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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:34 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Further & Higher Education) 6:34 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, given that the Queen’s Speech was little more than a poorly disguised election gimmick, it is surprising that there were no new proposals for legislation or policy on education, never mind higher education. To recap: the Government have failed to respond to the Augar review, published in May 2019, or to bring forward their own proposals for a sustainable model for HE funding. The Conservative-led coalition Government trebled tuition fees, overseeing a system in which the average student now graduates £50,000-plus in debt, while students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds graduate with an average debt of some £57,000. The system urgently needs to be reformed. Labour has committed to scrapping university tuition fees so that education is genuinely free for all and students do not face the prospect of a lifetime of student debt simply for seeking a decent education.

On HE funding, this is all the Government have to say:

“We are committed to making sure that higher education funding reflects a sustainable model that supports high quality provision, maintaining our world-leading reputation for higher education and delivering value for money for both students and the taxpayer”.

In a nod to parental concerns about what good value looks like, they added:

“We want to ensure we deliver better value for students in post-18 education, have more options that offer the right education for each individual, and provide the best access for disadvantaged young people”.

As part of a search for the safety of the long grass, they added finally:

“We are undertaking a review of post-18 education to ensure we have a joined-up education system that is accessible to all”.

Who can argue with much of that? However, it is clear that the current funding system is not working for students, nor for those in FE and HE providers.

Meanwhile, universities are struggling to manage the impact of successive real-term cuts in their budgets. In the face of wage inflation and increasing pension contributions, not only does this have an impact on teaching, vital services and staffing, as costs outpace income, but it also makes forward investment planning more difficult, storing up problems for future generations and for students themselves. The system urgently needs to be reformed, yet the Queen’s Speech made no reference to the Augar review—no doubt in fear of raising expectations that cannot be met, as I said.

At the time, the previous Education Secretary promised that the Government would,

“come forward with the conclusion of the review at the end of the year, at the spending review. That has always been the plan”.—[Official Report, Commons, 4/6/19; col. 58.]

In the absence of the Government’s response to the Augar review, will the Minister set out a timetable for bringing forward proposals? Surely we have waited long enough. Universities need us to end the uncertainty, not least because our universities have to compete for students in a global market to ensure funding.

On widening participation, the Government say that they want to,

“provide the best access for disadvantaged young people”.

However, their decision to abolish grants worth £3,500 and replace them with additional loans that will have to be repaid was a mistake—a mistake that has left some of the poorest students saddled with a lifetime of debt. The Queen’s Speech was an ideal opportunity for the Government to announce the reinstatement of grants and a policy that would have been warmly welcomed across the House. It is therefore disappointing to see such a glaring omission at a time when income disparities are rising and are at their widest ever. In visiting universities over the past few months, I have been impressed by the steps that many of them are taking to change their demographic and widen participation. Birmingham is a particularly good example, with its dedicated support to students from hard-to-reach communities. Why are the Government not making this happen as standard?

Immigration policy is also an area of concern for the higher education sector, given that universities are dependent on overseas students for financial support and because of the tie-ups on international research projects. The Government’s Queen’s Speech pledged to introduce,

“a more accessible visa system to attract global scientific and research talent”.

This rings a bit hollow. It is worth reminding ourselves that 12% of the world’s international students attend UK universities and, as other Peers have noted, four of the top 10 global universities are here in the UK. We welcome the Government’s policy on work-study visas offering international students a two-year visa after graduation, up from the absurd situation they inherited under Theresa May. Can the Minister advise us of when the new system will come into play? Will it apply to entrants starting in 2020 or for students who are currently here, and how has this change been promoted? Given that the restrictions on post-study work visas was blamed for a drop in international student enrolments, communicating the U-turn will be key to reversing this trend by ensuring that prospective overseas students see the UK as a possibility.

On research and development, the Government said that they would be setting out plans in the autumn to significantly raise and boost public R&D funding. The statement has attracted support, but the other statement on introducing a US-style advanced research projects agency has alarmed the research community as it seems to miss the key point about research in UK universities. We need stability and certainty, something which at present is sadly missing. According to the Royal Society, since 2015 funding for Horizon 2020 has fallen by 28%, or €0.5 billion, and UK applications have dropped by a third. It is understandable that leading researchers do not want to gamble with their careers when they have no sense of whether the UK will be willing and able to maintain its global scientific leadership.

Through the Queen’s Speech, the Government announced plans to create a UK equivalent of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and to cut down on research funding bureaucracy. Over the past two years, UK scientists have already witnessed a huge reshaping of the funding landscape with the formation of UKRI. With this in mind, how will such a new body complement the work of UKRI? Moreover, does the Minister share our concerns and those raised by academics that the research and innovation communities—