Moved by Lord Bassam of Brighton
At end, insert “but that this House regrets that the draft Regulations reduce the funding available to English students studying at higher education institutions in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to provide emergency support for higher and further education institutions in order to help them respond to the COVID-19 pandemic”.
My Lords, first, I thank all the noble Lords who intend to take part in the debate. The seriousness of it is undoubtedly underlined by the stellar cast list joining us virtually today. I shall listen with care and interest to all comments made, not least because of the precarious financial position that the HE sector finds itself in during this crisis.
As noble Lords will no doubt note, as the Minister did, higher education institutions generate more than £95 billion a year for the UK economy and support more than 940,000 full-time jobs. They develop highly skilled people, drive business productivity, fuel economic growth, provide essential workers and conduct high-impact research to address global challenges—including, of course, Covid-19.
Ultimately, they create opportunities at home and strengthen the UK’s standing abroad. But as the Explanatory Memorandum states, coronavirus has placed significant financial strain on the higher education sector and poses a significant risk to those benefits. It is right that the Government take steps to mitigate this, but they need to be carefully thought through, consulted on and explained, and include a longer-term vision to help higher education institutions survive the next few months and thrive in the years to come.
As we have heard, this instrument is meant to include two measures. First, where an English provider has recruited more students than number controls allow, it reduces tuition fee limits for undergraduate courses in the following academic year. Universities UK has proposed a similar stability measure. However, the second measure is regrettable. It reduces the maximum tuition fee loan amount available to English students at institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for 2021-22 when number controls are not stuck to. So far, the Government have failed to provide a meaningful justification for the extension beyond England. We fear that any cap on English students attending non-English institutions will only add to the difficulty that universities face, as well as straining the devolution settlement in the UK. Therefore, our opposition is reflected in my amendment.
A significant number of English students choose to study across the UK. It strengthens the bonds between our four nations, and HE institutions rely on this funding. In the last academic year, 40,000 English students went to study at Welsh providers, 27,000 at Scottish and 3,000 at Northern Irish institutions. At St Andrews and the University of Edinburgh, 45% of students were English; over 50% at Cardiff University came from across the border.
The Explanatory Memorandum states that the Government’s rationale for their actions is about the fair use of public funds, but can the Minister explain how it can be fair that English students will not be able to study at university in the current way and that this cap falls on students through the amount of tuition loan available? It also deprives them of the university of their choice, of course.
As HE is devolved, I am glad to see that the Explanatory Memorandum notes
“discussions with the devolved administrations”, but the Welsh Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, said she was “deeply concerned” that the Government
“have chosen to place a control on Welsh institutions rather than work with the Welsh Government to achieve a solution that is compatible with devolution.”
However, the Explanatory Memorandum does not say that there have been similar discussions with non-English providers. The vice-chancellor of St Andrews stated:
“There’s been no consultation about this with Scottish universities at all.”
Can the Minister confirm how many Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland institutions the Government consulted before this instrument was published? Does the Minister value such discussions?
The Explanatory Memorandum also states that the financial impact of exceeding number controls
“will be proportionately greater for … teaching-intensive … and smaller providers”.
How many providers does this relate to? Could jobs be lost as a result of this financial impact? Will smaller providers end up having to close courses and institutions? I greatly wonder whether the Government have properly pondered the law of unintended consequences.
The amendment also calls on the Government
“to provide emergency support for higher and further education institutions”.
In May the Government brought forward £100 million for research and £2.6 billion of tuition fee payments, but no additional support. The University and College Union has found that the sector could lose about £2.5 billion next year in tuition fees alone, along with 30,000 university jobs. It is ironic that the University of Oxford and Imperial are leading the way in developing a vaccine to bring the pandemic to an end for the long term, while the Government’s short-term support means that institutions such as Cardiff and Loughborough are actively planning job cuts to offset big budget shortfalls. In the Chancellor’s Statement next week, will the Government announce extra quality-related research funding, government grants and extra innovation funding, as Universities UK has called for?
I was concerned by the comments of the Universities Minister yesterday. Instead of making the case for higher education, she appeared to say that it is expensive and substandard, as well as questioning its role in social mobility. Will these views be strongly represented in the Government’s Green Paper, due to be published this month?
What higher education needs now is emergency support from the Government to protect student interests, maintain research capacity, prevent institutions failing and ensure that universities are able to play a central role in the economic and social recovery following the crisis across all four nations in the UK. It does not need sideswipes at the sector, financial instability and measures that undermine student security. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is one of those interesting documents that seems to have come out of the middle of nowhere, because four months ago nobody would have assumed we would be in this situation. The idea that you should stop universities that have better academic relations—based on either academic achievement or straightforward snob value—from hoovering up extra students seems quite reasonable. You should not be able to increase your numbers to the detriment of the rest of the sector.
There are one or two side issues here, and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has raised a few of them. I should declare an interest—albeit one that is decreasing as time goes on—in that I went to a Scottish university, Aberdeen. Aberdeen proudly boasted that it had two universities when England had two universities. The question is: if we are starting to affect these institutions in the north, how are we going to compensate them? They are still part of the United Kingdom, and the interchange of students between the two nations does not do any harm to the relationship between the two states in most cases, although I can think of one or two people in my past where I suggest that was not the case. We need some clarity from the Government about what they are doing on this issue.
The issue of unconditional offers is coming up here. They do not enjoy a tremendously good reputation. Some sort of minimum standard has often been considered in education, and this might be a good time to bring it in. Unconditional offers stop people working and sometimes mean that they are not prepared for going forward. If we are prepared to do something to address that issue, it might be one small crumb of good to come out of this very unpleasant situation.
