'Certainty' for providers as UK higher education reforms become law

Out-Law News | 28 Apr 2017 | 2:47 pm | 2 min. read

Plans to establish a new higher education regulator for England and introduce more choice for students have been passed into law by the UK parliament.

The government has also agreed to consult on new guidance about what providers will have to demonstrate before they can be awarded use of the title 'university'.

The Higher Education and Research Act was one of the final pieces of legislation to receive royal assent during the 'wash up' period ahead of June's early general election.

Although various regulations will need to be passed by the incoming government before most of the new provisions would come into force, universities expert Gayle Ditchburn of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that providers would welcome the fact that the legislation had been passed before parliament was dissolved.

"It would have caused a great deal of uncertainty for higher education providers if these reforms had not been finalised, at a time when they are already facing considerable uncertainty over their future access to EU funding streams and the possible loss of staff and students from other EU countries as a result of Brexit," she said.

"It will be particularly interesting to see how the promised guidance on the use of university title develops. Many other jurisdictions, including for example Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Switzerland, have formal definitions in place for universities, their functions and activities. Having a clear framework in place will ensure that the UK's international reputation for high quality university education is maintained whilst at the same time providing clarity as to how private providers can achieve this standard," she said.

The Act will introduce a new market regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), which will be responsible for competition, choice and representing student interests. It will have the power to take regulatory action against providers in the event of failures to provide high quality education. The OfS will also take over responsibility for granting degree-awarding powers and university title to English institutions from the Privy Council.

The process by which new institutions may be given degree-awarding powers and university title will be simplified. Providers registered as 'approved' with the OfS will also be given some rights to award degrees on a provisional basis before they are granted full degree-awarding powers, provided that they meet financial stability and governance requirements.

"Guidance in relation to and consultation on the requirements to meet approved status will be considered carefully by prospective higher education providers, who are keen to enter the market," said Gayle Ditchburn.

An amendment introduced in the House of Lords will require the OfS to request advice from a new 'relevant body', with a similar role to the existing Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) advisory committee, on the "quality of, and the standards applied to" that provider's education provision before granting full degree-awarding powers. The OfS must also be satisfied that the provider operates "in the public interest and in the interest of students".

The Act will also introduce a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), against which universities will be assessed based on different aspects of teaching including student experience and the job prospects of graduates. The government has resisted pressure from the House of Lords to drop a planned link between TEF rankings and the ability of providers to raise tuition fees in line with inflation, although this link will not be introduced until an independent review of the TEF concludes in 2020.

The government rejected a proposed amendment to the legislation from the House of Lords which would have required the government to remove students from its net migration figures.