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Education (Student Support) (European University Institute) Regulations 2010

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 6 April 2010

Motion to Resolve

Moved By

To resolve that this House regrets that the Education (Student Support) (European University Institute) Regulations 2010 (SI 2010/447) were laid without consultation with interested parties, without evidence that the regulations met the original objectives of funding the College of Europe and without giving reasons for changing those objectives.

Relevant Document: 14th Report from the Merits Committee.

My Lords, if any of us had been under the impression that the details of the European bureaucracy did not matter, I am sure that that impression was shattered by President Sarkozy’s delight at the appointment of Michel Barnier to the finance portfolio. It seems to me that it is of the first importance that the European Union should have a proper representation in the bureaucracy; that we should have people there who not only represent and speak for Britain, but who also are of really high quality; that these people really understand what goes on in the UK; and that they can hold our interests and our way of thinking high in the process by which policy is made in Europe. So much of our law-making and our future is tied up in the European Union.

I had always assumed that a core of the Civil Service had this as its first priority and that there was a lasting drive—it is not really a matter of politics, at least not between the three parties represented here today—to this being what we should be doing. It is a process which should have carried on from generation to generation of civil servants, and which should have been polished and improved in the way in which some countries seem to take a delight in doing. As a humble member of the Merits Committee, it was an astonishment to me to come across this statutory instrument, which clearly shows that the ball had been dropped quite disastrously. Not only had one element of our preparation for getting good-quality candidates into the European bureaucracy been swept away at a stroke, unconsidered by a ministry, but when this was pointed out by the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Kinnock, it appeared—notably—that the policy was not even being kept under review. No one in government knew why we were funding places at the College of Europe. It was not part of a considered process at all. It is not just a ball dropped by someone in an individual ministry; this is a representation of something which has gone wrong much more fundamentally in government.

I therefore felt that it was worth raising this matter as a Motion. I really hope that this can be rescued and that we will now find ourselves, whatever happens on 6 May, with a process of recovering our position within the European bureaucracy. I also hope that we will pay attention to making sure that we get some of our brightest and best people out there, and that the processes which go to make that happen—whether or not they include the College of Europe, which has a good track record in this regard—are taken seriously and become embedded in the way in which the Civil Service runs from government to government. It should be part of the fundamental engine and unaffected by the politics flowing above it. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for giving us the opportunity to explore these regulations in more detail. Like him, when I read them at the weekend I was increasingly disturbed by the implications of what was in them. It is interesting that this debate follows the previous one on immigration when we were discussing the wish of people from overseas to study in the UK. This regulation offers an opportunity for our people to study in the EU to the benefit, surely, of both parties.

My noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire tabled Questions in February and March in connection with these changes to funding. They were answered by the Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Today’s debate is being taken by BIS. These matters obviously span departments and one wonders whether they perhaps have suffered from falling between two departments, both of which may have been looking for easy budget cuts. Will the Minister confirm that these decisions were taken somewhere within BIS? What consultation took place with key stakeholders? That is not at all apparent from the evidence in front of us—for instance, consultation with the FCO and the institutions affected. Perhaps the Minister would further say whether any assessment was sought from previous students to gain evidence of the value of the programmes and what they had gained from them. Perhaps as significantly, with the benefit of these programmes behind them, where had their career progressions taken them in terms of the sort of positions that they were holding?

This year, the total budget for the College of Europe and Bologna was £279,000 and for the European University Institute it was £174,000. There was apparently no impact assessment and the Explanatory Memorandum states that,

“any impact on the public sector would be minimal”.

Any savings to be made from cutting these budgets are unlikely to be significant within the total higher education budget and certainly smack of gesture politics rather than a serious attempt either to balance the books of the national economy or to make a beneficial redistribution within education funding. But if the financial impact is minimal, there is a much broader question of value. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has said, the EUI has a growing reputation as an academic institution. What will be the impact on the UK’s ability to play its full part in contributing and benefiting from that reputation in understanding and influencing the EU debate?

For students to be selected for these scholarships, they need to be proficient in a language other than English. This raises a broader concern, which we have raised previously in your Lordships’ House, but which will benefit from being raised again; namely, the decline in modern language teaching in secondary schools. Although this takes the debate slightly beyond these regulations, perhaps the Minister will indicate what measures the Government are taking to ensure that the country has sufficient people fluent in modern languages to enable the UK to be represented and influential at the highest levels in the EU.

We add our concern about the way in which these cuts were made, the rapid reinstatement of places but for one year only, and the knock-on effect of discouraging internationally minded young people from seeking rewarding careers in the EU. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for tabling this Motion, and I must say that I share his concerns. When the Merits Committee, a cross-party committee known for the impartiality of its recommendations, sees the need to highlight the lack of coherent policy behind a piece of legislation, we know that the Government are on thin ice. The committee states that the SI has been developed without consultation with key stakeholders and that the Minister’s department has not presented any solid evidence to support the policy objectives of their funding decisions.

