Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Universities

5.34 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth rose to call attention to the case for reducing the burden of bureaucracy on universities; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I declare an interest as an academic and, indeed, as someone in a department shortly to undergo a subject review. I have thus been able to view the problem at first hand.

By the burden of bureaucracy on universities I refer to the administration now necessary to monitor, enforce and evaluate a raft of requirements imposed on universities. And it is a burden. Over the past seven years, about 10,000 people, mostly academics, have been engaged in inspecting universities and colleges. In 1999, the President of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, as it then was, declared that we now have the most scrutinised education system in the world. The General Secretary of the Association of University Teachers said,


In a Starred Question on 20th February, my noble friend Lady Perry of Southwark--I am delighted to see her here--drew attention to the number of rules, codes of conduct and subject benchmarks that have been imposed, with more to come. These rules have been introduced ostensibly for the purpose of improving the efficiency and quality of teaching and research and for ensuring accountability. No one questions those aims. They are eminently desirable. Universities do not seek to achieve some insular existence free of evaluation by others. Any complacency on the part of universities disappeared following the cuts of 1981. Universities know that they have to be accountable; they know that they have to deliver high quality education. What I

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1468

wish to question is whether the means devised to achieve those desirable goals are the best ways of achieving them. In my view they are not. indeed, for reasons that I shall develop, I believe that they are counter-productive.

The burden of bureaucracy takes two forms. One is quantitative. I referred to the fact that universities are subject to a mass of rules. Academics face a substantial, growing and unrelenting burden of paperwork. Data have to be compiled. Information has to be supplied--often the same information but in different forms. The method of reporting one year differs from that of the next. The most recent "diary exercise" undertaken by the Association of University Teachers found that 33 per cent of academics' time is spent on administration and bureaucracy.

The other form of the problem is qualitative. The sheer burden of complying with all these requirements would not matter so much if it constituted what I shall call productive administration: that is, if it could be shown to contribute directly and clearly to maintaining or enhancing the quality of teaching and research. It might even be acceptable if it could be shown that there was an indirect contribution that was other than marginal. Unfortunately, much of what academics are now required to do is predominantly unproductive and, as I shall argue, any indirect marginal contribution is far outweighed by the costs of the exercise.

Let me identify those costs. There are financial costs. Last year the Higher Education Funding Council for England commissioned a survey by PA Consulting of current accountability arrangements in universities. In its report entitled Better Accountability for Higher Education it looked at measured costs (that is, attributed administration and academic time), administration costs (such as management support and enhanced information systems), unmeasured costs (such as unattributed staff time) and what it termed behavioural costs (such as planning uncertainties and staff stress). It was unable to quantify the behavioural costs. The measured costs it assessed as £45 million to £50 million, the administration costs £100 million, and the unmeasured costs £100 million. In short, the total cost was in the region of £250 million. That is the equivalent of 5 per cent of the budget of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. This £250 million might be a justified cost if it delivered value for money. However, it does not. I quote from the report:


    "The overall accountability regime for English higher education emerges as a patchwork of legacy requirements from different stakeholders responding to different concerns at different times, with little overarching design, co-ordination or rationale. In consequence, the current regime represents poor value for money both for stakeholders and for institutions".

The exercise is thus expensive and inefficient.

Various university departments have attempted their own assessment of the cost in terms of staff hours of subject reviews undertaken under the auspices of the Quality Assurance Agency. Those estimates have ranged from £20,000 to £200,000. The figures may be

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1469

disputed, but they point to a substantial burden on what in many cases are overstretched departments. There is clearly a major financial cost.

There is another cost that has not been emphasised enough, but which has fundamental implications for the future of the education system in this country. PA Consulting defined it as the behavioural cost of the accountability arrangements. The consultants could not put a cash sum on it, yet it is probably the biggest cost of all. I refer to stress and, most importantly, morale. The cost in staff morale is horrendous. That cost has to be put in a wider context. The growing burden of bureaucracy is but one of many pressures to which academics are now subject. Universities have been forced to rationalise over the past 20 years. Initial promises of a steady state regime soon disappeared. The student body has expanded, sometimes abruptly, with resources not expanding to keep pace with the growth. Universities are being asked to do more with less. They are subject to different regulatory regimes with demands descending on them from the Government and from regulatory and funding bodies. That results in uncertainty and low morale.

Academics are now under tremendous pressure. They work hard, yet they are under-resourced, under-valued and under-paid. A post in academia ceased some years ago to be a cushy number, regarded by insurance companies as a healthy job for actuarial purposes. It is now demanding and, for many, notably stressful. That has been borne out by survey data, including that on the effects of the 1992 research assessment exercise.

