Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

On the basis of my variegated experience—which has included teaching at polytechnics and being a Fellow of a Cambridge college and now a professor in a Russell Group university, and having taught also at an Ivy League school, which has given me some experience of how the American system works—I believe that we still have in our country a very traditional and almost romantic conception of the unity of teaching and research. That may be carried too far in certain respects. My noble friend Lord Krebs referred to the fact that an amazing number of our institutions give out PhDs. But at the same time there is something very positive about this, and it helps to explain the vitality of our teaching. At a time when people are talking about grade inflation and poor teaching, the low dropout rate in our universities is something to be proud of.

26 Jun 2008 : Column 1567

Let us look to the future. Professor Geoffrey Crossick, chairman of the longer-term strategy group of the board of Universities UK, is predicting a much bumpier ride for higher education. There are demographic problems which suggest a possible financial crisis, certainly financial difficulties, and little can be done about that. But we can talk about one fundamental thing that Professor Crossick mentioned in his recent remarks: the research assessment exercise and the tremendous importance of getting right whatever now replaces it. The last operation is now under way and he has stressed that it is important to ensure that whatever is put in its place retains the research culture and, in particular, does not lean towards an overly instrumental attitude to scientific research. We should still maintain proper support for curiosity-driven scientific research. At this point, British scientists still win about 10 per cent of international prizes, well beyond what their numbers would suggest. We cannot be sure that this will be so 10 or 15 years from now, despite the amazing scientific tradition in this country. We must do everything possible to ensure that it will be so. The new RAE exercise or its replacement must be an important part of that. It is an absolutely crucial matter.

When I was teaching in America the New York Times issued the results of peer reviews. This was before we had our RAE results. It was remarkable to see how even at an Ivy League school there would be alarm if a department which was considered good had not done so well. It kept everybody on their toes. People moved up and down the list. The RAE has done that for this country, and it is tremendously liberating for many scholars working in unfashionable departments. It is an enormously valuable institution. Mistakes have been made and it is an incredibly difficult thing to do well. I fully acknowledge that there are problems with it, but we must make sure that what replaces it does at least as good a job.

Finally, John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, addressed the Higher Education Funding Council for England on 8 April on the subject of widening participation in higher education. This is an important theme. All noble Lords share in the disappointment at the fact that the figures for social disadvantage in this country have remained stubbornly unchanged for many decades, and I understand the Government’s concern. However, at no point in his speech did the Minister refer to the importance of excellence in higher education. While we have entirely justified concerns about access and widening participation, we must remain committed to excellence, otherwise the much vaunted global competitiveness of the UK system will be lost.

1.08 pm

Lord Desai: My Lords, I am not quite a jobbing academic, but I am the third academic to speak in this debate—in which there have been far too many chiefs and not enough Indians, if I may say so. Give or take a few days, this is the 17th anniversary of my maiden speech in this House, in a debate on the future of manufacturing. I pointed out then that there was no future in manufacturing in the old-fashioned manner,

26 Jun 2008 : Column 1568

antagonising Members on my own Front Bench right from the beginning. I said that we would have to move on to R&D-intensive, high-value-added industry, and for that the country had to have much more education than was being provided at the time. I am glad that we have proceeded in that direction, but I am still not quite satisfied.

One of the major problems in British society is that we mistake uniformity for equality. We impose uniformity on a system that for all sorts of reasons should actually have multiple rankings. Because we have uniformity, we waste resources on people who should not be getting them. I do not mind saying that because I come from the London School of Economics. We are a low-endowment university and we live by our wits. I very much welcome the revolution of income-contingent fees for higher education, which we pioneered at the LSE. Unfortunately, not enough has been done in that respect. There is a lot of misinformation about student debt, because people do not realise that the full debt on an income-contingent loan does not have to be repaid, only a proportion of salary above a certain minimum. So there is no mortgage fear in this respect. It is a strange country where people worry more about getting mortgages for houses at non-inflated prices while resisting borrowing for education, an asset which earns much more income than would any house.

