02 Jun 2015
With the golden coach stored away, the Queen again back in Windsor and Ministers intent on highlighting key Conservative manifesto commitments, it is hardly a surprise that a Higher Education Bill did not make it into the Queen’s Speech and the government’s immediate post-election legislative programme.
In spite of the interest of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (which now refers to itself as the regulator of higher education rather than a body which promotes the student interest), it is doubtful that an HE Bill was ever likely to be a high priority for a Conservative government focused on an early EU Referendum and Devolution.
But perhaps pragmatism also ruled the day. After all an HE Bill would have given the SNP the opportunity to laud ‘tuition-fee’ free higher education, notwithstanding the fact that Scotland lags behind England in widening participation outcomes. As it happens a Bill may also have proved tricky for Labour. Currently some of the Party’s leadership candidates appear intent on ditching manifesto pledges that they were promoting only a month ago. In fact, Labour’s election commitment to lower fees had been agreed by the Party’s National Policy Forum and was popular with students. Nonetheless, the absence of an HE Bill may be a lucky escape for Labour’s Shadow Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) team that may feel it has little to gain from pinning its former colours to the mast.
However, universities are not totally out of the legislative frame. While some university leaders remain focused on the EU Referendum Bill and the prospect of BREXIT, the Immigration and Extremism Bills are likely to include measures that will impact on universities both north and south of the border.
Foreign labour skills levy
The Immigration Bill is to contain a “foreign labour skills levy.” This proposal would fund apprenticeship schemes for British and EU workers by implementing a new visa levy on businesses that use “foreign labour”. No further details on how this may play out or which tiers of “foreign labour” would be included are yet available. The proposal appears to be a more flexible variation of Labour’s commitment to require business to hire an apprentice for every foreign worker – an interesting example of the Conservatives recycling policies for their own purposes.
The Immigration Bill will also include provision for “deport-first/appeal-later” to be extended to “all immigration cases.” Applying this principle to all cases, not just convicted criminals, would be a cause for concern in higher education. There is a difference between a deportation order being issued and leave to remain being curtailed or expiring. If the principle were to be applied so that all visa/immigration appeals have to be conducted out-of-country this would have a substantial and detrimental effect on UK higher education.
Closure and Extremism Disruption Orders
The Extremism Bill is to include a new power for law enforcement and local authorities to close down premises used to support extremism. The Bill will also introduce “Extremism Disruption Orders” - another new power, this time for “law enforcement to stop individuals engaging in extremist behaviour”. The potential for the Extremism Bill to intersect with existing legislation on extremism, including the Prevent duty is obvious, although interestingly the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 is not listed in the “existing legislation in this area” section of the briefing notes to the proposed Bill.
To complicate matters further, the Speakers’ Guidance for the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act has yet to be tabled and agreed by both Houses of Parliament. BIS Ministers and universities would do well to ensure that any inter-relationship between the new Bill and the 2015 Act is properly considered before the Speakers' Guidance is progressed and implemented.
Closure of charities and disqualification of staff
Although not widely reported, the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill will grant new powers to the Charity Commission to close charities down following an inquiry as well as extending the criteria for automatic disqualification from charity trusteeship. This would include extending disqualification to senior management positions in charitable organisations – perhaps not the most burning issue for university leaders but certainly one to watch.
BIS officials have suggested that Ministers believe that many of the issues relating to the accounting systems which delivered payments to private providers with minimal assurance in place, have now been dealt with – in other words an HE Bill is not immediately required. They may well be right but no-one should expect the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee to leave the stage. Both will want to satisfy themselves that the public interest and public funding have, indeed, been properly protected in the long-term.
With an HE Bill on the back burner again, there still remains much in the Queen’s Speech of interest to universities – and that’s before the debates about Europe and devolution get fully underway.
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