Indeed, there is something odd about the Government’s attitude to the timing of this cost cutting. The Prime Minister has been at pains to tell us that nothing should be done, that all cost cutting must wait until next year for fear of snuffing out the economic recovery, yet here goes the department doing something that is apparently completely at odds with that assertion. Now we all know, in fact I think most of us know better than the Government, how important it is to cut costs and to cut them promptly, but the huge importance of the process of engagement with and influencing of Europe critically hinges on having talented and highly skilled civil servants appropriately placed, as my noble friend said, within the bureaucracy in Brussels.

This order appears to be only one of two sets of regulations on the number of scholarships to be made available for students to study at the College of Europe. Can the Minister give us any more information about how, given the imminence of Prorogation, and when the Government intend to table the second lot, which apparently will reinstate half the places that are being cut? My understanding is that the Government propose to remove student support for postgraduate students attending the College of Europe in Bruges, Natolin in Poland and Bologna in Italy, but that funding will remain in place for UK postgraduate students attending the European University Institute in Florence. So can the Minister explain the Government’s logic for differentiating between the European University Institute in Florence and the other institutions which are not so favoured?

I also look forward to hearing his answers to my noble friend’s questions about the analytical work that was done before all these decisions and counter-decisions were made. How many students have gone on to fill permanent positions in EU institutions? What sort of work are they doing? And as the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, asked, can he reveal who was consulted? We hear, for instance, that despite media coverage in January, the Europe Unit at Universities UK was not consulted, yet it is the key group representing European higher education in this country. The College of Europe only deals with those with the very highest potential, and I understand that the number of students who have attended it from the UK, as from any other country, has reflected that. But perhaps that is because only a small number of those with such potential exist or indeed are needed by the European institutions. Is the Minister confident that these cuts have not been made in a misguided assault on a perceived elitism?

We thought that the Government disagreed with us over the whole issue of the timing of cost cutting, so we are baffled by this issue. We are equally baffled that the Government seem prepared to risk prejudicing the interests of the UK in Europe without, apparently, any consultation with key stakeholders and without presenting solid evidence to support the policy objectives of their funding decisions.

My Lords, I declare some interests on this. For five years my wife was at the European University Institute, was a student at the College of Europe and for 25 years a visiting professor there. Indeed, among others, she recruited the young Stephen Kinnock to the College of Europe to help him escape from his parents who were far too well known in British politics by going to Brussels where, at that point, they were unknown. It was an unfortunate failure.

The concern many of us have on this is precisely about making sure that British expertise and British interests are properly recognised within the European institutions. Those are not just the Commission, but the Council Secretariat, the European Parliament and its secretariat and the whole range of Brussels-based institutions. I suppose that I should also declare an interest in that I have taught many of the people who now work in those institutions, almost all of whom are not British. That is one of the problems we face: we under-recruit to those institutions. At the top, at the level of directors-general and so on, we have a number of very good British people, many of whom were indeed students at the College of Europe, but for the last few years we have not been sending enough students through any means to the European institutions.

The Government have a poor record in this respect because they abolished the European fast stream. After a good deal of lobbying by a number of us, myself included, they have at last reconstituted the European fast stream, but when we asked what had happened to the College of Europe scholarships, we discovered that the question of how they fitted in with the European fast stream had not been addressed. There were no figures for how many people had gone on to join the European institutions from there, so this was a decision that clearly had been taken at a low level, without apparent ministerial involvement and without considering the consequences.

It is, as has been made clear in the speeches from the Conservative Benches, a matter of all-party consensus in this House that we need to have high-quality British candidates working for us in the various European institutions and more widely in the intergovernmental organisations as a whole. Indeed, it is a matter to which we should return on another occasion because the broader issues of languages and of getting bright young British people to think about working internationally is something that we all need to address. I just wish to add my voice strongly to those who have said that this was a poor decision taken, it appears, without thought for the wider implications or policy consequences, and without looking back at the files to see why this policy had been instituted in the first place.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for this opportunity to clarify the Government’s intent behind the regulations under discussion today. Let me first remind noble Lords that the Government’s priority is to provide access to students entering higher education for the first time. Since 1997, almost 400,000 additional students have been able to enrol on first degree courses. The number of undergraduates in English universities already stands at an all-time record level, and only a fortnight ago, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced funding for an extra 20,000 places for 2010-11.

Recent years have also seen a burgeoning demand for masters and research degrees, reflecting growing demand from employers for high-level skills. Here, too, student numbers stand at record levels. To take just one example, over the last six years for which there are figures, the number of home students taking physics PhDs rose by no less than 37 per cent. However, noble Lords will be aware that it has never been a normal function of the Government to fund postgraduate students directly. Instead, as has been the case under previous Administrations, the seven UK research councils bear this responsibility, funding students on a discretionary basis.

It has nevertheless been the case for some years that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and its predecessors have funded a limited number of postgraduate students from the UK to study at three institutions in Europe: the European University Institute, the College of Europe and the Johns Hopkins University Bologna Center. This provision was made possible by a composite set of regulations which covered three different funding frameworks. In 2009 we reviewed the funding for these three institutions. The context then was emerging EC law, changes to domestic student finance policy and, frankly, pressures on the public purse caused by the global downturn. At that point, we took the decision to withdraw funding for students wishing to attend the College of Europe and the Bologna Center from 2010-11. No students currently involved in programmes at either institution have been affected by this decision.

