Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Higher Education - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:27 pm on 19th July 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 1:27 pm, 19th July 2018

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for initiating this debate. I agree with his comment that our world leadership in higher education is under threat. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester on his maiden speech. When I was training to be a teacher at St Katharine’s Church of England College in Liverpool, I went on a field trip to the Anglican college in Chichester and had a wonderful time—so I have happy memories of Chichester.

The noble Lord said we were in danger of losing our world status and that it was under threat. You have only to look at today’s BBC news online to see a story entitled “Australia overtaking UK for overseas students”. It states:

“Researchers at UCL’s Centre for Global Higher Education say the UK is being pushed into third place behind the United States and Australia. Australia has been rapidly expanding its international student numbers”.

And how about this for a comment:

The British Council says it shows the UK needs to ‘look again’ at its policies towards overseas students”?

Well, there’s a thing.

I have listened with great interest to noble Lords’ speeches on the economic value to the UK of higher education as an export. Last night I was at the chancellor’s dinner at Hope University in Liverpool—a gold-rated university, the Minister will be pleased to know. It is Europe’s only ecumenical university, where Roman Catholics and Anglicans come together. I sat next to the professor who headed up the faculty of science. He was from India and was also a Hindu priest. Hope Voices sang, and in the choir was a Nigerian woman who is going on to do her master’s at the college. There were young people from all over the world. I thought, “Isn’t this absolutely wonderful?” Forget for a moment the economic importance of overseas students—I shall come to that—is it not wonderful that we are being enriched culturally by people from different backgrounds, different faiths and different countries? I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, that to make that work we have to look at how we welcome, encourage and support those students. They have come to a different culture, and we have to make our culture welcoming for them, just as we accept and welcome their culture.

This morning we learned about Australia overtaking us in the recruitment of overseas students. An export market worth £25 billion is very significant—and the £3.4 billion that it brings to London each year supports a whole range of employment. For a whole variety of reasons, we are no longer a major manufacturing country but have to concentrate on high-value, low-volume exports. Higher education is one of the highest-value industries—but, of course, lowest in the volume of physical goods that it produces.

We are still among the world leaders in higher education, where our domestic universities are some of the most attractive places to study for students from around the globe. One in seven overseas students at a Russell group university brings in £1 million—but it is not just Russell group universities; it is universities right across the country. It is also about universities going out to other countries to establish campuses. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, seemed to say, “Well, Oxford and Cambridge wouldn’t do that, would they?” But actually it is really important that perhaps they should do that. I welcome the fact that Liverpool University has a campus in China and that many other universities have campuses throughout the world, including in China, India and the Middle East. That encourages the opportunity for us to grow that market.

The export market in higher education is important to us. Higher education is labour intensive, of course, but does not require massive capital investment: building a faculty requires much less capital than a new car-manufacturing plant demands. On the question of capital, it is our human capital that is our greatest asset, and we must nurture and encourage it.

I know that this debate is about higher education, but earlier this week we discussed the importance of introducing primary children to the world of work—not, you understand, a return to sending youngsters up chimneys but raising every child’s career aspirations. More and more of our young people will be needed to fill the jobs in our higher education sector, whether as academics or support staff. Indeed, it is not just the higher education export market that is growing in size and influence; a number of independent schools are building schools in the Middle East, China and India.

In China, for example, there is a growing demand for English education, and more and more Chinese early-years settings are introducing a curriculum based on our early-years foundation stage, employing teachers and experts from England to train Chinese early-years professionals. I was speaking to a colleague only this week about his recent visit to southern China, where he was promoting the English education system, which is proving enormously attractive to a growing number of Chinese parents.

Our higher education export market is not, of course, just about balance sheets. As is too often the case with matters educational, we are reduced to talking about numbers and the cash value of education. It was Margaret Thatcher who embedded the idea that getting a better place in a popular school was like buying a popular washing machine. The concept of education as a commodity like any other seems strange to me.

We have heard plenty about the quantifiable economic benefits of a strong HE export market, but I would like to return to the soft—if that is an acceptable word in our Brexit-focused world—benefits of being a world leader in higher education and in education more widely. One potential threat to this market is our exit from the EU, if that ever comes about. However, there is already some anecdotal evidence of what you might call academic planning blight, as we struggle to remain in some pan-European research projects. Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said:

“The downturn in the UK’s participation in Horizon 2020, the EU’s programme for research and innovation, is concerning. It highlights the urgent need for clarity on the UK’s participation in Horizon 2020 beyond Brexit and, while the UK is still a member of the EU, the need to communicate that the UK’s universities and researchers are still eligible to participate and apply for funding through EU research and innovation programmes. The UK benefits enormously from access to the vital networks, funding and talent Horizon 2020 provides. It allows researchers to collaborate with world-leading experts on life-changing research, with knock-on benefits for the economy, society and individuals in the UK”.

It will never be possible to quantify, but, in European consortia planning meetings, post- Brexit complications might well mean that it is simpler not to include UK partners. If we do ever leave the EU, we will have to try even harder to maintain our position as a world leader. In terms of our global efforts, we are not, of course, without competitors. As I mentioned at the beginning of my contribution, we are now third, behind Australia, in attracting overseas students, and Canada is rising up the ranks of chief exporters of HE. Going from gold to silver to bronze position will be hard enough to accept, but we must certainly avoid being knocked from the HE export podium altogether. Scandinavian countries are also getting in there.

Apart from the numbers, of course, foreign students still bring a very valuable diversity to our education system and to the communities they live in. We are not yet doing enough to attract students from Africa, South America and Asia, where there are increasing numbers of students seeking to study abroad.

I will quickly raise two other points. As well as attracting students, we have to make sure that our universities have academic integrity, which means that we have to look at all the sorts of issues that might affect that integrity—essay mills, contract cheating, and bogus colleges and private colleges that attract overseas students and provide appalling facilities. If we do not get that right, other countries will say, “Don’t go to the UK because this is what happens when you do”.

Finally, we hear a lot about global Britain. If you had a business generating £25.8 billion to the economy and brought in world research and development while culturally enriching our society, you would do everything that you could to nurture and develop it. Yet it seems that, perhaps for political expediency, the Government are hell-bent on allowing our competitors never mind to get a foot in the door but to push it wide open. I hope that the Minister will tell us not just where we are but where we hope to be and how we are going to get there and ensure that this hugely important market grows for this country.