This week saw the 2nd reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill in the House of Commons. This Bill proposes significant reforms to how higher education, research, and innovation are governed and funded in the UK. To support parliamentary scrutiny and ensure the best outcomes for UK research, higher education and innovation, the four UK national academies published a joint explanatory briefing and illustration of the proposed reforms.

Explainer: Higher Education and Research Bill

Explainer: Higher Education and Research Bill

As illustrated, the Bill proposes:

  • the set-up of new market regulator of higher and further education and alternative providers, the Office for Students (OfS), in place of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)
  • the creation of Research England, a new body to take over the research funding and knowledge exchange function of the HEFCE
  • the creation of an overarching single research and innovation funding body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), made up of nine councils: the seven research councils, Innovate UK and Research England.

Our joint academy briefing outlines the proposed changes and key concepts in more detail.

Changing circumstances

The Government believes the reforms proposed in the White Paper and Bill can deliver a more joined-up effective and efficient research landscape and deliver a more competitive higher education market.

According to Science and Universities Minister Jo Johnson the results of the EU referendum exacerbates the need for these reforms:

“I have no doubt that the formation of UKRI will provide indispensable support to our research and innovation leadership during this period of change in our relationship with the European Union. Now, more than ever, as these communities face new challenges, we need a strong and unified voice to represent your interests across government, across Europe and around the world.”

This was echoed by Professor Ottoline Leyser FRS:

“In the context of what we are talking about today, if it is properly done, the institution of UKRI could provide exactly the kind of mechanism we need to gather the voice of science together from across the country and feed that into the policy arena and back out into the scientific community. So, in principle, that body could be crucial in the discussions going forward if it is implemented properly in the spirit of the Nurse review.” Evidence given to the Commons’ Science and Technology Committee inquiry ‘Leaving the EU: implications and opportunities for science and research’ (5 July 2016)

The shadow Minister for Higher Education, Gordon Marsden, has however called for a rethink following the Brexit vote during Tuesday’s 2nd reading debate. His concern was that the Brexit vote leaves British higher education institutions vulnerable, and that the Bill may create further uncertainty. The SNP has also urged caution.

…and further changes

The new Prime Minister Theresa May’s changes to the machinery of Government may impact on how this Bill goes through Parliament. Formerly driven by the now dissolved department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), responsibility for this Bill will be split between the new Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department for Education (DfE) which is taking over the Higher Education portfolio.

What happens next

2nd reading was the first occasion for debate on questions of principle. As the Bill continues its process through Committee Stage, it’ll face further and more detailed scrutiny in the Commons, and then in the Lords.