The House of Commons considered the Higher Education and Research Bill on July 19 and I voted against it at Second Reading. However, it passed with government support.
I do not support the government’s proposals to allow ‘high-performing’ universities to raise tuition fees and new universities to take on degree awarding powers from day one.
It means that the best universities will become more expensive and therefore less accessible, at a time when the proportion of low-income students at many top universities is already falling. Students have already been hit in the past 12 months by the scrapping of maintenance grants for loans, freezing the student loan threshold and removing NHS bursaries. This has damaged social mobility for the most disadvantaged students.
The threat of marketisation and poorly regulated new providers threatens the UK brand of both traditional international facing universities and community and vocationally orientated ones.
I am also concerned about the potential impact of the proposals on the terms and conditions of staff. For instance, there is already an unacceptable gender pay gap in the higher education sector, alongside the growing use of zero-hours, temporary and insecure contracts. The Bill could make matters even worse as employers seek to cut costs.
There is also concern that new smaller institutions may be more likely to cut corners when it comes to resources, student-staff ratios, student support and attracting the best academic staff. Labour has rightly pressed the government on what safeguards it will provide to prevent that from happening.
The Bill is a missed opportunity that will set back the cause of equal access rather than advancing it. The government should carefully consider these points as the Bill progresses.