Universities: Impact of Government Policy — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:54 pm on 13th October 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Giddens Lord Giddens Labour 1:54 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, it is a privilege to introduce this debate on a topic of such importance to the future of the country. This is a Labour-sponsored debate, and I am a Labour Peer, but I speak here primarily as an educator who has spent virtually the whole of his adult life in universities and was for some while the head of a major university institution. As such, I feel deep disquiet about the Government's policies, as I did about the Browne report on which those policies are based.

Universities are not just an extension of school; they are not some sort of finishing school for a group of privileged individuals to get into good jobs. All universities combine research and teaching; they are centres of creativity and innovation, which have a massive impact on the society at large. This impact is in some part economic; universities in this country have a turnover of something like £30 million-in other words, about one-third of the size of that gigantic institution, the NHS. They create about 750,000 jobs and are often integral to the local community's economy of which they are a part.

However, I stress strongly that their impact goes well beyond the economic sphere. Universities have an extraordinarily far-reaching impact on our civic life and our culture. They are important for teaching citizenship and diffusing norms of citizenship, for technological innovation and the arts and culture in our society. Universities in this country rank very highly in world terms; according to the Times Higher Education Supplement listing of world universities, we have three such universities in the top 10 and 12 in the top 100, second only to the United States. Our universities are a massive source of attraction for overseas students, in which again we are second only to the US in world rankings.

I stress strongly that the attraction of British universities to overseas students is not simply a matter of economics. Of course, it beings a lot more money into the country, but it is really important to recognise that our large number of overseas students has a tremendous impact on the countries they come from when they go back to them. They carry with them their experience of this country and its institutions. They normally carry with them an affection for this country, and they form a kind of friendly worldwide diaspora. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the LSE, an institution of which I used to be the director.

My point in saying these things is not simply to praise universities; it is to argue that these points are crucial to understanding the flaws in government policy. Universities are, above all, public institutions with a massive public impact. As with the National Health Service, the Government seem to be carrying out policies of a sort of ill-considered, untutored radicalism that is not based on in-depth research and with imponderable outcomes. In both cases, these are real-life experiments with little supporting research to back them up. No other country will have a health system structured along the lines that are being proposed for the UK. For universities, Britain-or, rather, England, given the exceptions applying to Scotland-will be a global outrider. It will have one of the very lowest levels of public support for the university system in the industrialised world. That includes the United States. When people think of American universities, they often think of the private universities, which are indeed very important, but they educate only a minority of American young people. Public and state universities in the US are very much larger, and have a confirmed and continued public role in American education.

The Government are fond of saying that the Browne report was commissioned by Labour, and then saying, "Ha ha ha, what would you have done?". Well, I am not primarily a politician, I am an educator, but here is what I would have done; and I hope that, had Labour been in government, it is what they would have done. I would have had four parts to a framework for the future of universities. First, I would have denied and rejected the ideological thrust of the Browne report, which seems quite alien to what universities are all about. Universities are not a sort of supermarket where education can be chosen like a washing powder off the shelf. Students are not simply consumers, making day-to-day purchasing decisions. They will make a one-off decision. The whole apparatus of a marketplace in which you have consumer-led enterprise seems alien to what universities are and should be about.

Secondly, fees should have been increased progressively, not in the big-bang fashion in which they trebled overnight, with dramatic consequences for the young people affected. Thirdly, as a consequence, I would have preserved a larger chunk of state funding, precisely because universities are public institutions with a massive impact that goes beyond the simple experience of learning as such. Finally, if I had been either a petty dictator or in the right position in the Labour Government, I would have given far more thought to the knock-on consequences of university reforms for job creation and growth, as well as for the wider culture of the country.

This leaves me with a range of questions for the Minister, and I hope that she will respond fulsomely to every single one. They flow more or less from the analysis I have just presented. First, there is a convergence between government policy on universities and government economic policy. A cut is not a cut unless you work out its knock-on implications for employment, welfare spending and growth. The same applies to a massive transfer from public to private funding, which is characteristic of the Government's proposals for universities. I ask the Minister what modelling has been done of these knock-on consequences. If it has been done, where can I find it? Without it, we simply do not know what the consequences of the reforms will be.

Secondly, the Minister for Universities, Mr David Willetts, wrote a justly well regarded book, The Pinch, a little while ago about the relationship between the generations. In it he argues persuasively that the older generation has accumulated most social and economic resources unto itself, and the younger generation in our society is hence excluded from many of the benefits monopolised by older people-the majority of people above age 40 or 50, or the "baby boomers" as he calls them. Will the Minister tell me how the reforms are compatible with this approach? Loading up massive debt on the younger generation seems to be exactly the opposite of what Mr Willetts is arguing that a just society should be: one where the older generation, being more affluent, helps to support the younger generation.

Thirdly, although Mr Willetts denies this, the arts, humanities and social sciences are especially vulnerable as a result of government reforms, and I speak as a social scientist myself. This will be especially true in middle to lower-level universities. It is difficult for me to see that, when you load up fees so quickly, many students will turn away from subjects that do not have a clear vocational outcome, especially in the lower-level universities. The top universities will do all right; most people want a degree from those universities because it confers market advantages. When you get lower down the system, you have to ask whether students will incur a debt of £30,000 or £40,000 to read history at a university that is, say, 75th in the British league of universities. This is very much open to doubt.

I therefore see government policies potentially producing chaotic consequences, and ask the Minister what the Government will do if departments are forced to close. Will they simply accept that? That would involve the loss of an awful lot of irreplaceable expertise. Suppose student fashion changes two or three years down the line. You cannot simply reinstate those departments. What will the Government do if universities are forced to close down, since some such universities are likely to be in poor, multicultural areas? Are the Government happy that they have a business model in which such universities will simply be forced out of business, with all the consequences for those communities? As I have stressed throughout, universities are not simply a form of economic enterprise. They are crucial for business and the economy, but their functions range so much more widely than that.

Fourthly, the Government seek to contain inequality and promote social mobility in the context of their reforms. However, it is blindingly obvious that these reforms, because of their dramatic nature, will have a negative impact on inequality. This is likely to be so both at the bottom and at the top of the university population. It will surely deter a large number of poorer students from applying to university at all. They will not be covered by the policies that the Government have introduced. It also seems equally obvious that it will increase inequalities at the top, because surely affluent parents will pay off the debts of their children up front, thereby further accentuating the very inequalities among the top levels of our society that we see widening everywhere. Does the Minister disagree that this is almost certain to be the case?

Finally and fifthly, the impact of the immigration cap looks to be seriously damaging to universities, not just in student recruitment but by denying the country the very creativity and academic innovation that are the lifeblood of the university system. On 3 October, a group of Nobel prize winners in the sciences wrote a letter to newspapers about the effects of the immigration cap, in which they said that it is a sad reflection of our priorities that it looks as though Premier League footballers might get exemptions whereas high flying academics might not. However, this is a much more serious issue than that statement implies, because if we look at the history of our universities and our national intellectual culture we see that migrants have played an absolutely fundamental role in science and other areas of university thinking and research. If such people can no longer come, we are simply shooting ourselves in the foot. I repeat what the Nobel prize winners said-it is a sad reflection of our priorities.

I hope that other noble Lords will pursue issues that, for the purposes of time, I have not had the chance to cover. There are many of them.