My Lords, with two grandchildren completing courses at English universities but living in Scotland, I take a particularly personal interest in this issue. We have to look very carefully at the regulations, which give considerable power to the Government. I understand why they are being introduced; we are living, as so many people have said so often, in unprecedented times. In my 50 years in Parliament there has been no situation remotely like the present one. However, disasters can also bring opportunities, and I hope that over the next year there will be a complete determination to sustain our universities, which include some of the finest in the world. Some of them are quite new, such as Lincoln, where I sit on the court.
At the same time, the present situation should give us an opportunity to re-evaluate, reshape and define. We must get away from the mindset that says that young people who go to university are a success and those who do not have somehow failed. With vocational courses, apprenticeships and institutions such as the former polytechnics, we have to look at what we can do to try to ensure that each and every one of our young people leaving school goes to the right institution and studies the right course for him or her, so that afterwards that young person can play a full part in our society, a part that is underlined by the very concept of vocation, whether someone is studying a higher academic subject at university or is practising one of the crafts. There are great challenges before us and we must be very careful that we rise to them.
My Lords, investment in education is essential for the future of our country. I fully understand the economic impact of Covid-19 on the national purse and the rationale of limiting the amount spent on student loans by limiting student numbers. However, the over-rigid application of the proposed caps could adversely affect those from deprived backgrounds trying to get a foot on the ladder to economic and social advancement. I believe that those in this category should be excluded from calculations on the proposed caps.
I am inclined to accept that the funding of English-domiciled students is not strictly a devolved matter. However, not having seen any figures on projected savings, I wonder whether it is really worth the upset, and the financial upset, caused.
There is a line in an English hymn that states:
“New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast with Truth.”
The Covid pandemic is an opportunity to look again at our national priorities. While I would put health and social care near the top, should we really be cutting and cropping vital services such as education, while spending billions on battleships and the like to fight 19th and 20th-century wars?
I draw attention to my declaration of interest. I support entirely the points made by my noble friend Lord Bassam, but want to put on record that I am sick and tired of hearing those who have benefited from higher education, and whose children have gone through or wish to go through higher education, denigrating it and suggesting that other people’s children should not.
It is time that the Government understood the catastrophic hit being perpetrated on the higher education sector. Yes, Universities UK was concerned about the smaller and more vulnerable institutions—I get that—but we need a major marketing programme supported by the Government, both nationally and internationally, and to recognise that mass unemployment among young people in the coming year will require us to open up those opportunities still further, not as an alternative to apprenticeships or the opportunity to take in-service training in jobs when they are available, but realising that those opportunities will be limited. Foundation and access courses encouraging young people who are capable of doing so to go to university therefore make social, cultural and economic sense. And of course, for international students who are absolutely crucial to the cross-subsidy of research, it is important to turn fine words into reality.
As the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, said, there has been an unprecedented response by the Government to our economic and health challenge but that has not been true of the investment in and help to higher education. If we do not get this right, we will face a dual disbenefit—first, the impact of the geopolitical events and uncertainties of the moment, and secondly, a lack of recruitment at home, which would be bad for young people and disastrous for the university sector.
My Lords, I want to draw attention to the difficulty that some children of migrant families brought up in the UK are facing, which has the potential to become another Windrush-style scandal. It is only when these children are planning to go into higher education and start to fill out their UCAS forms that they realise that they do not have the right documentation. Those over the age of 18 could face the threat of deportation. This is because they came to the UK as young children on their parents’ passport, and grew up and went to school here, but when they try to fulfil their dream of going to university, they realise they do not have the necessary papers.
They are not British citizens or refugees and do not have indefinite leave to remain, so before filling out their UCAS forms, they have to apply for limited leave to remain—an immigration status that allows them to legally stay in the UK for a period. However, this could mean a wait of up to three years to process. To make matters worse, applicants for student finance need to have had lawful status in the UK for at least three years before the start of the academic year when their course begins.
It is an impossible situation. They can apply for limited leave to remain, if they have lived in the UK for seven years before their 18th birthday, but even if this legal status application is successful, they cannot work, yet they need money to reapply for legal status every two and a half years for 10 years paying around £2,000 each time until they eventually become eligible to apply for indefinite leave to remain.
This Windrush-style scandal is causing much heartache, depression and anxiety. What are the Government doing to avoid this catastrophe unfolding and help these intelligent young people fulfil their dreams, which will benefit society in the long term?
My Lords, I refer to my interests, as in the register. I totally understand why the Government feel that these measures are important and necessary during this crisis, though I have a number of questions. Making a decision of this nature, based on the finances available, is one way of looking at it but, equally, another question is: what we can do to enable the university sector to survive? I suppose the most fundamental question is: what will be best for these students? Many of them—both those going to university and those who cannot—will be scarred during this period by the lack of employment and other opportunities.
Perhaps more thought needs to be given in the coming months, as these measures filter through, to how to distinguish and accelerate the trends that we were already starting to see in previous years, in online and an expansion of vocational, and pivot the sector towards them. For example, fees and loans could be set both to reflect the realities of online learning and to incentivise the higher education institutions to expand their offerings, to international and local students, and partner with third parties to provide vocational courses—particularly given the large numbers of people in many of our worst-affected sectors and industries who may need retraining to move into future industries that will be less susceptible to Covid and other such structural disruption.
Essentially, my question to the Minister is: what thought has been put into creating incentives for universities to divert away just from foreign students and the local student pot into new areas? As many will now have gap years or not go to university full-time, is there a way to reflect the changing structure of courses that will evolve in the coming years?
My Lords, this is a time of great uncertainty for universities. The main proposal in this SI, to introduce temporary student number controls, will add an important element of stability, and I support it.
