Amendment 47

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 5:06 pm on 21st October 2021.

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Lord Lucas:

Moved by Lord Lucas

47: Clause 17, page 20, line 22, at end insert—“(e) the mental health and wellbeing of persons who undertake a higher education course with the institution is supported.”Member’s explanatory statementTo ensure that the Office for Students has a sufficiently powerful lever to enforce its policies on student support, mental health and suicide.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, the origins of this, for me, lie 10 years ago, when one of my work colleagues was rung by a friend of her son to say, “I think you need to come down to Cardiff.” That was the first she knew about her son being suicidal. Fortunately, it all ended well, but there are many other such stories that have ended badly.

The universal point in this is that the universities really have not looked after their students well enough. We get platitudes from them, every now and again, about what they will do, but they do not even follow the basic medical procedures of who to contact if they are really worried about someone. Nor do they, in their substance, take care of students in the way that we as parents might hope.

I tried, a few years ago, to see if universities would switch a bit in the American direction and pay close attention to what teachers said about students in their applications. The answer came back: “No, we cannot do that; we never get to know our students well enough in the three years they are with us to judge whether what a teacher said was right, so there is no way that we can build up a system of reputation and ability to judge teachers’ comments in the way that American universities do.” This is changing, and it is changing because of the Office for Students.

The Office for Students has produced an extremely good paper on what it expects universities to do on mental health. It is getting a real grip on access, saying that it is not only about how many disadvantaged people you let in but how you look after them while they are there. The fact that so many of them are dropping out is down to the universities. Universities must not blame what came before or do as the Government did last week and try to blame the examinations that students took before: these are your students; you have admitted them, so you look after them—we expect you to make a success of them. That is an enormously important change, and I really want the Office for Students to be in a position where it can enforce the ambitions that I just set out and make sure that universities come up to the mark.

Reading the underlying legislation, I was not at all sure that that was the case, which is why I put down these amendments. I am assured, in correspondence with my noble friend the Minister, that this is the case and the OfS has the powers it needs. I very much hope that that is what I will hear from the lips of my noble friend, when she comes to reply on this amendment.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

My Lords, obviously the House is deeply sympathetic to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

I want to extend those points. The biggest cause of mental health stress for students over the past 18 months has of course been Covid. Over the past two years, a substantial part of their courses has not been physical; indeed, in many cases, they have had almost no contact at all with fellow students. Obviously, in a public health emergency, that situation was substantially unavoidable, although some universities dealt with the situation better than others. It is clear that there was a difficulty in students being able to meet in large groups and have physical contact. However, that is no longer the case.

I know—because they have been taken up with me personally, as I am sure is true of other noble Lords—that there are concerns about continuing restrictions on students meeting and face-to-face tuition. To me, such restrictions seem totally without justification now; if I may put it somewhat undiplomatically, they may be suited more to the convenience of university administrators and lecturers than to the well-being of their students. I know that the Government have been robust in their statements about the importance of returning to the full educational experience in universities, but this is clearly an ongoing issue. I think that the House would welcome a robust assurance from the Minister that universities should now be expected to return to offering the full educational experience; the Office for Students should also be making this clear to them.

On a related point, I find it extraordinary, given the serious diminution in teaching and learning that many students have experienced over the past two years, that universities have still charged them full fees. I was the guy who persuaded Tony Blair to introduce fees in the first place, so I have nothing against fees—we need properly funded universities and properly paid academics —but it is supposed to be something for something. The reason for paying the fees is to get the full educational experience. Indeed, part of the justification for the fees was that they would enhance the educational experience; we wanted universities to be able to staff up properly and offer proper facilities.

