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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for this important debate. I declare an interest as a founder chancellor of two of Britain's newest universities: previously Bournemouth, and currently Liverpool Hope.
I shall focus on the link between the economic impact of higher education with diversity of provision and access for students. As already noted, the Government have declared their intention to create a diverse higher education sector, with at least 50 per cent of 18 to 30 year-olds entering higher education. The first objective is to increase choice and enhance opportunities for lifelong learning, helping to promote an educated, skilled and competitive economy.
The second objective is to increase access by reducing historical disadvantages and encouraging all British citizens, irrespective of social background, to achieve their potential as appropriate. These proposals for expansion have been criticised, because of concerns—which I respect—about the possibility of lowering standards and the maintenance of quality. I believe that those concerns can be addressed, and that the underlying objective of encouraging access to higher education by overcoming social and cultural barriers is to be welcomed. The heritage of class difference is still strong in this country. There are still large sectors of the population with low educational aspirations, in marked contrast to many developing countries, where even the very poor have high educational aspirations. If Britain is to remain economically competitive, it is crucial that historical disadvantages and their long-term socio-psychological impact are remedied.
I draw briefly on the experience of Liverpool Hope University's historic and current role in expanding access to higher education by overcoming barriers of gender and class and enhancing diversity of provision through its ecumenical Christian foundation. In the 19th century, Hope's foundation colleges created the first opportunities in the region for women to receive higher education, long before they were eventually admitted to universities. Over subsequent years, in co-operation with the local university, Catholic and Anglican church foundations provided opportunities for higher education in diverse colleges, until the recent legislation enabled them to attain "university" status. Now Liverpool Hope University has achieved the distinction of becoming the only ecumenical Christian university in Europe, and there are at least 14 other faith-based higher education institutions.
Those institutions enhance choice and access, with their ethos of a long tradition of social inclusion. For example, Liverpool Hope is attracting students in a region where many communities have traditionally not been encouraged to benefit from a university education—some of the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in the country. This is making an important contribution to the local and national economy by enabling more students to realise their potential. The university is also stimulating urban regeneration and community involvement in many economic and cultural initiatives. Moreover, as an ecumenical Christian university—and this might be a counterpoint to the earlier debate—Liverpool Hope is encouraging access for students from different ethnic and religious backgrounds; not only Christian students but also those of other faiths seek and value the opportunity to study in a university that respects and enshrines the spiritual dimension of life, where sectarianism is transcended and there is a commitment to holistic education of body, mind and spirit. In such ways it is achieving the goal of social inclusion and reducing the risks of personal marginalisation.
In order to maintain such diversity, however, the new universities require appropriate support. With the present funding policy, a smaller group of large universities gets the lion's share of teaching and research resources. The perpetuation of a hierarchy of funding of universities does not support the Government's publicised intention to offer high-quality higher education to all students who can benefit.
In conclusion, the challenge must be to ensure the continuation of diversity, with universities enabled to make their own distinctive contributions, without having to mimic each other to survive. I hope the Minister will give an assurance that the Government's funding policy will ensure adequate resources to enable all universities to thrive; the new ones, alongside their well established counterparts.