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University of Essex

Volume 630: debated on Thursday 2 November 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)

I am grateful to you for granting me this debate, Mr Speaker, and it is a pleasure that you should be in the Chair, given that you are also the chancellor of the University of Essex. We are fortunate that you have taken on that role. I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills for being here, and I look forward to her reply to this debate. I hope she will convey the points of concern I am raising to her colleague, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation.

As the UK prepares to leave the EU, universities, including the University of Essex, are facing much uncertainty: what access will there be for EU students and academics after the UK leaves the EU? What fees will EU students be liable to pay? Will EU students still have access to the UK student loans system? Will the UK continue to participate in EU research programmes such as Horizon 2020? Despite all that, I have never doubted that the UK’s universities will continue to thrive outside the EU, just as they did before we joined.

The 2018 QS World University Rankings put four UK universities in the top 10 in the world, and nine in the top 50. What is more, there are opportunities for universities when we leave the EU. By levelling the playing field between EU and non-EU students and academics, universities will be better able to compete with all our international rivals—the big US universities and the emerging universities of Asia, as well as the European universities. But the Government need to make decisions as soon as possible so that universities can plan for the future.

Since I was first elected for Colchester, North in 1992, I have had the privilege of representing the University of Essex in Parliament. We have a close relationship, and I am a member of the court of the university. Over the years, I have witnessed how much the University of Essex has contributed to academia, the local economy and the wider community. It continues from strength to strength. I make no apology for using this opportunity to set out the university’s progress and achievements. In June, Essex was awarded “gold” in the teaching excellence framework. Essex was also ranked in the top 15 in England for student satisfaction for the fifth year running in the national student survey, and 22nd in “The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2018”. Furthermore, Essex was ranked in the UK’s top 20 universities for research excellence in the last research excellence framework.

Very few universities excel in both education and research, while also performing strongly in measures of overall student experience, graduate prospects and quality of facilities. Essex is one of a very small group of universities that genuinely achieves that. As a result, Essex students benefit from a research-led education that not only equips them to succeed on their courses, but provides them with the skills to succeed in their chosen careers after graduation. I look forward to continuing to work with the university in the years ahead, as it builds on these achievements.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 will introduce a new regulatory framework. One of its effects is to establish two new bodies, one called the Office for Students and the other called UK Research and Innovation. I will not elaborate on the complex details of the reforms, but there is concern that those two bodies must work closely together, reflecting the importance of integrating research and teaching. I know that a consultation is in progress, but I hope the Minister can reassure universities about that in her response.

I commend to the Government the 2014 Public Administration Committee report on the effectiveness of public bodies, “Who’s Accountable?”. I was Chair of that Select Committee at the time. Ministerial directions will not be enough to ensure co-ordinated working. Our report found that to make things work effectively in such a situation, the Department must develop confident, open and trusting relationships, both within the Department on the two policy areas and between the officials in the Department and the leadership of those two public bodies. There is no other way to ensure a high level of co-operation between the two bodies so that the mutual benefits that result from excellent research and outstanding educational experiences are promoted.

This is proving to be a record year for recruitment at the University of Essex, with close to 6,000 students starting undergraduate or postgraduate courses this autumn. The university has seen unprecedented levels of interest in student places, with more than 20,000 applications for 4,400 undergraduate student places this year. This has allowed the university to continue to grow in size. In 2016, it had 14,000 students, compared with only 9,500 in 2012. The university plans to grow further, increasing student numbers to 20,000 by 2025.

The University of Essex has recruited more than 152 new academic staff over the past three years and invested heavily in its professional services. That recruitment continues as the university continues to grow. It is also making a significant investment, until 2021, of around £90 million in its teaching facilities, student accommodation, knowledge gateway building programme and sports facilities. I look forward to seeing the outcome of that work.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he knows, around half the University of Essex’s students live in the Colchester constituency. Does he agree that the university plays a huge social, cultural and economic role in Colchester’s prosperity? We are incredibly proud to have the university linked so strongly to our town.

