My Lords, happy new year, and a particular welcome to our respected guest standing at the Bar, who for those of your Lordships who were not present at Second Reading set a new record for MPs standing listening to debates. I gather he is here again to do a repeat performance. We should welcome his interest and his commitment to this issue, which I know is shared by so many Members of the House. I am very grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Garden, Lady Wolf and Lady Brown, for joining me and supporting Amendment 1. I look forward to hearing their comments and those of other noble Lords across the Committee who have indicated to me that they support the amendment.
I declared my interests in higher education during the excellent Second Reading debate we held in the Chamber last month. Even if I had not been to a university, never worked in the university sector or not had my children educated in UK universities, I would have wanted to engage with the Bill because our excellent university sector—currently the second most successful higher education system in the world, with four universities ranked in the top 10—faces substantial challenges in the years ahead. It could, of course, be improved and it could, of course, be more innovative, and we support both those aims, but it also needs to be supported and protected, particularly if we go ahead with a hard Brexit, as now seems inevitable.
The abiding sense I have from our Second Reading debate is that the Bill fails to understand the purposes of higher education. I suggest that without defining these important institutions, there is a danger that the new regulatory architecture, the new bodies and the revised research organisation will do real and permanent damage. Universities across the world have multiple and complex roles in society, and there is no doubt that we all gain from that. They come in all sizes, and that too is good. They are at their best when they are autonomous, independent institutions which have the freedom to develop a range of missions and practices, while at the same time being public institutions, serving the knowledge economy and the knowledge society as well as being tools of economic progress and social mobility. They use the precious safe harbour of academic freedom to seek truth wherever it is to be found and publish it for all to see and discuss. They transmit and project values of openness, tolerance, inquiry and a respect for diversity that are the key to civilisation in an increasingly globalised world.
The purpose of the amendment is simple. The Bill before us does not define a university, and we think it will be improved if it does so. Our amendment does not simply itemise some of the core functions of a university, though it does that too, but also scopes out a university’s role, with its implicit ideals of responsibility, engagement and public service. A characteristic of all these functions is the expectation that universities take the long-term view and nurture a long-term stake in their local communities and wider society; that they embed scholarship and original and independent inquiry into their activities; and that they demonstrate a sustained commitment to serving the public good through taking up a role as critic and as the conscience of society.
I am confident that there is support for this approach across the House, based on the real sense of disappointment at the lack of ambition that the Bill currently exhibits. I hope the Government will feel able to accept the amendment. I say to the Minister that if he were minded to do so, not only would he improve the Bill but he would be signalling a willingness to listen to all the expertise, experience and wisdom that this House possesses and give us hope that he wished to use that for the benefit of this important sector and of the country as a whole. If he does not feel able to accept the amendment as it stands, perhaps he could offer to take it back and bring it back in an improved version on Report. If he did this, we would of course be very willing to work with him on how to improve the text—we have no pride of ownership.
I have to warn him, though, that if he does not want to engage as I have outlined, he will have to explain to this House what it is he cannot accept about specifying that universities have a secure and valued place in our society, and why he has difficulty in confirming that our universities should have statutory rights to institutional autonomy, academic freedom and freedom of speech. He will have to explain why he disagrees with his right honourable friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, who is standing at the Bar, who said in response to questions in Committee in the other place:
“At its most literal, a university can be described as a provider of predominantly higher education that has got degree-awarding powers and has been given the right to use the university title. That is the most limited and literal sense. If we want a broader definition, we can say that a university is also expected to be an institution that brings together a body of scholars to form a cohesive and self-critical academic community that provides excellent learning opportunities for people, the majority of whom are studying to degree level or above. We expect teaching at such an institution to be informed by a combination of research, scholarship and professional practice. To distinguish it from what we conventionally understand the school’s role to be, we can say that a university is a place where students are developing higher analytical capacities—critical thinking, curiosity about the world and higher levels of abstract capacity in their thinking. In brief, that is my answer to what a university is”.—[Official Report, Commons, Higher Education and Research Bill Committee, 15/09/16; col. 271.]
I confess to a little plagiarism in drafting my amendment, which I acknowledge is clearly based on that Minister’s approach, which is the correct one. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Bill we are debating today is an enormously important one. I declare an interest as a full-time academic at King’s College London.
The Government are creating the environment in which universities will operate and thrive or decline over many years, probably decades, and are changing it profoundly. Because a country’s universities and the nature of those universities are so central to what a country is—to its values, politics, culture, research and innovation—the Bill is truly important to the whole nation. Yet, curiously, the Bill has nothing to say about universities, as you will find if you have a quick search of the document. It says quite a lot about the university title, and at one point it refers to unauthorised degrees at,
“a university, college or other body”,
by grant, but that is it. Otherwise it refers consistently to “providers”.
Clearly, the Government do not think that the term “university” is meaningless. If it were, neither the Government nor higher education providers nor universities would be so occupied with the university title.
When I dug around a bit, I found that previous legislation also has extraordinarily little to say on the subject. The 1992 higher education Act refers simply to use of the name “university” in the title of an institution, and informs us hopefully that, if the power to change the name is exercisable with the consent of the Privy Council, it may be exercised, with that consent,
“whether or not the institution would apart from this section be a university”.
There is nothing more on what a university is. The Minister has kindly confirmed, in replies to Written Questions that the term is not defined in legislation but is a “sensitive” word under company law, which means that you need permission from the Secretary of State and a non-objection letter before you can use it in a business or company title.
