The Higher Education and Research Bill has been progressing through the House of Commons. Last month saw the conclusion of Committee stage debates, and it is a good time to reflect on what has been agreed so far, and what may come next.
In Committee stage, parliamentarians go through a Bill line-by-line and use amendments to trigger debate on specific issues. Most amendments don’t seek to change the actual wording of the Bill, but enable parliamentarians to get clarification from government on the intent and practical meaning of various clauses.
Ahead of Committee stage, the UK’s National Academies produced a briefing highlighting questions raised by the proposed changes to the research landscape. The Royal Society also separately published its positions on the proposed reforms.
What we’ve learnt during Committee Stage
The Bill enshrines this funding system in legislation for the first time, requiring the Secretary of State to “have regards to the balanced funding principle”. It also sets up a bottom-up feedback mechanism where he or she is required to “consider UKRI’s advice on the balance of funding”. Pressed by parliamentarians on what a “reasonable balance” of funding would be, Jo Johnson said that the Secretary of State would be required to consider UKRI’s advice and a range of issues including the strategic priorities of the research base, the sustainability of higher education institutions, research capability and other research facilities supported through the UKRI budget.
Jo Johnson reaffirmed the government’s commitment to this key feature of the UK’s science funding system. He confirmed that field-specific decisions including the health and sustainability of disciplines, and the allocation of funds within each of the 9 Councils of UKRI would be delegated to the Councils themselves. The Secretary of State would thus not be involved in matters such as staff appointments or deciding which individual research proposals, innovative ventures, or course of study gets funded. Jo Johnson further stated that, consistent with his understanding of Haldane, the government believes it is right for the Secretary of State to provide broad strategic direction (as they do now) since public money is at stake.
On the 12 October, ahead of the debate in Committee, the government published additional documents that set out the vision for UKRI in more details. These set out for the first time in writing the government’s intention to establish a Committee of Executive Chairs of Councils that would form part of the new governance arrangements, supporting the UKRI Board and cross-Council working.
Establishing this Committee was a formal recommendation in the Nurse review, being a key governance link between the research community and the UKRI board and the Society called for it to be on the face of the Bill. However, when probed in Committee stage, Jo Johnson declined to go as far as including a requirement for the Committee in the Bill.
The additional government documents confirm that the Secretary of State will set budgets for each of the 9 councils, taking advice from UKRI’s board on strategic priorities and the balance of funding between research disciplines. This reflects the current system in which the Secretary of State allocates hypothecated budgets for each of the Research Councils, Innovate UK and HEFCE. In the new system UKRI would not be able to transfer funding between Councils without the Secretary of State’s authorisation.
The Royal Society had called for clarification of the Secretary of State’s “power to direct” UKRI’s expenditure. A government amendment to the Bill provided some clarifications: this power could only be used where recipients of hypothecated funding aren’t complying with the conditions of funding eligibility. Jo Johnson stated that this power mirrors existing ones, was rarely used in practice, and was necessary to deal swiftly with cases of financial mismanagement.
The Society had called for the Bill to include a duty on the Secretary of State to consult with the research community on any proposal for major Research Council reform. At the moment, the Bill states that any changes to the name, function or existence of Research Councils would require a debate in parliament and would have to be approved through a vote in both Houses. Jo Johnson confirmed that the government’s intention would be to consult the research community as part of this process, but declined to include a specific requirement for consultation on the face of the Bill.
The National Academies were keen to seek further detail from government over how Innovate UK’s business-facing focus would be guaranteed within UKRI. Jo Johnson stated his understanding that Innovate UK’s business-focus is adequately protected in the Bill, and that it would retain its individual funding stream as part of UKRI. One of the new government documents further details that the Secretary of State would be able to nominate a UKRI Board member to lead on innovation and business. He or she would also sit on Innovate UK’s Board to support its Chief Executive.
The Society and others had expressed concern that the creation of OfS and UKRI would split the governance and funding arrangements for teaching and research. Several amendments were tabled to better understand how the two organisations would work together. In response, Jo Johnson stated that he believed the Bill made sufficient provisions to enable and facilitate collaborative working between OfS and UKRI. He explained the relationship would be further enshrined in organisational frameworks to be published at a later date.
The Society had further called for UKRI and OfS to establish a Committee on teaching and research. During the debates, Jo Johnson outlined that there would be a “memorandum of understanding between UKRI and the OfS”, which would include regular senior-level meetings “akin to a Committee”.
Collaboration with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland
It is important for Research England can work closely with its counterparts in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to underpin the UK’s dual support system. A government amendment was voted in, stating that “a relevant authority may exercise any of its functions jointly with another relevant authority”, including the devolved higher education funding agencies.
The SNP members of the Public Bill Committee, Roger Mullin MP and Carol Monaghan MP tabled an amendment requiring the UKRI board to include members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Jo Johnson declined to include a requirement for representatives from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to sit on UKRI’s board, stating that UKRI board members should not necessarily be limited to the UK research community and UK higher education institutions but should bring in the best individuals nationally and internationally. Roger and Carol agreed not to push their amendment to a vote during the Committee debates, but said they may pick the matter up again at Report Stage.
The Bill will now continue its journey through Parliament, with Report Stage and Third Reading in the House of Commons, before it enters the House of Lords, probably later this year. The Society will continue to monitor the Bill’s progress and keep you up to date.