House of Lords blocks controversial reforms that allow 'marketisation' of universities

The vote reflects cross-party hostility to proposed government reforms that peers say could damage the reputation of UK universities

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A controversial government bill to reform higher education and make it easier for private companies to sell university degrees has been blocked in its first stages by the House of Lords.

Labour, Liberal Democrats and crossbench peers in the House of Lords voted against the Higher Education and Research Bill in its current form by 248 votes to 221, stressing the reforms could lower the quality of British education and allow private companies to drive institutions for profit.

In the first of 516 amendments tabled, peers concluded that universities “must provide an extensive range of high-quality academic subjects delivered by excellent teaching” while also contributing to greater society.

Ministers for the bill insist it was written with the intention of widening choice for students and to help deliver value for money in line with rising tuition fees.

The reforms would also grant a new Office for Students more power over traditional university hierarchies, allowing them to intervene with decision making affecting the student body. 

The move has been met with backlash from academics, however, amid fresh warnings from independent experts that the new legislation could allow for “scam” universities to continue unregulated.

In a cross-party debate in Parliament on Monday, peers proposed the first of a series of amendments to the bill in order to prevent “marketisation” of the industry as well as underline universities’ right to work autonomously, with entrenched academic and political freedom.

In a statement, Shadow Higher Education Minister Lord Wilf Stevenson said: “Many peers who spoke at Second Reading felt that, as drafted, the Bill fails to understand the purposes of higher education.

“The purpose of our amendment is simple: the Bill does not define a university and we think it is important that it does.”

“We do not simply itemise some core functions of a university but also scope out the role, with implicit ideals of responsibility, engagement and public service.”

The vote – which is rare in committee-stages – will effectively limit the powers of the new regulated and unregulated providers, with the aim of ensuring quality is maintained in degrees being awarded. 

The proposed changes to Higher Education have been described by Oxford University chancellor Chris Patten as “ham-fisted”, warning the reforms were being enforced by ministers with little knowledge of the university system.

Speaking to the House on Monday, Labour peer Baroness Helena Kennedy added: “I am not in favour of for-profit universities: I should make that very clear. 

“The ideal of the university is so precious and important to our nation. We should ask ourselves this question: where is a world-class university that is for-profit? The answer is that there is not one—not Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge.”

Sue Garden, Liberal Democrat higher education spokeswomen in the Lords, said of the session: “With this vote today we have taken a step to ensure the independence of universities, free from the political interference of this and future governments.”

In a statement, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want more young people to have the opportunity to access a high-quality university education, and the measures proposed in the higher education and research bill are critical to making this possible.

“This bill will drive up the standard of teaching at universities, deliver greater competition and choice for students, while safeguarding institutional autonomy and academic freedom. While today’s result is disappointing, the parliamentary process is ongoing and we look forward to the next stage of the bill process.”