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HE bill survives the Commons unscathed

Research committees could be abolished without consultation

The higher education and research bill will enter the House of Lords without incorporating any significant changes proposed by opposition MPs.

The universities and science minister Jo Johnson has said that amendments are unnecessary because the bill in its existing form­—along with the framework documents that would regulate UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Office for Students (OfS)— already covered the concerns raised by MPs. He added that he preferred to give both organisations flexibility and to avoid too much prescription in the legislation.

One rejected proposal sought to require ministers to consult widely before making major changes to the research committees that would replace the research councils. This was intended to calm fears about eliminating the councils’ royal charters.

Johnson said that if the bill were to become law in its present form, ministers could change the functions of the councils without consulting the academic community. However, he said that any future changes would not be passed lightly, and pledged to consult properly ahead of any proposal.

In one concession to critics of the bill, Johnson agreed that UKRI would have a committee comprising the executive chairs of the councils, but added that this would not be specified in the bill.

However, critics have said that the legislation should not force academics to carry out a “trust exercise”.

“Johnson’s pledge looks like a promise that he is likely to break,” said Stephen Curry, a biologist at Imperial College London and co-founder of the campaign group Science is Vital. “It is not good enough in the present political climate for him to expect us to trust him.”

John Holmwood, a sociologist at the University of Nottingham and editor of the alternative white paper—which called for better protection for public funding and academic freedom in the bill—agreed. “Even if one believes in the goodwill of the minister, one cannot believe in the goodwill of ministers as such.”

Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and innovation policy at the University of Manchester, said that Johnson had missed an opportunity to improve the legislation. But he added that the government had been “really careful to transpose all the same protections from the old legislation into this bill”.

At the final meeting of MPs scrutinising the bill on 18 October, Johnson said that the document would be amended to ensure that the majority of the members of the councils’ governing bodies would be neither members of the board nor UKRI employees. This replaces previous wording, which stated that a council could have an unspecified number of independent members.

Another rejected proposal included a recommendation for UKRI to establish a committee to develop ways to maintain strong links between research and teaching. And a further suggestion, supported by the Royal Society, was to give an OfS board member observer status on the UKRI board.

“Through the provisions of this bill there will be many ways by which UKRI and OfS board members and staff will be able to collaborate and attend relevant discussions without needing to link formally the governance structures at the board level,” the minister said.

The Convention for Higher Education, Science is Vital and the Campaign for Science and Engineering are increasing their efforts to lobby MPs, although a lack of cohesion might hamper the results.

The Convention for Higher Education, to which Holmwood belongs, is pushing to highlight the possible negative impacts of the bill on constituencies, including a threat to the financial sustainability of universities. Science is Vital, meanwhile, has tabled amendments compelling ministers to seek parliamentary assent if research councils or universities were to be abolished, or if ministers wanted to direct what courses will be taught.

Curry acknowledged that there was little coordination between campaign group efforts, but said that this was because the measures proposed in the bill were very broad. 

This story also appeared in Research Fortnight