The Queen’s speech has set out the government’s legislative agenda for the next year, with a new lifelong learning allowance and blue-sky research agency figuring prominently in its plans.
Presenting the government’s priorities for the forthcoming year, the Queen told assembled parliamentarians that ministers would “oversee the fastest ever increase in public funding for research and development and pass legislation to establish an advanced research agency”.
The government has committed to increasing public investment in R&D public funding to £22 billion per year by 2024/25 – reaching 2.4% of GDP by 2027.
The advanced research agency – the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) – will, according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), “have a much higher tolerance for failure than is normal, recognising that in research the freedom to fail is often also the freedom to succeed”.
MPs and peers have raised questions over the relationship between ARIA and ministers. BEIS secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has described the £800m agency as “independent” but not “isolated” from government-set priorities.
The Queen delivered the speech at the state opening of parliament, traditionally addressed to members of both chambers, to a socially distanced select few from the House of Lords and the Commons.
The Queen told the smaller-than-normal audience that ministers intend to bring forth legislation that “will support a lifetime skills guarantee, to enable flexible access to high-quality education and training throughout people’s lives.”
Universities minister Michelle Donelan told an audience of higher education professionals last month that the government will begin trialling loan-funded access to tuition fees for modules at select English institutions from 2022.
The trial will help the government implement its Lifelong Loan Entitlement, part of its skills white paper for England, which promises learners loans equivalent to “four years of post-18 education” throughout their lifetime from 2025.
The trial would, Donelan said, “inform our approach to lifelong learning, and is a key step towards our delivery of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, as well as supporting some students to participate in shorter modular courses in England as early as 2022.”
The government used the Queen’s speech to trail plans to pass a Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill, of which details are expected in the coming days.
Reaction to the Queen’s speech
The chief executive of Universities UK (UUK), Alistair Jarvis, said the sector had “long called for a more flexible approach to student finance”, which would “better support part-time, flexible learning and mature students”. A promise to deliver this was a “step in the right direction”, he said.
The nation needed “fresh thinking, policy change and government support to help people of all ages and backgrounds to reskill and retrain”, Mr Jarvis continued, adding that many universities were “ready to scale up their alternatives to the traditional three-year degree”.
Dr Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, welcomed plans for the lifelong learning allowance, but cautioned against its plans for ARIA.
“To realistically meet its R&D pledge, investment in ARIA mustn’t be to the detriment of other research funding commitments,” said Dr Walker. “It should be funded with truly additional resource. Just as important as ARIA for Britain’s future ability to innovate and prosper is the government’s plans for a new Shared Prosperity Fund, which will direct much-needed research and innovation investment to areas in need of levelling up. I hope the government will set out in detail its approach to this critical – but much-delayed – fund before the summer recess. Time is now of the essence on this.”
The University and College Union objects to the introduction of a student loan system for further education – describing it as a “disastrous” plan. It also attacked the fees-based funding model, which had, it said, “wreaked havoc in universities” this year.
“We need a different approach to post-16 education funding which provides long-term security, and puts the interests of students and staff first. Education is a public good. It must be free and publicly funded to provide lifelong access for all,” it added.
On freedom of speech, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said threats to freedom of speech come not from students and staff but “government and university managers”.
She added: “Widespread precarious employment strips academics of the ability to speak and research freely, and curtails chances for career development. Free speech and academic freedom are threatened more widely on campus by government interference in the form of the Prevent duty, and attempts to impose the IHRA definition and examples of antisemitism on universities.”