I would like to see the full fee charged. However, different universities should be allowed to charge different fees because their costs are different. There should be no government subsidy for teaching. The Government should deal with all such resources through bursaries. No university should get any subsidy for teaching; they should meet teaching costs out of their own revenues. This would encourage much more concentration on where the comparative advantage lies. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said: why should we have so many universities giving PhDs? Why do we pretend that PhDs from different universities are of the same quality? I have been a teacher long enough to know that that must be a fallacy.

The California system, to which many noble Lords have referred, is a great example of how you can achieve diversity and equity while charging fees but not imposing uniformity. It is because we impose uniformity that we have the problem of, for example, access. How many people are going to Oxbridge? Who cares? What matters is that people get higher education, whether at Oxbridge, Manchester, Warwick or wherever. Many people should not go to Oxbridge; perhaps it is not suitable for them. We should concentrate on a variety of junior colleges with one-year, two-year or three-year degrees. That will spread higher education and let people have higher education at the pace that suits them. We should not insist on completion. Let people drop out and come back. Let us have a credit transfer system so that universities do not capture students and treat them like slaves until they get a degree. The attitude seems to be that they are not allowed to go away and, if they do, the little education that they have had will be of no value. I have probably spoken quite enough. I would like all teaching subsidy to be abolished and all research money to be allocated solely by the RAE.

26 Jun 2008 : Column 1569

1.13 pm

Baroness Deech: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Luce. I shall confine my remarks to my particular experience, with four years as the independent adjudicator for higher education. I also have an interest as former chair of admissions at Oxford, and head of St Anne’s at Oxford. In my capacity as adjudicator, I dealt with student complaints from 147 universities. I issued 1,400 decisions, with a disproportionate number of complaints from overseas and postgraduate students. From that perspective, I saw what could, and did, go wrong—but also what went right.

I am filled with admiration for the wonderful job that our universities do, on a shoestring, for many times the number of students who attended when your Lordships were young. The expanded universities are now, however, a microcosm of the world outside, with all the diversity and problems to be found in the general population—disabilities, poverty, child care, lack of support and unfamiliarity with the system. I shall refer to two of the problems that I dealt with.

Among overseas students, whom we value and on whom there is such heavy reliance, the Chinese educational culture is so different that we are ignoring, in our ignorance, the transition that we expect Chinese students to make when they are admitted here. Over there, there is a hierarchy with a veneration of professors, but no academic competition and no ownership as such of the wording of texts. Some of the books used are many hundreds of years old. They rely on the lecturer to help them, out of class. Yet when they come here, we are critical and independent, we have class-based teacher-student interaction and we regard plagiarism with horror, whereas they can scarcely understand or fathom what concerns us. Will the Chinese students adapt to our system or do we have to adapt to theirs? There is much to be said for the halfway house, for UK campuses to be found in China and the mentoring system. One dissatisfied Chinese student wrote to me, saying, “As God is my witness, I thought British education was the best in the world”: but in his case, it had not been.

The other problem I will refer to is the extremism and racial tension of society, which has reached campus and, indeed, may even start there. Some universities are failing to keep the peace on campus, even though that is the place for dialogue. The universities, and the University and College Union, have failed to get to grips with the guidance on good race relations and the avoidance of extremism issued by the DIUS and UUK. The UCU is an unprofessional union, and universities would do well to cease to recognise it and to deal with the alternatives.

My own university, Oxford, tops the league tables. I am, therefore, distressed to have to note that in dealing with racism it has, like some other universities, apparently ignored the code of practice on freedom of speech and its obligations under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, the Protection from Harassment Act, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act and other acts controlling freedom of speech. When I complained, as others did, about the trouble caused by the presence of David Irving and the BNP representative at its union, the

26 Jun 2008 : Column 1570

university spokesman replied that he was not in a position to know whether the university had complied with the law. It seems that it did not take the advice that it should have on the race relations obligations, and seemed unaware of the limits on freedom of speech, whether you like them or not, imposed by law. Along with other universities, it needs to study the law and its obligations, update the code of practice on freedom of speech and take action to promote good relations. The tools are there; the department should consolidate the guidance that applies to campus racism. Students should be told to whom to complain and be helped to do so. Before we go forward, we must take care of the problems of the students we have.