At the same time, we resolved to continue to support students attending the European University Institute. The EUI was established pursuant to a European convention and the UK is therefore obliged under treaty to contribute a specified proportion of its budget. Furthermore, the Government are obliged to the extent that funds are available to support UK nationals admitted to the EUI. We intend to honour this commitment.

That is the background to the regulations we are debating today. They clearly set out provisions for supporting postgraduate students attending the European University Institute and they revoke the preceding composite regulations. I understand the genuine concerns raised by noble Lords that withdrawal of funding from students attending the College of Europe could harm UK representation at EU institutions. It is true that too few UK nationals apply to work in EU institutions. The UK makes up 13 per cent of the EU population, but only 6.4 per cent of EU staff. In more junior roles, the UK percentage is even lower, and we are falling behind other large member states.

We recognise that to be effective in Europe the UK needs more British nationals working in EU institutions, better engagement with these bodies and ways to achieve more joined-up policy-making across Whitehall. For these reasons, the Government have recently set up the Success in the EU project, which is examining a range of approaches to boost UK representation. I think that is a positive step forward, which acknowledges the importance of the issue that has been raised. Plans are under way, for example, to revive the European fast stream—a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. The project is looking at how to maximise the effectiveness of secondments to the EU from the UK Civil Service. We are also working with EU institutions to help them recruit more effectively in the UK and address issues which deter UK nationals from working in the EU, such as stringent language requirements and slow promotion prospects. As part of this broader effort, the project will explore the value of funding UK postgraduates at the College of Europe. In the mean time, we have reinstated a limited number of scholarships to the College of Europe this year—it will be something like 11 scholarships. There are fewer than previously, which is partly due to the exchange rate. There are also 20 scholarships to the European University Institute.

I readily accept that the laying of the European University Institute Regulations as planned and then subsequently providing a separate set of regulations for the College of Europe is not ideal. I apologise to the House if this approach has caused concern to the Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments. However, it was crucial that the EUI regulations were laid as planned to make sure that students applying under those provisions for the 2010-11 academic year did not suffer any undue delay. We also firmly believe that maintaining a composite set of regulations covering quite different funding policies was unsustainable in the long term. By providing two separate instruments, we can deal with reviews of policy or administrative changes to either set of regulations quickly and clearly, and again without undue disruption to students.

I will look now at some of the issues that were raised. The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, asked when the College of Europe grants will be reinstated. The grants, as I have said already, will be reinstated in time for the academic year 2010-11. The applicant process is imminent and the regulations to reinstate them have been laid. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, raised the role of stakeholders. Following representations from interested parties the Government decided to reinstate, as I have said, a limited number of scholarships at the College of Europe. I do not think that fully satisfies the noble Baroness on the question of whether the stakeholders were consulted. I apologise for that. On the question of languages, I seem to recall that we had a debate on the importance of modern languages and our commitment to ensuring better provision and better take up in a previous debate. I will write to her giving details of that. The noble Baroness also asked about the role of BIS. BIS is the lead department due to its responsibility for higher education. It does have a joint interest with the FCO in the success in the EU project to boost UK representation in EU institutions, so we are in effect straddling those two departments. I certainly agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about needing to encourage the brightest and the best. We hope that the review I have referred to will initiate that process.

I should also stress that the Government look forward to working with interested parties over the coming months, including the College of Europe, to develop fresh ideas on how to target available funding to the best effect and how to achieve our abiding goal of increasing the UK’s representation in Europe. To sum up, these stand-alone regulations set out clearly the support that remains available for students at the EUI, while disentangling them from other, unrelated policy areas. A separate set of regulations has now been laid to provide the statutory framework on support for a small number of students to attend the College of Europe. Regulations for the College of Europe are being laid separately and are not linked to the regulations being debated here. The College of Europe regulations will be reviewed in their own right as part of the Success in the EU strategy.

I trust that this explanation has persuaded noble Lords that these regulations and the more recently laid College of Europe regulations will in fact work towards achieving the Government’s policy objectives and the objectives that have been expressed here today by the noble Lords, and also meet our obligations under EU law. It only remains for me to thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and other noble Lords for their contributions today.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Young, for getting on his feet, which is never the easiest thing, and giving us that reply admitting graciously the things that have gone wrong and giving us some good news about success in the EU. Do I take it that this particular initiative is taking place in his department? We know where to find it this time next year when we return to this, as I am sure we will. Having located something that needs doing, as I am sure the noble Lord knows, this House has a reputation for following up on it. It will be very interesting to see where that process leads.

I will take this opportunity to say that much as I would be delighted to see a Conservative victory on 7 May, every sun has its spots, I suppose, and not seeing the noble Lord, Lord Young, at the government Dispatch Box will be one of those. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.