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IMPORTANT UPDATE 28th April 2017! The Higher Education and Research Bill has been passed, and with some important concessions, as suggested by this blog post.
To read about the passage of the bill and what the three important concessions are you can read our News Update from the 28 April here:
The Higher Education and Research Bill passed by UK Parliament
Start of original blog post from 25th April 2017...
The Higher Education and Research Bill has been making its path slowly through both Houses of Parliament. You can see the many stages that it has gone through on this page here:
That page currently lists report, readings, debate and committee stages that take up over 62 web pages of links to debates, which gives a flavour of the amount of time, effort and commitment that has been devoted to this piece of legislation, which is designed primarily to encourage competition in the higher education sector.
You can read a summary of the main measures of the bill as it currently stands here. (PDF - opens in new tab)
The first reading was on the 19 May 2016 and the (last) third reading was on the 4 April 2017, with the bill about to enter the final 'Ping Pong' stage of negotiations; so called because typically a bill will ping pong like a table tennis ball backwards and forwards between the House of Commons and the House of Lords as each side amends and counter amends until either enough of a compromise is reached for all sides to pass it into legislation, or the Lords bend to the will of the Commons (usually after considerable time has been spent on additional debates).
Normally, two years into a five-year parliament the Government of the day would feel no great inclination to compromise further on the contents of a bill as important as this, and the ping-ponging would be allowed to drift along, because ultimately the government would know that they had time on their side, with three years to go in a fixed term parliament and so have no need to make further compromises.
This 'normality' however has been thrown into confusion somewhat by the announcement of the General Election that will take place on 8 June 2017, as Bills cannot be carried over between Parliaments, and Parliament is set to be dissolved on the 3 May 2017.
This makes for an interesting 'Game of Thrones' type moment as there are now only 6 more working days (as of writing this on 25 April 2017) until that deadline looms, and it remains to be seen what will happen to the legislation.
If the current government wishes to rush it through to get it on the statute book quickly before the General Election, then there is a real possibility that changes will have to be made to the bill to accommodate more of the Lords concerns about it than would otherwise have been the case, simply because of the lack of time to get it passed.
The second scenario is that the 'ping-ponging' is put on hold in favour of passing other legislation that is felt to be more pressing, and that the Higher Education and Research Bill as we know it could then once more metamorphize into something different if/when it emerges should a Conservative government be formed after the General Election.
In either scenario, it is likely that the Higher Education and Research Bill will undergo changes.
If the current government wishes to rush it through in broadly its current form, then some compromises would almost certainly have to be reached with the Lords in order for the bill to pass in time for the dissolution of Parliament on 3 May 2017.
Just six weeks or so ago on the 7 March 2017 the House of Lords backed an amendment to the bill that said that universities performance in the Teaching Excellence Framework should not be linked to the tuition fees they are allowed to charge, which was seen by many in the higher education sector as a considerable change to the proposed legislation. But more would almost certainly be needed if the legislation is to be passed by the Lords before this parliament ends, and it remains to be seen whether the current government wishes to compromise.
A recent General Election poll in the Sunday Mirror put the Conservatives on 50% of the vote and Labour on 25%, so realistically the government may feel that the current indicators are that there is a reasonable chance of them being re-elected with an increased majority. If that was the case, then it is not unthinkable that some of the compromises that have already been agreed during the year-long passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill in a parliament, where the Government currently has a majority of fewer than 20 MPs, may be seen as compromises too far if they manage to get a considerably higher Commons majority. In that case, it is not unthinkable that the bill could go back to the drawing board in the next Parliament and emerge in a totally different form from the one it currently has.
And should Labour manage to win the election, then it is likely that they too would also go back to the drawing board on higher education reform and that the Higher Education and Research Bill would never see the light of day.
Time will tell. This is of course pure conjecture and speculation, as no-one, outside of government, knows the plots and counter-plots that are being considered for the Higher Education and Research Bill. But, even the sound of 'ping-ponging' in the next week-or-so is likely to herald different changes to the bill from the ones we have heard so far, and should 'ping pong' be replaced with silence, then the Higher Education sector could be set for different legislative changes then the ones it has already been preparing for, regardless of which party leader waves from the door of 10 Downing Street after the General Election.
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