The consequences are pernicious and long term. The implications for recruitment and retention in universities are obvious. We are not retaining the brightest and the best to teach our young people. In some cases they are not entering the profession; others are leaving it.

The situation is critical. Given that, any accountability regime has to deliver notable benefits to offset the costs. There is little evidence that it is delivering substantial benefits. The limited studies of subject reviews that have been undertaken do not show the exercise delivering well on its stated criteria. One study, published in the Journal of Education for Teaching, found that it did not deliver well on its financial and public information purposes. On its enhancement purpose, it helped to bring about some changes at a departmental level, but was less effective at a generic--that is institutional--level. Furthermore, as the Association of University Teachers has argued, the bureaucracy is out of proportion to the issues that it is designed to address. In the assessment exercise, few departments are found to be seriously wanting.

As long as there is a juxtaposition of greater regulation with limited resources, there is the danger that the exercise will undermine rather than enhance the quality of teaching. Only those with spare capacity have the time to cope with the burden of increased bureaucracy. Those who already have full teaching and research commitments can cope with the growing burden only at the expense of their teaching and

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1470

research. One cannot impose a greater regulatory burden without providing the resources necessary to cope with it.

The conclusion to be drawn is that the costs of the present regulatory regime massively outweigh any presumed benefits. We cannot continue as we are. The Government recognise that. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, has conceded the need for a lighter touch and a reduction in the burden imposed on universities. A new regime for subject reviews is to be introduced later this year. In response to questions on 20th February, the Minister said that we needed to wait and see how well the new system worked.

The move towards a less burdensome system of subject review is very welcome, but I fear that the Minister's position does not go far enough. It is flawed in two respects. First, it confuses a lighter touch with a light touch. There is a world of difference between the two. A lighter touch may denote a shift from an extraordinarily heavy burden to a heavy burden. It is also essentially--certainly in this case--reactive. The Government recognise that there is a heavy burden and they are making some move away from it. With a light touch there is by definition an absence of a heavy load. It is also something that can be worked towards. It can constitute a clear future goal.

It is clear from the Minister's comments on 20th February that she embraces a lighter touch, but not a light one. When asked about the reduction in the burden on universities, she said that the number of individual subjects to be reviewed was to be reduced by one third and that the number of days that people spent undertaking the reviews would be reduced by about one fifth. Those constitute reductions, but it is obvious from the figures that they are not major reductions. The coverage of the QAA under the new system has been extended. I understand that Roger Brown, the former head of the Higher Education Quality Council, has described the new system as,


    "almost certainly the most complex anywhere in the world".

And for what? Trials of three subject areas in 1999 failed to establish that there had been any significant reduction in the overall burden of external scrutiny.

Secondly, the problem cannot be seen in discrete terms. It has to be put in the context of the other pressures on the education system. Those pressures are several and come from different sources. By concentrating on slimming down subject reviews, albeit modestly, there is a danger of missing the much wider and more critical picture. That wider picture needs to be addressed quickly. Instead of slimming down the existing regime, or at least slimming down one particular regime, we should be looking at alternative ways of achieving the goals that I adumbrated in my opening remarks. There is too much duplication in the quality control system. Too much of it is unproductive. We need to look for leaner, fitter and less obtrusive methods of ensuring accountability and good quality education and research. Given the competition that universities now engage in, not least in recruiting students, one has to ask whether heavy external regimes are necessary.

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1471

I end by putting some questions to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, who will reply to the debate. He has taught in higher education and chaired the Further Education Funding Council. I suspect that he will have empathised with many of my points. Does he accept the comment of Howard Newby in 1999 that we have,


    "the most scrutinised education system in the world"?

Does he accept the argument of Universities UK that the £250 million spent on the accountability regime could be put to more effective use by being devoted to reversing deteriorating teaching facilities? Does he accept the need for a light touch in higher education? In each case, if not, why not? Finally and fundamentally, what are the Government doing, in conjunction with Universities UK and other bodies, to look holistically at the problems facing our universities and to find alternative ways of achieving the goals to which we all subscribe. I beg to move for Papers.

5.50 p.m.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe: My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on introducing this debate on accountability. I certainly welcome it. It is a vital issue. In my capacity as chief executive of Universities UK--I declare that interest--I know that our universities would be the first to agree that they should be accountable for the public funds that they receive. After all, public funds account for a large proportion--some 62 per cent--of their money.

However, the systems by which our universities account for that public money certainly need to be reformed. There are questions about cost-effectiveness and whether those systems are all necessary. I am sure that we all want to relieve universities of unnecessary burdens because they are time-consuming and costly and they limit innovation. Universities are finding that the burden of red tape is reducing their scope for flexibility. Flexibility is vital if universities are to develop their students to the full.

