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Can the Higher Education and Research Bill advance equality and diversity?

David Ruebain on the implications of the Higher Education and Research Bill on equality and diversity.

DavidR websiteThe Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) began committee stage consideration in the House of Lords on 9 January 2017.  Whilst nothing is certain until the bill receives royal assent, the primary goal of the HERB is clear: to reshape the landscape of higher education by creating both the Office for Students (OfS) – a new market regulator which will replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) – and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which will replace Research Councils UK (RCUK).

These changes will affect virtually all of the sector, but there are certain provisions which could significantly affect the ambition to advance equality and diversity, particularly for students.

Section 2 of the bill establishes the general duties of the proposed Office for Students (OfS), which include ‘the need to promote equality of opportunity in connection with access to and participation in higher education provided by English higher education providers’ (section 2(1)(d)).  This is in alignment with other ministerial and political announcements to address under-representation and the degree attainment gap, and suggests the possibility of significant action.

Section 9 of the act which deals with transparency and publication of information, states that each registered higher education provider must publish and provide the OfS with a range of information, including the number of applications received, offers made and accepted, and courses completed for admission to higher education courses according to gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background.   Receiving this data is key to facilitating the requirements of the OfS’s section 2 duty, but seems to omit other protected characteristics, such as disability.

The bill also seeks to replace OFFA’s access agreements with ‘access and participation plans’; section 31 requires that such plans ‘must also include such provisions relating to the promotion of equality of opportunity as are required by regulations’.  These provisions may include the need for an institution to take necessary measures to attract applications from under-represented students, as well as to establish objectives relating to the promotion of equality of opportunity.

Section 34 gives the OfS powers to identify good practice and provide advice relating to the promotion of equality of opportunity, whilst section 36 allows the secretary of state to require that the OfS reports directly to him/her on equality of opportunity.   A key concern here is the proposal to fold the extremely broad framework of OFFA’s current powers and objectives within the new OfS, and the subsequent risk of diluting the impact and focus of equality and diversity.  Whether this concern becomes a reality, currently remains to be seen.

Given that the OfS and indeed UKRI will undoubtedly be subject to the Equality Act 2010 public sector equality duty, it may be argued that these provisions will merely highlight further what the organisations should already be doing.  The main question is whether the HERB will ‘add flavour’ to the advances of equality and diversity, or whether it will create further barriers for staff and students?