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Willetts reaffirms commitment to HE reform

Universities minister David Willetts has said that the government remains committed to higher education reforms set out in its White Paper, despite reports that a planned bill to implement reforms had been scrapped.

The Higher Education Bill, designed to facilitate the expansion of private institutions and due this spring, has been delayed indefinitely, according to a 24 January report in The Daily Telegraph.

Speaking to reporters on a visit to the University of Reading on the same day, Willetts called the reports “speculation” and said plans outlined in the White Paper, published in June 2011, would go ahead.

The plans included making it easier for private bodies to get degree-awarding powers and for universities to change their legal status, for instance to a company, in order to attract private investment.

Willetts has already pledged that from 2012-13, students attending accredited private institutions can obtain up to £6,000 a year in government-backed student loans.

“We laid out in the White Paper how you could change the regulatory regime to create a more level playing field, and the White Paper launched a consultation examining how that could be done,” Willetts told Research Fortnight Today.

“That consultation period has just come to an end and we will be announcing our proposals on the way forward shortly.

“The commitment to reform and to implementing the White Paper is absolutely clear. That is a coalition-wide commitment,” he added.

Willetts said the government remained committed to encouraging a wider range of institutions to provide greater choice for students.

According to the Telegraph, both Prime Minister David Cameron and Liberal Democrats are moving away from including the bill in the Queen’s Speech, which lays out the legislative programme.

The newspaper said it was “understood that the Prime Minister is unwilling to embark on radical reform of another public service while facing battles on the reorganisation of the NHS, schools and welfare”.

Liberal Democrats were also increasingly opposed to further reforms, on top of the decision to increase fees, the newspaper reported.

It remains unclear how much of the White Paper’s proposals to widen higher education providers could go ahead without legislation. Measures to triple fees to £9,000 a year passed through Parliament without the need for a new bill.

Students at private providers can already obtain government-backed loans, where the government approves the institution and a university accredits its degrees. However, such institutions are not subject to agreements on access or caps on student numbers.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is consulting on plans to take responsibility for regulating private providers alongside traditional universities from 2013-14 or 2014-15, in line with proposals in the White Paper. It is expected to report in mid-February.

Earlier this month Willetts unveiled plans for a new type of privately funded university focused on science and technology and postgraduate teaching. He said the government would be inviting proposals from the private sector to establish centres, using New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plans for a graduate school in his city as a possible template, but with no additional government funding.