[Relevant Documents: The Eleventh Report from the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, HC 170, Session 2008-09, on Students and universities, and the Government’s response, HC 991.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2011, for expenditure by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—
(1) resources, not exceeding £9,653,466,000, be authorised, on account, for use as set out in HC 33, and
(2) a sum, not exceeding £11,071,732,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, to meet the costs as so set out.—(Mr. Heppell.)
I call Mr. Phil Willis.
What an august start to a debate—I am very grateful to you for making the historic decision to call me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I welcome this estimates debate on the report on students and universities that the then Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills published on 2 August. Although I recognise that many Members may wish to broaden the issue, I wish to keep my remarks to the report.
Far too often, the work of our universities is discussed in isolation from the very people who are the principal recipients, the students themselves. We often talk about research, institutions and organisations without mentioning the students, yet the quality of the experience that they get often not only determines their life chances but is critical to our nation’s future. At this time, it behoves all political parties to take the issue of quality and standards in our universities to heart.
The taxpayer contributes something in the region of £15 billion to our universities, and there are currently about 2.3 million students of different sorts in them. They make a significant contribution too, through the money that they pay universities. The question that my Committee asked was whether the taxpayer and the students got good value for money and whether it was a quality product. We strongly welcomed the initiative by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), when he was Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, of posing the question, “What do we want the higher education system to look like in 15 years’ time?” That was exactly the right question, and I compliment him for beginning that debate.
I wish to put on record that over the past 10 years, the higher education system has received a significant investment of resources, both in revenue and particularly capital. On the matter that the Select Committee on Science and Technology, as it now is, is particularly interested in, there has been huge investment in laboratory infrastructure and so on. I have started on a positive note, and I hope that the Minister has noted it.
We considered whether the student experience is truly world-class, as it is often portrayed. Although fees and funding frequently came into our deliberations, they were not part of our brief, so I shall not comment on variable fees. The Committee looks forward to the report of the review by Lord Browne of Madingley, which should inform the debate after the general election.
I pay tribute to the four members of the Select Committee who are present for the debate. I have to say that our inquiry and our final report have not been without controversy, and it is fair to say that our mailbag was not only large but contained extremely diverse responses to our recommendations. That is exactly what a Select Committee report should do—it should be able to create debate and, to some extent, controversy. I thank all those who contributed to the report, including vice-chancellors, academics and representatives of professional bodies. In particular, I wish to single out students. We met a great number who were an absolute pleasure to deal with, and I wish to put on record our appreciation to the National Union of Students, which constantly provided the Committee with high-quality evidence and was prepared to take on board a number of the criticisms that we made.
The Committee actively sought out innovative ways to engage with students. We visited universities, and at Oxford we even had the equivalent of a speed-dating session, at which we spoke to a number of students in different formats. We also held a major consultation for three months as part and parcel of our work. We were rigorous in taking evidence, but it was controversial. I therefore wish initially to remove some misunderstandings.
We had no intention of undermining what I and my Committee believe to be a world-class higher education system. Our criticisms are to try to improve it rather than undermine it. Given the rapid changes in the sector, which are likely to accelerate in future months and years, we wanted to add to the debate about the future of the sector. We were therefore somewhat surprised by the reaction of the Government and the higher education sector to our report. When it was published last August Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, was quoted in the press as saying that he did not “recognise the committee’s description” of universities. The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, who is in his place, was equally scathing about the fact that we had produced a report during the summer recess, which I found quite strange.
The Government echoed that line in their response to the report, stating at paragraph 1:
“We believe that the picture of our higher education system which emerged in the report was far less positive than is in fact the case.”
Universities UK was equally hostile to the report. Indeed, many parts of the higher education establishment appeared largely defensive and reluctant to engage in many of the issues. They gave the impression that Parliament somehow had no right to interfere in the product being delivered, and that we should just let them get on with it. Given the fact that we have put in £15 billion of taxpayers’ money, that attitude is frankly unacceptable.
Over the past few months the Government and the higher education sector, having dismissed many of our concerns, have quietly been getting on with implementing most of the key recommendations in the report. Perhaps that is the way things are and how the system works. I hope that the Minister will explain why there has been a change of heart—perhaps the Government were planning it in the first place. [Interruption.] I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) does not have swine flu just before Christmas.
I wish to deal with four matters, the first of which is the information available to prospective students, which is absolutely essential if they are to make informed choices about institutions and courses of study. We found that although universities’ prospectuses competed on their public relations appeal, they did not present information in a consistent format to allow easy comparison. We concluded that the sector should develop a code of practice on information for prospective students, which should cover the time a typical undergraduate student should expect to spend attending lectures and tutorials, in personal study and, for science courses, in laboratories during a week, and a clear indication of who would be teaching them.
The need for that information was brought home to us by a mature student doing a nursing degree, who pointed out:
“Getting a clear idea of the hours involved and when lectures would be was incredibly important to me because of child care.”
The sector has seen a huge growth in the number of mature students—post 21-year-olds—and part-time students, and those who study specific modules at a variety of different sites, and they need to be able to plan with certainty.
We did not recommend the standardisation of either courses or curricula. To do so would be to undermine university autonomy and academic freedom, and the core strength of our university system. To be fair, the Government responded fairly positively and agreed that it would be helpful for prospective students to have access to information concerning work loads. They have asked the Higher Education Funding Council England to examine the issues, in consultation with the sector.
By contrast, Universities UK appeared to see little need for change, stating:
“Universities have already put significant resource into publishing information for prospective students”.
That is true, but they said that the problem was students’ failure to navigate the information that was already there. We were therefore pleasantly surprised to see in HEFCE’s statutory responsibility for quality assurance report, which was published in October this year, that its teaching, quality and student experience sub-committee considered that:
“Institutions also clearly need to provide information in an appropriate common format. This should cover the nature and amount of staff contact that students may expect, the nature of the learning effort expected, the time this will take, and the academic support likely to be available.”
That is exactly what we had recommended in the report that was dismissed, so hallelujah! The Government, in their plan for the future of higher education, “Higher Ambitions”, which was published in November, on which I compliment the Minister, state:
“It is…important to ensure that potential students have the best possible information on the content of courses”.
We warmly welcome that.
The second area our report covers is the treatment of part-time and mature students. The failure of the current system to treat part-time students on the same basis as full-time students is, in effect, a form of discrimination. That is not only wrong, but it hinders the achievement of the Government’s objective of 40 per cent. of all adults in England gaining a higher education qualification by 2020.
Although we did not take extensive evidence from part-time students, there was a strong feeling that although some universities actively welcome them and make appropriate curriculum provisions, many do not. In the latter, students have to take what are effectively full-time courses in part, rather than appropriately designed modules.
Is not the real issue that as each year goes by, the distinction between full-time and part-time courses in terms of hours taught becomes increasingly irrelevant? In many universities and for many courses, it would be very difficult to distinguish clearly between a student attending a part-time course and a student attending full time? Many students on full-time courses will attend for fewer hours than students notionally on part-time courses.
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is why it is it is absolutely imperative for the review that is taking place to look at how we deliver higher education in totality and does not simply say, “Some students work part time and some work full time.” We certainly need to consider that. I hope the Minister will tell us in his winding-up speech that that, and not simply funding, will be addressed in the review.
We were disappointed that Universities UK did not address the matter in its response. To go back to what the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) said, one area we looked at in the inquiry was the delivery of modularised curricula, which means people can dip in and out over a longer period, accumulate credits and transfer them between universities. There were some very hostile reactions, particular from some in the Russell group of universities, which frankly did not participate in that more universal response.
We were pleased, however, that in “Higher Ambitions”, the Government stated:
“In order to attract a greater diversity of students, more part time study, more vocationally-based foundation degrees, more work-based study…and more study whilst living at home must be made available.”
I think we are making progress—I put that on the record in a spirit of co-operation.
The quality of teaching should be a core aspect of the undergraduate experience. It did not surprise us that the views of the students to whom we spoke ran the full gamut between complimentary and downright critical, but we were stunned by one constant criticism that came up time after time. One student said that
“university lecturers seriously need to take lessons from school teachers on how to teach. They are clever”—
that is a compliment—
“but they are not skilled at conveying the message.”
That is quite a powerful thing to say. It would clearly be inappropriate to have an Ofsted-type approach to teaching quality in universities—I fully accept that and we do not recommend such an approach—but it is important that the Government and the higher education sector draw up and implement arrangements applicable across the sector that would allow students to convey concerns about poor teaching, and ensure that universities take quick remedial action. We should empower students in that way. The Government should require universities, as a condition of support from the taxpayer, to have in place programmes to improve teaching quality and the effectiveness of all academic staff—I do not think that that would interfere with their autonomy—and there should be a review of the common practice in universities of using graduate students to teach, albeit in view of the main academic staff. That concern, which was raised by many students, clearly needs to be addressed.
The Government’s initial response was lukewarm, but it is fair to say that successive Higher Education Ministers have pressed universities on that issue and made money available to improve teaching. Although the Government said that they believe
“it is right that higher education institutions are responsible for ensuring their staff hold appropriate qualifications”—
the Minister has asked HEFCE to explore with the sector whether institutions’ human resources strategies provide adequate information about their approach to staff professional development—we feel that the Minister needs to take the issue of improving teaching quality seriously.
I value the work that the hon. Gentleman and his Committee did on the report. On his point about the involvement of graduate students in teaching or in support of the teaching effort, and linking it to what he is saying about professional development, is there a case for recognising the role that graduate and research students can play, and for actually structuring appropriate training and support, so that the quality of their teaching helps to raise the general standards?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Committee certainly did not say that we should not have graduate students teaching; we said that they should be properly trained. Quite often, their experience is nearer to that of the students’, and they can therefore have a much close interrelation. However, the idea that a person can suddenly teach at graduate level just because they have completed their degree is stretching things.
On my hon. Friend’s response to the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), we also need to recognise that part of the problem is that many graduate students are told to teach, and they are expected to do so, perhaps while their supervisor is on sabbatical. They are not properly remunerated for it, which is bad for the person taught as well as for the graduate student.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. The reality is that we need to get a grip of the issue. We must not have teaching on the cheap. We would not get high-quality research on the cheap and we expect people to deliver those programmes, and that should apply to teaching.
It was disappointing that Universities UK accepted none of the criticisms on teaching in universities. It said in its response:
“In our experience, criticism of the quality of teaching and standards tends to be isolated and anecdotal, and not borne out by larger scale surveys such as the National Student Survey or the CBI survey of employers...nor the national data on complaints.”
None of those surveys asked those specific questions, so they did not get the answer. However, I am grateful to the Minister for recognising that the quality of teaching is important and that we need to do something about it.
The final area I wish to examine is standards. That issue has generated much heat in the media, though not as much light as I would have liked. In my view, a key role of a Select Committee carrying out an inquiry is to test the orthodoxies—a thankless task, but essential. The orthodoxies on standards in higher education as we perceived them are, first, that the UK’s international reputation is of strategic importance, and I think that we would agree with that. Secondly, universities themselves have the responsibility for maintaining the standards of their awards —again, we agree. Thirdly, maintenance of standards is integral to universities’ autonomy and that autonomy is the keystone of the sector. Fourthly, all universities have systems in place to ensure that courses are regularly reviewed and, fifthly, the Quality Assurance Agency conducts regular visits to universities to scrutinise how they maintain standards. Who could disagree? The system should therefore be perfect. However, what we found when we challenged those orthodoxies was a somewhat uncomfortable truth.
We found that the system in England for safeguarding consistent national degree standards in higher education institutions is out of date, inadequate and in urgent need of replacement. With even the head of QAA describing the degree classification as “rotten” and “not fit for purpose”, the issue needs to be taken seriously. The current arrangements with each university responsible for its own standards are perhaps no longer meeting the needs of a mass system of higher education in the 21st century with 133 higher education institutions and more than 2 million students.
One statistic sticks out like a sore thumb. The proportion of first class and upper second class honours degrees has steadily increased over the past 15 years, with the proportion of students achieving first class honours rising from 7.7 per cent. in 1996-97 to 13.3 per cent. in 2007-08. There may be good reasons for that, such as better teaching, harder-working students or a metamorphosis in students’ ability. However, there may be perverse reasons, such as universities inflating marks to keep their positions in the league tables. I hope that it is the former, not the latter. The short answer is that we do not know. That is the uncomfortable truth. Nor is there any appetite whatsoever to investigate the reasons for that significant degree inflation objectively.