My first point, however, is that whatever stability this produces will be completely undermined if students lose confidence in the quality of the experience they are likely to receive in the autumn term and decide to defer to 2021. Yes, the Government have talked about the benefits of current applicants enrolling at universities in September but, at the same time, the Prime Minister, Secretary of State and, this week, the Minister for Education, have made public statements critical of universities that will serve only to undermine this confidence—in particular, I fear, for students from deprived backgrounds. Of course universities have issues that they must deal with, but I hope the Minister will acknowledge that now is not the time for public lambasting of the sector.
My second point is on franchised courses between a university and an FE college or private provider, on which additional guidance has recently been issued. Franchised students count towards a university’s student number count, even if they are not taught there and undertake most of their direct learning elsewhere. Both partners have to decide how to stay within their SNCs. This could potentially jeopardise valuable local partnerships that are in the national interest and deliver the skills that local employers need, as well as improving student choice. I understand that it has also had an impact on student transfers. There seems to be a worrying trend that this change, mid-cycle, has had a disproportionate effect on widening participation of students. I hope that there will be some room for flexibility. Will the Minister agree to look at this with those most concerned?
Finally, I add my voice to those questioning the proposals for the devolved nations. They really do need to be thought about again.
These proposals essentially amount to the imposition of a penalty upon the devolved Administrations. We have heard that there was no consultation. Higher education is a devolved subject. Why were the devolved Administrations not consulted? Essentially, what is happening here is that Scottish institutions are being punished by having a penalty imposed upon them due to problems caused by the virus in England.
There is no evidence that Scottish universities have been making predatory offers. The majority of offers made by Scottish universities were in early April this year, and, as some noble Lords will understand, offers made constitute a contract between the university making the offer and the applicant accepting it; subject always, of course, to the applicant achieving the necessary qualifications. That, in particular, makes the proposals unfair to those students who have accepted offers after the cut-off date of
Finally, on a more general point, it is the strongly held conviction among the universities in Scotland that using student loans to impose policy on the devolved Administrations in this form undermines necessary efforts to widen access.
My Lords, first, I offer the Green group’s support for the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and I also wish to associate myself with the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. “The next Windrush” is a phrase we sadly hear all too often, but the situation of young people who, through no fault of their own, suddenly find themselves unable to study, to progress, and to contribute to society in the way they wish to, is a tragedy. I hope we might get an answer today from the Government on some means to fix that.
Finally, when we are talking about student fees, surely this is the time to rethink the whole approach. Education is a public good and it should be paid for from general progressive taxation—taxation that is far more progressive than it is now. Think about the current circumstances, with Covid-19. As the Government have acknowledged, we are going to see significant economic disruption and job disruption. Many people will be looking to retrain and perhaps to do another course, or a second or a third course. If the weight of debt stops them doing that, that will be damaging to our society and damaging to them. We really need to reconsider the whole issue of student fees.
My Lords, I am content with the draft regulations, which seem to me to be a sensible response in these Covid times, but I want to press my noble friend on a related fee issue and two other university topics.
First, I am appalled that many universities are ripping off students by refusing to refund part of their fees for non-existent teaching. Over the last six months, university lecturers were on strike for five weeks—more than 1 million students got no teaching whatever. Now, there is no teaching because of Covid-19, and still universities are running the equivalent of Ponzi schemes, like Bernard Madoff racketeers, taking money for a non-existent product while paying themselves huge dividends. I am sorry, but they deserve to be lambasted. Any commercial company which failed to deliver on a contracted service would have to pay compensation. I hope my noble friend can compel our universities to behave honourably.
Secondly, I see that the department is considering changing to post-results applications and university courses starting in January. This change is long overdue, and I commend it. It is nonsense to offer conditional places based on predicted results. I hope that the Government will push on with that excellent initiative as soon as possible.
Finally, I know my noble friend will not say so, but we have about 30 useless universities at the bottom end of the quality tables. They are taking fees from students for worthless courses which will not get them jobs, and the fees will never be repaid. We desperately need more technical colleges and more skills training, as the Prime Minister said on Tuesday. Will my noble friend look to convert these back to good polytechnics which could do good for the country and real good for young people, rather than them playing at being poor-quality universities?
My Lords, Regulation 4 reduces the loan amounts available to English students taking courses at institutions in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Of course, English students at Scottish universities have to pay fees, while Scottish students and EU students do not. I quite understand the frustration in England at that situation, but I urge caution. As the public spending watchdog reported last year:
“Scotland’s universities face rising costs and funding cuts, and there is a growing gap in how well different institutions can cope”.
That report came before Covid and Brexit, so any move to reduce support for English students intending to study at Scottish universities, however understandable, would be a terrible mistake, especially at this time.
It is not just the financial consequences that I worry about. I also believe that there will be indirect political consequences. Anything that tends to undermine the unity of the United Kingdom, especially among our young people, would ultimately be a self-defeating exercise. I urge the Minister to have regard to the long-term political consequences of such a move before proceeding and to rethink Regulation 4.
My Lords, I endorse the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem with regard to the devolution aspect of this matter.
I was somewhat nonplussed when I read the draft Explanatory Memorandum, which states:
“This entire instrument applies to England only … The instrument does not have any minor or consequential effects outside England.”
One needs only to read the letters to the UK Universities Minister from her counterparts in Scotland and Wales to realise that the implications for Scotland and Wales, and no doubt Northern Ireland, are far from minor. How does the Minister justify what is in the Explanatory Memorandum?
