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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 Viscount Ridley Viscount Ridley Conservative 5:45 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, I support the amendment, which also stands in my name. I did not speak at Second Reading but I hope the Committee will indulge me. I attended nearly all of the Second Reading debate but, because I thought I would not be there at the end, I did not put my name down to speak.

I share some of the doubts that have been expressed about the Bill in other parts, but I am enthusiastic about one of its principal aims, which is what the amendment seeks to reinforce. I refer to the encouragement of diversity and innovation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, has eloquently explained, and the encouragement of new entrants, not just passively but actively—letting 1,000 flowers bloom but planting 1,000 flowers as well.

I am a great believer in competition, so it is important that we do our best to bring forward new ways of doing higher education, as well as new types of courses and new locations for them, especially in vocationally relevant areas—areas that are in demand with employers and where the signal is not being transmitted well enough to students. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, said, it is not just a matter of opening the gate and seeing a flock of new entrants come through; starting a new university is a huge investment and there are enormous barriers to entry. You need premises, people, programmes and quite a lot of pennies. So, before taking the plunge, as the noble Baroness said, entrepreneurs will need to be given signals that the state prioritises supporting certain courses and certain disciplines. As has been said, the industrial strategy makes the case for singling out and encouraging certain things that we think will be important in the future.

The example that I would give is data science. I know somebody who, as a sideline, retrains the holders of physics PhDs as data scientists, because that makes them much more valuable to employers in the private sector. There is a huge demand for data science in business, and that is the kind of thing that perhaps it would not be immediately obvious to existing universities to supply, or indeed obvious to new entrants, who might be hard pressed for cash and so on. I think that with the right kind of encouragement from government, advised by independent expertise, the sector could benefit from this sort of duty on the Secretary of State to consider where new ideas should come from.

I am no fan of committees for committees’ sake, so I am not wedded to the exact form of the amendment. In that sense, I see it as somewhat probing—raising the issue and seeing whether the Government are interested in responding in a positive way to this suggestion.