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Lord Desai: My Lords, the noble Lord has been as long in higher education as I have been. We have maintained diversity and quality of educational courses with great difficulty and the moral is uniform pricing. I know it does not happen in theory--it cannot happen in theory--but that is the system we have built up. We want to go away from that system. We want to keep as much as possible the diversity of the system and not so greatly increase inequality of the system that it breaks down.
What I see the clause as saying is that there will be no immediate and undisciplined breakaway by the Russell group, or other such group, which will make the universities which are going to toe the line feel very badly done by because they will have to have uniform pricing, they will not be able to charge top-up fees and they will therefore suffer both from a loss of students and from a loss of quality. I see the clause as saying that we will go from here to there, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said. He wanted reform. He started in 1990; this is a next step; and perhaps within the next five or six years we will take another step. However, I do not see that this is the Bill in which we want to give that freedom.
I really think that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is exaggerating the consequences of this clause. Until now we have had no freedom to decide what prices to charge and we have managed to preserve academic freedom. Suddenly, as soon as the Bill is passed, his world will come to an end because he is not allowed to charge a little extra. I do not understand that world. I live in the world of higher education where we try to manage our difficulties.
Earl Russell: My Lords, I am sorry to intervene, but this is the third time that the noble Lord has said that he does not understand. Does he not know enough about the public spending round to appreciate that what comes out of it is the result of a negotiation?
Lord Desai: My Lords, I do. Does not the noble Earl know that the overall culture of higher education funding in this country has been largely of not much choice for the universities as regards what they buy and charge? The same system is going to continue. Academic freedom is not going to die because of the fact that we shall charge tuition fees but not be allowed
Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, at this stage of the evening I would not wish to introduce what may be a discordant note. I begin by congratulating Her Majesty's Government and the noble Baroness on the Front Bench on certain features of the Bill. For many years some of us in your Lordships' House attempted to persuade the previous administration of the crucial importance of having a general teaching council, but invariably that proposal was blocked for a variety of reasons.
However, as regards this particular amendment, one of the things that concerns me most is the present state of the universities. They have suffered a 40 per cent. reduction in unit costs over the past 20 years. I wholly accept the concerns that have been expressed by the Government Benches as regards future funding and aspects of student support. I found it extraordinary that earlier tonight Amendment No. 50 was passed by your Lordships' House. That is an amendment which, put on the face of the Bill, will establish the principle of 50 per cent. contribution to student support in tablets of stone and in perpetuity, taking no account of the crucial importance of accepting that loans should also take account of the contribution that students will make in future to their fees.
Having said all that, however, I am deeply concerned about the university sector, which in many respects is in serious difficulty. I believe that the amendment proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and others is crucial to the future of the sector. How can one tell what the future holds as regards government funding for universities and higher education in the next few years? How can one be sure what future governments will decide in relation to funding higher education? For that reason alone, and as responsible institutions, universities must be allowed some flexibility in being able to raise funds from sources other than government funding in order to support the initiatives in higher education that they wish to pursue. How can one possibly accept this clause, which would act as a kind of straitjacket in restraining them from raising funds from other sources in order to maintain the quality of education which they wish to provide? Therefore, I support the amendment with the greatest of enthusiasm.
Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, this House has a reputation for defending the universities, particularly their academic freedom. However, I feel that too much is being read into this clause. When the Bill was first published there was, rightly, some concern about the breadth of the clause and the possible interpretations. However, since then my noble friend the Minister has been able to introduce amendments which have more clearly defined what is meant by the "funding" of courses. Apparently, those amendments have now satisfied the CVCP to the extent that it is prepared to support them, as well as the clause.
There seems to be some misunderstanding also about what the different fees mean. We are talking about the £1,000 which students will be expected to contribute to their university fees, but that is only a contribution. Fees for different university courses differ according to the nature of the course. The student is not being expected to pay a 25 per cent. contribution towards any particular course because the costs of courses have been amalgamated and, on average, students are now being asked to pay 25 per cent. However, that does not mean that the costs of the courses (as they are now) will remain static. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, said that there is the possibility of future developments which will demand much higher funding of some courses. I am sure that if there are scientific developments in the university world, the universities, the funding council and the department will together be able to accommodate such charges. However, that matter is entirely different from individual universities being able to charge their own top-up fees.
In earlier debates we heard a lot about what the National Union of Students was saying about the Bill. So far, no mention has been made of what the NUS is saying about Clause 18, which is that it should be preserved. Although the NUS might oppose the introduction of the £1,000 contribution to fees, it is certainly opposed to the ability of universities to introduce top-up fees. I should like to quote from a letter from the University of London, written on behalf of the Aldwych Group, which represents the student unions of the universities in the so-called "Russell Group". It stated that,
If the House does not accept Clause 18, it will lead to different charges at different universities. I do not disagree with what the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, said earlier. He is concerned about the funding of universities per se. I, too, am concerned about that, but I do feel that a better system of funding needs to be introduced. However, that is quite different from this clause which prevents individual universities introducing differential fees--not for differential subjects because there is a differential in the fees for social sciences as opposed to the sciences--which would have to be borne by individual students. That would be a divisive force in our university system and I would oppose it on those grounds.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, does she accept that we have a two-tier university system and do not have total uniformity? We have Oxbridge versus the rest. Oxbridge receives funding additional to that received by the rest. Is the noble Baroness in favour of maintaining that two-tier system, or does she wish to impose total uniformity on the higher education sector?
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I should like to deal briefly with the point just made that students are not concerned about the effect of this clause. On the contrary, for example, University of Edinburgh students have been very concerned about the effect on teaching and the academic programme in relation to the fourth year. Equally, they were concerned when Mr. Brian Wilson suggested to one of his colleagues one very simple solution to the problem: the universities should be asked to re-jig their four-year courses to make them suitable for those with A-Levels from England to enter the second year. The students believed that that was exactly the kind of interference in the academic syllabus for purely management and financial reasons that should be feared because of the present wording of Clause 18. Therefore, I believe that students are more concerned than might be supposed.
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