Our universities will be able to do that if they can tailor their programmes to the interests of students. That is a particular strength of UK universities. However, I fear that the burden of too much red tape might force our universities into constructing more limited programmes. I cannot emphasise enough how important flexibility is in allowing our universities to carry out the research which is so important to the economy.

The present system places a cost on universities which they can ill afford. After decades of cuts, the last thing that they need is for the much-needed extra resources, hard won from the Government, to be siphoned off into dealing with red tape.

It is worth asking how much the present systems cost. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, mentioned PA Consulting Group--the independent consultants retained by HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, to look into the burden of accountability, as we have all come to call it. PA

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1472

Consulting said that the direct and indirect costs of the present systems--the noble Lord, Lord Norton, enumerated them in detail--stand at approximately £250 million each year. Not only is that equivalent to 5 per cent of the total budget of HEFCE but, according to my calculations, it is equivalent to the funding of about two universities.

The main areas of accountability which cause those costs are, as has already been mentioned, the work of the Quality Assurance Agency; the research assessment exercise; to my mind, the cost of bidding for the ever-increasing small pots of money for special initiative funding; and the inexorable increase and sheer cost of extracting more and more information about students, finances and staffing.

Therefore, I was very pleased today to read the announcement from the Department for Education and Employment about the reduction in the burden of higher education quality assessment--one area where we know that there is a substantial burden. I certainly welcome it as a significant step towards reducing that burden. I believe that it is a step towards fulfilment of the Minister's intention that the burden should be reduced, as she said in a response to the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, just a month ago.

I also welcome the further dialogue with the funding council and the Quality Assurance Agency that is intended to continue that process and to identify further measures to reduce the burden on universities. Of course--I believe that everyone will acknowledge this--at the same time, that must be consistent with the need to provide reliable public information for students and other stakeholders.

I also want to stress that the auditors and assessors of the Quality Assurance Agency do a good job. The problem rests with the system of accountability rather than with the people who carry it out. However, I agree that reform must be much more ambitious. The new "light touch" of the QAA may well save the sector money. However, the £250 million bill needs to be reduced drastically. To achieve that, a fundamental reform of the whole series of audit systems is needed. Wholesale reform might mirror more accurately, for example, the good practice, tried and tested, which is employed at present in industry and commerce. I believe that we have much to learn in that regard.

I said that PA Consulting estimates that red tape costs £250 million each year. It is important to put that figure into context. Many noble Lords will know that Universities UK's Funding Options Review Group, under the guidance of Sir William Taylor, issued its final report on university funding, New Directions for Higher Education Funding, only a few weeks ago.

That report identified a funding requirement in the university sector of at least £900 million each year which must be found by 2004-05. Universities need that extra money, among other things, to improve their deteriorating teaching facilities. Those are, of course, enormously important if universities are to provide the skills and knowledge which the economy needs. The extra money is also important in enabling universities fully to motivate their students. Without

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1473

it, it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure that the UK's rate of student retention, which is almost the highest in the world, remains that way.

To my mind, if some of the resources which are now being used up in meeting the accountability burden were spent instead on improving the teaching infrastructure and other forms of student support, that would go some way to meeting the funding requirement set out in New Directions for Higher Education Funding.

Having said all that, I very much support the call by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for attention to be given to this issue. I certainly also welcome the Government's intention of ensuring that that happens.

5.57 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing this debate, and for doing so with great elegance and great perception and in such a style that, like Clive, he is entitled to stand astonished at his own moderation.

I must, of course, declare an interest. I am a serving university teacher and although I am proud to belong to a party for which I do not have to apologise when I talk to colleagues, I speak for myself and for those with whom I was sitting in a departmental meeting five hours ago.

This is not a party matter and I hope that the Minister will not reply with any party points. We are facing a programme which is strictly, in the good old 18th century sense, that of the Court and Treasury Party. So far as I can see, the change of government has made absolutely no difference whatever. The last time I expressed that view in the Chamber, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, expressed some dismay at it. I decided to check it with my head of department. I asked him whether he had seen any difference in what came from Whitehall since the change of government. He looked at me as though I were half-witted and said, "Of course not". I do not make a party point, but that illustrates that all this has been going on for some time. We are now beginning to hear the ever louder sound of turning worms--it is like the mud flats when the tide goes out.

