Universities: Impact of Government Policy — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:43 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Liberal Democrat 2:43 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, for this debate. It is very timely, coming as it does 12 months after your Lordships debated the Browne proposals. When I spoke in last year's debate, I said that the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, would be a further acceleration towards the privatisation of tertiary education. I said that, while it would not be my preference, it is perfectly rational to have a free, untrammelled market in higher education, or to maintain the "mixed economy" that has been the main operating principle followed by successive Governments during the last half of the 20th century. The worst of all worlds would be to have a largely privatised system subject to bouts of ministerial interference.

I predicted that the consequences of the Browne proposals would be the adoption of a spate of rationalisation and consolidation schemes in both top and bottom-tier HEIs. That is already happening: north of the border, Glasgow has announced the abolition of courses in Czech, Polish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Catalan, leaving only Spanish and French as the modern languages it offers. This was reported in the Independent on 24 April. In the Guardian of 3 May it was reported that London Metropolitan University, itself the product of a merger, intended to axe two-thirds of its courses, including history and philosophy. This is only the start of the latest round of closures; previous years witnessed the abolition of many chemistry departments and the total demise of any fully fledged nuclear engineering provision. The process will continue and gather pace in the coming years.

Leaving individual universities to decide what they do means that the overall pattern of English university provision will not be based on any coherent strategy. As I said by way of example, how many departments of palaeontology should there be? At least one, presumably, but that is by no means guaranteed in the current haphazard and fragmented state of decision-making. David Willetts claimed in the Guardian on 20 September last that his policy was in line with,

"all three major postwar reports"-

Robbins, Dearing and Browne. This is an absurd contention: the Robbins committee had a very wide remit to review the entire system across the UK, whereas the other two were much more circumscribed, being limited to financing and fees without regard to any other consequences. David Willetts was not comparing like with like.

Not that that is his only failing; there are many to choose from. First, he forecast that relatively few universities would charge the maximum permitted fee of £9,000, whereas a considerable number have already said that they will, including a number of second-tier ones. Secondly, he forecast that while a proportion of graduates-those earning very low salaries-would not have to repay their loan debts, there would be an overall saving to the taxpayer. Reversing the ratio of costs of higher education from 60 per cent public funding with 40 per cent private, to 40 per cent public funding with 60 per cent falling on the individual will not, it now appears, achieve the savings to the Exchequer originally predicted. Mr Willetts got his sums wrong. With average fees of £8,678 per annum, this will lead to a shortfall of £450 million by 2014, as reported in the Guardian of 21 April. A similar calculation came earlier from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Will the Minister, in winding-I have given notice of this request-please state what the current DBIS estimates are of the savings that will accrue to the public purse by 2014 and will she provide the data that supports such calculations? These are crucial statistics that must be updated and published on a regular basis. Furthermore, it is clear that large numbers of graduates will remain in debt for most of their working lives. Mr Willetts was accorded the sobriquet of "two brains" some years ago; a ratings agency might reasonably now re-assess this assessment.

There are further problems. First, the rate of return on a first degree has declined. The lifetime earnings premium that went with a degree is now much less than it was. Secondly, the world recession has seriously reduced the prospect of graduates securing well paid careers. It is no wonder that many school leavers are questioning the value of going to university. A decline in HE participation rates is predicted by vice-chancellors and UCAS. Furthermore, today's newspapers are reporting a significant decline in applications to FE colleges from 16 year-olds. The combination of these new factors will lead inevitably to many university closures, mergers or takeovers and certainly to massive reductions in course offerings across the board.

In response to the emerging chaos, Ministers have come up with a number of policy refinements, if that is not too grand a description of the series of knee-jerk reactions they have been forced to turn to. Ministers continue to assert that the new system of fees and loans will be more equitable than the existing one. The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, my right honourable friend Simon Hughes, was co-opted by the Government to improve access. He suggested 10,000 means-tested scholarships of £3,000 per annum to be allocated through schools to bright, disadvantaged pupils, but this will be but a mere sticking plaster. A government advertising programme to explain and promote the new system was also announced, but this and the Hughes proposals will not really tackle the problem. The stark fact is that the new fees/loans scheme is so complicated that it cannot be easily or simply explained and that makes it very bad politics, which further compounds the problems.

The Government need to undertake a thoroughgoing review, on the scale of Robbins, of their HE policies for England, or risk a decline, as many noble Lords have said, in the international reputation of our universities and the quality of the service they give to our citizens. There must also be a radical reordering of our policy priorities, in particular away from military adventurism, so that proper resources can be allocated to our university system. Within the coalition, the Liberal Democrats need to insist on these measures if they are to recover any credibility with the electorate on tuition fees and the costs that fall on individuals who undertake higher education. The chaotic system of English higher education must be addressed and remedial action taken.