Hurrah for HERA? The Higher Education and Research Act’s relationship with equality and diversity
New blog post from ECU's Chief Executive David Ruebain
I recently wrote about the equality and diversity implications of the Higher Education and Research Bill. It received Royal Assent at the end of April and is now an Act. So what has changed and what will this mean?
As I mentioned, Section 9 deals with the publication of data relating to gender, race and socio-economic status, but the final language contained in the Act extends the functions to which the data must relate; albeit still slanted towards the admissions, retention and success pathway. However, these provisions still omit other protected characteristics, such as disability. Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) understands that the Department for Education are hoping that the sector will go further but don’t want to prescribe this in law.
Meanwhile, there may be a tension in the Act in that this is all no doubt intended to influence progress in addressing under-representation in the admissions and progression figures, but the Act also stipulates that the new Office for Students (OfS) has a duty (in section 36) to protect academic freedom, including the ability of HEIs ‘to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases.’ Similarly, the power of the Secretary of State (SoS) to issue directions to the OfS cannot relate to the admissions criteria for particular courses (section 77). HESA now collects data on a wider range of protected characteristics and will be asking for a mandatory return of religion and belief data in the student record from 2017/18. In any event, monitoring is only half the issue and numbers don’t tell the whole story, which is why ECU is working on our attracting diversity and increasing diversity projects to support higher education institutions (HEIs) in dealing with the issues that monitoring reveals as well as those which it doesn’t.
Separately, the access and participation provisions are largely unchanged but some of the duties of the Director for Fair Access and Participation were clarified/strengthened to ensure they could still refuse to agree an access and participation plan. Also, Sections 86-88 of the Act allow the SoS to offer alternative student finance products, which in practice means Sharia-compliant loans. The introduction of these should break down a key barrier for some Muslim students.
Sections 23-28 give legislative backing to the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), about which there has of course been some debate in relation to its design and purpose. There are some major concessions by the Minister, Jo Johnson including delaying any meaningful link between fees and TEF results until 2020, with a major review in 2019. The metrics and how they can be reasonably measured are being fiercely debated still but the intention is to include measurement of aspects such as retention and employment outcomes, broken down by (inter alia) gender, age, ethnicity and disability. This will mean HEIs having to consider these issues very closely, though again numbers will only tell part of the story (please also see the blog by ECU’s Jessica Moody in January). ECU will be providing further updates on the TEF as we prepare for results and review the awards.
Finally, proposed amendments to take international students out of migrations statistics were unfortunately unsuccessful and are not included in the final Act.
Before any further detail or guidance is issued we must now await the outcome of the general election! As reported in the Wonkhe briefing of 22 May, the Conservative manifesto does have encouraging words on enabling continued mobility and immigration rights of scientists and other highly skilled workers. However, they also quote ‘we will toughen the visa requirements for students, to make sure that we maintain high standards’. As for Labour, they have of course promised the abolition of tuition fees (as have the Green Party) and also to take students out of net migration statistics.
ECU will consider the party’s manifestos and the outcome of the election and ensure we highlight to subscribers and the sector any key equality and diversity related issues as the campaign and its aftermath unfold.