I have a series of questions. Do the Government believe that, post pandemic, the UK Government, in co-operation with the devolved Administrations, should develop policies that sustain the principle of student mobility across the UK? The number controls announced on
Does the Minister accept that Scottish universities will be disproportionately disadvantaged because the number to which the percentage is applied to control numbers is being applied to much lower actual numbers? Why are institutions in the devolved countries able to bid for only 50% of the additional places, with a more limited range of subjects? Given the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, about the implications for the union, did the Minister for the Union express any view on these proposals and their formulation from the standpoint of wishing to strengthen the United Kingdom, or was Boris Johnson also duped into believing that the regulations applied to England only?
My Lords, earlier in my working life, I had responsibility for admissions to one of the colleges of Durham University. I well remember the stress involved in trying to ensure that we reached our student target but did not exceed it. That experience makes me feel for those in our universities today dealing with admissions on a much larger scale and in the unprecedented circumstances of Covid-19.
I have been in touch with universities in my part of the country about these regulations. While there is understanding of why they have been introduced, and understanding that these are temporary arrangements, there are some aspects of concern where clarification and reassurance are necessary.
For example, universities such as Newcastle have inadvertently—in such a volatile year for student recruitment—exceeded the student number controls before this measure was announced. Understandably, they do not wish to rescind offers to applicants who have faced a difficult time, with exams being cancelled, but have been judged to be qualified for the courses for which they have been accepted. I hope that the Government will avoid a punitive approach in such situations, where institutions have clearly acted in good faith and in the interest of students.
I support what has been said about concern about the effect on students from underrepresented backgrounds. My experience of some of our local universities, such as Sunderland, is not that they have offered useless courses but that they have provided life-changing opportunities for many people from BAME communities and from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.
Finally, I agree strongly with those who talked about the inadequate consultation, particularly with the devolved authorities. Those issues have been explored but I urge the Government to continue dialogue with the higher education sector in the implementation of these proposals, and to do a much better job on consultation than they have done so far.
“For decades we have been recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals.”
Speaking yesterday at the NEON summit on widening access and mobility, she outlined a new approach to social mobility.
My interest in this is threefold. While I was the MP for Eastleigh, I served for a decade as a governor on the board of its further education college. At that time, when FE colleges were becoming incorporated bodies, almost by chance Eastleigh’s further education college shared a large site and abundant sports fields with a secondary school and a sixth-form college. We found that the colleges were duplicating some A-level courses, which they sensibly streamlined. The secondary school opted to refocus on engineering studies, Eastleigh being an industrial town. The three establishments worked closely, almost seamlessly, together to provide the students the education and training opportunities that best met their aspirations.
My second and third interests are in the value of bringing flexibility into the provision of further and higher education and training. As a director in a leading consulting engineering practice, I learned that while first-class honours degree graduates might dazzle with their brilliance, it would take a little while for them to appreciate that they also had to contribute to justify their salary. HND graduates were generally older and would more often hit the ground running from the start. That is why I note the Minister’s statement yesterday that
“higher education should be open to all … who are qualified by ability and attainment.”
True social mobility would put students, their needs and career ambitions first—be that in HE, FE or apprenticeships—and must be funded accordingly.
I declare my interests as in the register, and welcome the Government’s attempts to protect higher education institutions and students. However, I have concerns about the unintended side-effects of these regulations on two issues.
First, there is the process of bids for the 10,000 additional places in excess of the SNC. Who is assessing condition B1 about course design, or condition B4 about qualifications holding value over time, given the radical changes to the economy and teaching methods that may result from the coronavirus? Can my noble friend say whether there is an appeals process for institutions which feel unfairly treated to raise timely concerns? Also, how do the Government assess the impact of using student loan data, which obviously leaves out those who apply late?
This leads me to my second concern. The Independent Higher Education organisation has brought an important issue to my attention today. A one-size-fits-all policy on student numbers may endanger the survival of smaller, specialist providers. In light of my noble friend’s introductory words, with which I agree, saying that we need a range of providers catering for individual needs and to ensure the stability of the sector, I fear that this SI could have a deleterious impact—particularly on students from widening participation categories, who tend to apply late and more often to the smaller higher education establishments.
The effect of introducing the SNC has apparently led larger university partners of smaller specialist colleges to reduce previously agreed numbers of subcontracted places by 20%, so many mature and BAME applicants, who are most likely not to have accepted offers promptly, have had offers withdrawn. Can my noble friend say whether the Government might consider exempting the smallest specialist higher education institutions from these controls: for example, only those with fewer than 1,500 students? They represent under 1% of the higher education sector but that would help stability and wider access.
My Lords, I find this regulation a little strange. We have faced a surprising pandemic, and some universities have tried to defend themselves against possible losses by recruiting more people than they are supposed to. As far as I can understand these complex things, the universities which have offered more places than they are supposed to will be punished, not this year but next year. That is the kind of Stalinist rationing I do not understand.
If universities are taking the initiative to defend themselves against the adverse effects of the virus, they should be rewarded, because they are looking ahead. At least next year, if you are going to punish them for this, please punish them mildly, spread the punishment over more than one year and, if possible, do not punish them at all, because they are doing good work and we need good-quality higher education. Therefore, this is the time not to be harsh on universities but to be kind to higher education, just as the Government are very kind to companies that are going bust and banks which are failing, and so on. If you are being kind to everyone, why not be kind to higher education as well?
My Lords, I welcome these regulations, because I well appreciate the difficulty that the higher education sector is in, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, referred to a moment ago. I draw attention to my interests in the register.
I have a couple of concrete questions and concerns for the Minister. One is about the devolved Administrations and those universities we have heard several noble Lords talk about. I note that the Government are giving rescue funding for research and innovation; will the Minister be able to tell us whether that funding, which is dispersed through UKRI, will be available to all the universities in the devolved Administrations? That would ensure that while Scottish and Welsh universities may lose out from English student attendance, they will not go short on research funding. Will the Minister also be able to tell us whether they will be eligible for the long-term, low-interest loans that the Government are offering?
