend Paul Blomfield MP, who, working with the vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield and the city council, and with the support of the Cabinet Office, devised a very successful pilot at the University of Sheffield. The results were simply staggering. Seventy-six per cent of its eligible students were registered to vote. In Bath, the university initiated a project on the direction of the pro-vice-chancellor for learning and teaching, who was working with Bath and North East Somerset Council. This resulted in 40% of eligible students registering to vote in 2015-16. In Cardiff, with a similar system, 65% of students registered in 2016-17. By contrast, institutions that simply pointed students to the national electoral registration portal as part of the enrolment process saw an increase of only 13%. This is clear evidence that my amendment would make a real difference to student participation in the democratic life of our country.
In January, the Minister spoke of bureaucratic burdens and I am very conscious of the bureaucratic burdens on higher education institutions, but the amendment is not overly onerous. It simply requires universities to make a minor change to their student enrolment systems to provide new students with the opportunity to have their names added to the electoral register in a seamless process. Universities already collect most of the data needed to register students. National insurance numbers were until recently an impediment but the Cabinet Office has offered new and very welcome guidance on this, so it is no longer necessary.
I am also aware of the difficulties that can arise because the enrolment software of universities is sometimes not bespoke and voter registration cannot be incorporated into it. However, these difficulties can be and have been overcome. In addition to accepting the amendment, I also ask the Government to provide guidance on how electoral registration can interface more easily with data protection issues.
Some have said that the amendment would be costly, but the opposite is true—an important factor when councils are suffering painful cuts. In Sheffield, the council now covers the university’s costs for registering students and the cost per student has dropped from around £5 to 12p. In Cardiff, the council saved more than £63,000 last year. In Birmingham, the city council revealed that one of the benefits of its arrangement with the University of Birmingham has been that it has allowed the council to give greater focus to its electoral registration efforts in other areas, such as care homes, where IER has also presented great challenges.
My amendment would simply embed good practice. To date a very small percentage of universities have taken the initiative to act. I pay huge tribute to them and my amendment will not impinge on their already excellent work; it will merely ensure that their best practice becomes the norm. The amendment is particularly important in the context of the Bill, which seeks to increase the number of new institutions. I want to ensure that enabling their students to vote is firmly on their agenda, not as an option but as something they are obliged to do.
Democracy is fragile and a healthy democracy requires democratic participation. Enabling and empowering young people to vote is our democratic duty. Here we have a real opportunity to increase participation among hundreds of thousands of those least likely to be on the electoral register. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment and congratulate the noble Baroness on her appointment to Somerville—that is great. As she explained, the amendment would ensure that all eligible students are provided with an opportunity to opt in to the electoral register for the location in which they are studying.
The introduction of individual electoral registration—IER—is a huge change in how elections operate in the UK. It helps the accuracy of the register and helps to counter fraud. So we support IER but want to ensure that it is implemented in the right way. Often when someone is moving house, registering to vote can be a low priority. Many people realise that they did not get around to registering only at election time, when it is already too late. Analysis from the Electoral Commission has shown that areas with a high concentration of certain demographics—students, private renters and especially young adults, who move regularly—are in particular danger of having low registration numbers. It is therefore important that special care is taken to prevent at-risk groups failing to register and failing to have their say at an election. It is particularly important that young people at university should have every encouragement to engage with democracy and the political process as early as possible. We need the engagement of young people to ensure the survival of democracy.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, said, many universities already do this. The amendment would mean that all would be involved. It would go a long way to helping students to be aware of the need to register and help them to do so quickly and easily. I fully support the amendment.
My Lords, I strongly support the aim of this amendment, having spoken in favour of its predecessor in Committee. Across the House there is a firm view that all possible means should be employed to get more young people on to the electoral register. Those of us who visit schools, as part of the Lord Speaker’s outreach programme—my noble friend the Minister is one of that number—often urge action in concert with local electoral registration offices. I did so myself last Friday. As the noble Baronesses have emphasised, higher education institutions can make a significant contribution to the increased registration of young people, on which the whole future success of our democracy depends. The means lie readily to hand, the procedure is simple and the will is clearly present in many universities. All of them now need to be encompassed in a strong and determined higher education initiative on behalf of our young people and their democratic future. As I have said before, the campaign for increased registration needs sustained cross-party support. All parties must be in this together, to coin a phrase.
