Universities: Impact of Government Policy — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Woolmer of Leeds Lord Woolmer of Leeds Labour 3:37 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Giddens for introducing this debate. I declare an interest as the chair of the board of governors of Leeds Metropolitan University, and in a former existence I was Dean of the Business School at the University of Leeds, of which my noble friend Lord Bragg is the distinguished Chancellor. It is a pleasure to follow him today.

It seems that the Government have two objectives in their policy, one largely talked about in the debate-the fiscal objective, ensuring that students pay the full cost of their teaching at university, and the objective of increasing competition. It is not entirely clear whether the intention behind that is to drive down price or to improve quality. Before I go any further I shall say a word about Leeds Metropolitan University by way of background to one or two of my comments. It has some 27,000 students and almost 2,500 staff. It plays a major part in and makes a major contribution to the Yorkshire region, and of course complements the strengths of the University of Leeds, which also has a wide national and international reputation. The university is very important to the region and works closely with employers and industry, as well as with professional associations. It offers a vast range of professional and related degrees.

I sense from our discussions that we do not really know what is going to happen. The Government have increased fees by between 200 per cent and 300 per cent. We all have a view on what might happen, but chairing a board of governors is a bit like chairing the board of a company, and the truth is that we do not know; there is an awful lot of uncertainty. What I can say is that in the universities that I experience, people are getting on with the job. They are not feeling sorry for themselves. They are addressing the challenges and uncertainties and they are preparing for potentially very substantial change, but we do not know what the consequences will be. I will turn to one or two of those now.

I will touch only briefly on students from overseas and India because other noble Lords mentioned it but it is so important. The contribution of overseas students -India is a good example but there are others too-is important not only to our relationships abroad and our business relationships, but it is important to our UK students. It helps them to learn in an international, global environment. They learn an awful lot from international students. It is extremely important for the culture of undergraduate and postgraduate learning. I cannot emphasise how important it is. What assessments have the Government made to date-I realise that it is very early in the ball game-of the impact on Indian students' entry to our universities this year? In the light of that assessment, if it does reveal a major fall, are the Government open to looking again at policy in that area?

On widening access, it is as plain as a pikestaff to anybody that if you almost triple the price it will affect demand. No matter how you dress it up, somewhere along the line people will pay more, whether now or later in life. The people affected will inevitably be those at the bottom end of the income scale and those from low-aspirational households. I will be delighted if that is not true, but good sense says that it is. I ask the Government again, if good sense turns out to be right, what do they intend to do about that? There is a great deal of hypocrisy about the widening access agenda. You almost triple fees and then you say that you want to widen access. There is a conflict in that and I hope that the Government are open to addressing that issue.

Then there is the question of competition and the introduction of the contestable margin of 20,000 students. Have the Government stated clearly what are the objectives of that policy? What are the measurable outcomes of those objectives so that we can assess whether introducing this contestable margin, the marketplace, is successful or not? If those objectives are not met, what is the Government's intention? Will the contestable margin of 20,000 be stable for four years? As the energy policy shows, what business, universities and long-term institutions need is confidence in the framework of policy. What will happen to the contestable margin? Will it remain for the rest of this Parliament and can universities plan on that? Universities in operation are not sitting back feeling sorry for themselves, but they want the Government to be willing to address success or failure and to be willing to change policy if some of the worst fears are borne out.