My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment for all the good reasons that we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf. The Office for Students takes on powerful responsibilities to approve and disband universities and other higher education organisations with speedier timescales and lower thresholds. It is only right that criteria for these new organisations should be clearly set out. One reason given for the legislation has been that it is 25 years since the last Higher Education Bill in 1992. We do not question that some updating is necessary to reflect developments and to ensure that teaching has the same status as research, but we question whether 119 clauses and 12 schedules are necessary for this purpose. Could it be that our universities have flourished and retained world rankings because they have not been subjected to government interference? Within education, schools and colleges have suffered from changes imposed by different Governments and by the churn of Ministers seeking to make their mark, regardless of advice from professionals in the sector. Universities for some years have been relatively free of such assistance, and they have flourished as a result.
The importance of setting out the functions of universities is all the more crucial, given that increasing the numbers of universities and opening up new commercial providers sits oddly with other government policy. The country faces acute skill shortages: we need more builders, engineers, carers and technicians. The Government have ambitious plans to increase the numbers, quality and status of apprenticeships. How can that be achieved if they are also set on increasing provision of degrees, in whatever discipline—probably mainly business and other cheaper-to-run programmes—from an expanding range of organisations whose skills could be better focused on training and reskilling for real jobs in real shortage areas? In the interests of joined-up government, could the Minister say what discussions have taken place with the Skills Minister and his team over the unintended consequences for raising the profile of much-needed skills of implying, through this Bill, that degrees are the only game in town?
Without this clause, the first reference to universities comes in Clause 51. Not long ago, universities were pretty well the only option for higher education. Many of the expansions into higher education by colleges, for instance, have been welcome responses to demand and to opening opportunities for non-traditional students. This Bill brings to mind attempts to create corporate universities in the 1990s. There was British Aerospace’s Virtual University; Unipart U, which is now a virtual U; and the University for Industry—the misnomer of all time—which came into its own only when it abandoned any claims on the title of university and changed its name to learndirect. But those initiatives morphed into closer collaboration between academia and industry, to the benefit of both, and with both contributing their different skills and ethos. Encouraging more such partnerships would surely be better for students, employers and the country than trying to widen and potentially weaken the range of higher education providers.
The criteria in this amendment provide safeguards that the core functions and values of British universities will be protected. It would be sadly ironic if the Bill produced a double whammy of undermining efforts to raise the standing and importance of skills, while damaging the standing and reputation of UK universities. There is much at stake in this Bill. We look forward to working with Ministers to ensure that market forces, competition and red tape are not allowed to damage our world-ranking universities. I look forward to the Minister’s response and hope that he feels able to accept the amendment.
My Lords, I have put my name to this important amendment and speak in support of it. I declare my interests in higher education, as indicated in the register, and declare and acknowledge the research support from colleagues at Universities UK and my university, Aston University.
As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, says, UK universities have an exceptional international reputation for teaching and scholarship in many forms. They are places where teaching and research are intimately interwoven. Undergraduate programmes benefit from research-based learning, and graduate students and researchers are beneficially involved in teaching. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Stern, commented very positively on that in his recent review of the research excellence framework. Universities are places where new academic fields grow from interactions between colleagues in different disciplines, and places where the encouragement of independent thought and the challenge to the status quo delivers technological change and innovation. Indeed, that is why so many large companies, such as Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems, engage closely with universities—for example, through their university technology centres—to ensure that academics can challenge the stove-pipe thinking that can develop in large corporations.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, has commented, the autonomy of UK universities is recognised by our European colleagues as key to their exceptional positions in the ranking tables. Surely a broad and inclusive definition of the functions of something as important as a university in the UK is to be welcomed. That proposed in the amendment encompasses the key ingredients: autonomy; free speech; academic freedom; interdisciplinarity; teaching, scholarship and research; and, of course, the mission to contribute to society. We must recognise that being a higher education provider, delivering high-quality teaching, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for being a university. I look forward to the Minister’s response in this area.
My Lords, I made my maiden speech some 12 years ago on the overregulation of universities and I cannot resist returning to that subject. Our worldwide success is now under threat: the Government are risking killing off the goose that lays the golden eggs, instead of cherishing and fostering university autonomy. The autonomy of higher education is not only valuable to the universities and their surroundings; it is the hallmark of a democratic and civilised, progressive society. You can be sure that when the Government interfere in who may teach and who may study at universities and which universities may exist, the entire system of democratic governance is under threat. In the 1930s, thousands—some of whom were future Nobel laureates—fled central Europe to come here. Now they flee from universities in the Middle East, Zimbabwe and China. Our universities’ autonomy is affected by low salaries, short-term employment, lack of tenure and, now, gagging clauses on former employees. The risk inherent in the Bill, which focuses so much on teaching excellence, is that it neglects the very thing that lays the foundation for excellence and established the global dominance of our UK universities, which are a haven for the best threatened academics in the world.
There are some limits in the Bill on ministerial interference in certain respects, but they do not add up to a clear and consistent safeguard for academic autonomy. On the contrary, by protecting that principle only in some cases it is left open to interpretation that other areas are not so protected. If the Secretary of State may issue guidance about particular courses of study, and if a government quango can shut down an existing university, then autonomy is curtailed. The power granted to vary and revoke degree-awarding powers of any university, regardless of its length of establishment, is a dangerous weapon in the hands of the OfS. It could also be used to coerce universities and make them toe the line in the face of, say, pressure by the Government to respond to short-term market forces or perceived national needs.
