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Standing Committee Debates
Higher Education Bill

Higher Education Bill

Column Number: 87

Standing Committee H

Thursday 12 February 2004


[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Higher Education Bill

9.10 am

The Chairman: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. The Programming Sub-Committee met at five past 9 and agreed a slight alteration to the time at which we shall terminate this morning's proceedings, and I must now put that change formally to the Committee.


    That the Programming Order of 10th February be amended, in paragraph (3), by leaving out ''11.25 am'' and inserting ''11.20 am''.—[Alan Johnson.]

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I want to put on record an apology to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). At the end of Tuesday's deliberations, we had an interesting discussion about a Liberal Democrat amendment. I quoted a letter that had been sent to all members of the Committee by the Association of Colleges. The hon. Gentleman will accept that the association did not support the amendment and that I quoted the letter verbatim. However, having looked at the matter again at the request of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), I accept that the words that I quoted were not a valid criticism of the amendment. Given that we shall have plenty of opportunity to raise clear and legitimate disagreements, I want to place on record the fact that I regret any inadvertent misinterpretation that I may have made on this occasion.

The Chairman: Happily, that and any issues arising from it are not matters for me, but they are now a matter of record.

Clause 12

Qualifying complaints

Mr. Collins: I beg to move amendment No. 130, in

    clause 12, page 5, line 15, after 'institution', insert

    'except in the case of a nursing student where the complaint is in relation to a nursing placement'.

The amendment reflects a request made to us by the Royal College of Nursing. The Under-Secretary will be pleased to know that the royal college is broadly supportive of the Bill, but it is concerned about the handling of student complaints. In a letter that it has, I imagine, sent to all members of the Committee, it says that it is concerned that there may be a lack of clarity—[Interruption.]

Column Number: 88

The Chairman: Order. Will the Committee please settle down. I wish to hear the argument, even if no one else does.

Mr. Collins: Thank you, Mr. Gale.

In its submission to the Committee, the royal college states that the Bill's wording leaves it

    ''unclear whether complaints relating to nursing placements, which are carried out as part of a nursing course, should be taken to the newly created 'designated operator' or to the NHS establishment where the placement is completed. Placements are integral to the teaching and practical development of nursing students . . . In the light of this it is imperative that students have absolute clarity about where to direct a complaint should they have one.''

I am sure that the Under-Secretary recognises the case that is being made for clarity.

The amendment may or may not be the perfect way to tackle that concern, but it seeks to clarify on which side of the divide a nursing student would find themselves if they were in dispute with the institution at which they had taken up a placement. It suggests that they should not go to the newly designated body, although we would probably meet the royal college's point if we came down on the other side and said that students should automatically go to that body. However, the royal college and many nursing students would welcome greater clarity, and the Committee has been asked to provide it. The Government could accept the amendment or table an alternative later. Equally, the Under-Secretary could give the royal college the clarification that it seeks in his remarks, and I hope, indeed, that he will now do so.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): This is my first opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, and I look forward to it very much. In the light of our first sitting, I hope that I can contribute to some light entertainment during our proceedings.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) on his point of order. Such things rarely happen in this House, and I congratulate him on feeling that that was the right thing to do.

The key issue in the amendment is clarity. It is clear that in any situation where a higher education student is on a work placement, it is the responsibility of the institution to explain clearly to that student the grievances and complaints procedure, and any student on a work placement would have the opportunity to submit a complaint if it were not.

In the case of a nurse, for example, there might not be clarity in circumstances where the higher education institution would be susceptible to criticism or grievance, but the NHS trust may be equally susceptible. It is the responsibility of the higher education institution to deal with that, and it would be a legitimate complaint. If a student were to say that a higher education institution had failed to make the responsibilities absolutely clear, that would be a legitimate source of complaint. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education has a code of practice on placement learning that clearly advises institutions to have procedures in place for dealing with complaints. Those procedures should be made clear to students

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and if a student cannot resolve a complaint through the institution's procedures, he or she will be able to access the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education to have the complaint reviewed.

There is a clear need for clarity and a lack of ambiguity. However, in view of the description that I have given of the respective responsibilities of the higher education institution and of the placement provider, I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider withdrawing his amendment.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I do not wish to delay the Committee on this small point and above all I do not want to confuse it with any concern on tuition fees, which we will deal with in later clauses, but I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary, who has given an entirely satisfactory response to the points raised by the royal college, would also clarify another point. In nursing, and maybe in other sectors as well, there is some degree of private sector involvement—even at the training and placement level. People may be outplaced in institutions that are not paid for by the NHS. Professions allied to medicine, such as chiropractics, have specialist institutions. I want the Under-Secretary to clarify to the Committee—if not now, by later correspondence—that private sector outplace students would also have recourse to the office, provided that their courses were in the overall ambit of an approved higher education institution.

Mr. Lewis: I can confirm that that would be the case. It is the responsibility of the higher education institution to have a clear relationship with any placement provider, whether the provider is in the public or private sector. The issue is whether the complaint relates to actions taken by the employer or by the higher education institution.

Mr. Collins: I am grateful to the Under-Secretary. He has provided precisely the clarification sought by the royal college, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has said. I am sure that the college can take the comfort that it seeks from the text of the Committee proceedings. On that note, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 52, in

    clause 12, page 5, line 19, at end insert

    '; or

    (c) as a member of staff or former member of staff at that institution'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 250, in

    clause 12, page 5, line 21, at end insert—

    '(3) A complaint which falls within subsection (1) is not a qualifying complaint to the extent that it relates to the management of teaching where the complainant is a postgraduate student who also undertakes teaching on behalf of the qualifying institution.'.

Column Number: 90

Mr. Willis: I, too, put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale for his remarks; it was very courteous of him indeed.

Amendment No. 52 is a probing amendment, and certainly one to which the Under-Secretary needs to respond. There appears to be a significant anomaly with the removal of the visitor system for students, when it will remain for staff in a number of situations where the visitor system is in place.

Part of the rationale for removing the visitor system is that it does not satisfy the Human Rights Act 1998, particularly article 6 of the human rights convention, which refers to the right to a fair and public hearing in disputes. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State commented that the Bill

    ''provides a common and transparent means of redress for student complaints, in place of the often archaic arrangements with so-called visitors and other mechanisms—more appropriate to the novels of C.P. Snow than to modern university life.''—[Official Report, 27 January 2004; Vol. 417, c. 167.]

It seems strange. If that applies to students, why should the visitor system continue to apply to staff?

Secondly, an anomaly is created by the 1993 House of Lords ruling that so long as a visitor does not act outside his jurisdiction, his decisions cannot be subject to judicial review. In universities that have a visitor system, there is no recourse to judicial review, whereas where there is no visitor system, there is recourse to judicial review. That is grossly unfair, but is it a major issue? As I said on Tuesday, the usual complaints procedures of most institutions are perfectly adequate to deal with the majority of complaints about both employment law and academic freedom. However, some issues fall outside them. When the Nolan committee took evidence on the issue, the University and College Lecturers Union presented evidence about the visitor system on behalf of teaching staff in universities, and it was agreed that that would be examined. To be fair to the Government, that has been done in respect of students and, while we might prefer a different system of adjudication, the response within the Bill is legitimate. However, it is possible for a complaint to affect both students and staff. In our major research universities, students and staff often work on the same research projects—they are not separate entities. Surely, in that situation, it is nonsense for qualifying complaints to be able to be made by students but not by staff.


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Prepared 12 February 2004