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Professional Qualifications Bill [HL]

Written evidence submitted by Universities UK (PQB03)

House of Commons Public Bill Committee Call for written evidence: Professional Qualifications Bill  

 

About Universities UK  

 

Universities UK is the representative organisation for the UK’s universities. Founded in 1918, its mission is to be the voice for universities in the UK, providing high quality leadership and support to its members to promote a successful and diverse higher education sector. With 140 members and offices in London, Cardiff (Universities Wales) and Edinburgh (Universities Scotland), it promotes the strength and success of UK universities nationally and internationally.  

 

Executive summary  

 

The ability of UK higher education qualification holders to practice their chosen profession is a fundamental pillar of the global success of UK higher education. A UK degree is considered a ‘global currency’ that holders can leverage in multiple jurisdictions and fields of practice. Higher education qualifications are, on the other hand, an important element in the requirements to qualify to practice  a number of  professions in the UK, reason why the provisions of this Bill are of interest for UK higher education providers.  

 

UUK welcomes the clarity that the Bill brings, establishing a systematic approach to the recognition of foreign qualifications and mechanisms to enter into mutual recognition agreements in different jurisdictions.  

 

We would however suggest several considerations with respect to the process for recognition arrangements,  in order to  secure the place of the UK as a global leader in higher education. In effect the Bill proposes a highly fragmented system of recognition, based on regulator autonomy. Although we support the principle of regulator autonomy, we believe it’s important that the UK higher education’s voice is heard both in the process to recognise foreign qualifications and in negotiating mutual recognition agreements with overseas authorities and regulators.  

 

In order to  maximise the positive impact of this legislation on higher education exports, UUK suggests that the following is considered:  

 

· a mechanism is established to consult with providers of academic qualifications where they are likely to be affected by the regulations, or it is otherwise appropriate to consult these providers.  

· the establishment of clear and transparent mechanisms to assess whether the regulations are necessary to meet demand, and that those mechanisms are sufficiently agile to consider rapid changes in demand for specific professional qualifications. Clarity over whether authorisation can be revoked when there is an excess supply of a service, and if  so  how this would be operationalised.  

· the establishment of provisions allowing for other voices to be heard in the process of agreeing mutual recognition with overseas authorities or regulators, especially where there are clear benefits to be gained for the UK from those mutual recognition arrangements.  

· the establishment of provisions to ensure that students based overseas but who have obtained UK academic qualifications through transnational education have easy access to the Assistance Centre and information on regulators’ websites.  

 

Universities UK: written submission  

 

Context   

 

1. The UK is a global leader in international education. In 2019-20, there were 538,615 international students in the UK. An additional 453,390 were studying towards UK academic qualifications overseas, through distance learning, collaborative provision or at overseas campuses of UK universities.   

 

2. Education exports contributed £0.69 billion to the UK economy in 2019. The internationalisation of UK education also has great potential to contribute to the government’s Global Britain 1  ambitions, building the UK’s soft power and standing on the world stage as the country enters a post-Brexit, post-Covid competitive environment.  

 

3. The ability of international UK degree holders to practice their chosen profession is a fundamental pillar of the global success of UK higher education. A UK degree is considered a ‘global currency’ that holders can leverage in multiple jurisdictions and fields of practice.   

 

4. This has particularly been the case in the EU, where the MRPQ Directive facilitated the growth in EU student numbers studying at UK universities (142,990 in 2019-20) and UK programmes delivered in EU countries through transnational education (88,435 in 2019-20).   

 

5. In this context, careful consideration should be given to the needs and aspirations of international students studying UK academic qualifications either in the UK or overseas, in order to achieve the goals of the International Education Strategy, the Global Britain project and the international education initiatives in the devolved nations ( i.e.  Connected Scotland and Global Wales).  

 

System of recognition  

 

6. The UK’s current system for recognising professional qualifications gained overseas gives preferential treatment to holders of qualifications from the European Economic Area and Switzerland. These arrangements are now unreciprocated (since the end of the transition period in 2021) and there’s a need to implement a new system of recognition of qualifications applicable both to the EEA and the rest of the world.   

 

7. The Bill proposes a new system for how professional qualifications gained abroad are recognised in the UK, fundamentally based on giving powers to regulators in the UK to recognise overseas qualifications and to reach agreements with international counterparts to mutually recognise qualifications where they cannot do that already (Sections 1 and 4).  

 

8. UUK welcomes  the clarity that the proposed system of recognition provides. We however have concerns as to how specific regulators will apply the system in practice in cases where academic qualifications that have been obtained by international students in the UK or overseas through transnational education are a requirement to practice a regulated profession in the UK or in overseas jurisdictions.   

 

9. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) have identified over 200 professions that are regulated by legislation, by a network of more than 80 regulators, in addition to a range of other professions that are regulated voluntarily. The Bill proposes a highly fragmented system of recognition, with decisions made on a profession-by-profession basis by individual regulators, requiring at times the involvement of several regulators in one profession.   

 

10. Administrative barriers or delays in recognition, or cases in which certain measures would be discriminatory ‘de facto’ for overseas degree holders ( e.g.  because of the impossibility of completing qualifying training or professional practice in the UK, due to caps in numbers or immigration requirements) can impact on the capacity of UK universities to recruit staff and students globally, and devalue the international currency of UK academic qualifications.  