On uniformity of excellence in teaching, I always say that Isaiah Berlin’s PowerPoint would not have been up to scratch, and Stanley de Smith, the originator of the law of judicial review—in the news every day now—would have been castigated for talking way above the heads of his audience while smoking on the edge of the platform, which was acceptable in those days. Nearly all academics who made a difference did so precisely because they did not conform to the bureaucratic ideal. The culture of box ticking and moving lecturers around as if they were footballers for transfer is already taking hold. The system of research funding has boosted elite universities at the expense of others, as a certainty. The teaching excellence framework will make this worse. Wealth creation and higher salaries for graduates needing to be ready for employment in business and market-driven schemes will, in themselves, do nothing to engender the spirit for which our universities are renowned and which brings—and I hope will continue to bring—to them the most ambitious and creative students from the Far East, Russia, the United States and India.
It is a pleasure to see the Minister for Universities standing listening to our debate on this important issue. We are grateful for his attention to our comments. I will make two points from examples of my own experience; sometimes the House benefits greatly from that. I am very much aware of what the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, just said about Germany in the 1930s and the effect of government on the universities, which affected German universities for a long time after the war.
In the mid-1970s, I was a visiting professor for a year at a university in Belgium—one of the oldest universities in Europe. The department in which I worked was one of the world’s leading departments in reproductive physiology, to which came Spaniards, Italians, Brits, Americans, somebody from Australia, a large number of people from South America and some people who managed to get out of the Eastern bloc. The department worked on a major world problem—that of contraception at a time when the World Health Organization predicted that there might be as many as 100 billion people on the globe by the end of the next century. In addition, at that time in vitro fertilisation was not possible. It was a Catholic university. The head of the department, who was probably one of the most famous leading scientists and clinicians in reproductive biology in Europe, faced a considerable threat from the Church in that city. Eventually, with government support, not only was he passed over but he had to leave that environment as a result of the extreme pressure which came partly from government and partly from the Church. That kind of thing could happen again. The head of the department ended up mostly in private practice. The numerous foreign students from all over the world left that department and its huge prestige was also lost. Therefore, freedom of speech and expression in universities should be written into the Bill. I hope that the Government will look at this issue very carefully and perhaps encompass it in a definition.
The amendment refers to universities making “a contribution to society”. I work at Imperial College London and the huge contribution that has been made to society through connections with schools is extremely rewarding. As we spread our word, that has made a massive difference to the aspirations of young people, not only in the East End of London but right across the United Kingdom. More and more universities are becoming involved in developing greater connections with society. That is important for undergraduates and school students. It is vital to extend those connections. That is another reason why the wording to which I have referred, or something similar, must be included in the Bill.
My Lords, it is perhaps not surprising that those of us who are academics are concerned about definitions because one of the things we always teach our students is to define their terms. Hence, I support this amendment which seeks to define what we are talking about. At the same time, we should recognise that over the centuries universities have changed. In England, between the 12th and the 19th centuries, there were just two universities—Oxford and Cambridge—which served largely as institutions for educating people for careers in the Church or in canon law. The modern university as we understand it, an institution which combines research and teaching, was essentially invented in Germany by Alexander von Humboldt in 1810, when he founded the University of Berlin. However, in spite of the changing details of what universities do, they have certain enduring qualities and properties that we should cherish and ensure are retained during the passage of the Bill.
I offer two quotes. We have already heard one excellent quote from the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf. One of my quotes is from the then Poet Laureate, John Masefield, when he was offered an honorary degree by the University of Sheffield in 1946. He said, among other things about a university:
“It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honour thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning, and will exact standards in these things”.
That is the spirit in which, during the passage of the Bill, we should consider what a university is. My second quote reverts to perhaps the most famous treatise on universities, written by John Newman in the middle of the 19th century. I will not attempt to read the whole book to your Lordships, but just one brief quote. He says that,
“a University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life”.
These are high-flown ambitions for universities, but ones that we should uphold today, not resorting to a purely instrumental view of universities that are there for economic benefit and training in technical skills.
My Lords, I declare my interests in the Bill as a visiting professor at King’s College London, chairman of the advisory board of Times Higher Education and adviser to 2U.
We heard at Second Reading, and have already heard this afternoon, the deep concern in the House about the autonomy of our universities. I am sure that in the process of our discussions we will want to find ways of enhancing the protection of the autonomy of our universities. However, this clause is not the right way to set about it. As we have heard, this clause is the first attempt ever in British primary legislation to define what a university is. It is an ambitious project, and if I were to set up a committee to define a university, I could think of none more distinguished than the Committee in this House this afternoon. It has, however, the paradoxical effect that the first clause we are debating is a set of obligations on universities; it is formulated as a series of “musts” that universities have to do. It reflects a view of the university that is rather narrow and traditional. Of course, it is absolutely right that academic freedom is there, but it also says, for example:
“UK universities must provide an extensive range of high quality academic subjects”.
When I was Minister, I was proud to have given university status to institutions that focused on particular subjects—the Royal Agricultural College, for example, which is now a university. Are we really going to put into law a requirement that there must be an extensive range of subjects before an institution can be a university? That sets back a set of reforms not only from my time as a Minister; it goes right back to the Labour Government of 2004.
There is a long list of ways in which universities,
“must make a contribution to society”.
I do not know quite what this “must” is, but it says that they have to contribute “locally, nationally and internationally”. Does that mean that if a relationship with a local authority leader in the area breaks down, you can turn up and tell the university that it is in breach of its obligations to contribute locally? My personal view is that we should be protecting universities by putting obligations on Governments and regulators to respect their autonomy, not trying to define universities and put obligations on them.
My Lords, I declare an interest as president of Birkbeck. I support the amendment for the following reasons.
