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Lord Dearing: My Lords, I am the third speaker who has connections with Hull University, and I express my indebtedness to that university. It is always a pleasure to be able to listen to, and now to follow, the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, especially when she refers with approbation to something that she and I worked out long years ago. I respect the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for her contribution. In the light of the quality of her thinking and the clarity of her exposition, I say, Minister, watch out for the future!
As a former administrator of 30 years' standing, you would not expect me to seek to bury bureaucracy. However, I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that it needs to be kept in its place. I congratulate and thank him for initiating this debate.
Part of the problem of bureaucracy arises because those who distribute public money may be more concerned to avoid transgressing the constraints than to achieve the policy objectives. They are conscious of the gelding shears that lie in wait for them should the things that happen from the use of the public money which they have authorised be offensive in terms of probity or equity. So there is a tendency to protect oneself. A second reason for the problem is that it seems that from the point of view of those demanding information or requiring procedures, what happens at the other end is at no costit is on free issueso there are no budgetary constraints on the demander.
When I was chairman of the Post Office, one of my main problems was to constrain my enthusiastic and able lieutenants from demanding information and initiating new policies. I had to resolve that by creating a choke on their endeavours, by saying, "Nothing may
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happen without it coming to an executive board member for approval". There needs to be a constraint because it is on free issueand were it not for my own perception, it would increase the bureaucracy if one gave the demander a constrained budget and had to pay for information. That would create more bureaucracy in getting the information to find out what it had all cost. But we need, therefore, effective instruments.
On the other hand, as you would expect of a bureaucrat, I am not going to bury him. I can cite an occasion when, in working with the committee of inquiry that the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, appointed in 1996, we gave evidence that caused us to be very concerned. I mention that not as a criticism but as an illustration, because the grounds for that criticism have passed. In the evidence that we received, a body called HEQC said:
"the Council's work does make it clear, that the consequence of current changes in higher education is that traditional understandings of what a degree is no longer hold good ... essential aspects of the academic infrastructure that used to support confidence in shared standards have been undermined, with resultant problems for students, employers, research councils and academics themselves, since the existing frames of reference no longer match reality".
There are times when there is a manifest problem. It is not surprising after a major expansion in the number of students and university institutions that there is a problem, to which there must be a response; but it must be within the framework that the noble Baroness mentionedthat of the autonomy of the institution. So we have to find a framework in which the legitimate needs of government and other funding bodies and charities can be met, which avoids a huge bureaucratic overlay on the institutions.
I have been very impressed by reports that have been mentioned, one done under Dame Patricia Hodgson and the other under Dame Sandra Burslem. They have addressed the issue of the overburden and come forward with constructive proposals to enable government and these bodies to obtain the information that they need without overwhelming universities. That has come up in other speeches; but I put it to the Minister that with the nature of the problem, which will never go away because of the forces that I have mentioned, we need a presence or group or whatever one wants to call it that will continue the good work of the two committees to which I referred. In that way, there will be a continuing choke on the enthusiasm of governments to introduce legislation without considerationbecause many departments are not particularly concerned with the burdens on universitieswhich will cause government to take a balanced decision on the needs of the state and the needs of the institutions. I urge the Minister to respond to the representations that have been made about the need for a continuing capability.
The second thing that is in my mindit has been referred to several timesis the multiplicity of bodies seeking information. Reference has been made to the excellent briefing that Universities UK provided, as it often does for a debate, which refers to the way in which on the one hand there has been a saving of 25 per
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cent and on the other an increase of 60 per cent. I sometimes think, Minister, that it would save a good deal of time if we gave you a copy of the brief and shut up, but that would not be in accordance with normal parliamentary practice. But when there is a multiplicity of bodies, we have a problem.
I thought that it would be helpful to contact a universitynot Hull on this occasionto get some practical examples. It would take too much time to read them out, but I shall give them to the Minister. We must look to the Government to take a stronger initiative in integrating and correlating the demands of these various bodies for information at different times, covering much the same ground.
Last Saturday, I had the terrifying experience, having been summoned by one of my daughters, of assisting my granddaughter with her physics homework, which took me back more than 60 years. The issue on this occasion was electrical circuits. I discovered by hastily reading her notes, before I guided her through these mysteries, that if one wired a circuit in parallel rather than in series, the electrons would be buzzing around by the trillion; but if you constrained the flow of information more and more through one channel by wiring in series, one constrained the little beasts. What I am saying is that if there is a multiplicity of bodies in parallel seeking information from universities, rather than it being sought through one channel, it is no wonder that you get a plethora of inconsistent unrelated demands. The need is, when it comes to factual information, to see HESA's role not only as a demander but as a channel, which is a choke in itselfand a force for correlating these demands. So my second point is that when information is being asked for in parallel, we should get it through one systemand we must have a good resister in the circuit.
