Higher Education and Research Bill
26 October 2016
The Higher Education and Research Bill 2016 (the “Bill”) was introduced to the House of Commons on 19th May 2016 in an effort to overhaul and improve research and innovation taking place within British Universities. This is currently before a public bill committee, yet it has been widely criticised with the Council for the Defence of British Universities, comprising 52 university Professors, declaring that large amendments must be made to mitigate the damaging effects of the Bill. The Russell Group of Universities, of which the Queen’s University Belfast (“Queen’s”) is a member, has also issued a letter compelling Parliament to strongly consider the impact this will have on the UK’s reputation for excellent teaching. Nevertheless, the Bill is likely to pass into law within the following months and how this will apply to Northern Ireland is the primary concern of this article.
Application to Northern Ireland
The Bill in its current draft has 113 sections; if approved, only 32 of these will apply to Northern Ireland, specifically Queen’s and the Ulster University. These can be summarised under the following two headings:
Powers of the Secretary of State for Education
Sections 71 – 72 of the Bill provide the Secretary of State with the power to compile and publish “application-to-acceptance information” from applications’ bodies, such as UCAS. This will relate to applications to “English higher education providers” and the information would include details of the applicants, the courses to which they have applied, the grades they have achieved and the acceptance or rejection of such applications.
It should be noted that under section 71(3)(a) this information relates only to “higher education courses provided by English higher education providers”. As QUB and UU are Northern Irish, and not English, higher education providers, it would follow that they need not be concerned with this information being requested or published.
The Northern Ireland context of this section relates to Northern Irish bodies which provide application services to English universities, if any such bodies exist other than UCAS. It should also be noted that applicants from Northern Ireland applying to English universities may have their information requested and used for research by the Secretary of State.
Establishment of United Kingdom Research and Innovation (“UKRI”)
Part 3 of the Bill establishes the new UKRI. This will manage the government’s entire £6 billion per annum investment into research and innovation in an effort to streamline and strengthen the UK’s research base.
The Bill downgrades and amalgamates all nine existing research councils to committees. The amalgamation into the single UKRI will deprive these former councils of their Royal Charter status and their chief executives will not, ex officio, have a seat on the board of the powerful new over-arching UKRI.
There are concerns that this may weaken the current consultative mechanisms. These concerns are only increased by the power the Bill grants to the Secretary of State to create and abolish new committees, and to add or subtract from the disciplinary fields that they are keen to support and these changes can be made through statutory instruments that must be placed before Parliament.
The authority granted by the Bill to the Secretary of State marks a turn against a long-standing practice of consultation with the expertise and experience of the research community and its formulation may be open to abuse.