Higher Education and Research Bill - Report (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 15th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative 7:45 pm, 15th March 2017

My Lords, I have my name on this amendment. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, for moving it so fully and eloquently, and I entirely agree with everything that he said.

It seems extraordinary, and I thought this at Second Reading, that the research knowledge and capability is at UKRI but—so far as I know, and I will be corrected if I am wrong—there is no requirement of any sort that the Office for Students should have any particular knowledge or experience of research or, for that matter, research degree-awarding powers. Therefore, the decision is to be taken by people who profess no particular knowledge of the subject matter of research-degree-awarding powers. That is to be left to a matter of advice. The difficulty with that, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, has pointed out, is that when it comes to accountability all that the Office for Students can say is, “Well, we got this advice from UKRI. That’s our defence”. Surely, the people who should defend the advice that is the essence of the matter should be the people who give it. There is a difference between decision-makers and advisers, as we were authoritatively informed some years ago: Ministers decide, advisers advise. In this context, the decisions are to be taken by the Office for Students while UKRI, with all its expertise, is relegated to being an adviser.

I have interests in the University of Cambridge, in the sense that I am an honorary fellow of two of the Cambridge colleges and I am a member of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. However, my view, which I have expressed consistently since Second Reading, is that UKRI’s research capabilities mean that it should be involved in the decision-making process as a decision-maker, not merely an adviser. As the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, said, we got a letter this morning, which was followed up by an invitation to telephone. Naturally, I accepted the invitation to telephone as soon as I was free to do so. We had a considerable discussion, and I was asked whether the second part of the amendment was as important as the first, the second part being about research students. I said, “Not for me”; I thought the essential part was the first part. I thought, “This sounds good”. Your Lordships will no doubt wait with bated breath to hear what the answer is to that. Anyway, I expressed the view that the second part was not so important. Therefore, if at some stage the amendment is subject to further consideration, I would be perfectly happy—I think this goes for its co-mover as well—to forget about that. The essential part is the decision-making. Surely the Government recognise that there is a difference between a decision-maker—a person with some responsibility for decisions—and an adviser. I strongly support the amendment and feel rather disappointed that the Government have not seen the logic of its position.