It has taken decades if not centuries to build up the network and infrastructure of UK universities, and it would be folly to damage their standing and reputation in the world as it stands today. That is not to deny that the sector needs updating and amending. But from the start we must assert, as this amendment does, the age-old academic values that are at the centre of what universities stand for. Those are: reliance on reason, argument and evidence; critical and creative thinking uninhibited by limits on free speech; rigorous analysis and use of data; and precise and meaningful communication between academics and pupils. I hope that we will seek to embrace those values as we scrutinise the Bill, and I invite the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, to endorse those values.
Since the abolition of the block grant and the arrival of student fees, other concerns have come to the fore in the sector: universities have increased resources to extend their marketing, and management values have come to matter. Universities have become businesses—there is nothing wrong with that—and competitive listing has been one of their recruitment tools. Now, we are told, new providers will, by increasing competition, drive up standards. However, there is no evidence that that will necessarily follow. Indeed, experience elsewhere—in the energy market, for example—indicates that this may not be so at all. For-profit organisations seek first to please shareholders before they please consumers—which is what we are now told we should call students.
Therefore, from the start and throughout the consideration of the Bill we must reassert and defend the prime values of our university sector and resist the Government’s plans to seek central control via their own appointed, unhappily named, Office for Students.
My Lords, I did not go to university. Some 52 years ago I applied to be an undergraduate at the London School of Economics and was rejected. Fifty years later, it appointed me chairman of its Court of Governors. Clearly, one of those decisions was wrong. I am also chancellor of the University of Exeter.
I should like to add to the good words that have already been expressed about the commitment that the Minister of State has shown in taking this Bill forward in the other place and in being with us today. I can think of no one in the other place better suited than him to lead legislation regarding, and indeed representation of, our universities.
We have heard from the proposers of the amendment about the importance of autonomy in our universities, as well as freedom of thought and expression. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, spoke about the world standing of our universities. However, we should not disguise from ourselves the fact that in our universities there are some shortcomings, which have become very apparent to me, particularly in my time at the London School of Economics.
I have frequently heard the word “burden” inserted before the word “teaching”, and I have found university professors’ commitment in terms of hours spent working with students to be extraordinary low. I was told that our aim was to get the figure up to 68 hours. As somebody who was new to universities, I asked myself, “Is that a week? No, surely it can’t be a week; maybe it’s a month”—but I discovered that on average professors at the London School of Economics teach for only 68 hours a year.
Therefore, it is important that we embody in law the responsibilities of universities. It is important that we talk not only about academic freedom and autonomy and about the importance of universities in the promotion of research and in having a positive impact on people’s lives and on society but also about accountabilities. I think that there are major shortcomings in accountability in our universities. In many there is a climate of lassitude in terms of academics’ duties and obligations to their institution and to their students, and the Government have quite correctly addressed that as an issue in putting this legislation before us. I also think that the proposals in the amendment are correct—
Surely these shortcomings in teaching times are a matter for the body responsible for governing the university and not for the Government.
With all due respect, I did not say that they were a matter for the Government; I was pointing out that we should not believe that everything is quite as rosy as is occasionally suggested when describing the excellence of our universities. Like, no doubt, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I commit to the fact that we should never be content and that we should always work to improve. I am simply saying that there are some areas where universities need to improve. This Bill, in talking about the importance of teaching excellence and putting teaching at the heart of the university experience, does, I believe, address the current shortcoming that we see in this area.
I think that the amendment, while being absolutely necessary in explaining the role of a university, suffers from some inadequacies in its drafting. It barely achieves a Lower Second in terms of striking the balance between a higher-level vision of what a university does and very detailed prescription, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, pointed out. Therefore, if this is pushed to a vote, I will vote in favour of the amendment, because I think that the Bill would be strengthened by words to that effect at the beginning. However, it is very important to note that, in moving the amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, made it very clear that he was willing to listen to the Government and possibly not force the amendment to a vote if there was some sign that they were willing to go away and reconsider the need for an amendment of this sort in the preamble to the Bill.
My Lords, as a former director of the London School of Economics, I think it is perhaps appropriate for me to speak next. I have to say that I do not wholly disagree with all of what the noble Lord, Lord Myners, said. I disagree on the fundamental point of principle, but the criticism he offered was entirely appropriate. In contrast to him, I strongly support this amendment. In the Second Reading debate, I was highly critical of aspects of this Bill. My objections were not motivated by some sort of stick-in-the-mud desire to resist change and innovation. On the contrary, in some ways the Bill is, in my eyes, too conservative—with a little ‘c’, of course.
I accept and endorse the need for an overall legislative framework for higher education. We need to clear up inconsistencies and ambiguities in the existing system and, far more importantly, embrace the deep transformations beginning to affect both teaching and research. At the same time, however, as other speakers have rightly said, we must be careful not to undermine the very qualities that have propelled higher education in this country to the very top globally.
In amending the Bill—and there is no doubt in my mind that substantial emendation is necessary—we must ensure that we avoid the huge problems created in the US around deregulated for-profit institutions. They have a place but they are not the future. As in almost every other sphere, higher education is likely to be transformed in a radical way by the digital revolution—and, in my view, in very short order. This is a revolution of unparalleled pace and scope. Much more potent models for exploring what is to come include edX, linked to Harvard and MIT, and Udacity, which had its origins at Stamford. We should be investing in analogues, and some of that has to be public investment.