Recently, I talked to a young colleague, who is not in my department. He is the recent author of an extremely promising first book. He said to me, "I came into this job because I hoped to exercise academic judgment and because I hoped to be able to follow standards which I believe to be right. But if I am to be turned into a sort of lance-corporal, applying standards laid down from somewhere else, then I don't see why I shouldn't go into the City and make some money instead". That remark frightened me, and it is very far from an isolated case. If that mood becomes general, I believe that our survival, on a very wide scale, will be in doubt.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, used the word "burden"; that is a literal word. In my experience, departmental secretaries are some of the most dedicated people with whom it has been my privilege to work. One expects departmental

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1474

secretaries to go home at half-past five. The day before we had to submit our papers for the teaching quality assessment, the departmental secretary was still at her desk at 4 o'clock in the morning. She was already in her 60s and was not in good health. That is not the sort of burden that one should place on departmental secretaries. If we do, we do not get good service.

We receive the most extraordinary things. I have here a letter, dated 23rd February, which I received from an organisation called Teaching Personnel, the UK's largest teaching agency organising supply teachers for schools throughout every area of England and Wales. The DfEE has recently recognised that FE and HE teachers provide a credible additional resource for supply positions where qualified mainstream teachers are not available. The circular asks:


    "Would you be interested in taking temporary supply teaching assignments on your available day?"

I have heard many comments on that circular. This is a polite House; I shall not repeat them.

I should like to ask the Minister--I do not expect an immediate answer but I shall put it down for a Written Answer--what was the cost of this consultation exercise? How many university teachers have come forward to take up supply teaching positions? What was the cost to public funds per university teacher who did so? I shall be interested to see the answer.

A great many of the questions are completely irrelevant to what one does, incomprehensible in relation to one's own work, and therefore unanswerable. A couple of weeks ago I had to fill in an appraisal form. The first question that it asked about my teaching was what I had done to develop teaching material. I ask people to read books--I do not supply them with teaching material--and that is getting more difficult than it used to be. I could multiply those cases over and over again.

When I once served on the research assessment exercise, I was given a large amount of paper from the number-crunchers in Whitehall. I was only able to proceed once I had been solemnly assured by my chairman that I could ignore every word because none of it told me anything that I wanted to know about the quality of the people whom I was assessing.

Accountability is obviously a key issue. The change that became effective in 1988 was the disappearance of the University Grants Committee. In retrospect, it looks even more important than it did at the time. That is because we are now seeing an attempt to make the quality judgments, on which attempts to assess accountability are based, not in the old University Grants Committee, which was competent to do it, but inside Sanctuary Buildings themselves. That attempt is literally ultra vires; it is beyond their power; they are not competent to do it. That is especially so since one observes from all these questionnaires an immense inability to recognise the differences between subjects, as in the case of the length of a PhD. A PhD in history and a PhD in chemistry are not identical operations. Any attempt to control them by a uniform set of rules

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1475

must risk mangling one of them. I have not taken on a PhD candidate since these rules came into force. I regret that.

There must, of course, be accountability. Whitehall is entitled to know that we spend money on the items for which we are granted it. But the body to which universities are properly accountable for judgment of quality, a body that is able to assess it, is the global higher education market. That is something real. Judging by the number of people coming in from places such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, we are not doing that badly. However, it does not really seem to impinge on Whitehall because of the obsession with irrelevant quantitative indicators.

The other point to be mentioned in this respect is that we have moved away from the semi-autonomy of the University Grants Committee towards a relationship very similar to that which exists between Whitehall and the boards of the private utilities, in which a technical private ownership is combined with a very detailed contract, enabling Whitehall to demand changes in practically everything from what Railtrack does with its rails to what sort of books we use for teaching. In neither case is Whitehall competent to take those decisions. So what we have is detailed control without responsibility. We know what sort of a prerogative power without responsibility is: and it is what this system provides us with. It is not doing us any good.

It causes the more anxiety because of the fact that all these measures came into force together with a passionate attempt from inside Whitehall to reduce unit costs. There is a suspicion, by no means unknown among my colleagues, that the whole atmosphere of quality control is a back-door attempt to reduce unit costs--a deliberate Whitehall attempt to reduce quality and then to blame the universities for the result. "Never" is a short time in politics. But in the case of Oxford's reaction to the case of Laura Spence and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, "never" will be not quite as short a time as usual. It causes a very deep measure of anger, and that should not be ignored.

