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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:31 pm on 16th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Tugendhat Lord Tugendhat Conservative 5:31 pm, 16th January 2019

My Lords, not only was my noble friend Lord Forsyth an admirable chairman of our committee but he also introduced the report in his opening speech in such a way as to cover all the salient points. Since then, other members of the committee have emphasised different points, with the result that if I gave the speech I had prepared, I would simply repeat what other people have said. Therefore, rather than do that, I will just pick out a couple of nuggets that I think have not received as much attention as some of the other points in the report.

Before doing so, however, I pay tribute to the contributions of those who were not members of the committee and who have greatly enriched the debate. Nearly all of them have spoken on the basis of considerable practical experience. In particular, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Baker. Whereas we have been reporting on problems, he spends much of his life seeking to resolve them. It is very fortunate that in this House we have people who are still engaged in practical work of that kind.

I should also like to take up the point raised by my noble friend Lord Willetts when he talked about the diverse missions of different universities. Certainly, I agree with what he said about that and I suspect that all the members of the committee agree with him as well. I do not see a disconnect between what we have written in the report and what he said.

I also agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Burns, about the success of the university sector. I have had some personal experience of it. At different times, I have been chairman of the development committee of my Cambridge college; I have been on the council of Imperial College with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr; and, for many years, I was chancellor of the University of Bath. So I know very well how successful British universities have been and I pay tribute to that. None the less, looking at the university sector at the moment, it is difficult to escape comparisons with the financial sector in the run-up to 2008; there is the same feeling of a runaway train. The evidence is clear; there is the high proportion of graduates leaving university who are unable to get graduate-level jobs and the extraordinary grade inflation to which attention has been drawn. I was at university a very long time ago but, in those days, first-class degrees were in low single figures. I remember when my noble friend Lord Howell got a first in economics in a department headed by Professor Kaldor; it was something that everybody commented on and has led me to admire him ever since.

Then of course we have universities offering places to those with quite inadequate qualifications, a point on which the universities’ union recently commented. In addition there is, on the one hand, a mad scramble for income, reflected in what I have just said, and, on the other, the phenomenon of universities getting ever deeper into debt. There was an estimate in the Times recently that the total debt of the sector is over £10 billion. One small, unnamed institution has already had to be bailed out; I hope it will not turn out to be the Northern Rock of universities. These are worrying aspects, which perhaps did not attract as much attention in the debate as other points.

The shortage of people with sub-degree craft and technical qualifications on the one hand and the superabundance of people with honours degrees on the other, while a matter of economic consequence, is not only that. It leads to disappointed expectations, frustrations and unemployment among young people. This in turn gives rise to a variety of social problems; we should see the mismatch in that context, as well as in respect of the economic waste.

Finally—this also bears on the point I have just made—I should like to emphasise the need, to which we drew attention in the report, for young people to receive good advice on whether they go into one form of higher education or another, which courses they should follow and which institutions they should try to get into. This is a terribly difficult problem, for which schools do not adequately provide at the moment and where there is, perhaps, an opportunity for outside help. I hope our report will have drawn attention to some of the issues that schools need to take into account in advising those going on to the next stage of their lives.