My second point is about students who are being assessed at the moment through the new assessment process due to Covid, and who are hoping to enter university. Will the numerical caps that the Government are putting into place exempt students from disadvantaged backgrounds and allow those students who have the credentials in terms of marks to be allowed to exceed the numbers if they are part of the widening participation plans—APPs—that universities offer? Those students, more than any others, need all the support they can get at this time of economic stress.
My Lords, I shall focus on the specific issue of justice for individual student applicants under these rules. I totally understand the need that the Government see to avoid beggar-my-neighbour admissions activities by individual universities that may harm the financial stability of other institutions, but I want to ask about two worrying issues that arise from these regulations.
First, as other noble Lords have pointed out, these rules will disproportionately affect widening participation of students. Why? Because these students, from poorer and more disadvantaged backgrounds, are considerably more likely—up to five times—to accept their offers between May and August or apply directly to higher education institutions during that time. As a result, almost all students still in the application process who have not yet accepted an offer are from these widening participation backgrounds.
As a result, where providers have had their student numbers set by the department, and where, as my noble friend Lady Quin observed, that control figure is less than existing acceptances and offers, a significant number of universities will need to recalibrate or withdraw existing offers from these particularly needy students to stay within the control limits. How do the Government propose to avert this highly undesirable and highly unjust outcome for some of our most needy students?
Secondly, how will these regulations interact with the provision announced a few days ago that students can choose to take A-level examinations in the autumn if they are unhappy with their assessed A-level grades obtained in the summer? If an A-level student intending to go to university in September decides on receipt of their assessed grades to take the autumn exam, they will presumably defer their entry into HE, but the number of students who do that is unknown and may be quite large. What happens to the student caps then? Are they revisited and adjusted to provide stability again? The combination of significant flexibility in the exam process and significant control in the university student numbers submission process do not fit together coherently.
My Lords, I have no need to draw noble Lords’ attention to my entry in the register of interests as I was not lucky enough to go to university in 1968. Fortunately, my father managed to get me an apprenticeship and that has served me well over the years. University is sometimes not the automatic answer.
The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has clearly articulated the problem. He has given the facts and the figures regarding the implementation of these proposed measures. However, I will talk about the fairness of this—the unintended consequences of these measures. Is it fair to give the Government these sweeping powers over the next two or three years? Is it fair to limit student numbers when, as other speakers have said today, the unintended consequence will be that the poorest and the least qualified, with the fewest marks, will have least chance to get on that university ladder to get a better standard of education and improve their life chances.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is completely correct: young people need to get the best opportunities. University is not for everybody and sometimes apprenticeships, as I can vouch for, work just as well. But we should not cut off the legs of the poorest and least educated who have the chance to get to university. That is what worries me. The Government are set to reduce many students’ once-in-a-lifetime chance. The Government should look back. As other noble Lords have said, we spend billions of pounds looking after other sectors. Surely the most important sector that we should look after is the education of our children. That is where the money should go, because the children, young people and students of all races and religions are the future of this country.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing these regulations in the manner that he did, and I draw noble Lords’ attention to my interests as set out in the register.
The United Kingdom has such phenomenal soft power. Undoubtedly, our higher education system is the brightest star in that soft power constellation. For obvious reasons, international student numbers will be decimated as a result of Covid-19, but they will come back at some stage. That is a great thing in terms of those who come over here and have a higher education experience in the UK. They stay, work, study further and contribute to this country, or go back to their own countries and are superb ambassadors for the United Kingdom.
These regulations make sense in the short term, but I want to ask my noble friend the Minister a number of questions. First, what consideration was given to the devolved nature of higher education and the impact that these regulations would have in that regard? Secondly, does the Minister agree that more could be done to better position apprenticeships in both a parallel and series way with higher education—so potentially, for some routes, apprenticeship and then into university, not just seeing an apprenticeship or a degree apprenticeship as a better route through? Thirdly, what impact does he believe these regulations will have on social mobility?
Finally, if he will indulge me, I have a question that goes slightly beyond the regulations. With the base rate currently at 10 basis points, what is the current interest rate being paid on student loans? Does the Minister believe that that rate is in any sense equitable, and what impact does he believe it will have on social mobility, widening participation and widening access to our fine higher education establishments in the United Kingdom?
My Lords, I declare my interest as professor of government at the University of Hull.
I want to make three quick points. First, it is vital to stress the value of higher education to the United Kingdom, not just in delivering world-class research and teaching, but in its crucial economic benefits, both nationally in the export of higher education and locally with respect to jobs and bringing students into the local community. I welcome the packages so far announced by the Government, but they do not yet fully deliver in enabling HE to do what is needed, especially in response to the present crisis.
Secondly, the regulations reinforce other packages so far announced and, indeed, existing features of our HE system, in favouring certain big institutions. This is conceded, in effect, in the impact section of the Explanatory Memorandum with regard to teaching-intensive and smaller providers. The cap, as both the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the noble Lord, Lord Wood, have stressed, is likely to have an adverse effect, especially on students from widening participation backgrounds who tend to apply late in the cycle. There is a case for excluding them from the limit.
Thirdly, the regulations need to be complemented by greater support for universities to deliver more flexible learning opportunities to enable people of all ages to upskill and retrain, which will be crucial for economic recovery in the months and years ahead. Addressing fees needs to be part of a wider comprehensive and immediate package, designed to enable the HE sector to deliver what we expect of it and adapt to the fundamental challenges we now face. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister can explain what plans the Government have to assist those HE providers and students likely to be disadvantaged by these regulations, as well as what more will be done to enable HE to meet these challenges.
