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Universities: Impact of Government Policy — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:56 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Moser Lord Moser Crossbench 2:56 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, for this opportunity to talk about universities. As all noble Lords have said, they are one of the country's greatest treasures. I have been lucky to spend almost all my working life as an academic, university chancellor, head of an Oxford college and, perhaps most precious of all to me, working with Lord Robbins and his committee to produce his great report. Together with the subsequent Dearing report, it gets to the essence of what universities are about. Of course, it was produced in 1963, when only 5 per cent of youngsters went to university. The committee daringly proposed raising that figure to 15 per cent by 1980. Now we are close to 50 per cent; we have mass higher education. To me, that is something of which to be proud rather than ashamed. It follows the American style, and other noble Lords have spoken about some of the implications.

Nothing can justify the spending review's treatment of the universities. I wonder whether it has something to do with the fact that it did not come from the Department for Education, which is where higher education should be dealt with, along with everything from nursery schools upwards. That is an organisational point. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and other speakers-above all, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs-spoke well about what this means for universities, which are faced with turmoil and muddle from Government and from various reports. There is no doubt that standards are at risk. Some courses and universities will go to the wall, and standards may also face a downward slope from an international point of view.

What makes this doubly unacceptable is that the spending review's cuts came on top of an already underfunded system. It is not as if we were flush and therefore could face it. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, gave us the figures. The essence is that we spend 1.3 per cent of GDP on higher education. The OECD average is 1.5 per cent. The United States spends 3 per cent. It is quite a different world, from which we have much to learn. It was a moment for being positive about universities, on which our future depends in so many ways-the economy, society and so on-rather than setting them on a downward slope. Since others have spoken so well about the finances and the implications and the disquiet that all this justifies, I will confine myself to a couple of other basic points. The first, already referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, is that within those cuts from the spending review, the priority of cuts-in other words, the negative side-has gone to teaching. Whatever the rest of us may think of the equality of teaching and research as university roles, the spending review authors thought differently. Research has been much more protected and I understand the reasons. I look to HEFCE-where else can one look to?-to the funding cuts to ensure that this trend against teaching in universities is halted. It is a very dangerous trend.

Finally, my particular concern is for the humanities, the social sciences and the arts. These are not regarded by today's leaders as of strategic importance. It may be that they do not earn as much money, and as easily, as the sciences and technology, which I am not going to argue against. Who would? But a lot of people sadly in high places are somewhat anti the humanities and the social sciences and the arts. From the point of view of a civilised country to which I was lucky enough to come many years ago, this is a dangerous trend and I look again at HEFCE to ensure that the humanities are protected.

I still look back-I am sentimental in that respect-to the Robbins days when everything depended on the UGC. I look to the future in which government intrudes much less than now and concerns itself much less with details. Obviously overall funding is a different matter. It is left to HEFCE to ensure that we have a first-class system, as we have now.