“Who is that cloven-hoofed fellow? I like the cut of his jib.” So says Mr Burns when watching Homer sell his soul to the devil for a box of doughnuts. I was reminded of this, my favourite Simpsons’ line, when Lord Blunkett accused UUK and GuildHE of entering a Faustian pact with the government over the Higher Education and Research Bill.

By the look of the amendments tabled by the government on Monday night ahead of Commons Consideration of Lords Amendments, further pacts have been done but this time between the government and the opposition. Faustian? Well let’s have a look.

Essentially, the government is asking Parliament to reject all the Lords amendments to the Bill and replacing them with some of their own. As you’d expect, compromise on the TEF is at the heart of the changes government is proposing.

The Lords really didn’t like the TEF. Not because they disagreed with the aim: they supported the government’s focus on raising the quality of teaching. Not because they thought fees were high enough already: they were happy for fees to go up by inflation, so long as every institution got the fee rise. They have faith in Chris Husbands as Chair of the TEF panel. It’s just everything else they didn’t like – metrics, timescale, differential fee rises, the possibility that the university they went to wouldn’t get a gold rating.

So where has the government compromised? Thankfully not on the Lords attempt to replace TEF with something else. Their “Scheme to provide information about the quality of higher education and higher education teaching” was curious. Simultaneously it empowered and constrained the Secretary of State to do something that happens anyway. It empowered because it placed on her the duty to set up a scheme to assess quality, replacing a clause where the job of rating quality lay with the OfS. Shifting power towards the centre from an arms length body was an unwelcome direction of travel.

It was unnecessary because the scheme it described looked remarkably similar to the current quality assurance regime.

And it constrained because it must not “be used to create a single composite ranking of English higher education providers”. So not the TEF that Jo Johnson had been describing, developing and consulting on since the Conservatives published their intentions in their 2015 manifesto. That would have been a climb-down too far.

Where the government has compromised is to agree, in effect, with the Lords’ strongest argument about the TEF – that an untried system is being asked to bear too heavy a load. It isn’t an overwhelming argument. The truth is that at the moment we just don’t know. The TEF is certainly being asked to bear a heavy load. And its capacity to bear it hasn’t yet been tested – TEF panel members may already be coming to their own views but we don’t know what they are.

Firstly, government has compromised on the timing and delayed differentiated fee rises to 2020/21 at the earliest. They have taken Lord Lipsey’s advice to “show a little patience”. Some members of the Lords were signaling that they weren’t necessarily against linking the TEF to differential fee rises at some point. They just wanted the system that did it to be rather more tried and tested.

And boy have they got their wish. The second, and biggest, compromise is an independent review of the TEF before differentiated fees are introduced. The review has to happen within a year of the Bill becoming law and the person conducting the review must be independent of government and the OfS and must be “a person who would command the confidence of registered higher education providers”. The review goes further than the government’s lessons learned exercise and covers:

  • the process by which ratings are determined under the scheme and the sources of statistical information used in that process;
  • whether that process, and those sources of statistical information, are fit for use for the purpose of determining ratings under the scheme;
  • the names of the ratings under the scheme and whether those names are appropriate;
  • the impact of the scheme on the ability of higher education providers to carry out their functions (including in particular their functions relating to teaching and research);
  • an assessment of whether the scheme is in the public interest, and;
  • any other matters that the reviewer considers relevant.

Not so much lessons learned as a full structural survey.

And finally, Parliament is getting a more powerful role in determining future increases in fees. Currently, fee rises by the rate of inflation (or less) are subject to what is called “negative procedure” – there is no vote and the statutory instrument automatically becomes law without debate unless there is an objection from either House. For fee rises from academic year 2019/20, they will be subject to “affirmative procedure” – a guaranteed debate and vote in both Houses of Parliament.

There are other changes – defining a university via Secretary of State guidance to the OfS; a sensible approach to improving student electoral registration; and the OfS will be more constrained when it comes to granting or revoking degree awarding powers. And no, we didn’t get international students taken out of net migration targets. But if this pact finally does the trick and delivers the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 then I reckon any souls sold along the way were worth it. Better bargain than the box of doughnuts.

GuildHE’s full response to the Government’s proposed compromise can be found in our Letter to Members of Parliament, co-authored with Universities UK.