When we asked Universities UK about the increase in the number of first class honours, the answers we got would shame a first year student in statistics:
“Universities UK acknowledged that there had been ‘a lot of talk and publicity on this in the last six months or so, about degree classification’, but told us that ‘the patterns of degree classification have not changed all that much over the last ten years—only a six per cent rise in the percentage of Firsts and 2.1s’”.
Ministers appeared to take at face value explanations about grade inflation without detailed analysis. In fact the figures showed a steady increase in the proportion of first degree students achieving first class honours—an increase over the period of 72 per cent. That needs explaining, but rather than engage with the issue, it seems that everyone prefers to look the other way and hope for the best. Why? The defence is always university autonomy. I am talking here about institutional autonomy, not academic freedom.
The Committee rightly dared to question the institutional autonomy of universities to set and maintain their own standards, not because we wanted to lead an onslaught on the autonomy of higher education, but because we found evidence that autonomy was, if anything, obscuring, if not undermining, quality and standards. As a Committee, we would defend vigorously the right of universities to maintain autonomy from the state and be the custodians of academic freedom. That is the unique strength of our university system and why it is admired around the world. But in return, universities must be able to provide clear, peer-reviewed evidence that they are the true custodians of standards too. They cannot have it just one way.
How we compare academic standards across different institutions is not easy, but simply to ignore the challenge is unacceptable. The evidence we received on assessment methodologies gave us serious grounds for concern. One witness told us that there is
“considerable variation across the higher education sector in assessment practices. Whilst this can be seen as a consequence of institutional autonomy, the rationales for the various institutional choices that have been made are unclear”.
We established that quite small variations in the way in which degree classifications are determined can have more effect on the classification of some students than was generally realised. One academic told us that
“my university runs what has been described as a very perverse model for classifying degree schemes. What happens is that low marks between 0 and 20 are rounded up to 20 and high marks from 80 to 100 are rounded downwards, and then they are averaged together, so you have this non-linear average before making a classification.”
If that is the basis on which we award degrees, something is wrong. There needs to be transparency and if the price of higher education organisational autonomy is a lack of transparency and inconsistent standards, we have to ask whether it is worth it?
Two pieces of evidence that we took from students and during the inquiry gave us real concern. First, different levels of effort were required in different universities to obtain degrees in similar subjects, which might suggest that different standards may be applied. Secondly, we came across some pointers that students in England spend significantly less time studying, including lectures, contact time with academic staff and private study, than their counterparts overseas. Our visit to the US confirmed that. We made no conclusion about these variations other than to ask that more research be done to examine whether these factors affect quality. That is not an unreasonable thing to ask. Sadly the Government said that they were
“not convinced of the usefulness of further...research”.
The only answer we were given by vice-chancellors, whose overseas market might be affected by declining quality, was that as international students continue to apply to our universities standards must be satisfactory. As we say in the report, we consider that it is
“absurd and disreputable to justify academic standards with a market mechanism”.
Of course, the defence of standards by both the Government and sector was the existence of the Quality Assurance Agency. But we found that the QAA focuses almost exclusively on processes, not standards. That is why we called for the QAA to be transformed into an independent quality and standards agency with a remit to safeguard, monitor and report on standards. We did not seek some standardised format that could mechanistically be monitored by an Ofsted-type organisation. Instead, a quality and standards agency would take up the challenge of maintaining standards across the sector rather than simply within individual institutions.
In reply the Government said:
“The Quality Assurance Agency...does a good job but needs to take on a more public-facing role and one which allows any concerns about quality or standards to be investigated quickly, transparently and robustly.”
That misses the point. It is not better public relations that are required for the QAA, but a better examination of standards.
In a discussion only two weeks ago, I was intrigued to hear the new chairman of the QAA, Anthony McClaran, outline a proposed consultation on key principles and processes for a revised quality assurance system. He said that the purpose would be to provide authoritative, publicly accessible information on academic quality and standards in higher education; to command public, employer and other stakeholder confidence; to meet the needs of funders and of autonomous institutions; to meet the needs of students; and to reply on independent judgment. Hallelujah! That is exactly what we have called for. Quite frankly, I am not bothered whether it is called the quality and standards agency or the QAA, providing those issues are addressed.
That was a useful exercise for the Committee to undertake and it pointed out several issues that need further discussion. The Committee recognised the strength of our higher education system and that to meet the needs of a 21st century, post-recession economy, the system has to work harder, better and to a higher standard than ever before. We have to compete with a US system and an Administration that has just put nearly an extra $1 trillion into higher education, and with China and India, which are putting untold wealth into producing not just widgets, but the highest intellectual quality. That is why we did the report and why we recommended it to the Minister. In that spirit, I hope that he will respond in an appropriately supportive way.
I thank the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee not only for the report before us today, but for the report by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, which he also chaired. There is no doubt that his Committee has a good reputation for holding Government to account. That is what Select Committees are about. He said that some Members might wish to go broader than his report, which I have read, and I intend to do so.
The thing about students and universities is that people need a university before they can discuss them. It is not a packed Chamber today, is it? However, the two hon. Members for Oxford constituencies—the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith)—are present. That says something about the fact that Oxford university is probably the most famous university in the world and has done tremendous things not only for Britain, but the world.
I am grateful—as too, I am sure, will be the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)—for my hon. Friend’s recognition of Oxford. However, my hon. Friend must remember, when talking about universities and Oxford, to mention both of them—Oxford university, and Oxford Brookes university and its excellent work.
But I shall try not to mention Oxford United.
I was elected MP for Carlisle in 1987. As a Cumbrian MP, I was faced with a particular challenge. More than 300 years ago, the area’s application for a university was turned down because of our warlike neighbours, the Scots; it was thought inappropriate to have a university so close to the Scottish border, so it was put in Durham. People in Cumbria long took it for granted that they would not get a university, as a result of which so few of our young people actually went to university, and many of those who did, such as Lord Bragg of Wigton, Hunter Davies, Margaret Foster and Sir Brian Fender, the great educationist, did not return for many years. That meant the area was being drained of its talent, which we needed to bring prosperity.
Soon after I was selected as a candidate, I went to a lecture by the vice-chancellor of Preston polytechnic, as it was then—it is now the university of Central Lancashire. He said that north Cumbria and south-west Scotland were the most deprived areas in western Europe in terms of higher education provision. When I was elected, therefore, one of the first things that I knew that we needed to do was to provide local people with the opportunity to study for a degree without having to leave home and to encourage others to study there.
I am grateful to a good friend of mine, the noble Lord Glenamara, who was then chancellor of the university of Northumbria. Ted Short, as he was called when a Member of this House, was the Education Secretary who took the decision to locate the university in the north of England in Lancaster, not in Carlisle. As a Cumbrian, he always regretted having to do that, but I think that it was the fault of the local authority.
I worked well with Lord Glenamara, and in 1992, we opened—he kindly asked me to open it with him—the Carlisle campus of the university of Northumbria in the historic quarter next to the cathedral. That was the first time people from my area and north Cumbria could get a degree in their own constituency. And it made a difference. I remember meeting a young girl who must have been in her mid-20s with a child of about eight—obviously, she had a baby very young—who was attending the university. She had a child to look after and was thrilled that she could do a degree and become a teacher. There was great satisfaction in that example.
When Labour came to power, my area got a brand-new hospital—the first private finance initiative hospital to be built in this country. However, the old district general hospital, which was a listed building, had no use. That could have been a disaster, because listed buildings with no use are, in many ways, a menace, as I know well. However, St. Martin’s college—one of the finest teacher-training colleges in Britain—which was looking to expand out of Lancaster, took over the old hospital. It is now a teacher-training section of the university of Cumbria.
We had the critical mass of facilities needed to build the university of Cumbria. My noble Friend Lord Dale Campbell-Savours, who at the time was the Member of Parliament for Workington, proposed a university of the Lakes, which in some ways was meant as a virtual university, but at the end of the day it was not successful, and a traditional university was chosen instead. However, for many years we had had a very good art college, which became the institute of art. We pulled those things together and two years ago we were able to say, “We have a university of Cumbria.” That was a magnificent day for many of us—as I said, the area had waited 300 years—and, as hon. Members can I imagine, we were rather pleased.
There is no doubt that the university has teething troubles. The buildings are spread throughout the county: it has two campuses in Carlisle; there is one in west Cumbria; another, called Newton Rigg—it used to be the old agricultural college—is out in Penrith; and there is a 115-year-old teacher-training college, Charlotte Mason college, in the Lake District at Ambleside. Those facilities were brought together, along with part of St. Martin’s college in Lancaster, to create the university of Cumbria. We are well aware that we need the university if we are to attract talent and business, and to keep that talent. That has gone very well, and I am thankful to the Labour Government for that provision.
There is, however, a difficulty about the location of the headquarters, which I think, being MP for Carlisle, and because it is by far the largest city in the area, should obviously be in the city of Carlisle. That was agreed, as too—finally—was the Caldew viaduct site, which I suggested many years ago. Everything was going well until the current economic problems. We now have an £8.4 million annual deficit and the capital moneys for the headquarters might no longer be available or its provision might be stalled. I find that puzzling, because as far as I am aware there has been no cut in the higher education budget, so it is not a question of the effect of the recession. Rather, there are obviously other issues at play, and over the past month or two the local media have highlighted the problems.
I have talked about the campuses at Charlotte Mason in Ambleside and at Newton Rigg in Penrith. One of my concerns is about the talk of mothballing those campuses and moving a lot of the staff and the teachers to Lancaster—to return to the 1960s, that was when Cumbria lost out to Lancaster, which is now probably one of the top 12 universities in the country. However, the reality is that we cannot have a university of Cumbria, the majority of whose students are in Lancaster. That will undermine the whole process.
I asked the new vice-chancellor—I sympathise with him, because he has not been in post very long—to come down on Monday afternoon to discuss the situation with Cumbrian parliamentarians from both Houses. I would like to ask the Minister, who is now in his place, whether he will have time after that meeting, probably early in the new year, to meet a delegation including myself and others to discuss the matter further. Although we have made great progress, we have a problem, and we have to come through it.
I recognise that the university of Cumbria has to build its own reputation. I suspect that it might be many years before it has the reputation that Oxford has, but that is what we must try to achieve. We must try to improve the university. However, we will overcome the problem. The university has stalled, but it will continue; indeed, other great strides have been made during this time. Before 1997, we did not have any medical training whatever in Cumbria. We are now part of a medical school and are training medical students. We also have a campus of the new dental school based in Liverpool, so we have made amazing strides and we are looking forward to the future.
What I would say to those hon. Members who take universities for granted is that there are parts of this country that have been deprived for centuries. We are getting over that, but we should not lose the impetus. We should continue to strive to make higher education available to as many people as possible.
I congratulate the Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), on introducing this debate and on his leadership of our Select Committees, which has been much appreciated. May I also commend the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who came into the House on the same day that I did in 1987? He has stuck up for his constituents and made an important point, to which I will obliquely return later.
It occurred to me in preparing for this debate that it is almost exactly 17 years to the day since I became the Further and Higher Education Minister, in the then Conservative Government. And, for the record, it is now nearly 15 years since I stopped being that Minister. I realise that that is a mere blink of an eye in the history of institutions as venerable as Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrews. Nevertheless, I am staggered by how many of the issues remain current. It is rather like the gentleman from Salamanca university in the late middle ages who was locked up by the Inquisition for five years and resumed his next lecture with the deathless words: “As I was saying yesterday”.
When I was doing the job as the Higher Education Minister, I was very much involved in higher education quality issues and issues of access to higher education. It would not be generally known, because it was private correspondence, but my first request through my private office on becoming Minister was for further information on the socio-economic background of participants in higher education at that time. One therefore should not feel that we are talking about a matter of interest to just one or two parties. It is remarkable to me, looking over that period, how little has changed with the institutions that we are dealing with—and in certain cases, the personalities we are dealing with. At the same time, however, the sector has undergone major expansion since the 1990s, which has been superimposed on the rapid expansion that began in the 1960s after the Robbins report and was accelerated in the 1980s, so that, in rough terms, we now have between 10 and 20 times as many students as in my days as an undergraduate.
