Universities: Impact of Government Policy — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:24 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 2:24 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Giddens for initiating this important debate. I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. I agree, I think, with every word of his speech and I shall follow some of his themes. I have two non-remunerated interests to declare: I am an honorary fellow of my old college in Oxford and I am also a fellow of the University of Worcester, which in recent years has been Britain's fastest-growing university. There was an interval of 850 years in the start of teaching at these two universities, but each is an important member of the British higher education sector and both are being badly affected by government policies.

I can think of no other part of the United Kingdom economy where organisations are fined for being popular and successful. I wonder how many people realise that not only are the Government next year withdrawing 10,000 people from universities altogether and putting a further 20,000 into a competition, they will also fine universities £3,700 for each student they recruit over the so-called control number. That is despite the fact that more than 200,000 people were unsuccessful in securing a university place both last year and this year.

Quite apart from the distress and disappointment that this policy will cause for individual students and their families who had set their heart on a university career, this is an incredibly short-sighted policy for the British economy, particularly with unemployment for 18 to 24 year olds having reached almost 1 million. The CBI is predicting that by 2017, 56 per cent more jobs will require people to hold graduate-level qualifications, while the demand for people with no qualifications will fall by 12 per cent.

To say that the Government are sending mixed messages is a huge understatement. On the one hand they appear to be saying that student numbers can be switched on and off like a tap, according to national economic conditions at the time. On the other, they are telling parents and young people that a university education is such a great investment that it is worth taking on huge piles of debt to cover the tuition fees that, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, are nearly tripling to up to £9,000 from September next year.

The truth is that by investing in students and in universities, you are investing in the country's future. Fewer graduates are unemployed, compared to people without a degree, they are generally more productive, they are more likely to start new businesses, gain professional qualifications, and provide more employment for others and, over a lifetime, they will earn more and pay more tax.

The assertion that there are too many students and too many universities is nonsense. I get very angry when people talk about Mickey Mouse degrees from some of the newer universities. Let me give the House just one statistic from the University of Worcester, still a new university and, as I said, the country's fastest growing. Last year 93 per cent of its graduates went straight into jobs-putting Worcester ahead of its rather grander Russell group neighbours, Birmingham and Warwick. It has even done better in this regard than my own university of Oxford.

I will say a word about just two subjects, nursing and midwifery, although there are others I could mention. Before the general election, David Cameron promised to increase the number of midwives in England by 3,000. He described them as "overworked and demoralised". The University of Worcester has a really successful nursing and midwifery school. The Nursing and Midwifery Council rated the university's provision as "good", the best possible grade, in all five areas of its annual monitoring review, particularly noting that the university attracts excellent applicants to train in midwifery. The 30 per cent rise in applications in 2009-10 was followed by another 30 per cent rise in 2011. There are now 40 applicants per place for midwifery and more than 10 per place for nursing.

In partnership with the hospitals, trusts and healthcare providers, the University of Worcester is the only educator of midwives in Herefordshire and Worcestershire. The quality is excellent and it gives thousands of mothers and their babies the best possible professional help before, during and after childbirth. You would have thought that the authorities would wish to build on that success and provide for growth in the number of places, especially given the Prime Minister's pre-election promise and the call by the Royal College of Midwives for an additional 5,000 midwives to be trained. The college says that that is necessary because services are at breaking point and both the quality of care and the safety of mothers and babies are threatened.

What has happened? The number of midwifery places the university is commissioned to offer has been cut by the strategic health authority from 52 in 2009-10 to just 45 in 2010-11 and 47 in 2011-12. Nursery places were reduced by 40, from 228 in 2010-11 to 188 in 2011-12 and the same percentage cut of 17.5 per cent has been applied to nursing for all universities in the West Midlands. That makes no sense at all. Cutting university places is short-sighted and it is damaging the country's economic recovery. The cap on student numbers has to be removed and those universities that wish to plan for growth and can demonstrate that they are popular and successful must be allowed to grow.