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. He will be as acutely aware as I am of what a big role the university plays in the civic life of Colchester and the surrounding area.

The University of Essex’s research is pioneering and world class. Its department of government, at which you studied, Mr Speaker, is ranked the best in the country in every assessment of research quality that has been undertaken. The university is also in the top four for social science research, fifth for economics and 10th for art history. Last year, the university secured £42 million of externally funded research income, including half a million pounds secured by a biological sciences research team to investigate marine bacteria, which will improve our understanding of the impact of global warming on this vital part of Earth’s life-support system.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, of which I am Chair, scrutinises the UK Statistics Authority, which has done work on what is known as big data. As Chair of that Committee, I am delighted that the University of Essex won £27 million from the Economic and Social Research Council to support its work on understanding society up to 2021. It is the largest longitudinal statistical study of its kind, and it provides crucial information for researchers and policy makers about changes in attitudes and behaviours over time and on the causes and consequences of deep-rooted social problems and change in people’s lives. The university’s status as a leading centre of expertise in analysing and handling big data, such as that generated through the Understanding Society programme, received further validation in 2016, with UNESCO’s establishment of its only chair in analytics and data science at the university.

I would be grateful if the Minister set out how the Government will remain fully committed to recognising and rewarding research excellence wherever it is found, whether at Essex or elsewhere. I would also like to pay tribute to the late Anthony King, who, in 1968, became reader in government at the University of Essex, which gave him the opportunity to shape the department, which now enjoys such a renowned reputation.

University of Essex research has impact through partnerships with businesses of all sizes. That work was recognised when the university was ranked in the top 10 in the UK for engagement with business through what the Government recognised as knowledge transfer partnerships, and supported through the programme run by Innovate UK, to help businesses improve their competitiveness through better use of UK knowledge, technology and skills.

The knowledge transfer partnerships are one of the main ways in which the university ensures its research feeds into business activity, and the range and scope of those partnerships is extensive. For example, Essex works with the digital agency, Orbital Media, to use artificial intelligence to create automated online GP services. Essex also works with the organisation Above Surveying, which will use the latest technology to improve the way its drones monitor and inspect solar farms.

Essex is continuing to expand its business engagement and the University of Essex Innovation Centre is now being built on the Colchester campus. This is a joint initiative with Essex County Council and the south-east local enterprise partnership, which, when completed, will provide space and support for up to 50 start-ups and smaller high-tech businesses in the Knowledge Gateway research and technology park.

The university’s research impact also supports public institutions in tackling challenging social and economic issues. In conjunction with Essex County Council, the university has appointed the UK’s first local authority chief scientific adviser, Slava Mikhaylov, professor of public policy and data science, who supports Essex County Council to develop policy rooted in scientific analysis and evidence.

Essex was one of the very first universities to start offering degree apprenticeships in higher education, which provide students with the skills that industry needs and allow them to combine studying for a full degree with gaining practical skills in work. Such apprentices get the financial security of a regular pay packet, while providing businesses with a cost-effective way to bring in new talent and skills or develop their workforce. Tech giant ARM, alongside local small and medium-sized enterprises, is already offering degree apprenticeships in partnership with Essex. The university’s work in this area is hugely beneficial, with both students and businesses standing to benefit a great deal from these opportunities.

This determination to use research to drive growth has led to Essex being asked to lead a £4.7 million Government project in the eastern region and to grow the economy through improved productivity by encouraging collaboration between universities and businesses. The “Enabling Innovation: Research to Application” network will build collaborations to support business innovation across Essex, Kent, Norfolk and Suffolk.

I am enormously proud of the University of Essex’s work. However, I am also proud of its global outlook and international spirit.

I declare an interest: I went to Bristol—I am sorry about that. As an MP from the south of the county, may I confirm to my hon. Friend that the reach of the university goes across the entire county and indeed beyond? In the south of Essex, we greatly value the economic contribution that the university makes to the life of our county.