In replying to a debate in Committee, my noble friend Lady Goldie suggested that in some higher education institutions a lack of resources might impede or delay progress. I hope that in replying to this debate my noble friend Lord Young will give a clear assurance that the Government will play their full part in helping to remove any obstacles to progress and to achieving the sustained campaign of action that is so urgent.
My Lords, I join those who warmly congratulate universities that have made arrangements, and express considerable disappointment about those that have not so done. It surely is simply unacceptable in an electoral system to have some universities where this has been done and some where it has not. That is not a fair and open approach to electoral matters. I believe it is impossible to do other than support the amendment.
My Lords, the amendment moved so ably by my noble friend Lady Royall proposes to make it mandatory for all higher education institutions to offer students who are enrolling or re-registering the opportunity to be put on the electoral roll. The question surely is: why not? As we have heard, some universities already encourage their students to do that and it would be logical for all of them to do so. The reason given by the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie—as alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden—was, I think, that such a measure would be a bureaucratic burden on institutions, whether that was cost-based or not. How any activity that increases the number of people who participate in our democracy can be dismissed as a burden I fail to see, and I do not think that is in any sense the appropriate way to look at it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, also listed a number of universities in addition to the University of Sheffield, whose pilot the Government part funded, and a number of other institutions which are already implementing the system voluntarily. That is all well and good but there seemed to be a complete lack of urgency on her part on behalf of the Government, given that she said that the Government had committed to write to other HE and FE providers later this year, as if that were something they might or might not get round to. It is absolutely inappropriate for there to be any delay. Democracy does not take sabbaticals. We will have elections very soon and they have a habit of keeping on happening—by-elections or whatever. It is inappropriate that people who have the right to vote for whatever reason—I do not in any way discount personal responsibility—should be prevented from doing so.
Another figure from our earlier debate that stuck in my mind was that given in response to my noble friend Lord Stevenson, I think. The noble Baroness said that 60% of students register at home rather than where they attend university. That is fine but it leaves 40% who do not. As we have heard, that amounts to almost a quarter of a million students at any one time who will not be able to vote. That is far too many. Action needs to be taken urgently. That is why my noble friend’s amendment is necessary, and is necessary now.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate and have set out the reasons why we should increase the franchisement of students. The Government entirely share that aim of increasing the number of students and young people registered to vote. As part of our drive to create a democracy that works for everyone we are taking a number of steps which I will touch on in a moment, such as funding the National Union of Students to the tune of £380,000 in 2015 to increase student electoral registration.
We listened carefully to the concerns raised by noble Lords when the amendment was debated during Committee. While we agree with the objective of this amendment and understand the intention behind it, we firmly believe that this Bill is the wrong vehicle to achieve greater student electoral registration, and that the scheme as proposed in the amendment has serious drawbacks. The Government have an alternative plan to address student registration which we believe will be more appropriate and effective; again, I will come on to that in a moment, the Government having considered it in the light of the debate in Committee a few weeks ago.
Both Universities UK and the Association of Electoral Administrators have told us that a one-size-fits-all approach to electoral registration, which this amendment would be, is not necessarily the best solution. The AEA does not want further unnecessary prescription introduced into the electoral registration process. Some universities have also signalled that they do not support the system that this amendment seeks to mandate. Seeking to achieve this objective in this way is unnecessary and risks complicating the Government’s relationship with electoral registration officers, as it contradicts our stated objective to give them greater autonomy in how they choose to conduct their statutory duty of maintaining the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers. Choice is the key point here. It is for HE providers and the electoral service teams, who are the acknowledged experts in registration, rather than Parliament—whether through the Bill or other means—or the OfS to determine what the right approach is for their local area.
Furthermore, this system simply will not work for electoral registration officers in London and other large cities since many students have a term-time address in a different registration area from their university or HE provider. For that reason alone, the amendment simply will not work. This is a significant issue given the numbers of students in London, where approximately 376,000 students could be living across all 33 London boroughs. Only the borough in which both the university and the student are located would have the necessary data required to complete an application. Students can participate in the democratic process by actively choosing to register to vote at either their university or home address. As the noble Lord has just said, research has suggested that 60% of students may do so.
