Universities: Impact of Government Policy — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:02 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Bragg Lord Bragg Labour 3:02 pm, 13th October 2011

I declare an interest as the chancellor of the University of Leeds and another as a fellow of my old college. I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Giddens for securing debate, and for all that he has said on the economic side, and my noble friend Lord Krebs. There is nothing left to be said there really; the case has been made, so all my stuff for that has been scrawled out. I might make the six minutes.

The British universities, as the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, said, have been an extraordinary success since the last war, like the creative industries. They are the two greatest successes in this country, and we meddle with them at our peril. When so much else stagnates or sinks, their success must be supported. That is not being done at the moment. Apart from their academic success and the way they groom this society in the right civilised and cultured direction, they have been social engineers on the very highest scale. They took a 7 per cent intake not many decades ago and turned it into a 45 per cent intake, without breaking down, without disruptions, without strikes and without any that sort of thing at all. They took it on board. In the process, in my view-from looking round and having something to do with universities-they enhanced the universities; they made the universities better. The great growth that has been talked about by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, has come in the last two or three decades since that happened. This is down to dedicated academics and intelligent management. Moreover, in my experience of 10 years at Leeds, the universities foster well-educated, democratic, young, culturally literate citizens whose contribution to our society enriches it and who totally contradict the glib soundbites about a broken society.

In our near future, the knowledge industry and the creative industry could be just as crucial as manufacturing once was, but it needs to be attended to and not assailed as it is at the moment, so when universities complain in measured and temperate terms we should be careful to heed them. Here are a couple of points from the vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, who is also the chairman of the Russell Group. On visa changes, the Government have changed student visas-as has been said, but this is a specific instance-to remove the right of international students to work for a year or so after they graduate in the UK. At Leeds this has led to a fall already of 30 per cent in students from India, which was a great source for us in all sorts of ways: socially, culturally and economically. Apparently Indian banks are cutting student loans as post-study is no longer available. The estimated loss in revenue to us at the moment is £1.2 million and rising, quite apart from the loss of influence in national prestige and quite apart, as has been pointed out, from the interconnectedness between India and this country from those people coming here and from our students going over there. As has been said, that is a massive plus that we are jettisoning. I cannot see any sense in it, nor can anyone else I know who has anything to do with the university.

On the question of research, the Government have sought to protect research funding from the full force of the cuts, and for that they must be thanked. They maintain the level funding in cash terms. That sounds okay, but this flat cash is equivalent to a loss of 20 per cent in real terms over the life of this Parliament alone. It has been said-and it needs to be repeated, it seems-that countries such as France, Germany, America, not to mention China, are investing more and more in real terms in research and sciences because they know it works. They know that it delivers. They know that it delivers jobs, wealth and new opportunities. They know that it delivers the future. We are cutting back. We are supposed to be the clever country. We started all this a couple of hundred years ago. I cannot understand what we are about. We will fall behind-obviously we will. This is not good for the growth of the economy, or more generally for our international competitiveness.

We have to recognise that widening participation is a complex issue and we have to resist the tendency to blame the universities for a much wider social problem. The solution has to be compound. As well as effort from the universities, it requires improvements in secondary school performance, increasing student attainment, better advice and guidance for school students, particularly at the age when they choose their A-levels, as well as financial support for those 16 to 18 year-olds who really need it. We have a plan and a strategy at Leeds to encourage that in that neighbourhood of Yorkshire, which is proving to be quite successful. We are doing the same at Oxford.

The universities are essential to our future prosperity because of their ability to change, to invent, to reinvent, to engage the serious mind and to engage in those mind games that now dominate world commerce and world progress. Ideas rule and we have to be there, up with those rulers. There is a book of which I am a great admirer. It is written by the father of my noble friend Lord Evans. It is an early masterful work of oral history called Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, and that is what it means. The fellows who cut the hay in the universities are the vice-chancellors, the professors, the lecturers, the researchers. In my experience, they are men and women, as we have heard, of great international distinction. They are public servants. They are not self-serving or alarmist. What they say has real merit. Your Lordships' House will, I am sure, listen to them and pass it on. These things are far too important to be meddled with confusingly. They deserve close attention and scrutiny from us. The universities liberate our young people into a future that they deserve to have.