As the amendment makes clear, a university is not just a knowledge provider but an active creator of knowledge and ideas—even the noble Lord, Lord Myners, stressed that point. That relates to what teachers do, because research and teaching are part and parcel of a combined enterprise in a university. Disciplined research and the active protection of academic freedom are crucial to this task. In my eyes, it would be a major step forward to have these principles spelled out in binding fashion, as this amendment does. The amendment, in fact, looks to have a great deal of support across the House, and I hope that it will not be treated in partisan terms. Perhaps the Minister will be moved to accept it without driving the matter to a vote. Many other pieces of what could turn out to be a very difficult jigsaw puzzle for the Government would fall into place were he to do so.
My Lords, I declared my interest at Second Reading. I am the most junior member of the club of chancellors mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Myners, as the newly appointed chancellor of the University of Reading. I have a number of concerns about the Bill and without making a Second Reading speech again, I shall look to the Government to strengthen protections against interference with autonomy.
These are not theoretical objections. In this House, we are all in danger of falling into our anecdotage, but I will give just one. I was once the holder of a similar office to the Minister who is so courteously handling this Bill. My Secretary of State was my late friend and former colleague Sir Keith Joseph. The Secretary of State became incensed by the economics teaching at the Open University, so his junior Ministers, Rhodes Boyson and myself, were given the books to read. This had rather extraordinary results. The Open University’s reply to what Sir Keith saw as unfortunate bias in its teaching was made much worse by its defence that there was a book by Mr Peter Walker that in its view provided balance, which did not necessarily help Sir Keith. This was slightly comic and Sir Keith was a man of immense courtesy and deep understanding of the autonomy of the institution, and nothing much further came of it. But in crude hands and in different worlds it could have done. I shall therefore be looking through the course of this Bill to various things that will help us to strengthen autonomy.
My interest in this first clause is whether a definition helps us. Do we need a definition to say what it is we are helping to provide special protection for? I am made a little nervous by my noble friend Lord Willetts’s comments because the reason that things have not been defined in Bills over the years is the danger of a definition excluding things by accident. Very often when we draw a line we find that we have produced a new boundary and that it is better to leave some things a little greyer. In the 19th century, universities probably meant places where there were multiplicities of departments, but we know of very good liberal arts universities in the United States that do not teach science and are perfectly properly described as universities. Other examples were given by my noble friend Lord Willetts.
I am nervous about the clause as it is defined at the moment, but am interested in the Minister’s response. If he can say that he will take it away and think of this problem of definition, I would be happy with that. As drafted, it is not perfect. It would be odd for any small and perhaps specialised university of great distinction in certain areas that the behemoth of the regulator could demand that it was failing because it was not helping overseas markets or something or other, so there is a danger here. I want definitions to be defended. I do not think that we have it quite in this clause, but my support or not for the clause will somewhat depend on the spirit in which the Minister replies and whether he will agree to take this away and work at it to see if something a little more workable can be discovered.
My Lords, I support the amendment put forward by my noble friend Lord Stevenson and his colleagues in what promises to be a full-scale and important debate on higher education. It is indeed odd, and even extraordinary, that universities are not mentioned in the Bill. I declare an interest, having been chancellor of Leeds University for the last 16 years.
En passant, I note the spectacularly impressive number of academics of the highest achievement who have expressed serious reservations and opposition to much of the Bill. Surely, in this House more than any other, we believe that the voices of experts, especially of such calibre—many of whom are in this House now—ought to be listened to and recognised as the best wisdom available on the subject.
The Government seem intent on a pincer movement, first introducing free-market rules that could best be described as downmarket options. New colleges called new providers—George Orwell would have loved that—will be able to acquire degree-awarding powers without having to build up a track record by teaching another university’s degree first. None of that boring old research and listening preparation nonsense for this Government, it seems.
The current university system could be called a fine example of the marketplace at its best—there is much talk of the marketplace. There is heavy, open competition for entrance to universities, and heavy competition for lectureships and professorships. When universities put in for grants and funds they realise they are competing with many other universities—sometimes all over the world—and they work out the most competitive as well as the most scholastically satisfactory proposal. This is a marketplace of the mind, but none the less a marketplace and an increasingly key one for the future. Our universities embrace and revel in it.
One of the reasons for this effective balance between learning and earning lies in the autonomy and individuality of our universities. They are not one size fits all, beholden to the state or looking forward to launching themselves on the FTSE 100. They are, to use a phrase of Alan Bennett’s, just “keeping on keeping on” at a high level in different but effective ways, with fertile variations, with their primary purpose: scholarship. As we know, the consequences of scholarship can increasingly be very profitable, wide-ranging across the whole of society and, from the evidence we have, increasingly essential to the success of a 21st-century economy, which, in so many other areas, has found this country wanting. But the heart of it is learning, and the heart of that is the curiosity to pursue knowledge for the sake of more knowledge. Key to that is a certain looseness and confidence in individual and often idiosyncratic needs—private space, in short, for what our greatest scientists and writers in the humanities have always needed to generate their best work. This cannot be legislated for: it is an individual-to-individual decision. This heavy-handed state control is the enemy to that free-ranging condition.
The clamp of the Government’s decision to create a new body—a central control unit—the Office for Students, is anathema to freedom, of which we need more, not less. It would impose another layer of regulation. Goodness knows, universities in this country, like schools, hospitals and the Government themselves, are all but disappearing under the tangleweed of overregulation. Who will run these new bodies, which will interfere so radically in the affairs of the variety of universities? How will they be trained? Where will they come from? How will they know more than those already working hard inside the universities who are the best people? They are already there inside the universities. All of these universities, from the ancient to the relatively new, have built up through expertise and expediency individual and ingenious ways to ride the tide of the times. There is danger of strangulation by bureaucracy.