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. At the point where I am celebrating the University of Essex’s global reach, it is entirely appropriate that Southend and Rayleigh should be included in the equation.

Staff and students come from all around the world and the university collaborates internationally on a high proportion of its work. The Times Higher Education rankings for 2018 placed the University of Essex second in the UK for “international outlook” and I am delighted that applications to the university from international students continue to increase. I am also delighted that, on their arrival in Essex, international staff and students are met with such an open and inclusive welcome.

As the UK regains control of its borders following Brexit, I urge the Government to ensure that barriers are not put in the way of universities such as Essex, one of the UK’s great export success stories, continuing to attract talented students and staff from around the globe.

Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as having an excellent chancellor, the University of Essex is a great centre for the local community it serves, not just the global community? This summer I was fortunate enough to give out graduation certificates to hundreds of students who attended during the summer break. Does my hon. Friend agree that the university serves a useful purpose in that regard?

I am very grateful for that intervention because I did not have that element in my speech.

The Government will be aware that EU membership has obliged us to provide support for students from EU countries. Leaving the EU will provide us with an opportunity to support more students from poorer countries, and I encourage the Government to look at how the UK can do this. The higher default rate among EU students taking out UK taxpayer-funded student loans is a burden. According to figures released by the Student Loans Company earlier this year, this figure stands at approximately 4% for EU domiciled student loan borrowers compared with around 0.5% of English domiciled student loan borrowers. The percentage of students who are yet to have their repayment status confirmed, or who have not supplied their incomes and have therefore been placed in arrears, is also higher among EU domiciled student loan borrowers.

It is hard for the Student Loans Company to pursue loans being repaid from abroad. These losses should not fall on the British taxpayer, nor should British students have to pay higher interest rates as a consequence. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that the UK will no longer be obliged to offer student loans and subsidised fees to EU students after the UK leaves the EU, not least because these students come from far wealthier countries than other countries that we should want to help more.

Essex is also leading the way on women’s equality, so it is appropriate that this Minister, who is also the Minister for Women, is replying to this debate. Essex gave its female professors a one-off salary increase in 2016 after an audit revealed a pay gap between its male and female professors. It was the first university in the UK to do so and the decision was covered in national media. This was a brave and bold move, and, one year on, the gender pay gap between male and female professors has not reopened. The university and its vice-chancellor, Professor Anthony Forster, deserve credit for this.

I do not need to say how important universities are to individuals, to our society and to our economy. They transform people’s lives through education and the value of their research, provide businesses with people who have the vital skills they need, and make a crucial contribution to the UK economy. They enrich our society and culture as places where conventional wisdom can be challenged and where contentious issues can be debated with passion on all sides. The University of Essex was one of the few universities that remained officially neutral during the EU referendum. I personally helped to find speakers from both sides of the argument for a major debate hosted by the university just prior to the vote. Essex has set the highest example of impartiality and protection for freedom of speech.

In conclusion, I am sure that the Minister will want to join me in congratulating the University of Essex for all that it is achieving. However, I hope that she will address the concerns I have raised, particularly those arising from the UK’s decision to leave the EU. These uncertainties about access for foreign students and academics to UK universities, or about the replacement of EU funding, are not dependent on the outcome of any negotiations with the EU. The Government can decide things such as our future immigration policy right now. The Government can decide now that they will guarantee, at least in principle, to replace EU funding with UK funding, particularly as when we leave the EU we will no longer be required to support non-UK EU spending, which amounts to some £9 billion a year. There is no excuse for extending uncertainty unnecessarily. I hope that the Minister will at least agree with that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) on securing this debate on the University of Essex. Perhaps, Mr Speaker, as you are unable to speak on this subject from the Chair, we can all speak on your behalf, as I am sure that you concur with many of the comments.

We have a world-class higher education system, and the Government are obviously committed to ensuring that that success continues. Delivering the reform outlined in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 will enable us to do that, and my hon. Friend made a number of mentions of that.

