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In the news: 22 July 2016

Controversial Higher Education and Research Bill progresses in parliament

The controversial Higher Education and Research Bill, which includes plans to increase university fees and make it easier for for-profit education providers operate in the UK, received its second reading in Westminster on Tuesday. MPs debated the bill despite calls from UCU to scrap it and protests outside the Houses of Parliament. A lengthy session in the Houses of Commons ended with a government majority of 36 after 294 MPs backed the bill and 258 voted against.

Ahead of the second reading, the BBC's Sean Coughlan looked at the problems facing the higher education sector, particularly post-Brexit and what might happen to university fees. Sally Hunt set out what UCU wants to see happen now in the aftermath of the vote to leave the EU in Times Higher Education last week.

Robert Halfon and Jo Johnson appointed in new department for education

Robert Halfon has been appointed as the new minister for apprenticeships and skills and Jo Johnson retains his universities brief as responsibility for these areas shifted across to the new look Department for Education. Responsibility for research remains with a refashioned Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Harlow MP Halfon succeeds Nick Boles, who quit the role ahead of last week's cabinet reshuffle, and after a text message he sent backing prime minister Theresa May's rival Michael Gove went public. Urging the new minister to engage with staff, Sally Hunt told FE Week that: 'With all the changes to the departments for education and business we are sure the minister, a champion of apprenticeships, will want to get cracking on his new brief. There are serious questions now surrounding the implementation of the skills plan, apprenticeship levy and area reviews.'

Orpington MP Johnson previously looked after universities in the department for business, innovation and skills. One of his first duties upon reappointment was to help steer through the first proper debate of the Higher Education and research Bill with new boss Justine Greening.

Universities start advertising higher tuition fees before government gives the green light for increases

Some English universities had already started setting their course fees for 2017 at £9,250 on Wednesday - an increase above the current £9,000 maximum - despite MPs not yet having approved plans for variable fees linked to the TEF.

Sally Hunt told the BBC that universities foolish enough to advertise higher fees at this early stage will be doing nothing to quell concerns from students and parents that they are simply after as much cash as they can get.

She told the Independent and Daily Mail that universities advertising increased fees while the HE bill is still being debated was another blight on the sorry debacle that is the government's plan for higher education.

Under the government's controversial plans, higher fees will be linked to quality of teaching, but critics say the tools being proposed to measure quality are flawed. UCU has called for the controversial bill to be scrapped following the vote to leave the EU and the ministerial merry-go-round that followed.

Sally reiterated that point in the Telegraph when she said: 'We have the difficulties of Brexit to deal with at the moment and the transition of higher education policy from the old business department into the department for education. The time surely has now come for the government to stop the Higher Education Bill and think again.'

On Thursday, universities minister Jo Johnson issued a written statement clarifying that universities that met expectations under the new Teaching Excellence Framework measures would be allowed to increase their fees to £9,250 in 2017.

UCU calls on Turkish authorities to end academic freedom violations

On Wednesday UCU called on the Turkish authorities to end violations of academic freedom following mass suspensions and calls for resignations from the country's education system. In the fallout from the failed coup, the government has suspended more than 15,000 employees at the education ministry and more than 1,500 university deans were asked to resign.

Amnesty International said Turkey must respect the rule of law, while Human Rights Watch said the speed and scale of the arrests suggests a purge rather than a process based on any evidence.

The union has written to the Turkish Embassy to set out its concerns and said the latest actions come as over 1,200 academics are already under some form of criminal or disciplinary investigation for signing a petition calling for renewed peace negotiations with the Kurds.     

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'UCU is seriously alarmed at reports that over 15,000 teachers and education workers have been suspended by the Turkish government. We are also very concerned at reports that the Turkish Council of Higher Education has demanded the resignation of over 1,500 university deans.'

Summer holiday reading lists

As the schools and Parliament finished for the summer this week, people's attentions started to turn to the holidays and, naturally, what to read on a well-deserved break. Times Higher Education has asked the great and the good in higher education to recommend two books for the break: a new must-read and a classic worthy of a second look.

Sally Hunt said that from the opening paragraphs of Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, she loved this clever, insightful analysis of the changing way that women want to live their lives undefined by their relationships with men.

Sally picked out this excerpt on Jane Eyre that she thought was marvellous: "Oh smart resourceful Jane. Her prize, readers, after a youth fighting for some smidgen of autonomy? Marrying him: the bad-tempered guy who kept his first wife in the attic..."

She has been rereading the Equal Pay Act 1970 and says it is appalling that 48 years since a brave band of female Ford sewing machinists in Dagenham and Halewood went on strike for equal pay, male staff in higher education still earn £6,103 more than their female colleagues - a gender pay gap of 12.6 per cent. She explains that addressing that disparity is a key plank of UCU's current fight for fair pay and conditions in universities and colleges.

Last updated: 29 July 2016