The other half of that contract applies too. Where students have not been able to gain the full experience and the quality of teaching and learning to which they are entitled in return for their fees of more than £9,000, the universities should have discounted those fees. I am surprised that the Government did not apply more pressure to them to do so; I assume the reason is that the Treasury was worried that, if the Government applied pressure on universities to discount fees, the universities would come and ask for the money. I have a feeling that what happened here was a kind of Faustian pact: the Government did not pressure universities because they did not want the consequential action of the universities asking them for money. But actually, it would be perfectly possible for universities, like almost every other enterprise in the country, to realign their outlays with their income and themselves take on the consequences of a reduction in fees. The idea that state funding is the only alternative to fee funding is wrong.

If I may say so—I have said this a lot over the past two years, but it still needs to be said—vice-chancellors are, for the most part, grossly overpaid. One of the less satisfactory outcomes of the fee reform, in particular the trebling of fees to £9,000, was vice-chancellors doubling their own incomes and creating a whole swathe of bureaucrats in universities. I went through the figures and was amazed at the swathes of bureaucrats in universities—all paid more than £100,000, and many of them paid more than £150,000—while none of the junior lecturers or PHD students gets any of this largesse. Apart from a few offers of short-term reductions in salaries, I have not noticed any university vice-chancellors taking this opportunity to apply proper scrutiny to the size and salaries of their senior management teams or, dare I say it, leading by example and cutting their own pay as part of a deal to cut student fees in response to the terrible experience that so many students have had to go through during the pandemic.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 5:15 pm, 21st October 2021

My Lords, I added my name to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, which is self-explanatory, in a way. The Office for Students must have the powers to enforce its policies on student support and mental health and well-being. We must do our best to ensure that no student feels that suicide is the only way ahead. I have three student grandsons at different universities, and last year bore no relation whatever to the undergraduate experience of the past. As the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has said, the recent Covid measures meant that many students had a lonely year, with obvious welfare implications. Their welfare is surely of the utmost importance and should be one of the factors that is taken into account for the purpose of assessing universities.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for introducing his Amendment 47. I will comment on that before moving on to my Amendment 48 in this group. Even before the pandemic hit, health and welfare support systems in higher education were experiencing unprecedented demand. More students need more help with problems of increasing complexity. A DfE report in June, Student Mental Health and Wellbeing, found that almost all higher education institutions have been devoting more resources to supporting student mental health over the past five years but, in many cases, were still struggling to meet demand. The pandemic has exacerbated that considerably, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned, so I will not rehearse that.

It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s answer to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and others on what the OfS can and does do about this. From memory, its new criteria on quality and standards relate to academic support only, rather than to specific non-academic support, but the Minister can explain how the OfS can otherwise work with universities on this.

It has offered some money, of course. It offered £6 million for innovative mental health support projects, although, when I looked at the small print, I found that half of that had to come from the providers doing the work. There are bits of money from outside. The noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, said recently in a Written Answer:

“As part of the mental health recovery action plan, the government has provided an additional £13 million to ensure that young adults aged 18 to 25, including university students, are supported with tailored mental health services.”

That is really good. I thought, “Hang on; is that all 18 to 25 year-olds?” At a rough guess that gives about £2.50 each, which may not go very far. I wonder whether the Minister thinks enough resources are going to support services in higher education. If not, do they need more external support or should this be coming from fee income?

The second issue is that, realistically, pastoral care in higher education institutions can only ever be a first line of support. It is important that the NHS is there for students who need more than that kind of help. I spoke this week to a senior person from an institution that takes the mental health of students very seriously, and she spoke of being left trying to support suicidal and seriously mentally ill students herself, because there were no mental health beds available and the local community team had little to offer, because it was so thinly stretched. I have also been told about a lack of inpatient beds or even outpatient support for students with severe eating disorders, leaving them with nowhere to go for help. I ask the Minister whether the DfE is working with the Department of Health to ensure that their services dovetail, so that there is adequate support in local NHS services for those students who need more help than university pastoral care can offer.

Amendment 48 in my name seeks to ensure that the way the Office for Students regulates higher education does not jeopardise the goal of widening participation. Noble Lords know that the OfS applies a series of conditions for a higher education institution to be registered, labelled A to E. The most hotly debated are the B conditions, which focus on quality and standards, and especially B3, which states:

“The provider must deliver successful outcomes for all of its students,” which I always thought was rather ambitious, but they are tested against numerical measures.