I suppose that we should declare any current interests. First, I was a member of the previous Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills. I signed the report and in no way do I resile from our conclusions. For the reason that the Chairman of that Committee has outlined, we needed to be pretty trenchant in what we said. As for my personal interest, I suppose that I should declare that I am a graduate of Oxford university, as we are well represented here. At the same time, my wife comes from an educational background in the Principality, as some hon. Members might be aware. I am also a governor of the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff. I say that not as some statement of virtue—although it is a hugely engaging, interesting and constructive job—but, I hope, as a validation of a certain range of interest in higher education across the piece.
Anyway, it is far too late in my political career for any covert elitism or for making elaborate gestures against alleged dumbing down, or even any in favour of it. Nor am I particularly interested in megaphone diplomacy with Universities UK about alleged strengths and weaknesses. What seems practical is that we should recognise the strengths and find practical and useful ways of mitigating the weaknesses, always operating within the context of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Even if we have been quite harsh and blunt as a Select Committee in some parts of our report and its press release, it is entirely proper that we have challenged some of the conventional wisdom and any element of defensive complacency. To quote from almost my first speech as an ingénu Minister, from about the first time that I was let out and considered safe enough to speak in public, “The days of the unaccountable professional are over.” That was true in 1993, and it is still true.
In relation to my work as a governor of the institution that I have mentioned, perhaps I might also advert the fact that I am particularly proud that one of the bits of our mission statement is that governors should act as the safeguards and guardians of the philosophy of dissent. It is terribly important, and entirely consistent with the principles and values of higher education, that we should have a debate about such matters. We should bring them out and not seek to push them under the carpet.
I would like to begin my remarks by putting three points firmly on the record, in case they are misunderstood. The first point—I say this in no sense to soften up the opposition to our report or another view to it, wherever that might come from—is that the British university system, although not faultless, is an overall success story on almost all counts, including student numbers, which have already been referred to, and completions of degrees. We have a low drop-out rate and high participation and success. We have major international participation, which has also been referred to, and, at the same time, we sustain research excellence well above our weight. Some of the great continental universities—the Parises, the Bolognas and the Bonns of this world—have tended to fall behind simply because they have fallen victim to the coils of bureaucracy and inadequate resourcing.
Last time I said something good about British higher education, it coincided with a lecture tour that I was giving in the states of the former East Germany. I delivered a speech in Halle, which was duly picked up by The Times Higher Education Supplement, which gave me the headline—shock, horror!—“Minister goes to East Germany to say nice things about British higher education”. However, it was and remains my view that those comments are appropriate.
My second general point is that Kingsley Amis got it wrong when he said “More will mean worse.” In my earlier days, I would perhaps have said that “More will mean different”, and I would now modify that message only slightly to read “More means more diverse.” To take my own institution, the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, as an example, we have just been under the hammer of the Quality Assurance Agency because of our application to be awarded research degree-awarding powers. We were awarded those powers on 7 September, and we are now proceeding with an application for university status and title. It was an intense process, involving the engagement of specialists, the entire academic body and the governance of the institution; it was no soft touch.
However, obtaining those research powers does not preclude our institution from offering initial teacher training or being actively involved with further education colleges. It is not an either/or situation. Sometimes, when we talk about diversity in the system, we do not always recognise that it can exist not only across different institutions but within an institution, where different departments are doing particular things according to their own strengths.
In any case, I do not think that it would be acceptable to revert to some kind of rosy, cosy myth of an Edwardian university, with donnish obscurity plus a few self-indulgent, privileged undergraduates. Even if we wanted to do that—I do not believe that anyone does—we could not, because there is now a huge stakeholding in higher education across society. The aspiration to get one’s children into higher education has now become a kind of middle class entitlement. The issue is whether those from other classes and backgrounds can match that. In addition, a dynamic economy requires a significantly graduate population.
The third issue that I want to mention is that of institutional autonomy. In evidence, Dr. John Hood, in particular, averted to the changing character of autonomy. As the Chairman has already said, our Select Committee attached importance to those observations. I am slightly sorry that the Government have rejected the idea of a concordat on this subject. Even if the Minister is not in favour of that, he needs to impose a self-denying ordinance above and beyond any legal constraints that he might have.
I want to endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about the importance of that recommendation to review the meaning of autonomy. In some areas, there is not enough autonomy; academic freedom is under threat and needs to be safeguarded. In others, however, the taxpayer is entitled to expect universities not to hide behind their autonomy if they are unwilling to engage in evidence-based processes that would widen participation or improve standards.
I entirely endorse the spirit of that intervention. It is better that we should look at this subject properly, and not in an hysterical way. To make a general point about educational debate, it is, paradoxically, often expressed in terms of an either/or situation: either one is completely in favour of autonomy or one is against it. Such false polarities characterise so many of these debates, and we should look at the matter objectively.
In any case, the Minister needs to hold himself back, and he and his colleagues in the devolved Administrations need to look at the activities of their funding bodies. There is evidence that they collectively hanker after centralised planning functions, which, in my view, they are ill equipped to discharge, and possibly legally constrained from so doing.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a thoughtful contribution to our considerations. Does he agree that the best expression of autonomy is when autonomous bodies collaborate, and that the funding mechanisms need to pump-prime, or at least catalyse, that kind of collaboration, which is a celebration of autonomy, not its negation?
That, too, was a hugely helpful intervention. We are beginning to build up a picture. We really must stop telling people in higher education what they have to do, and leave them to make the right decisions. That is not meant as a threatening remark. If we are to implement reforms, they need to achieve buy-in from academics and institutions, whose confidence in the system we must retain, and whose self-confidence we must not subvert in the process. We do not want an infantilised HE system that is simply told what to do.
Having cleared those preliminaries, I want to speak to three areas of policy. At first sight, they might seem disparate, but I believe that, when viewed from a wider perspective, they hang together. The first is the quality assurance system, to which the Chairman has already referred at length. As I have mentioned, I played a part in this. In some respects, it has come under increasing strain: first, conceptually, because it is still not clear from the evidence—it was not clear to me when I was a Minister—how we compare a first in one discipline with a first in another, or firsts obtained from different institutions. These are difficult “apples and pears” questions to respond to.
Operationally, there is also a lack of clarity. We need to be aware that there is a temptation, or a tendency, towards upwards academic drift, about which we have already heard. At one end, that might involve the Russell group, with its higher proportion of firsts; the other end might involve some of the hairier anecdotes that we pick up and occasionally hear in evidence about courses that have been “stuffed”.
I know from our own work that there are some interesting dilemmas between the extent to which one should try to get people in for access reasons—through clearing, for example, and by other means—as against the maintenance of standards. It is an interesting question: do we want the proportion from clearing to rise, to remain at the same level, or to drop? The answer is not necessarily the same for all institutions.
We need to achieve a system that delivers more perceived autonomy and that also has more teeth to deal with cases of alleged failure. We have also heard examples of that. We have allies in this matter, and, in some respects, things are easier than they used to be. We now have the national students survey, which I welcome. We also have local student feedback. We must bear in mind that students are now stakeholders, because they are paying fees. I know that some universities are concerned about people going to a TripAdvisor-type system and rating their professor, as happens in some American institutions. I do not think that we could stop that. My own family would certainly use TripAdvisor to check out a hotel, and I do not think it unreasonable for someone to check out their professor as well, as long as they did not take everything that they read on such feedback sites literally.
As Universities UK mentioned in its response, money spent on quality assurance has opportunity costs. The Government’s proposed cuts in the higher education budget are likely to drive a wish to achieve value for money, but we need to ask how much money we should spend in order to save money. I would be inclined to go against the message from the Select Committee and give the external examiner system one last chance. If we were to do that, we would need some kind of external, central involvement in spot-checking, outside the system, perhaps involving inserting an extra examiner from time to time.
I would also like to see some international participation. People will immediately comment that no one other than ourselves has an external examiner system. That might be true, but if such a system is a virtue for us, it could be educational for us to have someone coming over from Bonn university, or Rimini, or wherever. It could also be a useful way of cross-checking our own achievements. Are we as good as we think we are? That is the question that we have to keep asking. Our potential students will also ask it, whether they come from the United Kingdom or abroad. As the new chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, Anthony McClaran, has already reported, there are signs that the agency will place greater emphasis on institutional audits, as well as the alternative route of cause for concern inquiries. This is perhaps the more fruitful area for levering up standards.
I have mentioned the great efforts that my institution had to make to get itself accredited for research degree-awarding powers. The logic is that institutions should go through a re-accreditation process in a way that would be quite familiar to American universities, up to and including Harvard. I am not sure that we need to go that far, but I believe that there needs to be a slight element of precariousness in degree-awarding powers. They are bestowed, but they should also be able to be suspended or withdrawn with good cause.
It is perhaps ironic that I am leaning towards a two-tier structure with a re-introduction of some of the old distinctions between HEFCE as the funding council and the Higher Education Quality Council, which was run by the academic world, before the two in effect came together in the QAA. I acknowledge that the taxpayer has a perfectly proper interest in seeing that the £15 billion of public funds are well spent and that students are getting degrees with at least a minimum threshold standard, while the institutions operate to proper and internationally acceptable standards of academic commitment and governance. I want to emphasise the need for governance to be coincident with the academic effort. If governors are not talking to the academic board, they should be.
Beyond that threshold issue, or above it, the academic world itself both wants and claims to be able to manage a quality assurance system within its own institutions and by reference and audit across. This needs to be academically driven and focused on meeting quality standards. That needs largely to be influenced not so much by some comparison with a Platonic norm, as by compliance or otherwise with the academic goals and aspirations set by the institution itself including what it asks of and or promises to deliver to its student body. I am not so interested in a sort of Gertrude Stein-ish “A first is a first is a first” as a definition of common quality standards. I am interested in the double questions: in a degree from a certain university, first, is there something that has currency—the national interest test—and, secondly, does the course meet the needs and aspirations of students, which is the user test?
That brings me to qualifications. Part of the enhanced diversity to which I referred is the explosion of activity at all levels. In my days as an undergraduate, it would almost have been possible to claim no acquaintance with mature students at all and not very much with graduates. Now the whole system has opened up, with huge participation in higher degrees, mature students and part-time students, all on different courses and with their activities co-existent. These may range, for example, from diplomas and foundation degrees, which I now feel, having been an earlier sceptic, are one of the better innovations of the present Government, through, first, undergraduate degrees—the classic degree—to taught masters’ degrees and doctorates. Remember also the huge range of opportunities for short courses and continuing professional development qualifications. My own institution is quadrupling its CPD effort over the next few years.
I am sure that we are right to call for a closer look at the integration or at least the concentration of policy between further and higher education and more generally within the framework of post-compulsory education and lifelong learning. We need to drop what I used to characterise as “Go at 18 for three years and you’re out”, and develop a much more flexible framework to meet the needs of students, including those returning to study after a break and, of course, those in remote parts of the country to whom the hon. Member for Carlisle referred; Cornwall is the same sort of issue. We need to meet the needs of employers, and they operate in localities as well.
Into this area falls the need for better transcripts of actual attainment rather than the current classification system that no longer seems fit for purpose; we have been told that as if we did not need to work it out for ourselves. We need a properly functioning credit system that carries credibility and is accepted, and a proper national record of achievement. I sometimes ask myself why we got that far by 1993 but have got no further forward since. As academics would certainly say, Rome was not built in a day, but all of this agenda has been, to my knowledge, at least 20 years in the gestation.
Finally, I want to refer to students themselves. They are now a major force in society, even in politics, and, very largely, a force for good, both now in their student days but also as developed and empowered citizens as graduates. Certainly those we met during our evidence gathering gave an excellent account of themselves and, in doing so, revealed the diversity of roots and backgrounds that now characterise the sector.
What does the hon. Gentleman say to the critics who would compare the activity and work of our students with other students in other countries and suggest that our students do not work hard enough?
I would always take that with a measure of scepticism, although not always from the hon. Gentleman, but this kind of thing needs analysis. Even within our own student sector, the word on the street is that some courses, some universities and some types of approach are much more or less demanding than others. It is a bit odd that this has arisen through a quality framework that is supposed to be delivering not a uniform product but a product to uniform principles, if I may put it that way.
Would not it be appropriate at this juncture to place on the record our appreciation of those aspects of student activity that do not so often capture the headlines in our local press or come to us in our mailbags—the enormous contribution that students make to charitable work, community activity and to politics, as well as to sporting activities in the areas served by the universities? That work greatly benefits local civic society.
