Higher Education and Research Bill: Bishop of Oxford moves amendment on Archbishop degree awarding powers

14.03.27 Bishop of SheffieldOn 8th March 2017, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft, moved an amendment on behalf of the Bishop of Winchester to the Government’s Higher Education and Research Bill. The amendment, which was accepted by the Government, meant that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s historic powers to award degrees would be unchanged by the Bill. 

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, my right reverend friend the Bishop of Winchester is unable to be in his place this evening, but I bring before your Lordships his Amendment 119A. I am grateful to the Minister for the constructive discussions we have had with him and his officials, and for co-sponsoring this amendment.

One of the features of the rich diversity of higher education provision is the power exercised by the Archbishop of Canterbury to confer degrees under the Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533. It may help your Lordships to briefly recapitulate the background to this power. Lambeth degrees, as they are often colloquially termed, are now issued in one of two distinct ways.

The first of these is following examination or thesis under the direction of the Archbishop’s Examination in Theology, usually referred to as the AET. Since 2007, the AET has been offered as an MPhil research degree with the opportunity to extend to a PhD. This provision is already registered with HEFCE, and students following these programmes have access to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, while the standards which apply are those which accord with the requirements of the QAA.

Archbishop Justin, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, places great emphasis on the rigour of the AET, and he is not alone in his belief that the course makes a valuable contribution to theological research. It enables those who may not otherwise be able to study for an English degree in any other way to do so. In particular, it opens up such opportunities to students across the Anglican Communion and makes a significant contribution to the development of further and higher education when those students return home.

The second route is the awarding of higher degrees—they are not always doctorates—in a range of disciplines to those who have served the Church in a particularly distinguished way and for whom an academic award would be particularly appropriate. Indeed, Members of your Lordships’ House have received such degrees, among them the noble Lord, Lord Sacks.

Although this is perhaps a less familiar part of the higher education landscape than some your Lordships have been considering, it is by no means merely a historical curiosity. These powers have been in active use ever since the passage of the 1533 Act and were recognised following the Education Reform Act 1988, by means of the inclusion of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the list of approved degree-awarding bodies in the relevant statutory instrument. Should your Lordships be eager for the reference, it is the Education (Recognised Bodies) Order 1988, No. 2036. These powers were left unaltered by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.

The amendment ensures two things. First, it ensures that the Archbishop’s degree-awarding powers are appropriately safeguarded, both for those degrees conferred as a result of the submission of a thesis or the successful sitting of an examination or other form of academic assessment, and for degrees conferred on those who warrant an academic award for their scholarly or intellectual contribution to the work of the Church or to the place of faith in society. Secondly, the amendment properly brings within the new regulatory framework those awards—via the AET—which will now fall under the oversight of the Office for Students.

Lord Younger of Leckie: My Lords, first, I will be happy to write a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, which I hope on this occasion will be a short one, to clarify some aspects of our Amendment 196.

I want to make some very brief remarks on Amendment 119A, tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, and spoken to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, which we fully support. We fully recognise the unique position that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury is in when he awards degrees to those who have served the Church. We agree that the Archbishop’s ability to award such degrees, which do not require a course of study, supervised research or assessment, should be left untouched by the OfS. This amendment achieves this, while being clear that any taught or research degrees awarded in the usual manner—for example, following a course of study as part of the Archbishop’s Examination in Theology—will remain covered by the Bill.

I am pleased with the progress we have made on these matters. With these amendments added, it leaves the Bill in very good shape by giving the OfS the powers it needs while being crystal clear that these are underpinned by strong safeguards. It strikes the right balance between institutional autonomy and protecting students, and the quality and reputation of our HE sector.

119A: After Clause 51, insert the following new Clause—

“Saving for right to grant degrees under the Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533

Nothing done under this Part is to affect the right of the Archbishop of Canterbury, or any other person, by virtue of the Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533 to grant a degree where the recipient is not required—(a) to complete an appropriate course of study or an appropriate programme of supervised research, or(b) to satisfy an appropriate examination, test or other assessment.”

Amendment 119A agreed.