I will conclude by paying my respect to teaching, above all, but also to research. I have frequently been stopped at railway stations and airports by former students who I barely recognise. They say, “You taught me”, and they are grateful. That makes it all worth while, but no one has ever stopped me to say, “Your research made all the difference”.

1.18 pm

Baroness Murphy: My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for raising this debate, which has turned out to be an important one. A declaration of my personal interests will reveal the area that I want to cover. For many years, I have been a medical academic but also an NHS manager. Recently, I chaired a London strategic health authority, which is responsible for commissioning education and training places from higher and further education for the NHS. I now chair the council of St George’s, University of London—a health sciences university which, by the way, has the highest retention rate of any UK university.

I have therefore looked at relations between the NHS and higher education from all sides now, as the Joni Mitchell song says, and I am afraid that I have looked:

When on earth will the new department, the DIUS, agree a joint, long-term strategy with the Department of Health for educating the health and social care workforce that makes sense for both the NHS and for higher education? For many universities, which massively expanded their capacity to meet the voracious demand for nurses, allied health professionals and doctors in the past decade, the agreeable cash cow of the NHS has quite suddenly turned into our key strategic risk. Such is the volatility of NHS funding that it is not surprising that some universities are exiting from the fray altogether—City University, for example, which provided excellent quality university teaching for nursing education, is one that springs to mind.

Important though the Darzi review is, strategic health authorities seem to have turned their attention away from education altogether since the recent reorganisation. Once more, we are back into the bust bit of the boom-and-bust cycle, which is the result of poor workforce planning on the part of the NHS, short-term vision and failure to communicate the need for changing skills; and, on the university side, a failure to address responsively the need for research

26 Jun 2008 : Column 1571

excellence to be relevant to the needs of the NHS and for training to be tailored to the changing face of health and disease.

I shall not touch on the recent reorganisation of postgraduate medical education, but that in itself poses significant challenges for the medical school in addressing the changing face of specialties and preparing undergraduates for the different kinds of specialties and the different needs of healthcare. There is no joint strategy between the two departments and agreed ways forward.

The opportunities are vast for widening participation. There are 1.3 million jobs in the NHS and 900,000 in social care services, of which 600,000 are in the independent sector. This workforce will continue to grow inexorably as the numbers of the very aged grow, and as those surviving with physical and mental disabilities demand and rightly expect the same life choices as the rest of us. We must have a joint, unified workforce with a common understanding of the basic principles of health and social care sciences. In spite of numerous initiatives such as foundation degrees, which have proved exceedingly difficult in the area of healthcare, the creation of new roles, joint NVQs at the bottom end of the life-skills training ladder, assistant practitioners and the like, we have somehow failed to address this serious problem.

It is usually left to the initiatives of individual higher education institutes and interested professionals acting on their own behalf to create the cutting edge examples that get the right kind of children going through the diverse biological education and health science enthusiasms that we want them to adopt. It is this approach that will lead to a better workforce. At the moment, we are nowhere near there and a joint strategy has to be worked on very soon.

1.22 pm

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Luce on the debate. I declare as an interest my role in Cardiff University.

Wales is known to punch above its weight in higher education but the sector faces real financial threats and devolution has brought its challenges. The turnover of universities and colleges in Wales exceeds £850 million a year and represents value for money. Indeed, the Welsh economy receives an output of more than £4.5 million for every £1 million invested in the higher education sector by the National Assembly. But there are tensions between time in teaching, research and the entrepreneurial translation of innovation into industry for the emerging knowledge economy. To benefit fully from the emerging knowledge economy, further investment in higher education and learning will prove essential.

Given the graduate premium, university education must be widely accessible, regardless of social background or financial considerations. The Welsh higher education sector consistently outperforms England in widening participation. Indeed, yesterday’s Audit Commission figures for England show marked under representation in higher education of those from poor social backgrounds. Cardiff University recently became the first in Wales to receive the Frank Buttle Trust quality

26 Jun 2008 : Column 1572

mark for its support for looked-after children and people leaving care so that they can progress into higher education. It is a myth that research-led excellence institutions do not contribute fully to the widening access agenda.