I hugely agree. It is very important. To be frank, I doubt very much whether I would be a Member of Parliament now had I not participated in junior common room activity at university and done things that were, frankly, probably more educational than the courses that I may, or may not, have taken at that time. Let us celebrate that and not be mealy-mouthed about it. It is good news and, as I said, a force for good.
One only has to be a constituency MP to be sensitive to the pressures that are now coming on to students. The House knows that we did not engage on the fees issue ahead of Lord Browne’s review; it would have been improper and unhelpful to do so. But, without being pointed to the Minister, it would be difficult to overlook the known problems with the Student Loans Company and the recent Office for Fair Access report on the widespread lack of awareness of bursaries even when they were on offer. Whatever eventual student support package is hammered out has to be fair, affordable and sustainable.
On the access issue, there are two levels. One is touched on in the report: the admission of students with regard to their own context and background. The second, which is much more difficult to identify, is what I might call the non-admission of students who have never been encouraged to apply in the first place and whose experience of the state education system seldom, if ever, gave them a chance to do so. There is a chilling effect, as well the pressures on students who do get in.
Across the student scene, the quality issues to which I have referred will be pointed and aggravated by the squeeze on public funding, about which we heard yesterday. Clearly a cut of public support for higher education on the scale envisaged—£600 million, I gather—even if it has been heavily discounted in advance and if prudent higher education institutions have factored it into their planning, is likely to change many aspects of the scene quite radically. I hope that, as the report suggests, we will encourage Lord Browne in what seems to be his widening remit to look at some of the wider issues, not just the tuition fees issue on its own.
We touched in our report on the issues of postgraduates, overseas students and, my own particular interest, part-time students, who already make up a major, or even in some cases a preponderant part of the student body in many institutions. Trying to meet their needs and the needs of our future society will need a radical and more flexible approach. I hope that in due course we can look afresh at the unique importance of the student support package. Frankly, the Education Act 1962, when I was an undergraduate, is still the driver of all this. The good old ship has gone along for 47 years, collecting barnacles, wrinkles and all the other things that good old ships have, but occasionally they have to be taken to the breakers’ yard and we have to start again.
Our entire concept of funding, and of the regulation of student numbers, is driven by this good old model, yet the reality is that student life is now far broader and more diverse than ever it was then. To cater for the conventional cohort—for the students the media still write about—is often to neglect the legitimate interests of other students. The entire locus of business, further education, skills acquisition and the needs of the future economy are simply not factored in. I personally would favour initiating a process of shifting—over time, I stress—to a package of support for all post-compulsory education together. That would need to be largely student-driven, and it would include entitlements to public funding based on entry qualifications and neutral as to the mode and time of delivery, topped up with student savings, inputs from employers, and any top-up national or local public funding to meet specific needs.
There are, perhaps, welcome signs of the Government, in their present economic difficulties, moving towards this—I heard the Chief Secretary being interviewed on “Newsnight”. Sadly, however, this is largely motivated by the need to make cuts, rather than by a desire to enhance the role of students and their universities, but this mode of thinking in responding to these much more diverse needs is nevertheless right. Also, although the Minister undoubtedly faces difficulties ahead, he must plan for happier times as well, and I detect a real readiness among higher education institutions to get on with that job.
In all of this, I am conscious of the need to work with the grain of academic opinion and student interests. No Minister in the United Kingdom should claim to deliver higher education, and no Minister should aspire to do so over the heads of those who actually do deliver higher education. Furthermore, no Minister should wish to ride roughshod over academic interests in the cause of the nostrum of the day.
There is a perfectly proper role for Parliament in acting on behalf of the taxpayers, and that is one of the jobs our Select Committee has decided to try to advance. We have a right and a duty to inquire about, and call for, appropriate changes and developments, but the House will not expect me, at this late stage of my parliamentary career, to shun the importance of the great institutions that we have at all levels, or to denigrate their palpable achievements to date.
I was one of those non-grammar school boys who were fortunate enough to be admitted to the university of Hull in 1958. In those days, there were only 23 universities. This report talks a lot about access, but access to universities is a lot easier today than it was in 1957 when I was due to matriculate. I must admit that I had never heard of the word “matriculate”; I thought it was a medical term, but I soon realised how hard matriculation really was, because in those days in order to get into university it was necessary to have an O-level in a foreign language. Greek and Latin were preferred, but French would also be accepted. However, my only language was “Lancky”, and getting into a white rose university when speaking with a strong Lancashire accent was even more difficult.
However, I made it to the university of Hull, and it was a life-changing moment, such as everyone has. There are only a few truly life-changing moments. Coming to this place was another one for me, but going to university was the most life-changing moment. I think that is true for almost every young person who is fortunate and privileged enough to go to a university.
Going to university is not just about gaining a qualification. I went to university to graduate as a chemist. I wanted to study chemistry ever since I got my first chemistry set at the age of 11. That is all I wanted to do, and the chemical industry was looking for thousands of graduates in chemistry, so my reason for going to university was plain and simple. However, I realised soon after entering university that it was about more than getting an education. I was from a small country village. I had never met a black or Asian person, or a Buddhist or a Muslim. I met them at university, however. I was fortunate enough to be admitted to Ferens hall on the Cottingham road site of the university of Hull, and I was thrown together not with my chemistry colleagues, but with lawyers, philosophers and mathematicians from all over the world—Mauritius and Canada, for example. I send a lot of Christmas cards now, which is very expensive, but I do not mind because I have kept in contact with all the fabulous people I met. I learned about their culture and their opinions.
I was also surrounded by Tory students. My family had always been strong socialists. I did not go to university to be a politician, but I soon became one, because I had to defend my opinions against other people strongly expressing theirs. That was the case all around the university.
The library was fabulous, with row upon row of books. I did not browse only the chemistry stacks; I looked at all the other books, too, although I could not read them all, as there was not enough time. We have to realise that, for every student who goes to university, the experience is much more than studying the subject. Of course I studied hard—I had to—but I learned so much. It was a true life-changing experience.
Halls of residence are important in this regard. So many of our students now live in terraced housing in the cities, sometimes four or five in a house, and they learn from each other, of course. However, I learned a lot more by being in a hall of residence, and I regret the fact that we are not building student accommodation on the same scale as in the past. It was not cheap, either, by the way. Of course, I was lucky enough to get a grant, as I came from a family with a modest income. That is why I was always cautious about grants and fees, and I still am cautious in the debate about top-up fees—a topic I may return to soon.
In those days, there was also a certain deference to members of staff. We could not challenge some of the professors, as they were elitist. That is something else that has changed—and for the good, in my opinion. Students are much more challenging today. They are much more willing to challenge their professors and lecturers about their opinions. When I was lecturing at university, I always said to my students, “Don’t believe every word I am saying or every word you read in the textbook. I am only giving you today’s opinion. Tomorrow’s opinion might be different.” I think all lecturers should get that message out clearly to all their students.
Another difference between now and then is that there were far fewer courses to choose from. The prospectuses were half as thick as they are today, and it was fairly easy to choose a subject to study. Today, however, prospectuses contain a mind-boggling variety of combinations of courses. As the Chairman of our Select Committee, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), has already said, some prospectuses are not very well laid out. I think that students are drawn to the more attractive prospectuses, however, and universities are now realising that one way to attract good students is to produce a colourful prospectus with lots of clearly laid out information.
There are far more students nowadays, too: 2.3 million of them, as has been said. Consequently, lecturers are having to teach much larger groups. I have lectured in a lecture theatre to groups of 100 people, mainly coming in from different departments for a lesson on an ancillary subject. I would not like to lecture to 100 or 200 students regularly, however, because the personal contact between lecturer and student is very important. It is particularly important in tutorials, but nowadays tutorial groups are very large, sometimes with 20 or 30 students. I used to have groups of five or six, and I got to know all my students quite well. I was therefore able to know their abilities and classify them almost before they got their degree classifications—without telling them, of course. The move to teaching larger groups of students at universities has taken away some of that important personal contact.
Does this changed dynamic the hon. Gentleman describes—the altered relationship between teacher and taught—not emphasise the need for us to be clear about the quality of teaching and learning, as the Select Committee report argues?
Yes, I absolutely agree. It is okay to lecture to large groups, but university teachers must be able to meet students in smaller groups as well. It is also extremely important to have tutorials run by a lecturer, rather than by a graduate student, which is increasingly the trend today.
Our report also talks about plagiarism, which has not been mentioned yet. We talk to students and lecturers alike about plagiarism, which is undoubtedly on the increase. It is a much bigger problem today than in my day, but it existed then. Let me tell hon. Members a little story. As a chemist, I used to give unknown chemicals to my students, and they had to go and analyse them chemically and with instrumentation. I would give them compound No. 24, for example, and they would come back with a perfectly written account, with the right answer at the bottom, about what chemical it was. I had a very bright student who always came back with the right result. His copy was absolutely perfect—I could not fault it—but I became very suspicious of him. I thought that he was picking up the practical books of students from former years, finding out exactly which chemical compound No. 24 was, and giving me the right analysis. He was plagiarising. So I decided to crush some Polo mints up and give them to him as compound No. 36. He came back with a perfect analysis for compound No. 36, only to be very disappointed when I said, “I don’t know how you’ve got that, because what I gave you was just Polo mints.”
We have to be careful about plagiarism, which is harder to pick up today. Some lecturers have told us that they can pick out, with complicated computer programmes, students who are plagiarising, but I think that students are smarter than computers.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the House deserves to know whether the student he mentioned got a first at the end of his degree? Secondly, he will remember that when he and I were university teachers, new ways of teaching and learning might not have arrived, but we were not taught or given any instruction about how to teach.
My hon. Friend’s latter point is absolutely true. In answer to his first point, I have conveniently forgotten.
Another sad thing about universities today is the fact that academic staff are not encouraged to take on extra-mural activities. The postgraduate side of work has killed that, and the research assessment exercise, which is now known as the REF—research excellence framework—exercise. In my time, academics were positively encouraged to get involved in the community and to be councillors. I was a councillor for 21 years. I still did the same amount of teaching as all my colleagues and I still ran a research group, but I felt comfortable enough to do another job, as well, which I hope was of benefit to my local community. Academics were also encouraged to be justices of the peace on the bench of the local magistrates court, and to be school governors. I picked up an interest in demonstrating my chemistry knowledge and did a famous “magic of chemistry” show once a month for 29 years. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) has seen that show in Huddersfield city hall.
Today, however, because of the pressures on academic staff, they rarely get involved in the community. I was a safety officer for 13 years in my chemistry department, which was the largest in Britain. As such, I was often asked to investigate deaths, fatalities, explosions and fires to give a chemical analysis of what had happened. I investigated the burning down, in Manchester, of the biggest coffin factory in Britain, and I investigated a fatality in a small dye house in Brighouse, in Yorkshire. That wide-ranging experience meant that I was able, as a lecturer, to excite the students by giving anecdotes in between all the facts they needed to acquire from me. Universities have changed enormously, and academic staff and students have a lot more pressure on them today than I ever had.
In the past 10 years, under Labour Governments, we have had a 21 per cent. expansion in the number of students in universities, so access has become a lot easier for many people in that time. We have increased the amount of money spent on universities by 25 per cent.—in real terms, taking inflation into account—so I am very pleased with the way in which universities have developed in my time in Parliament.
I would like to take a pop at vice-chancellors, who have been very sensitive about the report—some more so than others. I should like to say to the people who have been caught by the report that if they have been a bit upset by it, we have done our job, because the only Select Committee reports we have ever done any good with are those that generated a lot of controversy. We once announced to the Royal Society that we were going to look at how it spent public money. My goodness, what an uproar there was! People asked how we dared to look at the Royal Society and the cream of scientists in Britain, but they were spending public money. In the end, the report was good, but it created a lot of debate and discussion about the Royal Society. I think that we helped to put it on the map. Some people had never heard of it. Similarly, this report has generated a lot of criticism and debate, but that is all to the good and is for the health of students and universities, both of which are the subject of the report.
