Labour is launching a last-ditch bid to stop MPs rubber-stamping the transfer of higher education regulatory powers to the controversial Office for Students.
The new universities watchdog was at the centre of a row earlier this year when the rightwing commentator Toby Young stepped down from its board following anger over offensive tweets he had posted.
Labour will use a procedural device in the Commons on Monday night to force one final debate and vote on the Office for Students (OfS), which is an important part of the government’s market-oriented higher education policy.
If the government were to lose the vote, the watchdog would no longer have key powers enabling it regulate universities.
Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, accused the government of ignoring concerns from students about the cost of living and rising debt because ministers were preoccupied with creating an institution that they could dominate.
“Ministers have sought to turn the so-called independent regulator into their puppet, pursuing their obsession with free markets and political pet projects instead of the sector’s best interests.”
The OfS combines the responsibilities of the former Office for Fair Access (Offa) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce). In the redesigned higher education world it will be at the heart of the market-oriented higher education system.
Set up by the Higher Education and Research Act, it combines the roles of regulator with access to government funding. It has a mission to encourage a competitive market and it is permitted to intervene where it believes there is market failure, or to protect the interests of its “consumers” – students, government and wider society.
Rayner, who will lead the debate against a technical piece of secondary legislation that is necessary to incorporate the powers of Offa and Hefce, is challenging the way the board has been set up and appointments to it.
The OfS has been mired in controversy from its inception. On New Year’s Eve, the universities minister, Jo Johnson, announced the appointment of Young, an enthusiastic backer of the government’s free schools policy, as one of its non-executive board members.
Young resigned just over a week later, after several controversial past tweets of his emerged. The chair of the education select committee, the Tory MP Robert Halfon, called them “incredibly dark and dangerous” remarks about people with disabilities, working-class students and “progressive eugenics”.
Rayner said: “There are still serious unanswered questions about the shambolic process of appointment to the board … The choice of student representative was blatantly politicised while university staff and the entire further education sector have been left unrepresented entirely,”
The National Union of Students is not represented on the OfS, and nor is there any collective representation of further education colleges. The OfS will control universities’ funding through a series of hurdles that need to be passed in order to access the highest levels of government support.
Last December, the National Audit Office published a highly critical report of the government’s whole approach to higher education and in particular student fees. It said English universities would risk charges of misselling if they were regulated like financial institutions and found that many courses were not good value for money.