The OfS has run two consultations in the last year and is about to start a third, which is specifically on the new metrics for student outcomes. They will presumably, although not necessarily, relate to the current metrics, which are about student continuation, completion rates of degrees and graduate careers. These metrics are controversial, because many in the sector worry that the Government are abandoning contextualisation in setting standards for higher education institutions. It is funny to push back on the noble Lord, Lord Lucas: to declare that everyone should be treated the same does not allow for there clearly being differences in student outcomes between groups that reflect prior experiences, advantages or current circumstances, rather than academic ability.

To take one simple example, we know from the official figures that mature students have lower completion rates. There can be perfectly good reasons for that, which may not relate to things in the gift of the institution at which they study. We would not want institutions that recruit more mature students to find that their outcome measure was not as good and then be deterred from doing so. That would be ironic for a Bill that is supposed to promote learning in later life and part-time study.

I raised this issue in Committee but I am sorry to say that the Minister said very little and really, I got no comment at all on it. The only way I could think of raising it was to table a specific amendment to say that the OfS could not measure outcomes in a way that could jeopardise widening participation for students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.

Clause 17(7) says that the OfS does not have to publish different minimum levels in relation to different outcomes by, for example, student characteristics, type of institution or course. That does not mean that the OfS has to apply flat standards across the board, but it clears the ground for it to do so at will. Many people in the sector worry that that might penalise institutions that serve disadvantaged groups or areas, or even deter outreach activity. Section 2 of HERA means that the OfS has to apply some proportionality, and therefore contextualisation, to any assessment, but can the Minister tell the House how it can do that fairly without any benchmarking? Because I got nothing in Committee, I am really hopeful that the Minister can at least give the House some assurance that the OfS should judge quality with regard to the impact on disadvantaged and underrepresented students. I hope she can reassure us on that front.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to our measures on the Office for Students’ quality assessment. Section 23 of the Higher Education Research Act 2017, which relates to the assessment of quality of higher education provided by registered providers, currently places no restrictions or stipulations on how the OfS might make an assessment of quality or standards.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, pointed out, Clause 17 of the Bill provides much-needed clarity. It puts beyond doubt the ability of the OfS to determine minimum expected levels of student outcomes. These levels would be taken into account alongside many other factors, such as the context in which a provider operates, when the OfS makes its overall and well-rounded assessment of quality.

Turning to Amendment 48 in the name of the noble Baroness, I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss widening participation and access in higher education. Equality of opportunity for young people across the country is one of the Government’s highest priorities. Access to higher education should be based on a student’s attainment and their ability to succeed, rather than their background.

The latest figures show that we have made real progress on access to higher education, with a record 24% of disadvantaged 18 year-olds entering higher education in 2020. Disadvantaged 18-year-olds were proportionally 80% more likely to enter higher education as a full-time undergraduate in 2020 than in 2009.

I reassure the noble Baroness and the House that when the OfS exercises any of its functions, it already must have regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity in connection with access to and participation in higher education. That duty applies when the OfS is looking at how disadvantaged students and traditionally underrepresented groups are supported and what they go on to achieve. It includes access, successful participation, outcomes and progression to employment or further study.

As I have set out, the minimum expected levels of student outcomes will form only part of the overall context as the OfS makes rounded judgments, as it is required to do under its regulatory framework. The OfS has a public law obligation to consider wider factors which could include, among other things, the characteristics of a provider’s students where appropriate. In reaching any final judgment, the OfS will balance contextual factors, proportionality and the need to protect students from low quality, including weak outcomes. Section 2 of the Higher Education and Research Act is clear that:

“In performing its functions, the OfS must have regard to … the need to promote equality of opportunity in connection with access to and participation in higher education provided by English higher education providers”.

The OfS is also subject to the public sector equality duty. Both will apply to this measure.