Let me address some further comments to the vice-chancellors. The other day I saw a graph of salary rises for ordinary workers in all organisations and of salary rises for those who manage those organisations, which were well ahead. By the way, I declare an interest in this matter. I am a member of the University and College Union, so I speak from that point of view. If one looks at the way in which the salaries of vice-chancellors and academics have risen, there is no comparison between the two. I heard yesterday that public sector salaries were going to be pegged back to 1 per cent. next year, but I do not think that the salaries of vice-chancellors, and of chief executives of housing associations and other public bodies, will be pegged back to 1 per cent. I hope that they will, but I do not think so. Of course, I shall be reminded that they are independent organisations and that we cannot control the salaries of vice-chancellors—or can we? After all, we control the salaries of the staff who work for them.
Moving on, the relationship between teaching and research is discussed in the report. I have always believed, and still do, that it is important for teachers to be at the cutting edge of their subject. As far as I am concerned, with the odd exception, the only way of being at the cutting edge of one’s subject is to do research, or through scholarship, which I accept is equal to research in some subjects. I found, by doing research in my subject and learning about what was happening in every laboratory all around the world, I could put on special courses for my third-year students about big molecules and carbon-60—and that was before Harry Kroto got his Nobel prize. That sort of thing excited my students, because they could see the frontiers of their subject advancing and many, although not all, of them wanted to do research. It is important to be at that cutting edge as a lecturer, so that one can pass on one’s enthusiasm and passion for the subject that students want to know about.
I always found that the lecturers whom the students complained about—there were a lot of bad lecturers in the universities and perhaps there still are, although I hope there are fewer—were often those who came in from 9 till 5, did not work there during the summer vacation doing research and just did the basic job. I do not think that that can be done any more, but there must undoubtedly be some bad teachers out there. If research is done in a university, there is not only better teaching but a better library, because the researchers are aware of all the new publications and insist on the library putting them online or buying them in. For STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects in particular it is important to have a good library, but I think that is true of all subjects.
What can we do about bad teachers? I sat on the promotions committee of the university of Salford for more than 10 years, and I had to judge the best and worst teaching across departments, so I thought that I knew who the better and the bad teachers were. The problem was there, even though students and lecturers could complain and complain when they did not think someone was pulling their weight. Our report flagged this issue up. What can we do about poor teachers teaching undergraduates in universities? The universities have not really grasped the problem, but when teachers are flagged up early in their career as bad, it may not be entirely their fault. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield asked, what kind of training do they get? Some universities are still not unplugging these people and putting them into professional development programmes. Our report flags that up, and the universities really ought to take notice of it.
My hon. Friend is getting to the heart of the matter. Does he agree that the incentives to be a good university teacher are still very small? In contrast, publishing often very mundane articles in obscure journals has become such an industry, and is so well rewarded by universities, that teaching is still neglected.
In my time, we did not differentiate between the three areas of teaching, administration and research. We had to do a bit of each, but that has declined in universities. People who can produce papers give their university a good reputation, and ironically the universities think—and I do too—that that attracts better students. Research has always been given a lot more importance than teaching, and that is even more true today. That is a shame, and I agree with my hon. Friend.
Our report also deals with contact times: when students are able to meet their teachers in the lecture theatre or the tutorial room. They vary enormously from one university to another, even within the same subject. At some universities and in some subjects, the contact times amount to about six or seven hours a week only. What are we teaching students? I used to have friends who believed that they could ignore lectures—they could not ignore practicals, which they had to attend—and still get a good degree. There are not many of those people around, of course, but I think that six or seven hours a week is a poor level of contact time in any subject. We must remember that we are looking for value for money. Some students pay full fees, so “value for money” is an important phrase—sadly, in my opinion.
In yesterday’s pre-Budget report, a £600 million cut in the budget for higher education and science was announced, which the supporting papers say is to apply to “lower-value or lower-priority” programmes. I am not sure what that means, and if my hon. Friend the Minister can help us with that this afternoon, I am sure that many people in the academic system would be pleased.
Our report also talks about portable credits, another matter that has to do with access. The university of Bolton, which I represent, has one of the best access programmes of any university in Britain. The trouble at the other end, by the way, is that it has one of the worst drop-out rates. It gets praised for its access, but criticised for its drop-out levels. We really have to address that problem, and our report suggests a way out—the introduction of portable credits.
I have talked to many students who have studied both part time and full time at my local university. Some of them have to drop out for all kinds of reasons. For example, a student may have to drop out to take over a business when there is a death in the family. Again, women may have to leave to have children, or wives or husbands may have to follow their partners to another town when that partner gets a new job. Consequently, the students have to drop out of their local university course.
For a lot of people, particularly in communities such as mine, it is very difficult to stay at university and get a full-time, three-year degree. It is almost impossible for many. Part-time study is a boon for them, but even that can be difficult: people might have to drop out of even part-time study for a thousand and one reasons.
The report encourages universities to give credits for every part of the courses that students do, so that people can take the credits from one university to another, or even come back into the same university a few years later. We have to look at that if we are really serious about ensuring access to universities and degrees.
I have to congratulate the Government, as the infrastructure in universities today has improved tremendously. I am on the external advisory board of Manchester university’s school of chemistry, and I visit quite regularly. The transformation of that university in the last decade has been so spectacular that I have not been able to believe what I have seen on my visits. I congratulate the Government on putting a lot of money into the infrastructure. I have even opened new laboratories that are state of the art.
Incidentally, one of the criticisms that industry often makes of students of STEM subjects concerns the university laboratories where we train them in techniques and instrumental procedures. If those laboratories are not as good as the industrial laboratories where they will work when they graduate, we are wasting our time. When this Labour Government first came into power, I am afraid that the instruments and laboratories were out of date. Industry was very critical of undergraduates’ lack of experience when they started work, and it had to start training them from scratch. That situation has improved tremendously.
Our report also looks at international students. As I have said already, they are a tremendous boon in our universities because they give students a rounded experience. Some universities rely a lot more than others on attracting international students and if they could not come here in their present numbers, those universities would suffer badly. We should never forget that, so I just want the Government to be a bit cautious about the fees that international students are charged. It is not just about money. It is about having them here to interact with our own students, so money is not everything.
The report recommended a national bursary scheme, but sadly the Government have rejected that idea. There is a lot of competition now between universities, which have formed themselves into bodies such as the millennium plus group and the Russell group. That suggests that competition is going on, which is not altogether a bad thing. However, it would be a sad thing if some universities were able to give more and better bursaries than others. I agree with the report’s conclusion that we should have a national bursary scheme, and I hope that my Government will have another look, please, at that proposal.
I have a very favourable attitude to the TRAC approach—the transparent approach to costing, which reveals the true costs of teaching and of research. There is some overlap, but there will always be a grey area in the middle, and it is very important to know how much we are spending on teaching across the departments of each university, and between one university and another. That has been another big step forward.
I shall finish by dealing with the Government’s response to our report. They said that we painted a picture of our HE system in a less than positive light. I am sorry if we did that, because none of the Committee members who took part in these investigations wanted to paint our university system in a poor light. I think that I indicated through my concluding points that tremendous progress has been made all round—in admissions and in infrastructure. This country is still producing some of the best university students in the world at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and long may that remain so.
I am delighted to be able to contribute to this estimates debate, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who has great knowledge and experience of this area. May I congratulate the Select Committee on Science and Technology and, in particular, its Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), on giving us such a thought-provoking and wide-ranging report? I also congratulate him on his excellent speech. Indeed, all the speeches have been first class—I hope that hon. Members will excuse the pun—not just 13 per cent. of them. Perhaps we can have a Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education investigation at short notice into the number of first-class speeches being given in the House of Commons—although we still have some balance to come with the Front-Bench speeches.
As the House will know, I continue to take a particular interest in the higher education sector, so I was delighted when the Committee published this much-anticipated report back in August. Despite the controversy in the sector, I am grateful that the Committee has set out so many of the important issues in the higher education sector, not least those involved in the fees review, which we need to examine in detail. It was important that the report put down a few markers, and it has been helpful in doing that.
Hon. Members may be aware that last week I held a Westminster Hall debate on the future of higher education, which also proved to be useful and thought-provoking. I wish to take this opportunity to thank all the hon. Members who turned up and contributed so intelligently to that debate, because I know that it had a very early morning slot and a few people probably had to get in a bit earlier than they would have liked.
As I say, the report is thorough and wide ranging. It highlighted salient issues ranging from admissions to teaching, and from standards to scandals in some places. In some ways, there is so much in this report that it is difficult to know where to start, but I wish to use the time available to me today to build on some of the issues and arguments that I set out in that Westminster Hall debate, putting a particular focus on standards and quality. I should also like to say a few words about Professor Hopkin’s report on the Student Loans Company and about the Minister’s thoughts on the recently published report by Demos advocating the introduction of a “civic corps”.
As autonomous institutions, universities have the responsibility for maintaining the standards of their awards and the quality of their teaching to students so that they can achieve those standards. The body responsible for assuring standards is the QAA but, as the Chair of the Select Committee said, the report notes that the QAA’s role
“focuses on processes rather than standards.”
In evidence to the Committee, the then QAA chief executive, Peter Williams, with whom I have discussed this several times, confirmed that the purpose of the organisation is to
“ensure that institutions have effective processes in place to secure their academic standards”.
“but we do not judge the standards themselves”.
So although the QAA is said to have responsibility for assuring standards in universities, it has little or no power to enforce them. It is not like Ofsted, for example—it certainly does not have anything like the same powers.
I am not as critical of the QAA as this report or the Committee appears to be. I have no doubt that the QAA acts more as an influencer than as an enforcer of standards, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. In many cases, the results of its influence are reassuring in keeping standards high. However, the report is right to raise the following important questions: is it right that the organisation that inspects our universities has, in effect, no real powers; and is it right that it is directly funded through subscriptions by universities? The Committee is right to question the cosy relationship that apparently exists within the sector. For example, I was shocked by some of the reports that I received when I was shadowing this brief of the external examination system and the cross-checking of degrees. The QAA’s current purpose, therefore, should be robustly challenged, and I think that that is what the report has done. When we talk about university standards, especially in the international context, we need to know that the quality assurance system is accountable, rigorous, transparent, responsive and public-facing.
The Committee rightly raised concerns about the comparability of academic standards between universities. I fully appreciate that there is no national curriculum in higher education and nor do I want there to be. As they are autonomous institutions, it is only right that different courses are offered in different universities. In my former brief, I travelled around the country to numerous institutions and can understand why potential students are confused when applying to different institutions. However, the Committee struggled to assess the current situation, finding itself in difficulty when it dared to question whether a degree from Oxford university meant more than one from Oxford Brookes. The question made vice-chancellors very uneasy. However, in this day and age and at a crucial time for higher education, it is imperative that standards are understood in their consistent application across the sector. I simply ask whether all degrees, irrespective of where they are taken, should be set against a consistent set of standards across all higher education institutions.
If the fees review decides to open the market and to allow universities to set their own fee level, they will need to prove to students that they offer value for money and that their degrees are considered worthy by employers. The Government and vice-chancellors sell the concept of higher fees by saying how much more income will accrue through a worker’s lifetime as a result. This needs to be evidence-based and to be constantly under review. In this digital age, there is absolutely no reason why universities cannot provide students with all the information that they need to make an informed choice.
It might well be the case, as the Committee’s report suggests, that the current system of self-regulation is out of date in the 21st century. However, something holds me back from supporting this view unreservedly. My gut instinct is that on the whole—there are always exceptions—universities are at their finest when they are at their freest and at their best when they have more autonomy, not less.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) talked about comparing apples and pears. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) accept that a plural system is bound to be a diverse one, but that students need to know whether they are choosing apples or pears? The kind of information that he describes is essential if we are to create empowered learners.
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. It is about access to information. The more that universities become an arm of the state—through Whitehall or through quangos—the worse standards will become, weighed down by bureaucracy and box-ticking. The more interference that comes from Government and their agencies, the harder universities will find it to compete internationally.
Following that earlier exchange, does my hon. Friend not agree that there is a risk that if too much is imposed from the centre, that might destroy some of the diversity that we all feel is important?
That is critical. It is unimaginable to me that the Government should have any more involvement than they do in universities. That applies not just to the Government but to the arms of government, such as HEFCE, which are greatly involved in universities. Some would say that they have too much involvement and slightly suffocate universities’ ability to undertake some of the activities that they would clearly like to undertake.