We have a commitment to increase student electoral registration. To date we have undertaken a range of steps to encourage it, most recently ahead of the EU referendum. In addition to those steps, I can commit today that the Government will, in their first guidance letter, ask the OfS to encourage institutions to offer their students an opportunity to register to vote by providing a link to the online registration page so that students can apply to register quickly and easily. I think that this is a user-friendly solution that avoids some of the problems in the amendment which I have touched on. I understand that in Committee the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, stated that this was successfully applied at Aston University, and other providers have done so too.
However, we have also heard the calls for urgency, repeated by the noble Lord from the Opposition Bench, and we do not want to wait until the OfS is in place. That is why I can confirm that the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson, will write to HEFCE before Third Reading to ask it to work with the sector to encourage best practice and to actively promote student electoral registration.
To inform our activity, the Minister for the Constitution hosted a student round table in January at which he heard about the barriers to registration that students face. Since then, we have embarked on a plan to further our aim of maximising student electoral registration and we will continue to do so ahead of the local elections this May and beyond. I can now confirm to noble Lords that in the forthcoming weeks we intend to meet university vice-chancellors to that end. We will also write to the higher and further education sector to promote the outcomes due to be published from the different models available, to encourage take-up and to continue to facilitate greater co-operation between providers and local electoral service teams.
For the reasons already given, I believe that this voluntary and collaborative approach is the right one. However, if the evidence is that it is not working, it will be open to the Government and the OfS to consider other options in future, including, perhaps, the use of appropriate and proportionate registration conditions, requiring providers to comply with any such condition or explain why they cannot comply. The Government will also work with sector partners, such as Universities UK, to promote different options and encourage take-up.
The Government have already committed to publishing and promoting the outcomes of the University of Sheffield pilot, which we part funded, as well as other models, all of which are currently being evaluated, and we will publish the results at the earliest opportunity. As I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, an indicative assessment shows that this project had successful outcomes. However, ICT software costs are a prohibitor, and some universities have already told us that they will not implement this model for that reason.
In addition, the amendment rests on the provider informing “eligible students” of their registration rights and local authorities providing various details regarding those students. An “eligible student” is defined as someone entitled to vote as an elector at a parliamentary election, but it is not clear who determines eligibility. Given that the amendments suggest that it is the provider who has to take specified actions, it looks as though it has to be that same provider who determines eligibility—something it surely is not, and indeed should not be, resourced to do. For all those reasons, we are confident that a voluntary approach is the best option and we are confident that more of these agreements can be reached in this way.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, previously stated, many other institutions are already taking steps to encourage young people to ensure that they are on the register. In fact, numerous HE providers have, of their own volition, already implemented a model similar to that used by the University of Sheffield, including, as the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, said, the University of Bath. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that students can choose where they are registered, and some students might not wish to have their data shared.
We are also committed to increasing registration among all underregistered groups, of which students form only a part. This will be part of our democratic engagement strategy, which will be published in spring 2017.
Therefore, I say to the noble Baroness who moved the amendment that the Government have genuinely thought about the arguments put forward in Committee. We have come forward with a new set of proposals, which we think meet the objectives that we all share. Against that background, I ask her to consider withdrawing her amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for outlining all the initiatives that the Government are taking, and of course we all share the same aim. However, he outlined a piecemeal list of initiatives rather than a comprehensive plan. We have been talking about these things for a long time and the pilot undertaken in Sheffield was completed many months ago. The Government said that they would evaluate it and, indeed, they are in the process of doing so, but I simply do not understand the delay. In the meantime, many students have not been able to vote simply because they have not registered to vote.
The Minister also says that universities and electoral registration officers should have a choice about what they do and about whether they improve registration efforts for students. I think we have a duty to ensure that the maximum number of students is registered to vote. I understand the problems in London, for example, where students do not necessarily live near their university. I have talked to many people about this and I am advised by those at the most senior level that these issues are not insurmountable. I would prefer a system which all universities have to adhere to in order to maximise the number of students on the electoral register. I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
6 March 2017
Division on Amendment 52
Amendment 52 agreed.View Details
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.46 pm.