Higher and Further Education: Funding — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:49 pm on 25th February 2010.

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Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Spokesperson for Constitutional Affairs, Spokesperson for Northern Ireland 2:49 pm, 25th February 2010

My Lords, this is the second time in eight years that the House has been indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for introducing a debate on this topic. The noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, has announced swingeing cuts in the financing of universities and added his name to those who call for a much more vocational, utilitarian and philistine approach to both teaching and research. In this, it is a re-echo of one of the main thrusts of the Dearing report in 1999 and will doubtless be rehearsed again when the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Madingley, completes the latest review of university financing. It is not new. The Edwardian period was characterised by The Quest for National Efficiency. Then, Governments of all hues were alarmed that the UK would lose out to the superior competitiveness of German and Japanese industry. Now we are told that the UK has to compete with the rising economic power of India and China.

The recurring themes of efficiency, modernisation, vocationalism and prosperity have resulted in different policy manifestations over the years. Many of them were in response to the clamour of industrialists. The problem is that to pursue such siren voices is to follow the lurchings of a drunk; industry always wants the opposite of what it is getting. It is like a perpetual five year-old's birthday party: no present satisfies.

It is not entirely, or even partially, industry's fault. Policy-makers, whether Ministers or civil servants, have never stood back long enough to produce a coherent system of higher education. It has all been, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, too piecemeal and knee-jerk. As I have said before in your Lordships' House, UK tertiary education ought to be based on something akin to Clark Kerr's comprehensive plan which revolutionised the situation in California.

Higher education needs to be regionalised. Its academic staff should teach on more than one campus; a peripatetic element would preserve a greater range of disciplines at a cheaper cost. Courses should be offered on a continuous basis so that students can take them over an intense period, à la the University of Buckingham, or over an extended one, à la the Open University. Such innovations would make higher education much more consumer-friendly and cost-effective.

I was a faculty dean at the time of the Thatcher cuts in 1981. Most universities adopted a rather desperate slash-and-burn approach. It will be much worse this time round, with compulsory redundancies being inevitable. I am glad that I am no longer a vice-chancellor.

In 1981, higher education funds were slashed throughout the developed world, with one exception. Lee Kuan Yew increased the budget in Singapore on the grounds that its best natural resource was the grey matter of its young people and that that had to be cultivated. The noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, should ponder that.

There is one final remark that I shall make-one that concerns intergenerational equality. As I wrote in a letter to the Guardian some months ago, it rather sticks in my craw that this generation of legislators is intent on placing a much greater share of the costs of third-level education on to the students. It is a generation that itself benefited from state scholarships and county awards that covered both fees and maintenance costs. The rate of return on a degree accrued significantly to the advantage of the individual. With a swingeing increase in fees, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, is likely to recommend, the costs will be to the severe detriment of the graduate. There is a strong case for considering the imposition of a retrospective tax on those graduates who enjoyed the earlier regime that lasted for a half century. That would go some way to preserving equity between the generations.