One thing that was outlined in the report and confirmed in the remarks made by the Chairman of the Select Committee is the culture at the top of the HE sector. The report described it as “characterised as defensive complacency”. I happen to believe that in some parts of the sector there is defensiveness and complacency. There is also often ambivalence to criticism. Sadly, it sometimes reminds me of the “Little Britain” character whose answer to any question is “Computer says no.” Sometimes, when speaking to vice-chancellors, I felt that, whatever the question, the reply would be the computer said no.
I believe that the universities have to give the question of standards and quality the seriousness it deserves and find a solution that generates confidence. However, I would instinctively rather that came from within the sector, not from the Government. From what the Chairman of the Select Committee said, it sounds like the QAA is taking that matter seriously.
Before things get too negative, let me say that I have great respect for vice-chancellors and the job they do in universities. Let us not forget that the sector is still world class and generates huge revenue for the country. The job is already difficult as many vice-chancellors have had to close departments, lay off staff and work within very tight budgets over the past couple of years. I am sure that their job will be made even harder by the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday that the Government will cut £600 million from the higher education budget.
I have looked through the pre-Budget report, but it is not clear to me how the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property expects to achieve that saving by 2012-13. Perhaps this debate will give him a good opportunity to explain where that money will be saved. He must also tell us how, at a time when universities have been asked to “up their game”, as Lord Mandelson put it, that will not have a detrimental impact on the learning experience or quality of education in our universities. However, things might become clear after we have heard an explanation, so I shall reserve my judgment.
Graduates will increasingly expect help with employability, especially in a continuing deep recession with high youth unemployment. When the Institute of Directors gave evidence to the Committee, it defined employability as a mixture of basic skills, personal qualities, good attitude and being reliable. To demonstrate a better service, universities should do all that they can to help their students to get into the world of work. Several universities are already leading the way in that area, including my own—the excellent Reading university—and it is fair to say that many universities that I have visited have dedicated teams to help students. Whatever happens with the fees review, universities will need to be able to demonstrate a marked improvement in the quality of the student experience.
It was worrying that the Committee’s report detected no evidence that tuition fees at their current levels had driven up quality on campus. That is not surprising, given that fees hardly vary across the higher education sector, and therefore give students little incentive to look for value for money among institutions. It would appear that some universities are slightly short-changing students, so I agree with the Committee’s recommendation that the fees review should involve the commissioning of independent research on the impact of a higher cap on course quality. Neither the Government nor universities should expect students to pay thousands of pounds more for their degree if teaching and course content remain exactly the same.
As I have hinted today, and as I said during last week’s debate, I am not completely satisfied that universities have justified the current level of tuition fees. As I have travelled around the country while shadowing the HE brief, I have felt that some students were being short-changed by the quality of teaching and the support services at some universities. The fees have raised an additional £1.3 billion for universities, but I am not sure that I have seen a £1.3 billion improvement in the student experience over the past five or six years.
Although comprehensive figures on student debt are still unavailable for the most recent intake, the figures that have been provided make sober reading. A recent survey estimated that students who commenced their studies in 2006-07 could expect to owe an average of £17,500 on graduation, while those starting in 2007-08 could see their average debt increasing to £21,500. Of course, medical students’ debts are much higher, so I say again that before the Government consider saddling our young people with even more debt, it will be imperative for the fees review to justify how the existing fee money has been spent to improve the student experience.
Ensuring that students have access to robust and comparable information about what they can expect from their time at university must be at the heart of proposals coming out of the review. It is only right that students, as fee-paying customers, receive the best and most accessible advice and guidance that universities can offer, although of course that is if students are lucky enough to secure the funding to which they are entitled in the first place.
Professor Hopkin’s report into the student loan fiasco found “conspicuous failures” in the current system that led to universities shelling out hundreds of thousands of pounds in emergency funds to students left without money. The report found that the processing system had faced problems due to lost documents, equipment failures and difficulties with the online application system. Only 5 per cent. of phone calls were answered at peak time. The Minister knows what a monumental cock-up this was by the Government. Financial support is specifically targeted to help those who need it most, and it is exactly those people who have been so badly let down by the fiasco. Indeed, some have now left university and many more are still suffering. Many families have been counting the pennies this year, and the last thing that they needed was to have to fork out extra funds thanks to Government and Student Loans Company incompetence.
I shall give the House a couple of real examples of the difficulties that families have faced. One student says:
“I am a 30-year-old mature student with a one-year-old child. I have embarked on a one-year PGCE course... I applied at the beginning of the year and have not received any funds at all. My tax credits stopped when my course began and I cannot pay my child’s nursery fees. I am struggling to survive financially and cannot afford to live never mind buy the books. I fear I will be forced to leave university in the New Year if someone does not intervene.”
This crisis is a real blow to the widening of participation. Here is another example:
“My daughter has been told she is eligible for a grant and loan. She has received nothing. I lost my job and have had to borrow the £1,060 first payment for hall-of-residence and pay for food etc. Neither her father nor I went to university and we are so proud of her. She is sick with worry and does not want to be a burden to us. She then received a letter telling her she will get no money until January. She is distraught and about to leave, thankfully, she received an A for her first piece of work. She has agreed to stay but says money worries are affecting her study and health. She is not the only one.”
I can confirm that she is not the only one. I was recently at a Wantage hall founder’s dinner at my university, the university of Reading, and I was fortunate enough to talk at length to a number of students. Many had not received the money to which they were entitled and were in desperate financial trouble. One female student told me that unless she could find £700 by Christmas, she would have to leave.
We could go into almost any university and, with very little or no effort, find the same story, demonstrating the size of the cock-up. In November, 176,000 students had still not received the financial support that they were promised and to which they were entitled.
May I say what a powerful case the hon. Gentleman is making about what is an absolute crisis? Does he agree that, in summing up, it would be useful if the Minister could guarantee that the second tranche of Student Loans Company grants will be paid on 28 January? Without it, literally tens, if not hundreds or thousands of students will simply have to leave university at that point.
That is exactly the message that I have received from students, and I hope that the Minister will directly address that question when he sums up. I know that the Front-Benchers are anxious to speak, and I shall try to finish in a couple of minutes if they will all bear with me.
A recent report by Demos included comments and proposals on the introduction of a civic corps—it would be paid for by increasing the rate of interest that university graduates pay on their loan—to carry out community service. I fully appreciate that our young and unemployed people need real action to help them to turn their lives around, and volunteering in the community can be a way of raising self-esteem and helping people to develop important soft skills, such as teamwork, while doing something positive for the local area. Indeed, such initiatives sit very well with my party’s plans to get Britain working and, in particular, our “Work Together” initiatives, which involve volunteering in local communities.
But where have those comments come from? Are we not in the middle of an independent fees review? Anyone making such comments is surely pre-judging the outcome of the fees review, so, unless I have misunderstood the Minister or he has been misquoted, the situation makes no sense at all. I would genuinely find it helpful if he dealt with the issue, because, if he did make those comments in the middle of the fees review, he has been very unhelpful.
The Committee’s report looked at community colleges, and, as the Minister and others will know, I have been passionate about them for some time. The report looked at credits, which, for the purposes of widening participation, are incredibly important to the system in this country, because they enable people to drop in and out of study as their lives dictate. I do not see why we in the UK, given our progressive sector, should not be able to do something that is comparable in flexibility to the US community college system. I acknowledge that the Government have made moves in that direction by broadening foundation degrees. However, much more could be done.
The Select Committee report is right to say that
“if the community college credit system model operating in the US were adopted in England, it would provide much greater flexibility in higher education in this country, which will be essential to widening participation.”
That is absolutely right. I will not go through the other interesting aspects of the community college system, but they are mentioned in the Select Committee’s report and I endorse them.
As the Minister knows, this is an opportunity to make the real changes that the sector needs. Now is the time for fresh and innovative thinking. I thank the Select Committee for its report and for making a thought-provoking contribution to what will be an interesting but very intense debate over the weeks, months and years to come.
This has been an excellent debate, although I am not sure that I want to put a classification on it. I enjoyed the thoughtful and good-natured contribution made by the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson). I also enjoyed the speech made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who talked about his journey across the Pennines to Hull; I was reminded of my own journey across the Severn estuary, with the valleys-boy accent that I had at the time, to the strange world of Bristol university, where I met different classes of people whom I had never come across before.
This debate shows Parliament at its best, because it is based on a Select Committee report that is an example of Parliament at its best. During my first two and a half years as a Member, I thoroughly enjoyed serving on the Committee that preceded the now former Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). Select Committee reports make an important contribution. I wish that we had more opportunities such as this to debate the thorough research and evidence-based reports that Select Committees produce.
Yesterday’s pre-Budget report provides a context, and it has already been mentioned by a couple of speakers. On page 110, among a series of bullet points covering cuts in IT, the criminal justice system, residential care and rail franchises, is tucked away a reference to anticipated cuts in higher education:
“£600 million from higher education and science and research budgets from a combination of changes to student support within existing arrangements; efficiency savings and prioritisation across universities, science and research”.
The Minister has already been asked to provide several bits of information when he sums up; I hope that he will clarify what that £600 million-worth of cuts means. I am thinking particularly of student support, which has been on a rollercoaster in the past 12 years. Grants were first abolished, then reintroduced. Provision was then extended, but clawed back 12 months ago. I hope that there will not be a further rollercoaster ride for students.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the worst possible things would be if students had gone to university with a particular profile of grants and loans on offer, and then found that those were being withdrawn and that their legitimate expectations were not being met?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Students in their third year may already have a completely different financial scenario from what prevailed when they applied; not only that, but students from the same families who are assessed on family income may also experience entirely different outcomes. Brothers and sisters doing the same thing may have different grants or eligibility for maintenance loans.
Will the Minister also clarify what the cuts in science and research will be? The Chancellor said in yesterday’s pre-Budget report that science, innovation and a low-carbon economy were the way forward for this country, and Lord Mandelson has said much the same. It would be perverse if all that were now undermined by budget cuts.
The hon. Member for Reading, East mentioned the report on the Student Loans Company by Professor Sir Deian Hopkin, which came out on 8 December. It is a particularly damning report, and it is strange that there has been no sign of contrition on the part of the directors of the Student Loans Company. I remind the House that these people actually paid themselves a bonus last year, when they should have been preparing for their new responsibilities for this year. Will the Minister clarify his and his Department’s responsibilities in this respect? Will he undertake, at least between now and the election—I am not necessarily predicting what will happen then—to follow closely the progress of the directors of the Student Loans Company to ensure that we do not have a repeat of this fiasco and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned, further grants are paid on time?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the president of the National Union of Students that heads should roll at the Student Loans Company?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. In fact, I can agree with myself about that, because I said the same thing at the same time as Wes Streeting. Liberal Democrats and the NUS were in complete agreement on that matter.
The Select Committee report is wide-ranging, and we could have spent all afternoon discussing different aspects of it. Indeed, annexe 2 lists a whole raft of things that the Committee did not have time to look at in detail, notably the contribution of further education, the delivery of higher education, and postgraduate study. I hope that the successor Committee will find time to look at those important, valuable areas.
I want to focus on two aspects covered in the report—admissions and resources—and then the three areas of concern that it identified. First, on admissions, I think that widening participation in higher education is now, it is pleasing to note, pretty much common ground between those on the three Front Benches. We have had enough debates with each other to know that although we may disagree on some of the policies, we are at least personally committed to ensuring that widening participation is very much on the political agenda. I welcome that common commitment, because we know that there is still a stark social divide in terms of who goes to university. We can have a debate about the absolute number of people who go to university, but who goes is still very much an area for legitimate concern.
The subtext of fair access to higher education is also addressed in the report. That is incredibly important. I have often heard vice-chancellors of Russell group or 1994 group universities say that fair access is not important in volume terms. Of course, with 1 million undergraduates at university, fair access probably can be seen as not that important. However, in terms of what happens to people who go to our research-intensive universities later on in life, and whether they become Members of this place or leading members of the media, the judiciary or other leading professions, it certainly matters who gets an opportunity to access those universities. It is absolutely right that the Committee considered that, and all politicians should ensure that it stays on the agenda. Contextual information about the applicant is extremely important. I agree with the Committee when it says that the state is entitled to take a view on fair access to our universities even if that can be perceived as overriding institutional autonomy.
