A look at the first debate of the Committee stage of the HE & Research Bill in the House of Lords

The first instalment of the committee stage of the HE & Research Bill in the House of Lords began with an amendment that articulates the functions of a university:

1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—

“UK universities: functions

(1) UK universities are autonomous institutions and must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech.(2) UK universities must ensure that they promote freedom of thought and expression, and freedom from discrimination.(3) UK universities must provide an extensive range of high quality academic subjects delivered by excellent teaching, supported by scholarship and research, through courses which enhance the ability of students to learn throughout their lives.(4) UK universities must make a contribution to society through the pursuit, dissemination, and application of knowledge and expertise locally, nationally and internationally; and through partnerships with business, charitable foundations, and other organisations, including other colleges and universities.(5) UK universities must be free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society.”

And that is where it finished.

The packed chamber was the setting for over three hours of wide ranging contributions from across the House on this one amendment. But it is a good place to start. What in many ways is a straightforward and mostly uncontroversial statement about the functions of a university (although arguably the definition could be refined) provides many challenges to assumptions and proposals throughout the rest of the bill. Particularly around institutional autonomy and the creation of new universities. Undoubtedly one of the intentions behind the amendment.

Unusually for this stage of  debate, the amendment was pushed to a vote and the Lords voted 248 to 221 in favour of the amendment - with a multicoloured alliance defeating a well whipped band of Conservative Peers.

This debate, and the tone set by the Lords by pushing for and passing an opposition amendment at this stage, has certainly raised the profile of the HE Bill’s passage through Parliament. As misreported in the title of one news article, this is not a defeat for the bill itself which in all likelihood will still make its way into law. It also doesn’t mean that this additional text stating the functions of a university will make its way into the version of the bill that becomes law. The text of the above amendment is now included in the version of the bill that will be approved by the Lords and sent back to the Commons but, as with all amendments passed by the House of Lords, the bill can then be reamended by the government if they so choose - passage of a bill 101). However, the events in the first sitting do suggest that the government will not get off lightly and will be expected to make significant improvements to the bill so that it is in better shape before it is passed.

But there is a long way to go before we get to that point!

As we’ve stated before, CaSE is focusing on the research aspects of the bill, which will not be reached in committee stage for a while yet (there are around 500 tabled amendments so far) but we will be keeping an eye on the bill as it progresses and engaging with Peers to inform amendments and debate.

For a bit more info you can read our briefing that was sent to Peers ahead of the second reading of the bill in December.

Also, do visit the bill’s page on the parliament website to keep an eye on all Parliamentary activity, amendments and debates. You can also read the full transcript  of the debate (#longreads is an understatement) or some comment on the debate from THE, Wonkhe, FT (£) and a piece from Jo Johnson on breaking open the ‘closed shop’ of the HE sector.

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