Universities: Impact of Government Policy — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:31 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 3:31 pm, 13th October 2011

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, for securing this debate and introducing it with the insight and wisdom that we have come to expect of him. When we discuss education policy, we need to ask ourselves by what criteria are we judging it. In the context of this country, two criteria are absolutely relevant. First, is the government policy likely to safeguard the high quality of our university education and research? As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has already reminded us, we are not just second in the international league, but, allowing for the all the variables, we might come top.

The second criterion that we need to take into account is whether the policy makes this high quality of education and research available to whoever is capable of benefiting from it and maximises the use of talent available in the country? These are the two criteria: does the policy maintain and safeguard the high quality of our education and research and does it make it available to all?

Noble Lords have so far concentrated by and large on the first. I want to concentrate on the second because it is in danger of getting neglected. Fifty per cent of the British population belong to a lower socio-economic background. However, they represent just 26 per cent of university students. Obviously, much work needs to be done at the school level. However, financial considerations also play an important part. If fees are to be paid-and fees are fairly high-they act as a deterrent. As well as introducing high fees, the Government are trying to support people from lower socio-economic backgrounds through the scheme of bursaries. A bursary in a Russell group university comes to something like £1,764. In a million+ universities, it comes to be about £714. These amounts are hardly enough to encourage people from lower socio-economic backgrounds to enter university. Either, therefore, they will not enter the university or they will have to do part-time work in order to maintain themselves, which would badly affect their academic achievement.

I am particularly worried about the national scholarship scheme. The Government have set aside £155 million for helping people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The amount is too small. If the fees are £9,000 a year, the amount will only be able to maintain about 5,500 students. If the fees average at about £7,200, the £155 million would only take care of just under 7,000 students. Contrast this with the fact that last year alone 10,670 students were in receipt of free school meals. The amount of £155 million therefore is not good enough and at best can only guarantee a free first year. I am particularly worried about the impact of this on ethnic minorities, especially Afro-Caribbeans and Pakistanis, because by and large Indians are in a position to take care of themselves.

Huge sums of money have to be repaid as the fees range between £7,000 and £8,000 a year, which comes to around £25,000 for a three-year course. The hope of getting a job and earning around £25,000 a year in order to start repaying the loan is slim in a situation like ours. There is also a great danger that students from the Afro-Caribbean and Pakistani communities might stay away from courses of a longer duration, such as medicine and management. Unwittingly, we may create a situation of occupational apartheid, in that on certain courses you will not see a black face, a face from Pakistan or a Muslim face; that would be extremely dangerous. If we are really concerned to make education available to all and to create a genuine sense of community in our country, those from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds should not have to pay fees at all. If they do have to pay fees, the value of bursaries should be increased, on a rough calculation, to something like £475 million from the proposed £155 million.

As other noble Lords have pointed out, we must recognise that education is a public good. It benefits not only the individual, but also the community at large by raising the quality of life and its consequences in almost all spheres, including which newspapers you read and the television programmes you watch. It is also a prized good in the sense that those who are deprived of it build up resentment and anger, as we have seen from time to time in the kinds of turmoil that have taken place. If it is regarded as a public good and not just as an individual good, and if we see people not just as consumers but as citizens, the public contribution has to be much higher than is currently the case. In the mid-1990s the public contribution to higher education was in the vicinity of 40 per cent to 42 per cent. It began to go down and stands today at somewhere around 32 per cent. If the Government's policy is carried out, we are told that by 2014-15, the teaching grant to universities will decrease by 60 per cent. That simply cannot be right. If we really value education as we should, the Government contribution must be better than it is.