My Lords, my entry in the register includes a number of education and young people-related interests, in particular as chancellor of the University of Stirling. I recall back in 1981-82 when the then university principal, Sir Kenneth Alexander, and I, as student president, launched a controversial proposal to lift the cap on student numbers —which at that time was imposed by the University Grants Committee on every department of every university in the country—allowing universities to attract students based on the attractiveness of their courses and the qualifications that they could then achieve.
While I recognise the need for stability at the moment, in this particular year, I would be grateful if the Minister would make clear that this is a temporary measure, that it will last for only one year, and that universities and students will again have that relationship in the future. I want to associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on the scandalous level of unconditional offers, of the noble Lord, Lord Wei, on innovation, and of my noble friend Lord Wood on access—which were particularly relevant in relation to individual students. I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Bassam, for raising this issue.
University funding in Scotland is indeed devolved and the debate on it should take place in another place, but universities in Scotland are part of the UK system. Therefore, it is important that those universities are taken into consideration when the Government put in place a forward plan on research and on international students that will help the university sector to come out of this lockdown period.
Finally, I am very aware of the fact that, across the country, 17 and 18 year-olds have been very badly affected by this lockdown period in terms of their motivation, ambitions for the future and fears about the situation. Will the Government take into account the mental state of our teenagers at this time, following such a long period of lockdown in schools, and build it into the proposals they then put in place to try to reinvigorate not just our university sector, but our education system as a whole?
My Lords, Covid-19 has impacted all sectors of the nation. Education is not an exception. There is a clear sense that fewer students will decide to opt for higher education this year and possibly next year. This could put severe strain on providers’ finances.
To mitigate this, providers have changed their admission practices with mass use of unconditional offers, thereby increasing their recruitment of new students in 2020 and 2021. This could end up lowering education standards. While the providers will have a bigger intake of students, the question arises whether these students will suffer educationally. Choices will inevitably have to be made between good education and providers’ finances. In my opinion, good education must trump finance. The Government therefore have to provide additional finances to universities and colleges. Unconditional offers could attract more students, but ruin their future.
There is also the question of overseas students, who pay higher fees to come to United Kingdom universities. These higher student fees form a big proportion of providers’ overall finances. There has been considerable debate about visas for students who come from overseas. The Home Office must open up its visa system so that it is easier for overseas students to come to the UK for degree programmes. If the Government do not relax the visa system, overseas students will end up going to other countries, such as Canada, the USA and Australia. Since the Government have provided extra funding for businesses and for those who have lost their jobs, the education sector must also be given resources during the pandemic, above all to ensure that UK universities’ education standards are not compromised.
My Lords, as for many sectors, Covid-19 has created significant challenges for the higher education sector. It has taken an immediate reduction of income due to empty campuses and now faces the possibility of dramatic decreases in income in the next academic year, as student numbers, domestic and especially international, are expected to drop.
Therefore, it is right that the Government should put a plan in place to stabilise student numbers at English universities. In principle, the cap should be supported. However, the plans enacted by the statutory instrument have garnered some criticism, as highlighted by many noble Lords and comprehensively set out by my noble friend Lord Bassam of Brighton. I ask the Minister: how is this cap fair to universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? For example, last year just under 3,000 students from England enrolled at a Scottish higher education institution, accounting for 10% of total enrolment. Students may, because of this, now be discouraged from studying at universities outside England. Can he therefore outline what consultation has taken place with the devolved Administrations on this issue?
There have also been criticisms from some higher education experts that the cap is too loose and will still allow more prestigious institutions to hoover up students from less prominent institutions. How will the Government ensure that this does not happen?
Finally, the criteria that the Government are using to allow institutions to apply for the additional places seem very restrictive. An institution would need to have a continuation rate of 90% or higher, or high-skilled employment, or a further study rate of at least 75% to access the places. This, coupled with the speech yesterday from the Universities Minister, leads me to my final question: have the Government considered the impact of student number controls on disadvantaged young people, especially during Covid-19?
My Lords, I understand the logic of this instrument as a temporary, short-term measure; the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, explained its logic with great clarity. I also share the concerns about devolution set out in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam.
I speak as chair of Lancaster University and have that as one of my interests on the register. For Lancaster, the last decade has been a very good one. We have seen a 25% growth in student numbers, and we have expanded in areas that are the national priorities: engineering, the medical school, science—all have grown. This has, in part, been financed by our success in recruiting Chinese students. Clearly, there is a short-term issue with Covid-19, and longer-term issues with our relations with China, particularly now over Hong Kong.
We are devising our strategy for recovery from Covid-19. What are the planning assumptions we should make? Will the Minister give us an assurance that this is temporary, that we will be able to continue to recruit students in the years ahead? When will the Government clarify what the domestic fee level will be in those years ahead?
One of the reasons I like Lancaster a lot is that it combines excellence with equity, and I have great sympathy with what noble Lords, starting with the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, have said, about the impact of this measure of control at a time that is going to see a crisis in unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. I know the Government want to increase apprenticeships, but there is a huge challenge there; the numbers are actually down. It is a tremendous shame that we are imposing an artificial limit on the recruitment of students from deprived backgrounds in this measure, and it must not continue.
While I appreciate the underlying economic rationale for capping numbers and stopping EU students accessing student loan fees, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Benjamin, it is regrettable and will have a profound effect on our higher education and specialist providers. I fear that higher education will become the reserve of the elite, including international students who can afford high fees for elite institutions. Therefore, the proposals of student number control may detrimentally impact widening participation, as has been said by noble Lords, and may further damage our reputation.