But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, said, widening access in recruitment must be linked to student retention. Their learning experience must be of a high standard and relevant to their needs, and they need inspiring and supportive role models to stay the course. Last year in Cardiff we awarded more than £1 million in means-tested grants from financial contingency funds to students from low-income backgrounds who were at the greatest risk of leaving university because of financial problems.

Support for students with disabilities and long-term medical conditions is also essential, but it has a cost. The Disability and Dyslexia Service in Cardiff currently works with more than 1,800 students, and a specialist mental health adviser helps students with long-term conditions to access support to remain on their course. Poor student retention represents a financial and human waste and it is essential that, once in, students are helped to develop.

The threat of inadequate investment is of grave concern to the Welsh higher education institutes. Public investment in higher education is now lower in Wales than in either England or Scotland and, therefore, the ability of the Welsh higher education sector to punch above its weight may not be sustainable without further investment. How are the Government planning to ensure that devolution does not widen inequity in society by removing opportunities across the UK?

Do the Government recognise that British universities overall face fierce international competition for students, particularly from other English language countries, a point outlined by my noble friend Lady Valentine? These students have loyalty in the long term that affects their investment in Britain in the future when they become economically active. Will the Minister comment on whether the overall funding of Commonwealth scholarships will not be cut but will be refocused to less developed countries? These respected schemes have attracted students to highly skilled areas of study and enhanced the infrastructure in those developing countries with which we have historic links. Does the Minister recognise that outreach distance learning programmes and university partnerships with developing higher education institutions abroad provide a cost-effective way of educating healthcare workers and others in their own countries? These schemes encourage such people to stay there to develop services rather than risking a brain drain from the developing world, whose students come over here to study and then decide to stay.

I ask the Minister to address both these issues. I fear she may say that devolution is outwith her remit but, for the social fabric of our society, it is important that we do not allow devolution to create gross inequity.

1.27 pm

Lord Judd: My Lords, like others, I warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for introducing the debate so well today. I declare an interest as a member of

26 Jun 2008 : Column 1573

court at the LSE and Lancaster and Newcastle Universities. I am also involved professionally in De Montfort University.

The immense challenges of the 21st century mean that we desperately need a high-quality, comprehensive matrix of higher education, with different institutions playing different roles. The developing diversity is already exciting. Universities such as De Montfort or TVU are developing productive relationships with business and local employers. They are also building strong links with key professions such as nursing, pharmacy, social, community and youth work, the police and probation services, and they often provide a success story of effective multiculturalism. Others such as Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool are well positioned to accelerate the trend, specifically and firmly embraced by Newcastle, to regenerate the concept of the civic university, rooted in the community but dedicated to world-class teaching and research and at the centre of the knowledge economy.

For the UK to flourish, we can leave none of our human potential untapped, but, as a civilised society, we surely cannot still accept millions of people going to their grave never having begun to recognise their potential, let alone fulfil it. Further education often gives the lead in this. Most sectors make a growing contribution to widening access and to enabling the United Kingdom to be a convincing player in globalised communities, not least by their work abroad and by their overseas students here. Both of these contributions are essential in their own right, but they are also vital to the quality of learning and research within any community of scholars.

I fervently hope that we do not pursue the misguided notion of having totally separate teaching and research-based universities. The quality of each discipline is enhanced by interplay with the other, whatever form the research takes. In our evaluation of research, we must look to its special value when based on practical engagement in the dynamics of society. Of course we must nurture our older universities with their pace-setting role of established, high-quality research and teaching, and we must never lose our commitment to the imperative for ensuring the strength of original, free-standing research. That research is indispensable to the future of humanity. But I can think of no better shortcut to falling standards and lowered morale than fostering the concept of a teaching institution with no involvement in research, however it is organised.

Amid the quantitative preoccupations of modern society, the imperative of values, reflection and intellectual originality becomes more significant than ever. Will we suffocate ourselves as a species in a surfeit of information because we have neglected the vital disciplines of properly digesting and analysing that information? Cleverness must never be allowed to squeeze out wisdom. Good management is important, but good management for what? Who is on the bridge and what is the destination? The classics, arts, humanities, ethics and philosophy are as critical as ever to the creative quality of life, but they are also critical to the very survival of the species.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page