Amendment 47 is in the name of my noble friend Lord Lucas. Sadly, I echo his reflections on his conversations in Cardiff many years ago. I talked very recently to school leaders who also shared with me stories about students of theirs who have attempted suicide or, sadly, taken their own lives over the last 18 months. I thank my noble friend for raising this important issue both in Committee and again today. His amendment seeks to add the mental health and well-being support given to students to the outcomes against which the quality of higher education may be assessed by the Office for Students. I reassure him that the Office for Students already has a strong presence in the student mental health agenda, with significant levers in this area.

The OfS provides funding, support and guidance to higher education providers to ensure they provide appropriate mental health support for their students. As it stands, the OfS believes that further regulation would not be beneficial in a sector with a diverse range of suppliers and an equally diverse range of students. However, I reassure my noble friend that existing OfS powers under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 are already flexible enough to allow it to impose a condition of registration relating to mental health, if it felt it necessary to do so.

We continue to work closely with the higher education sector to promote effective practice. The sector as a whole has established the overarching Stepchange: Mentally Healthy Universities framework, which is now complemented by the recently launched University Mental Health Charter programme and award scheme. The Government endorse this approach, including setting a clear ambition for all higher education providers to join the programme within the next five years. We also recognise the devastating effect that suicide has. A range of crucial prevention work and the promotion of effective practice are taking place across the higher education sector. We expect all universities to engage actively in this and deal sensitively if a tragedy occurs.

The Minister of State for Higher and Further Education, Minister Donelan, chaired a new round table on suicide prevention with Universities UK in June. The round table highlighted the importance of adopting and embedding the Suicide-Safer Universities framework and promoted good practice in the sector, helping to make sure that students are well supported during their time at university. The outputs include more regular analysis of student suicide data by ONS, including risk factors, which is central to informing preventive action, and the OfS publication of a new topic briefing, setting out approaches that universities and colleges can take to help prevent suicide among students.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked where this sits as a priority for government. She will not be surprised to hear that it is a key priority. I mentioned the round table that my right honourable friend the Minister held recently, but she has also written to vice-chancellors on numerous occasions, outlining that student welfare should remain an absolute priority, and has also convened groups of representatives from higher education and the health sectors and brought them together to address the issues that students are facing during the pandemic.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, asked about the Government’s stance on face-to-face teaching. He will be aware that the Government have recommended that universities return to a full curriculum, given the fact that the restrictions are now lifted, and obviously the Office for Students has a key role in ensuring that this happens.

Clause 17 is important because it serves to ensure that higher education provision delivers quality for all students, the taxpayer and the economy. It aims to help drive out the provision of poor-quality higher education courses that offer poor student outcomes and to support the OfS in taking action to drive up quality across higher education providers in a proportionate and risk-based manner. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and my noble friend will not press their amendments.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 5:30 pm, 21st October 2021

My Lords, when the Minister looks at the record, she may find that she has not been able to answer some of my questions, particularly around mental health. Will she write to me?

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I am very grateful for my noble friend’s answer, which included just the words that I was after—that the Government are sure that the Office for Students has the powers that it needs to make progress in this area. I am very happy to leave it at that, given the record of the Office for Students to date.

I share with the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, the determination that disadvantaged students should not be disadvantaged further by the systems that we put in place. I think that is entirely possible. I hope that we will see from the OfS a system of better admissions, so that universities put some real effort into understanding how best to detect and attract those disadvantaged students who will do well at university; that this is a collaborative effort, a proper national research effort to solve this national problem; and that they will similarly collaborate on how best to look after those students once they reach university. They should expect them to need additional support because, after all, they are disadvantaged. In both those areas, I feel that the Office for Students is determined to see progress. I am confident that with that determination over the next few years we will see it.

I also hope to see some real diversity of thought as well as intake in our universities. I will know that we have achieved it when an Oxford college asks the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, to be its next master.

Amendment 47 withdrawn.

Amendment 48 not moved.

Clause 18: List of relevant providers