In terms of unit costs, matters have been getting worse ever since 1976. The mere mention of 1976 compels me to a recognition that some change in that direction had to happen. But a pendulum that goes on swinging in one direction for 24 years should be due to swing back again. I do not see much sign of it. That is from where we get the sense of turning worms among my colleagues; the sense of their being deliberately set up to fail and blamed when they do so. It is not confined to my own profession. Dr Bogle of the BMA has recently expressed very much the same sense. Any lawyers listening to the Home Secretary's criticisms a couple of weeks ago may well have made similar comments that I have not been privileged to hear. I guess that they have not been put into printable form! So there is a very strong feeling that unless this downward pressure on unit costs can be brought to a halt, and the whole attempt to make academic judgments inside Whitehall brought to a halt with it, if

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1476

it were to end in there being no more universities in this country, it would not cause me nearly as much grief as I would wish.

6.08 p.m.

Lord Parekh: My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing this extremely important debate.

Since the noble Lord, Lord Norton, the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, have spoken about the larger issues raised by the current bureaucratic regime that impinges on the universities, I should like to concentrate on one particular aspect--the Quality Assurance Agency and its operations. Universities are publicly funded and must obviously be accountable to the wider society. However, it is worth remembering that, since these days they are less dependent on public resources, they cannot have the degree and depth of accountability they used to.

Since universities compete for students at home and abroad, and since the country has a vital stake in their professional reputation, it is crucial that their quality of teaching and standard of degrees should enjoy public confidence here and abroad. Although academics are men of honour and commitment, they are fallible human beings, and some are inevitably tempted from time to time to cut corners. For those and other related reasons, there can be and should be no objection to some form of national quality assurance.

The current system, however, leaves much to be desired. That becomes strikingly evident when we consider three recent findings. First, we were told that the politics departments of Salford and De Montfort Universities are superior to that at the LSE in the quality of teaching and standard of exams. Salford and De Montfort are obviously good universities and I respect them, but I do not think that one would want to argue that they are in the same international league as the LSE, as the differences in their RAE results and international reputation clearly show. An exercise that finds those departments superior to that at the LSE is prima facie suspect.

Secondly, several departments have secured 24 out of the maximum of 24 points. That is odd as it implies that those departments are perfect and need no further improvement whatever. It is even odder that hardly any department seems to have secured less than 22 out of 24 points and that a score of 22 out of 24 is widely regarded as a sign of failure. There is certainly something worrying about a system which encourages such grade inflation and clusters almost all university departments around an extremely narrow band.

Thirdly, almost all university departments that have gone through the quality assurance exercise have been highly critical of it, including those which have obtained the highest number of points, such as the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick whose senior professors wrote a scathing piece in the Guardian only a few weeks ago.

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1477

What then is wrong with the current system? First, it is crude. It judges university subjects and departments on the basis of six criteria which are not all of equal importance. The quality of teaching is at the heart of the pedagogical exercise and cannot be treated on a par with the supply of teaching materials, library resources, student support or even curriculum design.

Secondly, the Quality Assurance Agency largely concentrates on what I might call the externalities of teaching and cannot even remotely be said to assess the quality of teaching which it claims to assess. It looks at a department's paperwork and minutes of various committees. It talks to past and present students from the department, whom the department itself has chosen for the purpose. That is obviously an inadequate basis on which to pronounce judgment on the commitment, inspirational qualities, extra-curricula contacts with students and the scholarship of the teachers involved.

Thirdly, since so much importance is given to paperwork, departments are forced to spend huge amounts of time getting it right. In my own department, for example, two colleagues spent nearly four months of their precious time getting together the nearly 150 ring-binders required for the exercise. Other colleagues devoted only slightly less time to it. All that detracts from the time needed for research and teaching and brings the whole department to a virtual standstill for weeks on end.

Fourthly, the whole exercise, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, seems to produce little benefit. The departments may learn to be a bit more efficient in their paperwork or in ensuring that recommended books are available in their libraries, but there is very little improvement in the substance and quality of teaching. An outsider sitting in on odd lecture or tutorial is hardly in a position to proffer sensible advice to the teacher concerned or to the students involved.

Fifthly, thanks to the way that the Quality Assurance Agency has operated, academic morale has suffered enormously. Academics feel that they are not trusted to do their jobs and that they are judged by matters which are external and incidental to the exercise of teaching for which they entered the academic profession in the first instance. Indeed, every student now appears to them not as a mind to be trained but as a symbol of so much paperwork--a burden to be avoided to the extent that one could and one would do so if only the student did not bring some money.

As several friends in the Academy of the Learned Societies of Social Sciences have pointed out to me, they would prefer to resign and be re-employed on a part-time basis to avoid the mindless paperwork and bureaucratic inspection to which they are subject.

I have argued so far that some external quality assurance is necessary. But I have argued also that the existing regime is deeply flawed. What then is the alternative? In the short time available to me, I shall end by making four suggestions.

