Education: Treating Students Fairly (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:31 pm on 16th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 4:31 pm, 16th January 2019

My Lords, like other Members of your Lordships’ House I am delighted to speak in this debate. I think I am the first person to speak who was not either on the committee or recommended in advance by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for what I was going to say—which means I have free rein. I will talk about treating students fairly, but I have not been told what my five minutes are meant to include.

Needless to say, like other Peers, I need to declare two interests—and a third that others might consider whether they too could have declared. My first interest is that I am employed by the University of Cambridge. My second, related interest is that in that capacity I run a part-time master’s programme, linked with our Institute of Continuing Education that is intended to be about lifelong learning. While international relations might not sound technical or vocational, those of us who studied PPE thought that it was vocational at the time. Certainly we have some clear and active part-time activity in Cambridge that I will talk about.

The third thing I thought I should mention as an interest is that I am somebody who went through an undergraduate degree at Oxford where my fees were all paid—not by me–and I had a means-tested grant, so that at the end of my first year I could fund my 21st birthday party with the money I had saved from the grant. There was no need to borrow money. I came through an undergraduate degree with no debt—and I suspect that that will be true of the vast majority of Members of your Lordships’ House.

One of the issues about treating students fairly that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, touched on in his opening remarks is essentially one of intergenerational fairness: what is happening with the current generation? What will happen with future generations? How will we fund higher education? That needs to be looked at again, because the current arrangements came about as a result of George “gilet jaune” Osborne, in his high-vis jacket, putting forward a set of policies that seemed to work in the short term. While the sleight of hand was slightly mocked by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I thought that, if I were a Minister, I am not sure that I would be pleased or worried to have him on the same Benches, because you are not necessarily guaranteed an easy ride.

This report is not about having an easy ride. Two of the most exciting things about the report are, first, that it is not a report about Brexit, and, secondly, that it is willing to say that there are things wrong with higher education and further education, and that some institutions should be abolished. How often has any Government set up an institution or an organisation and at some subsequent point said “We can abolish it”? Normally we just add another institution and another institution—so this is a remarkably refreshing report, and one that highlights a set of key interests. Like other noble Lords, I stress the importance of ensuring parity of esteem between vocational and technical education and undergraduate degrees.

The report notes that in the 1960s, only 5% of people went to university, and now it is 50%. That has a set of merits; one thing that has been missing from the debate so far is the purpose of education for its own sake. We have talked very much—maybe appropriately for an Economic Affairs Committee debate—about the economic side. But education does have a value in and of itself, and for some people, going to university has an intrinsic value that you cannot monetise. But does it have that intrinsic value for 50% of the population at 17 or 18, when they are filling out their UCAS forms? I suggest that it does not. I think that the value of higher and further education is about lifelong training. It is not about what you might do as a rite of passage at 17, 18 or 19. One of the downsides of the commitment to send half the population to university at 18 is that people are not being trained in the skills that are needed.

One of the issues—I am afraid that I am going to mention Brexit—is why we have so many EU migrants working in the United Kingdom. In part, it is because they have the skills and the technical training that the British education system has not provided. Whether we leave the European Union on 29 March or not, we need to rectify that. It is essential that this country has the required skills base.

There is also a question about the value of a degree. When I went to university, there was a premium. You were likely to earn more if you had been to university. That premium no longer exists in the same way, so the economic arguments that were put forward when we introduced tuition fees—and when they were raised—no longer apply.

The final thing I will say is about the importance of maintenance grants. Ideally, I would go further than this report recommends and suggest that means-tested grants be introduced without the loan component. That might not be financially affordable, but there is something perverse about the idea that if you are middle-class and your parents are wealthy, the better able your parents are to pay your university fees and ensure that you can live comfortably and pay your rent, the more likely you are to leave university with no debt, while those who may have the greatest aspiration, the greatest desire and who would benefit most from the transformational aspects of university life do not have the same opportunities because they are having to borrow money to subsist. That needs to change.