Amendment to the Motion

Part of Higher Education (Fee Limits and Student Support) (England) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 - Motion to Approve – in the House of Lords at 4:22 pm on 2nd July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Further & Higher Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade) 4:22 pm, 2nd July 2020

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.