Both government and opposition MPs published amendments to the higher education and research bill ahead of its third reading in the Commons on 21 November, the last chance that MPs will have to debate the legislation before it moves to the Lords.
Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, accepted calls from opposition MPs and the National Union of Students to allow student representation on the board of the Office for Students, as well as addressing concerns from university representatives that the bill risked infringing on institutional autonomy by diluting a clause that risked allowing ministerial interference at course level. He also handed some concessions to the Scottish National Party by introducing a provision that would require one member of the board at UK Research and Innovation to have "relevant experience" in one of the devolved nations. Opposition MPs responded by tabling their own last-minute amendments, which seek to strengthen the barriers to market entry, prevent the government from making retrospective changes to student loans terms and conditions without full parliamentary scrutiny, provide a louder voice for academic staff in the Office for Students and introduce a provision barring government from linking the results of the teaching excellence framework to the student visa regime. While MPs have acknowledged they are unlikely to secure changes in the Commons next week, they hope that their suggestions will inform the views of members of the Lords, who are expected to provide the real work in shaping the bill.
The dissent around government policy on international student recruitment was also visible in two debates called in the Commons and in the Lords this week. The Commons debate on 16 November was called by Stuart McDonald, spokesman on immigration for the Scottish National Party. He urged the government to share new exit check data in order to quell rumours about the real extent of student visa abuse. Speaking to HE, he said there was a growing perception in government that the Home Office is trying to reduce international student numbers to meet the net migration target, and he urged universities to increase pressure on the government ahead of the forthcoming consultation. Robert Goodwill, the immigration minister, did not confirm or deny whether government is considering linking the teaching excellence framework to the student visa regime. He said the Home Office planned to keep the student visa regime "under constant review". At an All Party Parliamentary Group on universities this week, which examined issues around international student recruitment, invited vice-chancellors were said to have voiced far more strident views at the lunch after the event than while the universities minister was present.