Universities: Impact of Government Policy — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 3:15 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Giddens for having given us the opportunity to have this important debate today. I have the good fortune to be involved in three very different universities: LSE, where I am active as a governor; Newcastle University, where I am a member of court; and De Montfort University, where I do a small amount of advisory work.

I, like others, find the Government's policy sad and ill-judged. It is diminishing the concept and ideal of a university and, indeed, of education as an end it itself. It has huge implications for the future of the United Kingdom. What had come to be seen as an inspiring public good-my noble friend Lord Morgan referred to this-in which the nation as a whole could take pride is being ideologically changed into the concept of higher education being all about private benefit. Of course there is a balance to be struck, but that balance is now being heavily weighted in the direction of private benefit. More and more is measured by utilitarian, commercial considerations alone. As for the talk of markets and of students as customers, I find it vulgar. What of the aspiration of a university being a community of scholars?

There are contradictions in the policy of opening up a market by stimulating competition on AABs while at the same time stressing the importance of greater access. Of course we should all want more and more people to have the experience of university, but if we are genuine about this, that means that in our admissions policy we must look for potential that may not yet have had an equal opportunity to express itself in AAB terms. We should be looking for the future Einsteins trapped out there in relatively disadvantaged areas, but not just for Einsteins; we should be looking at the many who could make a powerful contribution to the future well-being of the UK if given the chance to develop intellectually. Many vice-chancellors are concerned that the number of students from disadvantaged areas will inevitably drop in the long run.

I am also concerned about perceived pressures, however much it is argued that there is no logical foundation for them, that lead students to pursue studies leading to a demonstrable and immediate material plus in the marketplace as distinct from the studies that they really want to undertake. This is part of shooting ourselves in the foot. A strong future for Britain will need not just the scientific, technological, engineering and vocational skills that it certainly will need, but intellectual originality, values and ethics and the perspective and wisdom of the humanities, without which all could repeatedly go terribly wrong. Our recent massive economic crisis is a good illustration of this. In any case, as we build material wealth, we surely know that a society worth living in will not be characterised by its quantity of wealth alone but also by its quality.

The Government's approach to the funding of arts and humanities is myopic, demoralising and dangerous for our future. What has just been said about languages is another good example. The vindictive approach to the social sciences is totally irrational. Technological and scientific advance generates immense challenge in its social consequences and in the organisation of society. The social sciences deserve priority in funding.

Do we believe in informed, critical citizens as central to a global democracy or not? If we do, the quality and wider life of university are crucially important. By the same token, the policy towards university museums smacks of a short-sighted cheapness-"nasty" is a good way to describe it. We need to see ourselves in perspective, to appreciate the diversity of humanity, to understand from where we came and the context of where we are.

The other evening I saw a TV report on the Conservative Party conference in which the Minister, Mr Hammond, made an impassioned speech about the indispensability and imperative of infrastructure for our future. Exactly the same analysis applies to our universities with their world-leading research-indeed, they are part of that infrastructure. The Minister said we cannot afford not to make infrastructure a priority. Against the price of Trident, for example, just why has the concept of free education at all levels including university disappeared from the radar screen?

I have one last plea: whatever the merits or demerits of all the activity that the present Secretary of State for Education likes to generate, can the Government please take next year to pause, take stock, and analyse the impact and consequences of their ill-chosen route? It is far too important to be left to ideological fundamentalism.