Information, advice and guidance to university applicants is very important in ensuring that people are well prepared for making their application and know what is expected of them. That is not always clear. It is tragic to hear sixth formers or people in FE colleges say, “I wanted to study this, but I’ve only now discovered that I needed to persevere with physics or to have done better in maths.” Good information about what is needed to apply to all universities, but particularly those that are perceived as research-intensive, is absolutely vital. Universities do a lot of good work on that in the context of outreach. The university of which I am an alumnus and which I represent in Parliament—Bristol university—has the ChemLabS initiative whereby academics go out to local schools to enthuse people about chemistry, as well as inviting teachers and lab technicians into the university to update them on how to teach a practical lesson by bringing chemistry to life and making it exciting for teenage students. As the hon. Members for Bolton, South-East and for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said, the work that staff do in that respect, as well as their research work, ought to be recognised by their employers.
School relationships can also make an incredibly important contribution. The Committee’s report refers to the review by Professor Steven Schwartz, which has still not been fully implemented across the sector. In my view, the unfinished business of the Schwarz review is particularly on post-qualification application. It is absurd that we still have a school system designed in 1870 with a term structure based on having young people available to do agricultural work in the summer. We all know that the future of our economy does not depend on that. It will be knowledge-based, and universities need more time to consider the field of applicants. Individuals also need time, once they know how they have done at school or college, to decide where to apply to. I hope that post-qualification application will be seriously considered in future.
On resources, I do not want to have the usual row that the Minister and I have about tuition fees, but I agree with the first conclusion in the Committee’s report that it is a shame that the fees review is not concluding this year so that we can debate it thoroughly before the general election. The report recommends a national bursary scheme, which I certainly support. It is absurd that twin brothers—an academic Jedward, perhaps—going to different universities such as Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin, but with exactly the same family circumstances, get different bursary support. Information about bursaries is patchy, and since the Committee’s report Professor Claire Callender has produced a report about the difficulty that many young people have in navigating their way through the system.
The Committee’s report highlighted three areas of concern, and many contributors have mentioned them. The first was standards. I covered A-level results day for my party both this year and two years ago, and I know that there is a debate about standards every single year. In my role I meet many admissions tutors, who all say that A-levels are not what they used to be and students are not as well prepared as they used to be. However, as has been recognised in the debate, the same admissions tutors and academic departments shy away from any discussion about the number of students who go on to get a 2:1 or a first in their degree course. When I graduated from Bristol university in history 21 years ago, nobody in my peer group got a first, and it was not because we were all stupid. Not that many got a 2:1, either. Now it is quite different, so the Committee was right that we must have a debate about academic standards, and universities should not be afraid of that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough referred to the new chief executive of the QAA, Anthony McClaran, whom many of us know from his UCAS days. I was at the same meeting as him last week and met him again the next day, and he certainly takes seriously the issue of standards raised in the Select Committee’s report.
Many contributors to the debate have mentioned the quality of teaching. Students have a right to know what experience they are going to get when they go to university. It does not necessarily follow that a world-class research-based professor will be the best teacher, but students ought to know how much contact they are likely to have with that person and how much of their course is likely to be taught or monitored by a PhD or post-doctoral member of the department.
Consistency was an area of concern mentioned in the Committee’s report, which brings me back to my earlier point about the need for information for applicants so that they know what to expect and can plan their lives around course expectations. That is particularly important for people with difficult family structures who are trying to access university.
The third and final concern that I am going to mention is part-time and mature students. That is unfinished business. In its final report, the old Select Committee on Education and Skills recommended that the artificial divide between full and part-time undergraduates be removed, as is the case in many other countries. Of course, many full-time undergraduates, because of financial constraints, do paid work throughout their full-time studies, so all students are to some extent part time.
None the less, there is a financial divide between full and part-time students and it ought to be removed. The Liberal Democrats and the Government disagree about the fairness of tuition fees, but I do not understand why they cling to the distinction. Part-time students must pay tuition fees up front, in cash, while they are studying, whereas full-time students can borrow and pay back the fee debt over the years of their future careers. I hope the review of Lord Browne of Madingley will recommend that that divide is bridged.
Finally, we agree that the contribution of British higher education is going to be absolutely crucial in ensuring that this country prospers beyond the recession. We know that it is world class, but there is absolutely no room for complacency. The rest of the world is catching us up. In the context of the current recession, all other G20 countries are investing in higher education rather than proposing budgetary cuts. We need to ensure that whatever happens during this recession, we have a strong English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish higher education system beyond it, and that this country prospers into the future.
We have had a wide-ranging debate on a wide-ranging report. It is a valuable report and I congratulate the Chairman and members of the Committee who have contributed to the debate.
We approach this subject sharing a belief in some very important principles. First, we recognise that British higher education is excellent, of a very high standard, and well regarded internationally, and we can all take pride in it. Nobody wishes to denigrate the achievements of our universities or their students and staff.
The second principle was put very well by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who rightly challenged the statement that more means worse, and said that rather, more means more diverse. I completely agree with him. That captured the direction of our higher education sector very well indeed: it is becoming more diverse and we should all understand that the term “university” covers a wide range of institutions with distinct missions and characters, but—we hope—they all display the academic rigour that comes with higher education.
The third principle, which was enunciated by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), is that the distinctive strength of universities in this country—our universities have this asset when those in other countries, including on continental Europe, do not—is the degree of autonomy that they still enjoy. We may sometimes suspect that they enjoy it despite the best efforts of Ministers, but they nevertheless still enjoy it. If the Conservatives were in government, we would do our best to try to enhance that autonomy. It is a very good principle.
Is not the English language another great asset for our universities? The current review of immigration rules, which may impact on universities, is very serious, because a big section of their income comes from foreign students.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point that needs to be borne in mind.
If we start with those three principles and an understanding of the excellence, diversity and autonomy in the system, we can understand some of the controversy that surrounded the Committee, and particularly its Chairman, when the report was published.
I have been in this House for a long time with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and have always found him to be a mild-mannered and courteous Member, but he clearly got up one morning and thought, “No more Mr. Nice Guy”, as he managed to say some extraordinarily inflammatory things that perhaps upset the sector more than he expected. He followed that up by summoning a range of vice-chancellors to his study, expecting them to “tell on” each other. He was waiting for the first one to break and criticise the others, and he was clearly amazed when, despite his prolonged interrogation, the Wellington square of those assembled vice-chancellors held and none of them ’fessed up and criticised the others. It was a bizarre few months with some of his investigations and the publication of the report.
I suggest to the Chairman of the Committee that perhaps the difficulties that he got into are reflected in the frustration that he clearly still feels. The very first page of his report states:
“Vice-Chancellors cannot give a straightforward answer to the simple question of whether students obtaining first class honours degrees at different universities had attained the same intellectual standards.”
The problem is that he was trying to treat university degrees as if they were A-levels. These are diverse institutions with diverse missions. There is much in the report that I welcome, but if I had a criticism of it, it is that it does not fully understand the autonomy and diversity of the sector.
If that is the case, how does the hon. Gentleman expect employers to distinguish them?
Employers do distinguish, and one reason why we attach so much importance to better information for students and prospective students is that they need to understand the distinctive roles of different universities. In fact, one of my frustrations is that sometimes I think that employers do not fully understand the distinctive strengths of, for example, regional universities, which can be excellent, but they are not the same as those institutions that are rivals to US ivy league colleges as global institutions. They have different roles.
Of course we expect every first class degree in any university to have been achieved with high standards and rigour, but they are different institutions that often measure different things. When it comes to academic rigour, a part of our system that is already a distinctive strength—the external examiner system—needs further strengthening. As several hon. Members on both sides of the House have already said, the big increase in the number of people getting first class honours degrees causes concern. We need to be confident that we will not face the grade inflation debate that has been such an issue for GCSEs and A-levels over the years. It would be a terrible pity if that debate took off for universities.
I also agreed with the report on the importance of the student experience and information about it. We have ended up with a system that has sharp incentives to reward high-quality research, but still has inadequate incentives to reward high-quality teaching. Many students want to talk about their academic experience. They ask about the high-profile professor who was advertised in the university prospectus and whom they have never seen in their two or three years there. He or she is writing great research texts or appears regularly in the media, but has not delivered any lectures or attended any of their seminars. Those are the types of concerns that we are picking up, and when communicating with universities, we all try to convey it to them that they need to address such concerns if they are to maintain the good will of students and parents.
As an Opposition Member, I welcomed the report’s very effective dissection of the Government’s announcement of the 10,000 extra places, about which we pursued Ministers at the time. The report reaches a powerful but measured conclusion. It states that, after “Mr. Denham”, as he was called in the report, presented the original 10,000 places, in October 2008, the
“reasonable construction that an observer would put on his statement was that there would be 10,000 places for new entrants to university, whereas the new places announced at that time boil down to 3,000 extra places for full-time new entrants.”
That captures the Opposition’s experience, month after month, year after year, in dealing with some of these Government announcements. It is useful to have such a clear and authoritative analysis of what was actually meant compared with what actually happened, and of course we took the analysis to heart when I, at the Conservative party conference, announced our 10,000 extra, properly funded and properly costed university places for new students.
The discussion of student numbers leads on to a question to which I hope the Minister will respond. Some universities have recruited additional students beyond the number agreed by the Higher Education Funding Council. We are intrigued to know whether he will fine the universities for this terrible offence against his planning system. A game of bluff is going on here. We have a crisis in which Ministers are deciding whether to fine universities and universities are trying to work out whether it is a bluff. It reminds me awfully of the early stages of the Cuban missile crisis when people were trying to work out who was going to blink first.
I was assured today by a vice-chancellor that he did not believe that the Government would impose any fines. We would be interested to know whether they will. They have a dilemma: if they do not impose fines, their entire structure for planning and financing higher education will be thrown into question, but if they do impose fines on universities for taking on the extra students, they will be in the unusual position of fining universities for taking steps towards meeting the Government’s own public service target of 50 per cent. participation in higher education. Fining universities for moving closer to the 50 per cent. target that Ministers are willing to finance would put the Government in a very odd position. We look forward to hearing exactly what the Minister plans to do.
The report contains interesting material on part-time students. A recent HEFC study made a devastating point of which I had not previously been aware. It showed that only 39 per cent. of part-time students who began a first degree programme in 1996-97 at a higher education institution in the UK completed their degree within 11 academic years. That is a very worrying statistic and leads me on to something about which I hope to hear more from the Minister. Members on both sides of the House have been talking about the case for more part-time students, and clearly such evidence needs to be considered.
We read yesterday, however, in the pre-Budget report document about a £600 million cut in the higher education and science and research budgets. We, and many people in higher education and science and research, hope that the Minister will indicate what that means. When one looks at the components, one can see several angles on which we need more information. I shall take this slowly, because the brief four-line entry on page 110 of the report contains so many different points. It states that the cuts will come
“from a combination of changes to student support within existing arrangements”.
What are these changes to student support? Will there be yet more changes in the rules for access to maintenance grants and maintenance loans? Is that what the report means? Or does it mean something else? We need to know.
The pre-Budget report also talks about
“efficiency savings and prioritisation across universities, science and research”—
I would be interested to know what those efficiency savings are—and
“some switching of modes of study in higher education”.
As the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) said—we heard this on “Newsnight” last night too—the Chief Secretary to the Treasury says that that means a shift towards part-time students. How do the Government intend to achieve that shift? What changes in the financing rules will they propose? Given the evidence from the Select Committee’s report, what support will the Government give to part-time students so that they do not suffer from the very high drop-out rates that we are debating today? It is a sad irony that we should have had an autumn statement yesterday that apparently proposed a cut, in a move towards having more part-time students, when we have also had a report showing that part-time students need extra support if they are to achieve the participation and completion rates for which we would all hope.
The list also mentions
“reductions in budgets that do not support student participation”.
We want to know what that is. From the scientists’ point of view, when the Minister talks about efficiency savings and prioritisation across universities and science and research, what will happen to the Government’s previous pledge on the ring-fencing of the science budget? We would like to know whether that statement still stands. There is a lot of important information that we need to hear to have those four key lines in the PBR explained.
Finally, and very briefly, the Minister will know how devastating the report on the performance of the Student Loans Company that was released earlier this week was. Personally, I think that the report merited an oral statement. Indeed, it was regrettable that the report was available only at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, despite the fact that the written statement said that it would be placed in the Library and made available. However, the report was not available when the written statement came out, and that statement was a rather anodyne account of what is a very powerful report indeed.
