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Keeping up the pressure on the Higher Education Bill

The changes being proposed by the Government will only further the marketization of education and are the wrong changes at the wrong time.

The Higher Education Bill, proposing drastic and sweeping changes to the layout of Higher Education, has been looked at by the Bill Committee in Parliament for three days. Soon, the Committee will reconvene to continue looking at the Bill before it progresses through to the next stages of the Parliamentary process. The changes being proposed by the Government will only further the marketization of education and are the wrong changes at the wrong time, with Brexit seemingly a mere afterthought. The ability of institutions to raise fees even further and saddle students with even more debt will be particularly detrimental to students. Whilst the Government is right to focus on teaching quality, the Teaching Excellence Framework is flawed in its ability to measure quality and should not be used as an excuse to increase tuition fees. There is still plenty of scope to fight to change this Bill and we need to keep the pressure up.

What we’ve done so far

Over the summer we have consistently opposed these changes, first when they were presented in the white paper. Then, in response to the Bill, we produced a series of suggested amendments for the Labour MPs on the Bill Committee to put forward, to show a clear alternative Labour vision for Higher Education. We also got many of our members to write to their Labour MPs to build support for amending the Bill and for our amendments. We’re delighted to have been able to work directly with Labour MPs to get many of these amendments proposed, including a suite of amendments under the banner of a new ‘Student Bill of Rights’ and we extend our thanks to all those MPs involved. In a fast-changing Higher Education sector, students now more than ever need better protections, more information and fairness, as these amendments proposed.

The Government isn’t listening

However, it’s clear from the Government’s response so far that it simply isn’t listening, leading to the particularly baffling vote against having guaranteed student representation on the Board of the so-called ‘Office for Students’. This is disgraceful decision that denies students a stake in their education and the representation we deserve. The voting down of other amendments focussed on widening access exposes the Government’s dishonest rhetoric for what it is. We hope that Paul Blomfield MP’s amendment, requiring universities to integrate university enrolment with voter registration, is brought back later on in the process after it was withdrawn for discussions with the Government, so that we can continue to work towards #AMillionMoreVoices engaging in our democracy.

The importance of constructive engagement

It has been good to see the National Union of Students involved with the process of suggesting amendments and, rightfully and at the insistence of Labour MPs, being able to give evidence to the Bill Committee. This constructive engagement, leaving behind any flawed notion of “principled disengagement” with the Bill or the process, included talking about the ‘robustness of the TEF metrics’ and pointing to some important changes that have been achieved by the student movement as a result of constructive engagement, including changes to the TEF to include focus on contextualisation and disadvantaged students. Far from ‘just tinkering with’ the TEF, these are changes that will have a real impact on students’ lives. It’s for that reason that we’ll continue to engage with the Bill in the hope of securing change, and why NUS should too.

Some people will tell you that constructive engagement doesn’t matter at all. They want you to believe that its either outright opposition and outrage or enthusiastic support, whereas we know that it is possible to both oppose something and make positive change, by realising that principled disengagement when there’s an opportunity to make change is not principled at all. The way NUS battled so hard to be in the room and to be heard making its case shows how much it does matter, after all.  And whilst variation and escalation of tactics are quite rightly part of any discussion, those making these arguments might be taken a bit more seriously, and be a bit more effective at making change, if “principled disengagement” wasn’t their policy in the first place.

What’s next?

We’re going to keep up the pressure and continue the dialogue with Labour MPs. Keep an eye out for further updates as the Bill is looked at again by the Committee before continuing through Parliament. We need to continue to campaign and put pressure on the Government to change this flawed Bill.

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