Government Delays Higher Education Bill as Westminster is Thrown into Chaos

The Higher Education and Research Bill has been indefinitely delayed as Government backtracks on its claim of ‘business as usual’ following the EU referendum.

The results of the EU Referendum have plunged Westminster and the government into chaos as both the Conservative and Labour parties fight over who should lead their party, and the country as a whole. In the midst of this chaos Government has decided to further delay the Second Reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill.

The Bill was originally set to be debated this week, however, following a crisis in confidence across the sector, it has been delayed. Universities across the country have expressed their fears of how leaving the European Union might affect the Higher Education Sector, with Stuart Croft, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick writing: “to add the demands of that Bill to those of EU exit, at the same time, will be an intolerable burden for universities that, frankly, threatens to rock our very capacity to do everything we do to promote and extend the UK’s reputation globally”.

This includes a fear in the loss of funding for research projects, with some academics already warning that European Research Councils will be reluctant to fund projects to UK researchers as a result of the vote to leave the EU. This was actually predicted by 103 Vice-Chancellors who wrote an open letter before the referendum stating that “leaving Europe would create a difficult environment for the long-term investment in higher education and research that is necessary for the UK to maintain its position as a highly skilled and a globally competitive knowledge economy”.

There are also fears that leaving the EU could affect the number of European and international students in UK universities. There are fears over how ‘Brexit’ could impact EU students’ tuition fees, with many being worried that that they would be forced to pay more. Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities and Science, claimed that funding for students currently enrolled at institutions or starting this coming September would be guaranteed funding for their course, but could give no further guarantees for any future EU students, creating a further level of risk and uncertainty.

These fears are also exacerbated by the uncertainty around the Erasmus scheme which allows UK and EU students to study for terms, or even full years, in other EU countries. Although this is not dependent on EU membership, the European Council may now decide to take the UK out of the scheme. The uncertainty around this has forced some academics into a corner, with some even saying that they will be forced to reconsider course structures that contain a year abroad.

The Bill itself was widely criticised even before the result of the referendum last week, with Money Saving Expert founder Martin Lewis launching a legal challenge against the move to retroactively change the repayment threshold for student loans above the original £21,000, asking the Prime Minister “how can anyone in good conscience now explain student finance to young people when the system can be unilaterally changed, even after they’ve signed their loan contracts?”.

Liberal Democrat Education Spokesman John Pugh said; “The EU Referendum has plunged the whole of Westminster into chaos, and the government is more distracted by the race for Conservative leader than it is with business as usual. The Higher Education and Research Bill is now so outdated and unpopular that even the Tories, who just a week ago were defending it, are retreating and hoping people forget about it for a while”.

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