As they take an increasingly important place in our society as one of the few success stories of the last few decades, universities are being asked to do more, which they are doing. They have now become the forum for disputes about free speech, and it is in universities where unacceptable and destructive racist attitudes must be and will continue to be challenged, I trust. In cities thoughtlessly stripped of traditional industries it is universities that have often provided the new hub of hope in the place.
No doubt others will itemise ways universities can be improved, and I look forward to hearing that. though, we must declare and itemise their current strengths. Universities must be high on the agenda—as high as they are on the ladder of learning in this country. I look forward to the Minister confirming that he will go along with the amendment.
My Lords, the amendment is very important for one reason. Having taken part in Second Reading, I declare my interests once again as chancellor of the University of Birmingham, chair of the advisory board of the Cambridge Judge Business School, and honorary fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge—I could go on.
This is a once-in-many-decades opportunity to improve the higher education sector in this country. One could argue that we have the best universities in the world, along with the United States, in spite of underfunding. The key issue is that we underfund our universities. If we put in the funding equivalence of the United States of America, or of the European Union, or the OECD average it in itself would improve our universities hugely. But, as an entrepreneur building businesses, I live by the mantra not of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but of restless innovation, of the world belonging to the discontent.
To that extent, I applaud the Bill’s objective to try to improve our universities. I also recognise the Minister, Jo Johnson, for his commitment to this, for listening through the entire Second Reading, and for being here with us today. I know he and his department will listen, as, I hope, will the Minister.
I therefore agree with the noble Lords, Lord Waldegrave and Lord Willetts, that the use of “must” in this clause does not make sense in many circumstances. For example, in India, 1.5 million students apply to get into the Indian Institutes of Technology. The first cut is 130,000. Ten thousand of them make it. Some of the brightest people in the world have come out of that funnel and run some of the biggest organisations in the world today. It has nothing to do with engineering, but it is a specialist engineering science institution. Caltech is always ranked among the top universities in the world. It is a pure science institution. One cannot therefore prescribe that all universities must do everything, but the spirit of this amendment is absolutely right: that universities on the whole must strive for variety.
Caltech has a range of other departments, including philosophy, history, social sciences and English.
I was stressing that it focuses on technology—that is its strength and why it wins all those Nobel prizes—but I acknowledge what the noble Lord says.
I go back to areas of specialisation and the purpose of universities. The mindset of certain people, including in this country, is, “You should study at university what you can apply in a job thereafter”—that is, a sort of vocational mindset. Our universities are not what that is about. My oldest son is reading theology at Cambridge. I do not think that he is going to become a priest, but if he wants to, that is up to him. I do not think that that will happen—he will probably become a management consultant—but what he will learn in that environment is phenomenal. He gets one-to-one supervisions with world leaders in his subject. Not every university does that or can afford to do it, but he has that ability. I consulted Cambridge on this. It said that it recognises the importance of diversity in research and teaching and that the success of global competitiveness of the UK’s universities relies on the core principles of sustainability, diversity and—here is the crux of it—institutional autonomy. That is what worries so many of us about this Bill and why this proposed new clause, right up-front, is so important. It is the spirit of it that I completely support.
The pro-vice-chancellor for education at Cambridge, Graham Virgo, has spoken about the last part of the amendment, which is about being a critic and conscience of society. To narrow down the definition just to teaching and research will be to miss the opportunity to improve our universities and to miss the point. Professor Virgo pointed by way of example to the New Zealand Education Act 1989, which had five criteria for defining a university. The fifth of those was for an institution to accept a role as a critic and conscience of society. That is so important and it is why the amendment sets right up-front the essence of what universities should strive to be about, so that we do not go down the wrong track in this once-in-many-decades opportunity to improve our already fantastic, best-of-the-best, proud, jewel-in-the-crown universities.
My Lords, I, too, support the spirit of this amendment, and I declare an interest as emeritus professor at Loughborough University and a fellow of the British Academy and the Academy of Social Sciences. I apologise that I was not able to speak at Second Reading, but I suspect that my contribution was not missed among the 70-odd people who did speak. I have read the debate, and very thoughtful it was. The clear thread running through a large number of contributions from all sides of the House was the perceived threat to university autonomy and academic freedom. I fear that those concerns were not assuaged by the Minister’s assurances, hence the motive behind the amendment.
The fears have to be set in the context of what is widely seen as the creeping marketisation and consumerisation of universities. As my noble friend Lady Bakewell put it, students are now consumers of a product, as if a university were a department store. Many would argue that all that is precious about universities in terms of the development of critical thinking, and in particular encouraging students to think critically and not simply accept what they are given, is being increasingly subordinated to an instrumentalist, economistic concept of a university as in effect a degree factory feeding UK plc.
I suspect the Minister will say that the amendment is not necessary because the Government have said they are committed to the key principles it contains. But surely there would be no better way of demonstrating that commitment than by either accepting the amendment or, given that a number of noble Lords have pointed to possible weaknesses in the wording—and my noble friend on the Front Bench has made it clear that he is not wedded to the exact wording—offering to bring forward their own amendment setting out what a university is and the principles it should pursue. That would show their commitment and establish a clear framework for our deliberations on the Bill. In doing so, the Government would go some way to reassuring both Members of your Lordships’ House and the many organisations and individual academics who have written to us to express their fears that the Bill is taking us too far down a road that is incompatible with the basic principles of what a university is and what a university should be.
