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Higher Education Institutions: Spending

Volume 798: debated on Thursday 27 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their estimate of the likely reduction in spend by higher education institutions in England on student teaching and contact time were the recommendations of the independent panel report to the Review into Post-18 Education and Funding implemented.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and in so doing draw attention to my interests as set out in the register.

The independent panel chaired by Philip Augar has published its report to government as part of the review of post-18 education and funding. It forms an important step in the overall government review, but it does not constitute government policy. It is a comprehensive report with detailed analysis and no fewer than 53 recommendations. The Government will continue to engage with stakeholders, consider the independent panel’s recommendations carefully and conclude at the spending review.

My Lords, given the 8% real-terms reduction inherent in the current fee to 2022, and given that even Boris Johnson has not promised more money for further and higher education, will the Minister make representations to colleagues, both present and future, to recognise the real damage that would result from a further 20% cut in funding for teaching and student contact, and that the value of higher education is derived not from the salary level a student receives immediately on graduation but from the liberation of talent and creativity which we will need for the future?

As I say, the Government are considering the panel’s recommendations. There is no doubt that the impact of provider funding as a whole, including tuition fees and grant funding, is an important consideration. We will work with the OfS to make sure that overall funding supports teaching costs, access and successful participation for disadvantaged students and maintains the world-leading reputation of UK higher education. Overall, we are committed to ensuring that funding reflects a sustainable model that supports the skills needs of the country.

My Lords, one of the key recommendations of the Augar review is that the shortfall created by a reduction in fees is filled by a direct teaching grant from government. How will the teaching grant be distributed?

That is certainly being discussed by the Government and various stakeholders, particularly the OfS. It is worth pointing out that teaching and research represents 49.2% of total higher education institute spending, which totals £31.3 billion. The teaching grant to which the noble Lord referred represents £1.4 billion in funding in 2018-19.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the independence of the Augar review was compromised by the Treasury insisting that none of its recommendations should result in increased public expenditure?

I certainly cannot confirm that; it is the first I have heard of it. After this Question I will follow the issue up with my noble friend and find out where he got that information.

My Lords, what assurances can the Minister give that universities will still be able to fund the expensive programmes—science, technology, engineering, medicine and so on—as well as the minority programmes, such as less than mainstream languages, which are still vital, if funding from tuition fees is drastically reduced?

That, again, is a question for the Government to consider on the back of the 53 recommendations. Part of that consideration is looking at value for money and making sure that courses are right for students, that the student experience is right and that the contact time, which was alluded to in the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, is right for the course and the student.

My Lords, the Minister will know that from next year universities will be awarded gold, silver or bronze status for the quality of teaching at degree level. Student satisfaction surveys show a strong correlation between satisfaction and contact hours. Can the Minister confirm whether the plan to take into account the number of hours of teaching students get and the size of classes has been abandoned by the Office for Students? It does not appear in the TEF. The Augar review places a disproportionate emphasis on graduate salaries, as my noble friend Lord Blunkett said, as a proxy for the value of studying. Does the Minister agree that for many, particularly those studying humanities, the lack of contact hours fails to represent good value for money?

Contact hours are an important part of the assessment of universities, and it obviously depends on the course. We leave it to universities to decide, on the basis of the courses, how many contact hours are required. Obviously, for medicine the number of hours is much greater. Dame Shirley Pearce is leading a statutory independent review of the TEF that is considering all aspects of its operation. She has conducted a call for views and is due to submit her report and recommendations to the Secretary of State this summer.

My Lords, any reduction in higher education funding is likely to have a particular impact not merely on teaching and student contact time but on the very future of smaller institutions, such as the Cathedrals Group universities. Does the Minister agree that, as the Government consider reforms, they need to take into account, first, the effect of those reforms on the diversity of the sector and, secondly, their impact on particular localities? Chichester, for example, is the only university in West Sussex. A threat to its funding would seriously damage its contribution to the regeneration of the disadvantaged coastal areas that it serves.

The right reverend Prelate is right, in that we want to reach out to all areas of the country, including Chichester, and both small and big providers. The Augar report comes, of course, on the back of the Higher Education and Research Act, through which we seek to encourage high-quality provision and greater competition, to ensure that students and the taxpayer receive value for money and that students receive a good experience from the courses they undertake.

My Lords, the Augar report is balanced from the point of view of funding. Can the Minister reassure us that, should the Government— whichever Government it is—decide to go ahead with this Bill, they will take a balanced view and not cherry pick the cuts in funding rather than increases in funding? If you cut teaching funding any more, even in a place such as Cambridge, where at present it is not used to fund research, it will be transferred. It will damage research as well as teaching, and it will damage the reputation of our leading universities and their ability to attract direct foreign funding, as well as their general reputation in joining in collaboration. I want the Minister’s reassurance that this matter will be looked at in a balanced way so that we do not damage both teaching and research.

The noble Lord is absolutely right. I listen particularly carefully to him, given his experience of Cambridge. It is very important to say that the UK enjoys a world-class reputation, with globally renowned teaching and cutting-edge research and innovation. We do not want to put that in jeopardy.