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Higher Education and Research Bill - Committee (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Crossbench 5:45 pm, 25th January 2017

Amendment 434ZA, in my name and that of the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, is not exactly a probing amendment but it seeks to emphasise the importance of something that gets rather little attention in the Bill as it stands. In speeches and discussions we have heard a great deal about the importance of innovation, opening up the sector and preventing vested interests getting in the way. There has also been quite a lot of discussion on the Floor of the House about the need for diversity. However, there is remarkably little about diversity in the Bill. When I looked through it did not appear at all, although the Lords spiritual had a couple of amendments that explicitly talked about it. The point of this amendment is to make explicit that diversity is truly important and we stand to benefit from a far more diverse set of institutions. However, diversity will not happen by magic or automatically simply by virtue of making it easier for a certain number of new providers to enter the higher education sector.

It is very important that we think positively about diversity and not negatively in terms of possible barriers. Diversity does not happen automatically, and one reason that Governments exist is to tackle what are in effect major barriers to entry when those barriers mean that we do not serve the long-term or even the short-term interests of the country and of students.

Having more providers that offer business degrees may be very good for the quality of business degrees but it will not in itself do anything either about the need to think of very different ways of delivering higher education and lifelong learning or about the areas where we know that we have enormous skills shortages in this country which will not be solved without active government.

Over the last 15 or 20 years, there has been a very large increase in the number of providers, although possibly there should be more. Alternative providers offer courses which are cheap, which you can afford to put on with the resources at hand and which do not put you at risk of going broke in week one. That is absolutely as it should be but, when you look at the profile and detail of what is being offered, as I have done, you find that it is accounting and business and business accounting—things that do not need huge up-front investment.

A similar pattern can be seen in, for example, the apprenticeship statistics. Again, there has been a regime of effectively inviting people to offer apprenticeships—not dissimilar to what we are talking about for higher education. The result has been overwhelmingly a growth in apprenticeships that do not require expensive equipment or involve high-risk activity, which means that you can cover your costs and more with relative ease.

Therefore, the purpose of the amendment is to argue that it is truly vital that the Government take a more active approach to encouraging new and different institutions. If they do not, then simply enacting the current regime as proposed will not solve the problem. New entrants will not on the whole do science or engineering. I am sure that lots of them would love to do exciting and expensive things, but the reality of being a new, small institution is that they do not.

I have mentioned the history of apprenticeships. Another example is the fight over saving archaeology A-level. I have considerable sympathy with the examination boards. Running things where you lose money heavily is quite hard to do. Unless you are large enough to spread those courses, by and large you just do not do them. These courses are very expensive and, without government support, they will be too risky and long-term for most people, but they are areas that are badly needed.

In a week in which an industrial strategy has just been launched, it would be appropriate for the discussions on the Higher Education and Research Bill also to take account of the fact that, in the past, Governments in other countries have felt the need to take a very active role in this area. They have felt the need to put long-term planning and substantial government money into the sector in a directed and planned way, because otherwise things would not happen. In this context, it seems to me that the Dyson Institute of Technology, which is clearly a wonderful initiative, makes the point. How many very rich individual entrepreneurs with the ability and money to take these decisions are there in this country? So far, there has been James Dyson. As a strategy for providing that part of the higher education sector, relying on the beneficence, good will and commitment of rich individuals is not very sensible. Obviously we cannot go back to the 1960s but it is worth looking at the commitment, vision and expenditure that was put in back then.

Therefore, the amendment asks for the Secretary of State—not the OfS—to have an obligation to take, on a regular basis, a strategic view of where in the country and in what disciplines we might need something more, something new, something different and something involving government commitment and government money. We suggest that the Government also look at how these institutions can be set up. We have gone on a lot this afternoon about validation. Going back to the 1960s, we had institutions that were developed over time. They launched forth, they had their own degree-awarding powers from day one and they had royal charters.

I think we are getting into a sort of mindset here in which there is the existing sector and then there will be new, brave little institutions, which may or may not need validation by other institutions and, if they do not, maybe the OfS will do it. That is too narrow and far too limited a view of what our universities and our higher education need to look like. I am sure that one possible response will be to say, “Oh, I’m sure the Office for Students will do it”. The Office for Students is already being asked to do an amazing number of things. I do not believe that this is a matter for a regulator; it is for the Secretary of State, on behalf of the nation and on a regular basis, to look at how, in new ways or “back to the future” ways, something can be done to create genuine diversity and genuine responsiveness to the needs of the economy and of society now and in the decades to come. I beg to move.