Some other hon. Members have made these points, but it is shocking that there were times when only 5 per cent. of phone calls to the Student Loans Company were answered. It is shocking that 100,000 items of evidence that were supposed to be electronically scanned could not be scanned. It is also shocking that, alongside the gross incompetence of the Student Loans Company, some responsibility clearly lay with the Department and Ministers. We should not forget that, as the report says:
“The new service, originally intended to be operational from September 2008 to coincide with the UCAS annual cycle for applications was delayed because of decisions by the then Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to alter the regulations governing student financial support,”
which postponed it until February 2009. Part of the “terminal 5” problem of the service, which was re-launched in a rush and without proper testing, was caused because five months were lost owing to Ministers chopping and changing the maintenance rules. I would very much like to hear what steps the Minister will take in response to the comments in the report that are addressed to the Department and to Ministers. I would also like to know whether he understands that the problems have caused enormous distress to students. I hope that he will take this opportunity to apologise to students and their families for what they have gone through.
Above all—this is my final point, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I would like to hear what will happen in future. We need to know when students who make applications in the coming year will be able to access advice and support from the Student Loans Company and when the backlog of cases that have still not been resolved will finally be clarified, resolved and sorted out by this grossly incompetent organisation. The Minister owes the House and students an explanation of that.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There has just been an extraordinary statement in the upper House concerning the eligibility of Members of the upper House to sit there. It has come to light that, as a consequence of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, there is now some doubt about whether Commonwealth and Republic of Ireland citizens are eligible for membership of the House of Lords. There are also implications for certain other offices under the Crown, as well as for membership of the Privy Council and judicial office holders. The eligibility of Commonwealth citizens to be employees of the civil service is also in some doubt.
We have just had the most recent business statement of the Session, yet no reference was made to that announcement. May I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you have had any indication from the Leader of the House that she plans to share with the House the Government’s proposals to legislate in the current Session, in order to clarify the position and avoid any doubt about the eligibility of those citizens to be members of the upper House and to continue to hold certain other offices?
In specific answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, no, I have not received any message from the Leader of the House that a statement or further action is intended. By virtue of his raising this obviously serious matter on a point of order, however, note will be taken, and I hope that the House will be informed at the earliest possible date.
Let me begin by thanking the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for this opportunity to discuss higher education and his Committee’s report. Many of us in the Chamber have had successive discussions on these matters recently—it feels like week by week. I have been a Minister for either skills or higher education for some three years now, and it is my feeling that the standard of the debate this afternoon was among the very highest. That is a reflection of the work of the hon. Gentleman’s Committee, and of the real contribution that Back Benchers have made. It is also a reflection of the contributions by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson). I hope I shall be able to deal with some of the points they raised in the moments I have at the Dispatch Box, although I recognise that we have another debate this afternoon.
It is important to put this debate in context, and I think the whole House will agree that there is never an excuse for being complacent about our public services. We can count the number of lives that are changed as a result of them, and we particularly commend the professionalism of the staff, students and management in the higher education sector.
When we consider the backdrop against which the Committee reported, we can see that we now have more students in our universities than at any time in our history. We have more students from state schools in our universities than ever before, and we have more black students from less well-off families, more black and ethnic minority students, and more students expressing satisfaction with their courses, than at any time in our history. It is also right to say that British universities have achieved a higher ranking in the international league tables than ever before. All this is underpinned by a 25 per cent. real-terms rise in public spending. I genuinely hope that hon. Members recognise that investing in higher education underpins the success of all those students. We heard my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East speak movingly about the nature of that investment, and, in particular, what it means for facilities in the sciences.
The report was wide-ranging and substantial. I welcome the spirit in which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made his remarks, although I detected a slight difference in tone in the Chamber this afternoon from when the report was initially announced. I hope he recognises that since the Committee published its report, the Government have published their own framework for the development of higher education over the next 10 years, which is called “Higher Ambitions”. I hope he will also acknowledge that we have taken on board some of his Committee’s proposals, especially in relation to the student experience, about which much has been said today.
The student experience is not about driving students to be solely consumers of education. That is not the right fit; education is far more than just a consumer interest. But against a backdrop of widening participation and of seeking a student contribution to ensure that students are centre stage for that experience, the thrust of the report was spot-on and we sought to reflect that in “Higher Ambitions.”
I did not fully recognise the bleak picture regarding quality that was presented in the report, and obviously there was tremendous concern across the sector—and some incredulity—at the way in which the report was reflected in other parts of the world, with items turning up in China, Malaysia and other places. The breadth of experience for students in higher education—the fact that it is not just about the end grade, but the range of experiences that students have—is reflected in the thrust that the sector is placing on the higher education achievement record. That is important for employers who want to understand fully the soft skills that students have, but it is also a virtue of our system. Many countries in the world recognise that the undergraduate experience in the UK is part of the cultural circumstances that surround the student and what the student engages in; it is not just about the end achievement.
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said much about the proportion of firsts and 2:1s that appear in the system. With widening participation and more students in the system than ever before, is it not right to look at that as a percentage rather than pure numbers? If he does that, he will see that the proportional increase is not as large as it first appears. The proportion of 2:1s has increased from 45.5 per cent. to 48.1 per cent. over the last period. That is not as significant a rise as has been suggested. The proportion of firsts has gone up from 8.2 per cent. to 13.3 per cent.; a larger rise but, measured against the success that we are seeing at A-levels, not an overly significant one.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of the QAA in ensuring standards. The QAA—under the new leadership of Anthony McClaran, to whom I spoke this week—is conducting an extensive review of how it quality assures and, in doing so, has already sought to put students at the centre of that process. We will have student auditors for the first time from January. A student is on the board of the QAA now as a result of concerns about the student voice. I hope the hon. Gentleman is pleased also that the QAA, in that public-facing role—it is more than public relations—is seeking to make its work student-friendly and is revising much of its literature, using YouTube and other places where students go. I hope that that meets much of the concern raised by the hon. Gentleman.
There needs to be a further firming up of the external examiner system. I thought that the work done by Professor Colin Riordan was very good and I was pleased to be at his presentation to the HEFCE board. That work is being taken forward by UUK over the next year under the leadership of Dame Janet Finch. It is hugely important that we ensure that the external examiner is the voice of that standards agenda within the system—that they are not isolated by working in a particular institution, but can join up in a more collective and cohesive way to communicate the importance of standards. It is right to say that the Select Committee’s work has contributed to that progress.
Members have raised the issue of the pre-Budget report and it is important that I put the following comments on the record. The economic downturn that followed the banking crisis has been the most severe since the second world war. The Chancellor’s main task is to put the public finances on to a sound footing, while at the same time continuing to promote economic growth. The PBR is not a spending review, but it does set out where efficiency savings will be needed by 2012-13. The savings will amount to 4 to 5 per cent. of the total Government spend on higher education, science and research. When Members reflect on how hard families are finding this downturn and the sorts of savings they are having to make, I hope we will recognise that 4 to 5 per cent. is reasonable. When the Government have received the report following Lord Browne’s review of higher education funding and student finance in the summer of 2010, we will make the necessary decisions about where and how these savings can best be met, and, as always, we will do so in close liaison with the relevant funding council.
The Government remain committed to our higher education system and to continuing to pay a significant share of the costs of educating each student, but the current economic situation is difficult, and as higher education institutions have benefited significantly over the last period, with some receiving funding increases of almost 50 per cent. over the last decade, it is right that they should make their contribution now.
On the student support package, can the Minister give the House the simple assurance that students who are already receiving a particular level of support will not suffer?
I can confirm that I do not anticipate there will be any changes in respect of students who have already entered the system. May I also put on the record our commitment to the science ring fence, and to our framework?
On the Student Loans Company, Members have described the difficulties that students have experienced with the system this year. I have previously apologised for that, and I am happy to do so again today. It is entirely right, however, that my focus should have been not on scapegoats or scalps but on setting up the review, which I did promptly, and on acting promptly in other ways when this situation was first brought to my attention in September, as well as on ensuring that the SLC got extra resources at that time to deal with the problem. I also focused on ensuring that there was an extra contact centre and that a greater volume of calls were answered, and I joined with Sir Deian Hopkin in saying that the No. 1 priority was to ensure that the lessons are learned, so that there can be significant progress as we move forward to next year’s cycle.
The SLC chair has already said that its senior management team will be strengthened and reorganised. As it was the Administration of the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) who set up the SLC, I hope he will recognise that it is a private organisation, so these matters must be for the new chair—he is a new chair—and the board to consider. Over the next short while, they must, through due process, determine how best to strengthen and reorganise the body. It is right that that should not be within the purview of Ministers.
We must look forward, and my Department must learn from this exercise in relation to its responsibilities. I am absolutely clear about that. That is why we are happy to consider more closely both risk management and the escalation of such problems up the SLC to the board and on to the Department. There have been problems, but it is clear from the strategic framework document that governs the SLC that the Department’s ambit is strategic. It cannot be right for Ministers to micro-manage the processing of student loan claims. Of course I will act in relation to that one recommendation of the report, but the most important thing Sir Deian recommended was that stakeholder management and the customer experience should be much more centre stage in the SLC’s operation. We have set up a new stakeholder forum on which Universities UK and the National Union of Students is represented. We want to ensure that we do not have again the problems we have had this year, and that those interests have a voice and are communicating with the board and senior management.
I remain particularly concerned about the situation for students with disabilities. It is always the case in a post-qualification application process that students with disabilities take longer to go through the assessment process, having presented their medical certification and other things, and to be assessed for the equipment they need. I was at the London assessment centre yesterday, and I spoke to staff there about the nature of that process. We currently have many such students—5,000—in the system, and there is an onus to take matters forward, but I have asked the SLC to ensure that universities are ringing around and that it is making contact with those students to ensure they move through the system.
I am encouraged by what the Minister has just said about disabled students, as this issue is a particular source of concern, but will he explain two points to the House? First, when does he expect the backlog of current cases to be cleared? Secondly, when does he expect the SLC to be able to start the new cycle and to offer assessments for future claims?
The chief executive of the SLC assures me that he will have got through the backlog by the end of this weekend. However, the hon. Gentleman will realise that, as up to 5,000 students are still applying for student loans week by week, there are still a number of applications to get through that are effectively new applications. On the backlog, it is important to emphasise the issues regarding students who applied within the appropriate time, and students for whom the SLC had lost material, including students with disabilities. The system has been delayed by such problems, but we should get through the backlog, and I hope to start the cycle shortly. I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that it was important that we did not start the cycle before we got the report, and before I could make sure that any newly formed management team—and, indeed the new chair and his board—have reflected on the report and taken action to ensure that we will not have the same problems next year.
In his discussions with the SLC, has the Minister received an assurance that all of the second tranche of the loans, which are payable on 27 or 28 January, will be paid?
I have received full assurance from the chief executive of the SLC that students in the system who will have got their cheques can expect to continue to receive those payments as normal. Therefore, there will be a further payment in January, which we would expect to go appropriately.
I am encouraged by the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, and he can be assured that of course I treat this matter as a top priority. I am working with the SLC to ensure that the board and chair are doing all they can to drive the matter forward, so that we have a better system next year. I assure the hon. Gentleman too that we absolutely put customers first over this three-year period. We have eradicated from the system the need for parents to submit passports or P45 forms: people can now apply online, and calls are answered without the problems that arose this summer.
This has been a good debate, and I am delighted to have had another opportunity to talk in the House about the importance of higher education.
My hon. Friend may be coming to this, but in my speech I asked whether I could meet him early in the new year to discuss the situation regarding the university of Cumbria. Will he deal with that before he concludes his speech?
That is a very good way for me to end my speech. I absolutely assure my hon. Friend that I am happy to have that meeting. I recognise the historic challenges in Cumbria, and particularly his championing of the area.
Earlier, I asked the Minister about the views he had given to Demos. Will he say what his comments were, and whether they were reported accurately in the press?
As always with these things, they were reported accurately in some of the press. My position with regard to a national civic service has been absolutely clear for many years, and, indeed, the Prime Minister has made his commitment to it plain. However, that is completely different from funding such a service by effectively billing and charging students. I made it clear that I do not support that, as I think Demos fully understands. The hon. Gentleman should not confuse think-pieces with the position of the Government.
Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54 (4)).
Department for Communities and Local Government