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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:38 pm on 16th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 4:38 pm, 16th January 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to speak in this debate and welcome this report, which is easy to read and which the whole university sector should look at in the light of each university’s strategy. I declare my interests: I hold an honorary chair at Cardiff University, where I have run postgraduate master’s training. Because I am in medicine, all my educational experience has been in vocational training. However, I am now also chair of governors at Cardiff Metropolitan University, which is one of those small universities people may feel is a bit lower down the scale. I would question that, because it has made us think about our role as a university in the economy of south-east Wales. I also have the advantage of being on the European Advisory Group to the Welsh Assembly Government. We are therefore able to link closely the economic needs of south-east Wales with what we provide educationally.

I want to focus on that perspective in the short time that I have, and particularly on the things we have been doing to try to turn this around. We are well aware that in south-east Wales we have a large number of people who dropped out of school early, went into jobs, had families—they may now be single parents—and much later on have decided that they want to learn. They know what they have missed out on and want to go back to university, but they need to do so part-time and with flexible hours. They also need flexibility so that they can still care for their children. We are already strongly aware of the need for part-time courses and have looked at further education, where we want to take our numbers from 25 up to 500. That may be ambitious but we are aware that the need is there. We would also rather like to see parity of esteem at every level, including that our students go through and that their degrees are viewed as being as valuable as anybody else’s.

From the European perspective, though, we in Wales are well aware that the report in 2017 from Universities Wales demonstrated the strength that was being brought by having 22,000 students from 140 countries all over the world. Since 2016, we have seen a huge drop in these numbers.

This report is called Treating Students Fairly, so I went to our student president, Ieuan Gardiner, who pointed out two things to me. His points are really worth making. One is that students are expected to live on remarkably low incomes. Student finance expects a student to work at least part-time—16 hours per week—to make their loan a liveable sum. How is that linked to full-time studying? Students who are poor are shackled by having to go to work to earn more money. They therefore have less study time and are often tired because the jobs they can do are nights, evenings, weekends and so on, which is very difficult. The degree they may come out with will be lower through no fault of their own but simply their poverty.

Another problem is that if means-tested grants are based on parents’ income, they must account for situations where a student is no longer in contact with their parents—I am afraid that that applies to quite a lot of students, particularly those from so-called disadvantaged backgrounds who may come from chaotic families or have escaped from abusive situations—or where the parent has died. The information asked for is bound to be in-depth and they will be unable to access it, so that needs to be allowed for. Another concern is that if you are claiming benefits, you get better “perks” than a student, with free dental care and so on. Those things have to be addressed.

Ieuan’s second point related to careers. If we are to have students going through and graduating, they need to learn about life after university while they are at school so that they make good choices for life, not just for the next stage in their career. I thought that point was extremely valid.

I will spend my concluding moments on a couple of things that we are doing. Our university won an award for its knowledge transfer partnership, after working with a window-cleaning system, which your Lordships may think is a bit strange. However, we have developed, perfected and tested innovative, waterless cleaning processes appropriate for the external surface of an aircraft. The problem with wet aircraft is that the water can freeze and so on. Using our Perceptual Experience Laboratory at Cardiff Metropolitan, we have been able to work with Window Cleaning Warehouse to the benefit of everybody: it now has large aircraft contracts.

We also recognise the shortage of technologies and are developing a school of technologies, with new programmes in computer security—an enormously growing area—data science, robotics and artificial intelligence. We are linking that with our school of art and design because computer-generated graphics in the film industry and advertising are the development of the future. This has to be multi-profession. It has to think about people working in completely different ways to pursue technology, and allow the career chances of our students to be completely different for the future. We must learn from places such as France and Germany, where they have écoles techniques and Technische Hochschulen, which have university status—very high status, actually—and value, and are training people for jobs for the future. That is what we are trying to do, and I hope we might do credit to this report.