 

11. We therefore recommend that, besides the requirement for the appropriate national authority to consult with regulators before making regulations under section 1, 3 or 4, a mechanism is established to consult with providers of academic qualifications, or with their representative bodies, where they are likely to be affected by the regulations, or it is otherwise appropriate to consult with them.  

 

Demand-based assessment  

 

12. The Bill also establishes the limit that recognition can only be agreed if the appropriate national authority is satisfied that it is necessary to do so to meet the demand for the services provided by that profession in the UK, or the part of the UK to which the regulations relate, without unreasonable delays or charges (Section 2). In making the determination, the appropriate national authority will consider a range of information relevant to that profession, and which would typically include whether there are skills shortages.  

 

13. UUK notes that Clause 2 is introduced partly to avoid unnecessary burden and mitigate competitive pressures in cases where supply exceeds demand. We would point out however that this clause may produce unintended consequences on the attractiveness of the UK as a study destination, and of UK academic qualifications to access professional practice overseas.

14. The global currency and portability of a UK degree position has led to the UK being a net exporter of academic qualifications. This together with introduction of a new immigration following the UK’s departure from the EU make it unlikely that the UK market will be flooded by professionals with overseas qualifications seeking to practice in the UK.   

 

15. However, the unavoidable delays involved in demonstrating demand in a particular profession (coupled with demand being volatile in many industries) make this aspect of the Bill potentially burdensome. We believe Clause 2 could impact on the capacity of regulators to negotiate mutual recognition agreements with overseas counterparts.  

 

16. It is also not clear whether there will be an option to revoke powers conceded to regulators by national authorities in cases where supply exceeds demand, and how this would be operationalised. If this were the case, uncertainty over a potential suspension of recognition agreements would certainly impact negatively on the ability of higher education provider to market their academic qualifications overseas.  

 

17. We suggest that careful consideration be given to the mechanisms to demonstrate demand by national authorities, including the lead times and frequency of data required to assess demand. Establishing minimum requirements in terms of the time required to assess demand, who can initiate the process and whose views should be requested could mitigate the risks mentioned above. Clarity over whether authorisation can be revoked when there is an excess supply of a service, and if  so  how this would be operationalised, would be welcomed.   

 

National and international collaboration  

 

18. The Bill also recognises that, within the ‘Global Britain’ project, it is important to strengthen the UK’s ability to negotiate and deliver ambitious trade deals, where they relate to professional qualifications, and help UK professionals enter new markets abroad. The Bill includes provisions to ensure the implementation of international recognition agreements does not impact on regulators’ autonomy to implement those agreements (section 3).  

 

19. UUK welcomes  the acknowledgement of the importance that international trade policy will have in the recognition of qualifications, and the significant role of higher education within the UK’s international trade ambitions.   

 

20. We are nevertheless concerned that this system of recognition will miss out opportunities to capture wider views that can provide an advantage with respect to the potential of trade agreements to achieve the goals of the ‘Global Britain’ project, particularly those related to international education exports as reflected in the International Education Strategy.  

 

21. Therefore , in order to account for the wider interests of UK citizens as consumers of services provided in regulated professions, it may be beneficial to assign a more active role to other economic and social agents, including higher education providers or their representative bodies.   

 

22. The reading of the provisions suggests that there could effectively be situations where certain professionals could be ‘locked out’ from providing services in the UK, which may not necessarily reflect the wider public interest or meet short or long-term skills needs.  

 

23. The interests of UK consumers can, on the other hand, be represented in UK trade negotiations that take into considerations the views of a diversity of stakeholders, including providers of higher education qualifications where these have a qualifying aspect for practicing a particular profession.  

 

24. We suggest considering introducing further nuance in section 3, indicating that wider views will be considered in introducing mutual recognition arrangements in trade negotiations, where there are clear net benefits to the UK. This would include the views of higher education providers or their representative organisations where higher education qualifications are an important element of the requirements that lead to professional registration or practice.  

 

Assistance and information  

 

25. The Bill provides for the cooperation of regulators across the four nations of the UK, and with overseas regulators, by creating a new system for information sharing (Sections 9 and 10). It also establishes an Assistance Centre for individuals who seek to practice in the UK or abroad (Section 7).  

 

26. UUK welcomes   the transparency brought by the clauses on information sharing with regulators and individuals.    

 

27. It is however important to note that accessibility can vary greatly by jurisdiction, and that there are large numbers of students studying UK academic qualifications overseas who could be impacted by barriers to accessing information or the mechanisms for recognition. To demonstrate the high numbers involved, in 2019-20 there were nearly 50,000 students studying for UK academic qualifications in China and in Malaysia.   

 

28. We are therefore seeking assurances that professionals based overseas and who have obtained UK academic qualifications with a qualifying aspect for practicing a particular profession can have easy access to the Assistance Centre and information on regulators’ websites. This could be achieved through, for example, ensuring collaboration with overseas authorities and regulators, but also with providers of academic qualifications.  

 

January 2022

 

Prepared 18th January 2022