The teaching excellence and student outcomes framework will allow students to see clearly where teaching is of the highest quality and where they are likely to achieve the best outcomes. The results will also show us that every single participating provider has met very demanding national requirements.

It was interesting to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and my hon. Friends the Members for Clacton (Giles Watling) and for Colchester (Will Quince) stay for the debate. Such is the affection and acclaim Essex enjoys that it has kept three Members here for the debate.

Universities such as Essex, which has been shortlisted for university of the year in the Times and Sunday Times “Good University Guide”, are critical to the success of our higher education system. The university was awarded a gold rating in the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework and was in the top 15 for student satisfaction.

We should particularly celebrate the approaches the university has introduced to achieve those outstanding student satisfaction results. It is important to mention, in particular, its fostering of a culture that uses student feedback to develop rigorous and stretching teaching that is tailored to suit student needs, and its effective retention strategies, including a peer mentoring scheme for all new students, with targeted support for disabled students, supported by the student engagement team.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex rightly highlighted the university’s outstanding research output, and particularly its work with business. As Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, I particularly welcome that work, which is critical as we look ahead. I am also very impressed by the work with the county council.

Essex is, without doubt, an example to other universities. Universities must take student satisfaction and value for money seriously, and it is paramount to the Government that students are put at the heart of the system. The Office for Students will be the new regulator, putting the interests of students at its heart. It will be innovative—that is a bit of a Government-type word, but it truly will be innovative in its approach to student participation, success and employability.

The reforms will help promote the significant value that universities can offer their local communities and the economy, including by promoting outreach initiatives, and hon. Members have heard from me and my hon. Friend that Essex is doing that significantly.

My hon. Friend raised some specific issues about Brexit, and there are a couple of things I should cover. We have asked the independent Migration Advisory Service to report on two things: the impact of Brexit on the labour market and on EU and international students. It will report by 2018, but it has the power to provide interim reports, and I am sure my hon. Friend will ensure that that happens if he feels it is necessary.

We are looking at finance, but I should say that it cannot be considered without also looking at the further education sector. It is important that both are looked at, particularly when we consider our skills and apprenticeships reforms and the joint working we are encouraging between FE and HE.

In the meantime, guarantees on student finance for EU students starting in 2018-19 will remain as before. The citizen’s rights offer is important, but we know it is clunky, and we are trying to make it as streamlined as possible.

My hon. Friend talked about research, and there is no doubt that the University of Essex is really leading the way—I am incredibly impressed. I should also mention the university in my constituency, the University of Surrey, which has also developed innovative and really world-leading efforts on research and on working with business. The EU Horizon programme lasts till 2020—there is a successor programme—and as long as a bid is submitted before we leave the EU, the Government will underwrite the costs if Horizon does not continue the funding. We are bringing together all the research councils and want to ensure that the OFS and UK Research and Innovation work together, but my hon. Friend is right that these things do not simply happen; we need to make sure they become a reality.

As Minister for Women, I was hugely impressed with the work on the gender pay gap, and I will never miss an opportunity to say in this House that all companies with more than 250 employees have until next April to report on their gender pay gap. And there we have it: the University of Essex is a beacon on this subject. This work is really important, because if we do not get it right, we will miss out on the talent and skills of women who can contribute and make sure this excellence continues.

Universities such as Essex are part of our world-leading higher education sector and the qualities that make it great: the fact that it is open to all, innovative, offers students choice and value for money, which is critical, and puts students at the heart of ensuring that that continues. I congratulate my hon. Friend, therefore, on securing this debate. I probably have not answered all his questions, but I have no doubt that he, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, will continue to sing the university’s praises and make sure, as we progress towards Brexit, that all the concerns of such universities are fully reflected in the Government’s response to our leaving the EU.

The expressions of commendation and support that have flowed over the last 25 minutes for the University of Essex will be deeply appreciated by everyone at the university and, for that matter, by the occupant of the Chair. I can also safely say without fear of contradiction that the university has earned every word of that commendation and support. Colleagues, thank you.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.