Given that students received information only during lockdown, they and education institutions were unprepared for the last-minute surge in demand, which could not have been predicted. It took some universities over the threshold and made some students fearful they would face substantially larger fees with loan guarantees, should they wish to study in the UK. In the light of Covid-19 restrictions, and our own students not being expected to return to universities until next year, will the Government afford some flexibilities, allowing universities, including higher education specialist providers, to revise their numbers to accommodate the application surge, and allowing students to be accepted for January 2021, and not September 2020, so that they feel safer to return to the UK?
I hope that the Minister will accept that these measures might increase class divisions and reduce social mobility in our higher education institutions. I hope, too, that he will heed the wisdom of many noble Lords who have spoken and who are as concerned as I am about further exacerbating social and racial inequalities. I wholeheartedly echo the question from the noble Lord, Holmes, about the excessive interest charged on loans to home students.
My Lords, these are slightly curious regulations, in that the arrangements are temporary and apply only to the academic year 2021-22 from
Noble Lords have pretty well done this small instrument to death, so I shall try not to be repetitive, but I want to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. It appears that these changes have been introduced without any consultation with universities in the devolved nations. It would seem only right to call upon the Government to make time for a proper consultation process with the devolved Governments and higher education institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They have many English students who will be impacted by this legislation.
Picking up comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, I also draw attention to the importance of providing adequate support for small and specialist institutions, which not only would be disproportionately affected if they were to exceed their student number controls but are often more reliant on international students. Some of these institutions specialise in the creative arts, music, drama, art and other aspects of education, which provide enormous benefit to the country in quality of life, and indeed to the economy, given that the creative industries are a great financial contributor. It would be a great loss to the country if they were to be financially disadvantaged.
There is also concern for EU students, as other noble Lords have indicated. They were informed last week that they cannot defer their study to next year and still keep access to student loan funding or capped fees. They need places this year, and we expect a surge in numbers, which the student number controls could not have predicted. The EU fees and funding announcement came after student number controls were established.
Penalising universities in this way could lead to worsening regional skills gaps and widening economic disparities. It could lead to damage to research capacity, innovation and research impact. There could also be an increase in cold spots in higher education, as access to higher education could be reduced. As we have already heard from other noble Lords, disadvantaged students could find themselves worse off and less able to select a university that best suits their learning needs. The points put forward by my noble friend Lady Benjamin about immigrant children deserve urgent attention. There is also concern that artificially managing student choice could lead to significant damage to the UK’s global position as a world leader in research and education.
We note that the Government will have the discretion to allocate an additional 10,000 places, with 5,000 ring- fenced for nursing, midwifery or allied health courses to support the country’s vital public services. Will those places be targeted at institutions having difficulty in filling their places or will they be in universities already fully subscribed?
I have a question that I would have asked the Minister the other day had I been able to get in. It is slightly off beam from the instrument but it is relevant to nursing, so I will ask it anyway. It picks up points from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, my noble friends Lord Chidgey and Lord Goddard and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes. Nursing is less about academic achievement and more about practical, professional and personal skills. What consideration have the Government given to promoting nursing apprenticeships and other vocational routes into the profession? These used to provide many excellent and high-achieving nurses before degrees became the great god of qualifications. I declare an interest as a vice-president of City & Guilds. That might leave more ring-fenced places for those who genuinely need cerebral academic achievement for their work.
We note that any institution that exceeds the sum of its forecast for UK and EU-domiciled numbers must explain the reasons to the OfS in England or the HEFCW in Wales. We do not know what sorts of reasons would be acceptable to justify those admissions. Is there any guidance on this yet?
It seems reasonable to assert that universities should not exert undue pressure with “golden hellos” or gifts, nor with the use of unconditional offers, where students might end up on a degree course which is really not suitable for them.
We can do nothing with statutory instruments apart from debate them, but I hope that the Minister is able to offer us some reassurances on the issues that have been raised around the House in this short but packed debate.
My Lords, as befits the higher education sector that it concerns, this debate has been a diverse but uniformly intelligent one. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part.
The noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, asked about consultation with institutions throughout the United Kingdom. I have very happy to confirm that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and my honourable friend the Universities Minister have had a number of meetings with their counterparts, as have officials at the Department for Education with theirs, and have been consulting representatives of the sector, including Universities UK, which, as the name suggests, is UK-wide. He asked about the Chancellor’s Statement next week. I am afraid that he will have to wait with baited breath for that, but regarding research, I draw his attention again to the research package that was announced at the weekend by the Government, and which was noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, who asked whether that is UK-wide. I am happy to confirm that yes, institutions in all four nations can apply to it.
Many noble Lords asked questions concerning devolution, so it makes sense to start there. These included concerns that the number controls and fee loan reductions do not respect the devolved nature of higher education, that the risk to the sector is particularly acute in England—and that therefore there should be an English solution to an English problem—and that to apply these conditions to English-domiciled students at institutions elsewhere in the UK is to place the sector in those parts of the United Kingdom under unfair strain. It is not the purpose of these regulations to disregard or interfere in the important principle of devolution, but to ensure the stability, financial and otherwise, of higher education in England. Central government’s mechanism for that is the student loans and tuition fees system. Student number controls for institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland only apply to the number of English-domiciled entrants who will be supported with their tuition fees through Student Finance England.
