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The year of the HE Bill and the year ahead

Wednesday 21-12-2016 - 10:59

It’s been seven months since the Higher Education and Research Bill was first published by the government, and five months since MPs first debated it. A lot has happened since then, but there’s much more still to do…

With everything that’s happened in politics in 2016, the new year is drawing closer and looking more and more like a chance for a fresh start. But there’s one thing that we know isn’t going away that quickly: the HE Bill.

For the last half a year, it’s been making its way through the Houses of Parliament, stubbornly defying the massive opposition from students, from the sector and from inside parliament itself. The Bill will reshape higher education, creating a new ‘Office for Students’ to regulate the sector and making it easier for new universities to be set up.

At every step of the way, we have made ourselves heard and our anger known, and we have made great progress in shifting the debate this year that we should all be proud of.

Getting students heard

At the Bill’s second reading in the House of Commons, back in July, concerns from students dominated the debate. Our priorities over the lack of student representation in the Office for Students, the risks of marketisation for students, and concerns about the Teaching Excellence Framework were mentioned repeatedly. NUS itself was referred to 11 times in the debate (second highest number for any sector organisation), by 8 different MPs (highest spread of any organisation) – clearly demonstrating how loudly the voice of students was being heard within parliament. This was a testament to the number of meetings that students and NUS have had with their MPs and how well they’ve been lobbied across the whole year.

But this wasn’t enough to convince the government that this was the wrong Bill at the wrong time – and it wasn’t even enough to convince them to invite us to give oral evidence to the Bill Committee when it moved to its next stage in parliament. These evidence sessions are vital chances for the MPs on a Bill Committee to hear about a Bill directly from experts and the people that a Bill will affect, but originally not a single student representative was invited to speak!

So, back in September, we set up a student evidence session of our own with a mock ‘Office for Students’ outside Westminster. We made it clear that even if they didn’t want to listen to what students had to say, we would make sure they had to! Barely hours later, an embarrassed government invited Sorana Vieru, NUS Vice President (Higher Education), to give formal oral evidence to the Committee. This proved crucial to the weeks of Committee that then followed. The issues raised by Sorana dictated the course of the Committee’s debates.

Even though the government majority on the Committee meant that no amendments to the Bill were made by the Committee (apart from technical changes and corrections from the government), the central concerns of students – about the lack of student representation; about the link between TEF and tuition fees; about inadequate protection from risky, for-profit providers; about access and participation – led to many heated debates. NUS worked closely with MPs to table 17 amendments that forced various debates and votes on issues the government hoped to avoid. These continually exposed the government’s flawed arguments and rhetoric.

Building momentum; making progress

Committee stage ended in October, with the Bill largely unchanged, but pressure from students was building. Before the final debates in the Commons on the Bill, hundreds of you emailed, tweeted and met with your MPs to tell them why this Bill does not work for students. Even more of you sent tongue in cheek applications to become the Chair of the new Office for Students directly to the Universities Minister Jo Johnson. It was becoming clearer and clearer that students could not be ignored by the Bill any longer.

Thanks to the lobbying and campaigning of students across the country, in November the government published a list of amendments that signalled wins for students in almost all of our priority areas. These amendments were made in the final stages of the Bill in the Commons.

Crucially, the government caved on their opposition to guaranteeing a place for a student representative in the Office for Students – meaning that the principle is now recognised in law that students must be included in decisions about them. Elsewhere, ‘Student Protection Plans’ have been created and strengthened by requirements that universities must publish their Plans to their students, giving clarity and transparency about the entitlements of students when things go wrong with their institution or course. Universities will also have to publish more data about access and participation, and postgraduates were finally written into the Bill to clarify their position – all of which were things that NUS and students had called for.

The fight continues

But while these amendments go some way to making a bad Bill slightly better, it is obvious that there are more fundamental problems with this Bill that have not been resolved.

This is why it was so important that students made themselves heard at the ‘United for Education’ demo, in the same week that MPs had their final debate on the Bill.

And this is why the Bill’s passage into the Lords gives us new, important opportunities. The first debate in the House of Lords in December exposed the major flaws in the Bill, with over 60 Lords and Baronesses turning up to hammer the government with damning arguments about the risks that the Bill poses for students and for the sector.

That is why the fight against the HE Bill continues – in the Lords and on campuses. Now done in the Commons and with its first debate in the Lords out the way, the Bill will be back with a vengeance in 2017, with the Lords Committee stage beginning on the very first day that parliament returns after Christmas: Monday 9 January.

You can sign up to ‘Lobby a Lord’ here – where you’ll find materials and briefings to contact a member of the House of Lords so you can help get them ready for the Bill’s next steps. NUS has also produced draft amendments that can be sent to Lords to make sure our concerns are reflected in the debate. The Lords will go into Committee straight after Christmas, which means it’s more important than ever that students get in touch with them in the coming weeks to get your voice heard.

But we can only do so much in parliament: the Bill will keep going and the TEF will keep getting closer, and that’s why it’s so crucial that students campaign on campus too. From using Boycott the NSS resources to following the great ideas we’ve seen in SUs throughout the year – from Reading to Sheffield – there are so many ways to campaign and lobby against this Bill.

So, make it your New Year’s resolution to make sure that you do!

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