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1478

First, universities, by and large, consist of committed people who have enough professional integrity to take their pedagogical responsibilities seriously. Our universities also have, unlike their European and American counterparts, a fairly effective system of external examiners who not only ensure high standards of marking but also high standards of curriculum design and so on.

Since universities depend on students, they all have a vested interest in ensuring that they enjoy an excellent reputation. Therefore, I suggest that we should approach universities in a spirit of trust rather than suspicion and appeal to and modernise their professional integrity rather than their fears and vulnerabilities. We should rely on encouraging them to do yet better, rather than shaming and hounding them.

Secondly, we should urge, or perhaps even require, universities to devise their own mechanisms for inspecting and improving their quality of teaching and standard of degrees. Young lecturers benefit far more if their senior colleagues attend lectures, advise them on curriculum design and so on rather than having outsiders making negative comments on the basis of a two or three day visit to the university.

Thirdly, external quality assurance should be a device of last resort rather than a regular regime of inspection. Only when students complain or when the Quality Assurance Agency has reason to believe that the university department is failing in its duty should it send in an inspection team. Such inspections should not be routine but activated only when universities fail to be self-regulatory. And its concern should be to help to improve the quality of teaching, rather than to concentrate merely on what I have called the externalities of the pedagogical exercise.

Such inspection is likely to be beneficial only if it is led by senior scholars in the field whose judgment and impartiality are widely respected, rather than by those with no research record, no strong reputation as teachers or who have become disillusioned with academic life themselves.

Finally, we need to remember that different disciplines and subjects cannot all be judged in the same way. English literature is not statistics and both again are very different from history and economics. We need to appreciate those differences and evolve appropriate criteria of assessment.

I have one final thought. I am fairly confident that some of the greatest past teachers of our country--Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper or Michael Oakeshott--would most certainly have failed to pass many of the bureaucratic tests set by the QAA. A system with such results most certainly needs a radical second look.

6.18 p.m.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I hope that the expert speakers and the great contemporary experts who have spoken already will forgive a Rip Van Winkle offering a few memories and reflections.

I had the honour to open the first ever debate held on universities in this House 45 or 46 years ago. I opened the first debate on polytechnics some years

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1479

later. So my mind goes back a long way and I ask myself what has been the result of the initiatives taken on those occasions, not only by me, of course, because I was just a minor figure.

There was a nationwide demand among well-informed people that there should be a great expansion of university places; and that has duly taken place. There was an almost equal demand that polytechnics should receive university status; and that also has been achieved.

What has been the result? We have the debate today. Those complaints were never made in the old days because there were not the same difficulties. But now, with this vast number of students, the tendency to introduce bureaucracy is obviously overwhelming and so we have this debate.

I defer to the academic credentials of many Members of this House. When I last counted, some little while ago, there were some 15 professors. Now, I think there are a good many more, including four who are speaking today. The Minister, who will reply, is versed in higher education, as are other speakers. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, is head of a college. Other noble Lords have been heads of colleges. We have here every kind of expertise. There are two Fellows of All Souls, neither of whom is in his place: the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham--we do not hear from him often enough these days--and the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, who we warmly welcome.

I speak merely as a college tutor at Oxford in the 1930s and for a short while in the 1950s. My first pupil later became owner of the Telegraph group of newspapers. My last pupil later became Chancellor of the Exchequer. So, I have had experience of academic life. All my seven surviving children graduated. Sixteen of my grandchildren have graduated, with others to come. I have, therefore, had contact with universities. I taught for the Workers' Educational Association and at the London School of Economics. I have my own credentials, even if they do not compare with some of those here.

My message can be delivered briefly. Everybody has, in their own mind, those special features of university life which mean most to them. Some think of the social life; which is not by any means to be despised. Some think of the wonderful, unforgettable lectures they have heard, and some think of the opportunities for research, which are much more pronounced than in my day. I think of the tutorial system. I shall ask the Minister whether the tutorial ideal is still preserved. It was carried much further in the old universities. The circumstances were much more favourable than throughout the polytechnics, for example. Nevertheless, is the tutorial system, carried out on a one-to-one-basis--occasionally two people have a tutorial at the same time--to be preserved as an ideal, or, under the new developments is it completely overlooked?

Much is said today about pressure. Does that interfere with the tutorial system and make it less likely that a tutor will have time to give to a pupil what tutors

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1480

gave me in my time; namely, an hour a week throughout his time at university? Is that still possible or has that been rejected?