The funding of English-domiciled students is not a devolved matter. It is right and fair that this policy should apply as consistently as possible wherever they are studying in the UK. I certainly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, about the value of people studying throughout the United Kingdom in strengthening the bonds between our four nations. I note the amendment that he has tabled and acknowledge some of his concerns, but I must note for example that currently, Scottish providers can charge any amount they choose to an English student without the fee loan matching it—and choose not to. These eminent and, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, pointed out, in many cases ancient institutions, place the welfare of their students and the attractiveness of studying in Scotland at the forefront of their recruitment practices. I do not expect that these regulations will cause them to change those practices to the detriment of students who might otherwise choose to apply elsewhere. Institutions in the devolved nations will continue to be free to set their own fees, as they do now.
On the question raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, the UK Government determine the level of student finance available to English-domiciled students. This is not a case of encroaching on devolution but an example of respecting it, while taking the necessary steps to ensure the stability of the higher education sector and value for money for the taxpayer and, above all, to maintain freedom of choice and a positive experience for students.
A second area which a number of noble Lords touched on was the impact on disadvantaged students. This was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, Lord Liddle and Lord Wood of Anfield, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Garden of Frognal, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, Lady Uddin, and others. The Government want to ensure that university places are available to everyone who is qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so. We expect that higher education providers will continue to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds to take their part in higher education, and officials at the Department for Education are working with the sector to identify what steps may be necessary to help them do so. I draw particular attention to the £23 million per month funding currently available to help people with hardship, including, as the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, rightly points out, mental health needs which might arise from the current circumstances.
Regarding other matters raised by noble Lords, my noble friends Lord Blencathra and Lord Cormack spoke about the quality of higher education that the Government expect. It is a condition of registration with the Office for Students that providers must deliver well-designed courses which provide a high-quality academic experience for all students. I draw their attention to my honourable friend the Universities Minister’s speech yesterday, which the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, mentioned, which sets out a bit further the Government’s thinking on this.
I am very happy to confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, who asked about universities in our native north-east, that offers accepted before the notification date of
My noble friend Lady Altmann asked a number of technical questions, and it might be better if I follow up on them in writing. She asked about appeals. Officials at the Department for Education will consider appeals on a case-by-case basis. She mentioned international students and their importance to the higher education sector, as did the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, and many others. That is why we are simplifying the current requirements and the application processes for international students studying in the UK, significantly improving our global offering. The new graduate route which is due to open next summer is just one example of this. Students contribute to net migration and will therefore continue to be counted within the net migration figures, just as the independent Migration Advisory Committee suggests they should be.
The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, asked about further education. The Government have an ambitious programme to reform and level up the FE sector. That will be set out in our White Paper, but I can certainly point to the plans which were announced in the Budget to invest £1.5 billion in England from 2021-22 to upgrade the FE college estate.
My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond, the noble Lord, Lord Goddard of Stockport, and others asked about apprenticeships. I can confirm that apprenticeships will be excluded from student number controls.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, asked about franchising. I am aware that some providers have raised concerns about franchising arrangements, but student number controls allow providers to recruit more students than they did in the 2019-20 academic year. Every student who meets the entry requirements for their course should be able access higher education, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, mentioned a particular group of students and the important issue of those who do not hold settled status. The long residency eligibility category ensures that people who do not hold settled status but who have spent a substantial period in the United Kingdom are able to access support in line with most other students. To qualify for support, these people must have been in the UK lawfully for at least three years. We consider that this strikes a fair balance, but we will certainly continue to keep a close eye on the very important issue that she raised.
In concluding, as I fear I must, I return to the challenges that the sector currently faces. We must all work together as we seek to recover and rebuild after Covid-19. These regulations will help us to do that and to achieve that important goal. It is our hope and expectation that they will play a crucial role in stabilising the sector. The Government recognise that the pandemic will have an unparalleled impact on all elements of the UK and, indeed, global economy and that the higher education sector is no exception.
We have been working closely with the sector to monitor the impact of Covid on international student numbers, including restrictions on travel, but we understand that it poses significant challenges. That is why the Government have committed to ensuring that existing rules and regulations, including visa regulations, are as flexible as possible for international students in the current circumstances. Higher education providers have also confirmed that they will be flexible in accommodating applicants’ circumstances wherever possible—for instance, if people are unable to travel to the UK in time for the start of the academic year.
I hope that noble Lords will be encouraged by what the regulations signify: that the Government care about the HE sector and the range of opportunities available for all who use it; that we care not just about larger, more profitable providers but about smaller and specialist institutions that, as my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth rightly pointed out, so creatively cater to the needs of their students, and wish to see those providers survive; and that we care above all about students. Students are the lifeblood of our higher education sector, and that they should have a positive experience of higher education is of the highest importance, now as much as ever. The Government must play a part in that by maintaining a stable higher education sector for the benefit of providers, students and taxpayers alike. I am happy to confirm that student number controls are a temporary measure in place for one year only, and the regulations before your Lordships today are the mechanism by which we can do this. I therefore recommend them to the House.
My Lords, I shall not detain the House for very much longer. I make it clear from the outset that is not my intention to press my amendment to a Division; I think that would be unfortunate and send the wrong sort of message.
The regulations have received something of a withering attack from across the breadth of the House—and deservedly so. I suspect that the Government will have to come back and think again about their package, certainly in part. We on the Labour Benches want to see a secure higher education sector, and we are somewhat alarmed by the comments made yesterday by the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan. I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, describes our universities as world-renowned because that is exactly what they are, and we should do nothing that disturbs that or undermines their power and economic value, particularly as we begin to recover from the impact of the Covid epidemic.
This has been a very useful debate that has set out some important benchmarks and lines for us to consider in future. My principal concern is to ensure that we do not imperil the wider participation of students from a whole range of backgrounds, not least those from poorer backgrounds. I suspect that the higher education sector will have to respond in greater numbers to the demands that are made, and that we will have to have a further debate on this subject in the near future. That said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.