Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: While I do not go as far as the Scottish judge who used the phrase that a change for the better was a contradiction in terms, I share the conservatism of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, in some of the comments that he has made. That said—I go back to 1979—I always thought it was churlish of the present Prime Minister when he said in the run-up and aftermath to the 1997 general election, "Education, education, education" and criticised the previous government for their administration of the schools, that he did not give them credit for the extraordinary expansion in entry to higher education which occurred in the 18 years in which we were in power. When we came into power in 1979, we inherited a participation rate of one in eight for those aged between 18 and 21—the figure
 
13 May 2004 : Column 405
 
originally quoted in my noble friend's proposed new clause. The rate was of course transformed during the course of the next 18 years.

In the early 1980s, after the Government had frozen university numbers, there was a significant growth in public sector higher education. As my noble friend Lady Perry said, the unit of resource in the public sector of higher education in the early 1990s steadily fell as a consequence. Then, when public sector higher education was released from the local authorities, it underwent a further, massive explosion, with huge consequences for the unit of resource.

There were further consequences. In the early 1990s, the Government took the decision—I was unhappy about it and I know that my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking had his own misgivings—to translate polytechnics and other institutes of higher education into universities. On the basis that if the new universities could manage with a lower unit of resource, so could the older universities, the Treasury cut the unit of resource for the older universities as well. That had a minor, and incidental, consequence in your Lordships' House about two years ago, when some of my noble friends were resisting the introduction of auxiliary constables under the Police Act. I remember quoting exactly what I have just said about what happened to the unit of resource in the old universities in the early 1990s. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, memorably said in reply that that was entirely in line with his experience—that if it were possible for the Treasury to thwart and kill any good new idea at birth, it would take the opportunity. He then, memorably, got into trouble with the Treasury for having said it. However, because of what happened to the unit of resource in higher education in the 1990s, I support my noble friend's new clause vehemently.

I have one question born of ignorance for the Minister. When did the age cohort of 18 to 21, which was originally quoted by my noble friend in his new clause, give way to the age cohort of 18 to 30 as the figure that we would use for measurement purposes? What effect has that change had on the figures for part-time and mature student recruitment, which was one of the glories of our system—only shared with the United States—when our 18 to 21 figures were being unfavourably compared with other OECD countries?

Baroness Blackstone: I had not intended to speak in this debate, because I know that my noble friends on the Front Bench want to get on. However, I must respond to my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours.

He admitted to being reactionary. He said it and I agree: he was. I had thought earlier in the debate that we would have some consensus on all sides of the Committee about the need for more graduates in our economy. We need to provide young people with the opportunity to reach their potential and go into higher education. I do not accept for one minute what my noble friend has just said about the quality of what is being provided nor what he said about the ability of the majority of young people who gain university places to benefit from doing so. Of course, some will fall by the wayside, but I remind him that the drop-out
 
13 May 2004 : Column 406
 
rates in UK universities are the lowest in the world bar those in Japan. We have a rather good record of retaining students in our higher education system.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, was a little unfair on the Prime Minister in suggesting that he had never given credit to the previous government for expanding higher education. I believe that he did. I know that my right honourable friend David Blunkett did so as well, and I certainly did when I was the Minister who had responsibility for higher education. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, is nodding his head in agreement. However, we did say that insufficient funding was provided to back that expansion. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, who was involved with it, would accept that it would have been good if the Treasury could have been persuaded to provide more funding. In the future, if we are to expand higher education further, we must of course try to ensure that the resources are there to make it really work.

In that sense, I am in some agreement with what I think lies behind the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. We are in Committee and we should really focus on the amendment rather than go into the subject of apprenticeships, which is not part of the Bill. I agree with my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours that apprenticeships are important and should be developed and expanded. However, I do not agree that there are not enough young people among the next 50 per cent who will not go into higher education with the potential to do well in apprenticeships. He was being far too gloomy about that.

I have no idea what the Minister will say about this amendment. The first part of it seems to be quite helpful, but it would not make much sense to legislate for an inquiry into the impact on the economy of the 50 per cent target. Hundreds of reports have been written on the economic advantages of investment in higher education. Surely we do not need to legislate for another one. I am sure that further studies will be done as we move towards that target.

Finally, I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, who suggested that it was wrong to set targets. We have too many targets—that is a mistake that the Government have made—but this target is a general one and we should not have a problem with it. If one has a target of this kind, which has been set by the Government, one is far more likely to secure resources from the Treasury to support it than if one aims merely for a general expansion. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, looks surprised by what I said, but he should look back at what happened during the government of which he was a member, when rapid expansion took place, but the money was not found because no clear target had been set. The Secretary of State was unable to go to the Chancellor and say, "Look, we've made a commitment here and we really do need to find additional funding".

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: I thank the noble Baroness, but perhaps I may gently point out that I think she was the Minister for higher education who first introduced the idea of tuition fees. The unit of resource per student remained unchanged as a result.
 
13 May 2004 : Column 407
 
The additional resource that went into the system was pocketed by the Treasury, even though the Government had a target.

Baroness Blackstone: No, I do not accept that. The 1997-2001 government inherited plans in the Conservative government's Red Book for a reduction in the expenditure in universities; that is, the unit of resource was going to be further cut by, I think, 6.2 per cent. The Government were able to reduce those "efficiency savings"—a term used by the Treasury—to 2 per cent as had been recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. Additional government funds were provided. One could argue that perhaps they were not enough, but it is not true that a simple balancing act was done between the extra money that came in from fee income and what was provided by the public purse.

Lord Quirk: While I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, that there is little point in trying to institute an inquiry into the impact on the economy of the 50 per cent target, it would be highly relevant to have an inquiry into its impact on the economy of the universities. I echo the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville. Of course, this is not a suitable point at which to discuss part-time students. However, part-time students are relevant to that target, because universities are being encouraged, and will be financially helped, to increase their numbers of full-time students, but they will not be encouraged to increase their numbers of part-time students.

Just as it has been mentioned that EU applications will affect the fulfilment of the target within universities, so also a decline in the number of part-time students—which might be encouraged by the legislation which we have in front of us—will affect that target. When I say it will affect the applications by part-time students, of course the Government will say, "No, part-time students are not affected by this". But they will be affected.

Whether the Universities UK acknowledges this or not, universities up and down the country cannot afford to go on charging the same fees for part-time study as they do at the moment. It is much more likely, as has been announced in the University of Leeds, for example, that they will seek out pari passu increase, so that they will be charging £1,500 a head for part-time students. The University of Leeds has demonstrated that this will mean that many students currently doing part-time courses—sometimes with the help of their employers—will no longer be able to do so.

It is perfectly possible that the Government will be able to reply convincingly that some part-time students will get additional help. I know this is not the point of the debate to be discussing part-time students, but it is relevant in connection with targets. Some part-time students will indeed get help, but the point of growth—the point that we surely wish to encourage in the development of higher education with this major segment of part-time education—is the people that are going to be disadvantaged by this particular target.
 
13 May 2004 : Column 408
 

12.30 p.m.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page