The tutorial system had its disadvantages. Some tutors frightened their pupils. Even the great and mighty Dick Crossman, later to become a famous Cabinet Minister, was somewhat intimidated by the philosopher HWB Joseph who kept asking his pupils, "What do you mean by that word?" The only man to defeat him was Professor Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell. He retaliated on one occasion in a seminar by asking, "What do you mean by the word 'mean'?" That left Joseph temporarily speechless.

Pupils did not always get on well with their tutors. I know of a gifted young woman who asked to be given a different tutor. A tutor had to be fetched from London to Cambridge to look after her. I owe everything to a tutor, an economic Scotsman, who was a rather awkward type. I said to him on one occasion, "I suppose I shall get a first?" He said, "I've no reason to think so". That made me settle down to work for the first time in my life. One can owe a lot to a tutor. Perhaps I may simply press the point to the Minister: is the tutorial system still any kind of ideal or will the new developments destroy it?

6.24 p.m.

Lord Morgan: My Lords, I hope that it is in order to speak. I spoke in the previous debate and hope that I am not taxing the tolerance of the House too much. The debates on English regional government and this debate on universities raise exactly the same themes. They both concern the impact of centralisation on the regions and, in this case, on free and supposedly autonomous institutions.

I listened with enormous interest to the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, a fellow member of the professoriate, and, indeed, a member of perhaps a smaller sub-group; namely, a former vice-chancellor. His speech and those of other speakers brought back many memories, many rather miserable. To hear some of those observations was rather like having a lunch appointment with Banquo's ghost.

We have heard much about the mechanics of the present situation. As an historian I am interested in origins. These matters did not originate with the government of Mr Blair but with the policies of the Conservative Party in the 1980s. I do not mean to be narrowly partisan, or at all, but as a matter of historical accuracy, the present situation began with a process of trying to change the direction of institutions and of using governments so to do.

In many ways, that process was necessary; I do not dispute that. Universities needed reform at that period. In some ways I found, as a vice-chancellor, that the impact could be liberating and by no means depressing. However, it was part of a process in which trying to roll back the force of state control led to more control. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, is a distinguished professor of politics. He will be familiar with the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the outstanding example of forcing men to be free, as

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1481

Rousseau said. So it was with universities; with local government forced to be free of the "loony Left", and with hospitals and many other institutions at that time.

The process built on an even earlier tradition. In my opinion, the universities began to lose their esteem and their right to freedom, as popularly perceived, in the student troubles of the late 1960s, immediately after the Robbins report. The student rebellions of the 1960s had many positive features. They improved the governance of universities, and the way in which young people were dealt with in matters of discipline, and so forth.

However, the rebellions left a disastrous impression on the public mind: the view that universities were incapable of running themselves. Without intention, the student rebellions led to a feeling that universities were incompetent and had to be taken over. That chimed in with a later feeling, the so-called "taxpayers' revolts"; the feeling that students who behave in that way should not in any way be supported or funded by the taxpayer. That led to the interventionist reforms under the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, which were taken up by John Major and, I am sorry to say, have been continued without any great fundamental change by the present administration.

Many of the features of which we have heard chime in exactly with my own recollection as a vice-chancellor between 1989 and 1995. In some ways I believe that the procedures have got worse. We have heard a great deal about the funding document concerning administrative matters and regulation, which was commissioned by HEFCE, the funding council for England. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, explained, it went through the whole range of impacts, both direct and indirect, institutional and personal, and the enormous costs involved. All that was alarming. It related to England, but my information is that the process in Wales is by no means an improvement. Although I believe in devolution, I felt that the devolution procedures in higher education were not a great advertisement for that principle.

The worst of the problems has been alluded to. I refer to the quality assessment subject reviews which are enormously time consuming. A number of figures were quoted. Those in the hefty document related to the University of Leeds, which I know at first hand. That medium-sized university reckons that it costs £70,000 a year, much of it unnecessary in terms of duplication and excess of details. As has rightly been said, there is considerable pressure on university staff. We see in the public service the kind of demoralisation that we see among teachers and people in the NHS. That is part of a diminution of the esteem of the public service, despite the Government's best efforts. The situation is not improving and is perhaps worsening.

Perhaps less overwhelmingly expensive and complicated are the institutional audits of which I have had great experience. They are enormously detailed. It seems to me that the same unnecessary degree of pedantic detail is sought in all aspects of a university's operation and there is no "lightness of touch" in that direction.

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1482

The research assessment exercise has in some ways shown an improvement in terms of its impact on universities but in some ways it has become worse. One twist that has been imposed is that the documentation which cannot be discovered by assessors in their own institutions, libraries and so forth must be found by the university under review. In other words, it is forced to carry the administrative costs which should properly be borne by those administering the system and by the funding council. Time and again we hear that this is a listening administration. We often hear of governments listening but sometimes I have my doubts because the listening process is not too evident.

