Naomi Weir reflects on the process and changes made in going from Review to Act of new HE and research legislation

Cast your mind back to November 2015. The EU referendum is still seven months away. Trump isn’t even a twinkle in Uncle Sam’s eye. Corbyn has been leader of the Labour party for just over a month. The Cameron Government is newly elected and George Osborne’s Spending Review announcement is still a few weeks away. Theresa May is Home Secretary. Sajid Javid is leading a department with a sensible acronym, a responsibility for both science and universities, and there’s no mention of industrial strategy. It feels like an age ago. And yet, the Higher Education and Research Act had already taken its first steps, with the publication of the green paper, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, and the Nurse Review of Research Councils.

Roll forward to May 2017 and the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 receives Royal Assent in a rapid wash up of legislation ahead of the dissolution of Parliament for a snap election. That the Bill, along with others, passed into law with less scrutiny than it should have had is disappointing. At the same time, I’m not sure if you’d find many keen on the prospect of starting the whole process again from scratch in the new parliamentary session.

As with any proposed change, some were broadly in favour, others were vehemently opposed and many were cautious and trying to figure out the possible implications of the changes. Then Brexit happened and for many the Bill, understandably, although still important became a lower priority. For others, Brexit, a change of Prime Minister and changes to departmental structures all combined to create a view that this was not the time for a system overhaul.

But the process rolled on and the white paper became a Bill and for many in the sector, engaging closely with primary legislation was new territory. To inform our work and to help the sector pool experience, plans and thinking on the text of the Bill, CaSE convened a workshop for our members and collaborators in the sector in late July. Some of the headline themes from the research and innovation aspects of the paper included the location of Innovate UK in UKRI and the attempt from Government to assuage micromanagement fears by promising to protect dual support and Haldane. There were also concerns about the lack of structural join up between teaching and research – and this was long before departmental reshuffles compounded the issue. You can take a look at the broad themes in a note of the workshop.

These themes featured in debates and amendments once the Bill reached the House of Commons. However, as expected, time and column inches were focused primarily on regulatory changes to higher education with initial debates focused almost exclusively on TEF, fees and Brexit.

CaSE, and many others - not least, members of the Bill Committee -  worked hard to draft and craft amendments during Committee Stage. Part 3 of the Bill (which contained most of the changes relating to UKRI) was only reached in the last session of the Commons Committee stage. An exchange between the Minister and Shadow Minister sums up the progress in terms of text amendments:

Joseph Johnson: I thank Committee members personally for giving so much of their time and energy to the scrutiny of the Bill and for the constructive way in which they have engaged in debate. We have been listening carefully to all the points made during the Bill’s passage through Committee and are grateful for all the observations, comments and proposed amendments, even if we were not able to accept all of them—

Gordon Marsden: Any!

Joseph Johnson: Or indeed any.‚Äč …

A previous CaSE Comment takes a closer look at the progress of the Bill up to this point.

In parallel to the legislative process, we also engaged with the team working on setting up UKRI. Some of the sector's concerns related to the implementation and operation of UKRI rather than matters that could be dealt with through the Bill. Therefore, in October we arranged a roundtable discussion for CaSE members with Sir John Kingman, UKRI Chair, on the leadership and governance of the new organisation. The meeting was an opportunity for Sir John to set out his vision for UKRI and provided an opportunity to discuss how to ensure its governance and leadership contributes to the success of UKRI and of research and innovation in the UK. An event summary of the discussion outlines the key themes.

As the Bill moved to the Lords, research and innovation were certainly given more airtime in debates but other more overarching themes came to the fore. Debates and amendments to clarify the definition of a university and how the relationship between universities and the state should function were raised and, without a Conservative majority in the Lords, some substantive amendments were passed – even if they didn’t survive the Bill’s return to the Commons.

Throughout the process, the Government have made attempts to clarify areas repeatedly raised as concerns by the community and by members in debates. There are six factsheets published by BEIS seeking to provide some clarification, including one on research and innovation and one on joint working between OfS and UKRI. There are also 28 ‘will write’ letters recorded on the Act’s Parliament page (scroll down) from ministers following up on times in debates where they have said they ‘will write’ to one honourable member or another regarding an issue that has come up during the debate. The Government also introduced a number of text amendments, some of which addressed concerns CaSE had raised with MPs and Peers and in our engagement with the team in BEIS working on the bill.

The final stages of scrutinising the bill were rushed through on the 26th and 27th April following the announcement of a snap election, thus bringing a swifter than expected end to the Parliamentary session. The bill became the HE & Research Act after receiving Royal Assent on the same day.

The majority of the legislation concerns higher education much more broadly (see other comment from us and others). But for those who have spent more time in Part 3 of the Bill than perhaps they ever dreamt or feared, I’ve pulled together some of the detailed research and innovation related changes that made it into the Act - many of which we and others in the sector had proposed or supported:

  • Introducing a requirement to consult before adding, removing or changing the names of a Council (92 & 95)
  • Including encouraging and supporting the provision of postgraduate training in the core functions of UKRI (93)
  • Councils must have regard to the desirability of economic growth or benefit, advancing knowledge, and improving quality of life in enacting any of their duties (95)
  • The need to promote innovation by persons carrying on business in the United Kingdom was added as something Innovate UK must have regard to in carrying out its functions (96)
  • Knowledge exchange has been added as a function of Research England (97)
  • The Haldane principle is included in the clause on balanced funding (103) – it is stated as “The ‘Haldane Principle’ is the principle that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken following an evaluation of the quality and likely impact of the proposals (such as a peer review process).
  • A new section on ‘joint working’ (113) setting out some additional provision for cooperation and joint working between Research England, the OfS, HE Funding Councils, Ministers and Authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Inclusion of the charitable sector and of experience in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland added to the list of experience the Secretary of State should consider in making appointments to the UKRI board (S9.2)
  • Expansion of the upper limit of UKRI Council size from 10 to 13 (S9.3)
  • Inclusion of a requirement to consult the UKRI’s Chair prior to the Secretary of State directly appointing an ordinary member of the Council.
  • The requirement for UKRI to establish an “Executive Committee” of UKRI chaired by the UKRI CEO and including the Executive Chairs of the Councils (S9.9)

Some of the provisions in the Act must be brought into force by Ministers, so must wait until after the election to be up and running, including some of the sections relating to UKRI. In the mean-time, there is already a transition programme in progress. CaSE will continue to engage with those in BEIS, including those involved in UKRI, and we hope to provide a forum for CaSE member organisations to do so too later in the summer. We’ll let you know details as and when after the election.

Our HE&R Bill campaign page brings together the various submissions, responses, event summaries and comment from CaSE and guest blogs on the green and white paper, and on the bill itself.

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