My Lords, the amendment begins very well:
“UK universities are autonomous institutions”,
but the rest of the subsection abolishes that effect entirely. I am really worried about the ability in the Bill of a quango to abolish Oxford, to put it in cartoon terms. This proposed subsection gives anybody the right to abolish Oxford. The moment that anybody can argue that Oxford has not upheld the principles of academic freedom, and if that is argued in court and it goes against Oxford, it is no longer a university. That is an astonishing level of control. You really do not need the rest of the Bill. There would be complete government control over all universities just by having this amendment as the Bill. There is so much in here that allows universities to be controlled because it is mostly about telling universities what they have to do.
If we are going to have a clause such as this—and I really support the idea of it—let us have something that gives universities rights, declares that they are autonomous, and other things that we can think of that work, but let us not keep all these unstructured obligations on them, which can go only in entirely the opposite direction from that which is intended by the proposers.
My noble friend is making a really important point, which I strongly agree with. Will he accept that when we turn later to, for example, Amendment 65 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, we then have an approach which might be better at achieving this objective than the approach we are debating now?
My Lords, I entirely agree that there are some very interesting amendments later on, which may attract me, if not my Chief Whip.
My Lords, I remind the House of my interest as master of Pembroke College, Cambridge. I support the amendment. We get the opportunity to legislate on higher education once every couple of decades. It is therefore really important that we get it right. It seems really sensible to put into the Bill a definition of what we are talking about. That is especially important because one thing the Bill does is give a fast-track procedure for new universities to be created. We ought therefore to be framing as part of that legislation a definition of what a new university should be committed to.
I have to say that I am taken by one or two of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, about the precise wording of parts of the amendment. I think he has fastened on the one point where the amendment is weak; that is, in allying the word “must” with the extensive range of subjects. Actually, it is right to put “must” in the Bill in relation to the commitment of a university to academic freedom. If Oxford University were to abandon the principles of academic freedom, it would rightly be up in front of the court of public opinion or a court of law.
On this specific point, I have read the amendment carefully and it does not say that a university must provide a range; it says that “universities must”. This is a very important and somewhat subtle point which needs to be taken seriously.
I take the point from the noble Lord, Lord Judd. However, I think that it would be important for the avoidance of doubt to ensure that there can be no doubt about the ability of a very focused university, concentrating on a particular range of subjects or type of subject, none the less to stand tall and clear as an accepted university. Laying aside the point about “must” and “extensive range”, the whole thrust of this amendment and the principles behind it are absolutely in the right direction. For heaven’s sake, let us put this into the Bill and then set about making one or two adjustments at a subsequent stage of our discussions to get it specifically right. The broad principles enshrined in the amendment are absolutely the right ones that we need to focus on. I make two observations in relation to that.
First, academic freedom and autonomy is not a luxury for a university; it is part and parcel of what a university is. It is rightly said that a university does not teach people what to think but how to think, and that happens through debate, discourse, discussion, research and the contestability of ideas. It arises from a clash of minds and, above all, from no one in a university being told by anyone—government or anyone else—what to think. Secondly, in the ghastly jargon of the age, we are, I fear, living in a post-truth society. Universities, par excellence, are about truth and evidence. They are about making sure that we pay attention to knowledge and reality. I particularly like the phrase in Amendment 1 about,
“the pursuit, dissemination, and application of knowledge”,
because a university absolutely has to do that: pursue knowledge and research, attend to it and discuss it, test it, then disseminate and apply it. It has a duty to its students, to itself as a research community and to wider society. This amendment gets it broadly right. It does not have every single word right, but let us put it in the Bill and then make it even better when we come to further stages of discussion.
My Lords, my declaration is simple: I am not a vice-chancellor, a chancellor or a master of a college but I join in the paean of praise for much of what is done in our universities today and I share many of the concerns.
If one seeks to define the open society, surely the role and status of a university in that society would be an essential part of it. Having lived for some years in a totalitarian society when I served behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s, I saw the pressures on those universities, and I think there is a great danger that we take for granted the freedoms which we enjoy in our own university system.
My Lords, I apologise for not taking part at Second Reading, but your Lordships will remember that 6 December was the day after we had the long debate on the composition of this House on 5 December, and I thought it would be trying your Lordships’ patience too much.
I shall speak very briefly. I want to make one point only, and it is this: we have before us a Bill that is riddled with imperfections and an amendment which is far from perfect. We have the great good fortune of having a Minister of State in charge of this Bill—to whom tribute has rightly been paid on a number of occasions, including by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson—who is following our proceedings assiduously and in person. I think it is impossible to conceive that he will not take note of what is said today when he discusses it with the Minister in this House. It is important that this crucial point—the spirit of this amendment—is taken on board and considered.
However, we have not a convention but a general habit in your Lordships’ House not to amend in Committee but rather to give Ministers the opportunity to reflect and consider, and then to press, and to press with vigour, on Report. Many is the time when I have found it necessary to vote against the Government on Report. It may well be that that will occur many times during Report on this Bill, but I do not think that on the very first day that this Bill is before us we should tie anyone’s hands by inserting an amendment which it has been admitted even by its advocates needs improvement. Let us try in the conversations that take place both within and without this House to get it right.
There is a great deal to get right. This is an imperfect Bill that threatens some of our cherished academic freedoms, even if inadvertently. There has never been a time when we needed vigorous universities more than we need them now defending freedom of speech. That is necessary, and we are reminded even this very day by some of the comments on how philosophy should be taught and on which philosophers should be exalted and which put down to accept that much is rotten in this state and we need to get it right.
I take a bit of issue with the noble Lord on this occasion. Does he not think that this definition will pervade the whole of our discussion throughout the Bill, which is why pushing this in Committee may be completely justified, even though it is not usual practice in this House?