Bids for new academic developments are needlessly complicated and heavy in their detail. In my experience as a vice-chancellor, it is easier to obtain resources and funding for new developments from Europe. For example, in Wales there was a simple procedure for obtaining funding for a new lecturer from the committee dealing with minority languages.

Finally, I turn to audits. Like all public institutions, universities need to be audited. In my experience, they were audited several times a year. It was perhaps a peculiarly Welsh experience because we had the disastrous case of the university in Cardiff, which my noble friend Lord Morris will know better than I. I in Aberystwyth felt that we were all tarred with the same brush and therefore audited to death because we could not be trusted with public money--could we?

I felt that all the audits were not so much auditing us as auditing each other. If one audit suggested 92 technical improvements, the next, as a matter of honour and pride, suggested 110. And so it would go on. The famous phrase, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" comes to mind--who guards the guardians? Who, I wondered, audited the auditors? It was not transparent to me.

As the hefty document makes clear, the right balance is not being struck between public assurance about universities and their private governance. This is harmful to their resources and to their role as precious centres of intellectual life. I say that with some sorrow because I believe that the Government have done many splendid things for education, including higher education. We have a new level of funding of more than £1 billion over the next three years. The unit of resource is going up rather than down. We have new money to improve staff retention and recruitment, although I agree with those who have said that staff stipends are at an extremely poor level.

The sheer pressure of costs and time seem to be working against those objectives and getting in the way of the universities' immediate role of research and teaching, and contributing more widely to the moral and knowledge economy of this country. That is seen most obviously in the operations, narrowly educational; but a new level has been alluded to; namely, the intervention of the Treasury. There is a new phenomenon which is interesting to historians and perhaps even more so to political scientists: the Treasury is concerned not only with controlling and vetting the expenditure of departments for their

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1483

policies but also with laying down what those policies should be. That seemed an indicative feature of the melancholy story of Laura Spence with, it appeared, an attempt to dictate on, sadly, wrong information, what the admissions policy of an Oxford faculty should be.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Parekh that trust should be placed in universities. They have a high international reputation and a high and proven level of efficiency on all the indicative tests which are applied to a business. The costs imposed on universities are too frequently artificial regulatory burdens which could well be diminished. We have heard the kind of savings that could be made.

Labour governments have an honourable tradition in education. The Wilson and Callaghan governments took forward the great expansion following the Robbins report. The present Government are committed to the noble ideal of raising participation massively to more than 50 per cent in higher education and to the strategies of lifelong learning. Universities can, and should, be trusted to carry that policy through.

Finally, to misquote Rousseau again, universities were conceived as free but too often they are in chains. Even if the chains are paper chains, they ought to be removed.

6.37 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing an extremely important debate. We have touched on the subject in this House from time to time but never concentrated on the issue of bureaucracy in universities. I must declare an interest. For much of my life I have been an academic and remain attached to the University of Sussex on a part-time basis.

One must put the development of bureaucracy in universities within the context of the growth of mass higher education in this country. When I went to university in 1957, I was one of 7 per cent of the age cohort then going through to university. In the 1960s, under the Robbins expansion that 7 per cent increased to about 10 per cent. By the end of the 1970s we were taking in 14 per cent of the 18-year olds. The figure remained static at 14 per cent until about 1987. Then there was a big expansion. By 1993 the number had risen to 28 per cent and we are now touching 35 per cent. The aim is to have 50 per cent of the 18 year- olds going on to higher education.

When I went to Sussex in 1980, I took tutorial groups usually of four. It was the Sussex tradition to have tutorials rather than classes. It was not quite the Oxbridge tradition of two but it was a semi-Oxbridge tradition. It was good because although I had a relatively small room I could fit four students in it and take them for a tutorial. When I left in 1998 the tutorial group was typically 17 or 18 students.

21 Mar 2001 : Column 1484

That illustrates the fact that it is necessary to have different teaching techniques. One gets to know four students personally very quickly. One knows their foibles and can cope very easily with four written pieces of work each week. One sets the written work and it comes back. If one has 18 students it is much more difficult. One does not like to go round a class and check the names, or pass round a piece of paper, but one must keep a note of the students who come in. However, to teach 18 students is a different matter.

When 7 to 10 per cent of the age cohort went into higher education, a student could be handed an essay and literally a few books that might be relevant. The student had to search out the information for himself or herself and learnt enormously as a result. One can use those methods only with the top decile, or perhaps a little more, of the intelligence quotient. When one has many more students one cannot rely on those methods.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page