It is not the case that the bureaucratic process needs to be burdensome. Reference has been made to the work of the small group under Sir Martin Harris, called Fair Access. As I listened to the noise, while there was much initial concern, it seems to have been handled with sensitivity and without a lot of burdens. I believe that that body has a very small staff of four. So it can be done with proper thought and sensitivity.
I want to conclude by referring briefly to the broader issues that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and others have raised on the role of universities. The noble Lord referred to three costs. I was very impressed by his reference to "opportunity costs"; I got out my economic textbooks and looked it up in my mindand, yes, it is a good phrase. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, referred by analogy to the role of universities and the other mainsprings of life. As I have said before, in medieval times the natural centre for the development of communities and of commercial and economic wellbeing was the castle. Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it moved to great manufacturing. Now, the centre will increasingly be the fountains of knowledge and research, the universities.
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As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, if you inhibit the free thinking, enterprise and drive of academics with controls, you inhibit our overall wellbeing. As the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, universities have wider roles than just economic, and I was impressed by her recalling these. One of the roles I feel strongly about is that universities should be part of the conscience of society, and should speak out boldly on these issues without fear of any consequences.
The universities are jewels in the national crown. There is a need for more trust, and to recognise the legitimacy of systems and procedures to see that money is well spent for the purpose intended. However, there must be arrangements along the lines we have discussed to ensure that the universities are in good health and full enthusiasm, and that the public purse is increasingly protected by recognising where the responsibility really lies.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I join with others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for introducing this stimulating debate. I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, that it has been interesting and informative. I have enjoyed listening to all your Lordships and in particular to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. Like others, I look forward to hearing from her frequently in future.
I also ought to declare an interest. I have spent a good part of my life as an academic. For the past 20 years I have been at the University of Sussex, where I remain a visiting fellow. Indeed, I will be going there tomorrow to deliver a seminar on science and government, so I retain a continuing interest in the subject.
My academic career takes me back to the age that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, mentioned as somewhat exceptional, the 1960s and 1970s, when the UGC was the main funding body for universities, and funded them with block grants and quinquennial reviews. It was much less oppressive in terms of bureaucracy. In fact there was remarkably little bureaucracy, and most of us would agree that perhaps it was all a little too easy. It was too much of an old-boy network in many senses, because it was indeed largely old boysthere were very few old girls involved in that network. There was a case for tightening up on the culture. Whether we have swung too far towards micro-management has been one of the underlying questions in today's debate. It is an issue I shall come back to.
The central issue is the one brought up by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech; that is, the question of trust. The UGC more or less trusted universities implicitly, and the breakdown of that trust underlies the development of the "audit culture". This culture developed in the 1980s, with the obsession of Margaret Thatcher's government with the notion of accountability and the question, "Are we getting value for our money?". With rising public expenditure it was right that these questions were asked, but again one
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has perhaps tipped over too far towards the audit culture. One of the interesting features is the degree to which that culture has been picked up and, indeed, expanded and honed by the Labour Government. A new managerialism has been applied to it, so that there is a new vocabulary, but, if anything, the micro-management has been extended rather than rolled back.
I fully understand the problems of the overlapping empires of the different bodies, but Iand, I think, these Benchesalso go along with the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, that in many senses the universities have proved themselves to be dynamic and responsive to the challenges they have been confronted with. One can argue that the accountability regime was necessary because at the end of the 1980s we expanded the universities so fast. One of the interesting features was that at that point very little extra money went in. The amount put into teaching in universities increased very little throughout the 1990s, and it was not until 2002 that we began to see it increasing substantially.
One of the results of this was the feature noted by the noble Lord, Lord Norton; namely, that the student/staff ratios have rocketed from roughly 9 to 1 in 1989 to 18 or 20 to 1 today, which, as he noted, is larger than in our secondary schools. In addition, we have seen the overcrowding of buildings and the increasing demoralisation of staff. During the 1990s I was myself an academic, and I saw more and more of my time consumed by the whole process of running a research group or a department. There was less and less time to do one's own research, which was crammed into evenings and weekends. You knew frequently that you were not doing as good a job as you ought, because you just had not got time to do it. There were constant pressures and apologies to my husband because I could not take part in the activities he wanted me to, because I just had to complete an article or get a chapter finished. This was what was so oppressive.
In many senses, the apogée of this audit regime came with the example of the department of economics at the University of Warwick, which began putting figures on this. They looked at how much it had cost the department to undertake the QAA exercise in 1999, and came to the conclusion that in one department alone it had cost them over £250,000. That led to the HEFCE asking the PA Consulting Group in 2000 to look at this.
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