Of course it will pervade our discussions throughout the Bill, in Committee and on Report, and it may well be necessary to move a refined amendment on Report and to vote on it—of course it may. But do not let us tie a Minister of State’s hands when he has shown himself anxious and eager to listen to what your Lordships say. We are having a good debate, and have had some notable speeches. Let us not push this to a vote this afternoon.
My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord’s comments, because I have the greatest possible difficulty with this amendment, for a reason that nobody in the Committee has stated this afternoon. The amendment, as drafted, risks disqualifying—and hence turning some into sheep and some into goats—a whole group of bodies that have been given degree-awarding powers and the title of university since the legislation enabling that in 2004. I should declare an interest in that I am chancellor of BPP University, which is one of the biggest of the new, private universities. We were given degree-awarding powers in 2007 and, much to our great pleasure, were awarded the title of university in 2013.
What do I find when I read the proposed new clause? We would be supposed to provide a full range of subjects—but we do not and never did, although we have a full range of business subjects. Many of my colleagues in the 60 or 70 institutions that have gained degree-awarding powers are in the same place. This clause would just put us somewhere else. It gets rather worse as it goes on, with the second proposed new clause, at which point “UK universities” become separated from other, for-profit universities. We would somehow have ceased to be UK universities, but surely we are constituted under the 2004 legislation—so what would happen? Would we all be universities, with the title, or would we in some way not be, as UK universities become the sheep and the rest of us become the goats?
I have a real problem with this proposed new clause. The legislation was perfectly all right as originally drafted, when we were all higher education providers, but this clause would, for I think many of us, throw a real spanner into the works right at the beginning of the Bill. I would have to oppose the amendment were we to take a vote.
My Lords, I speak as a past vice-chancellor of Cambridge, but more importantly, I have associations with universities all around the world and other universities here in the UK. I support the proposed new clause but also support the need to give it further consideration. I will make just one point: it does not mention governance, and whether universities not only are autonomous but have the right to determine how they govern themselves. This has been a matter of some consideration over the years in various universities, and we debated it intensely in Cambridge at one time. Universities should be allowed to determine their own form of governance, and some words need to be included in a clause like this to say that. It would be a good idea not to go ahead immediately with the proposed new clause but to discuss it much further, particularly taking into account the independence of universities in determining how they govern themselves.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Stevenson for tabling this important amendment, and I join others in supporting it. I declare the interests that I declared in my contribution at Second Reading.
This is the first major Bill on higher education for a generation, and it will have far-reaching consequences. One of its aims, as we have heard, is to extend university title considerably. It is a matter of great concern to me that this legislation has so far made no attempt to define what a university is, its role in society more widely or, particularly, what we expect these new universities to do.
There has been so much change in the sector that I can see there is a need for regulatory reform, and I am in favour of it. I am in favour of raising the profile of teaching and of providing incentives for high-quality delivery. I am certainly not against change or challenge—universities have always changed in response to perceived social and economic needs—and new entrants to our higher education sector throughout its long history have ensured its diversity and the spread of excellence that we are so rightly proud of today.
We will have an opportunity to discuss university autonomy specifically and in detail in the next group but the threats to it contained in the Bill, and its proposals regarding university title, seem to undermine what we understand as the function and value of a university. They will endanger both the quality of our universities and the reputation of UK higher education overseas. So although I acknowledge the difficulties in providing a definition, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and others have suggested, I think we have to go down the path of having this clause at the front of the Bill. I believe it is an essential step in mitigating the risks that I perceive.
As others have said, the Minister could go some way to alleviating my anxieties by responding to some questions. Does he agree that offering an extensive range of high-quality academic subjects, delivered by excellent teaching and supported by scholarship and research, is what has given our universities world-leading status? Does he recognise that universities’ contribution to society, through the pursuit, dissemination and application of knowledge and expertise locally, nationally and internationally, is made possible by their status as autonomous institutions, free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society? Does he agree that UK universities must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech and ensure that they promote freedom of thought and expression? Will he tell us what his Government mean by a university and, if he cannot, will he allow the amendment, or something like it, to stand?
Attempts to articulate the meaning of a university have a distinguished history, from Humboldt and Newman in the 19th century through to the 1963 Robbins report and the Dearing inquiry in 1997. The proposed new clause echoes some of what Robbins said. He defined four objectives essential to any “properly balanced” higher education system. They included “instruction in skills”, balanced by the objective that universities must also promote the,
“general powers of the mind”,
to produce “cultivated men and women”. He said that teaching should not be separated from the advancement of learning and the search for truth, since,
“the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes of the nature of discovery”.
Robbins’ final objective was,
“the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship”.
Some of the wording may now sound arcane, but the principles are still profoundly right. Robbins recognised the importance of universities’ autonomy and the principle of academic freedom. He included in that the right of academics to be active citizens and to pronounce on political questions, making universities the home of public intellectuals and a creative and independent cultural force.
The Bologna declaration, signed by the heads of most European universities in 1988, further enshrined principles that the university is an autonomous institution with the distinctive mission of embodying and transmitting the culture of its society; that teaching and research must be inseparable; and that freedom in research and training is the fundamental principle of university life. For Dearing, the central vision was the need for the UK to develop as a learning society in which higher education would make a distinctive contribution through teaching at its highest level, through the pursuit of scholarship and research and, increasingly, through its contribution to lifelong learning.
Clearly, we attach a great deal to “the university”. Having the title “university” carries significant reputational implications because of all that is meant by the word. As UUK and others have warned, it is essential that new providers can demonstrate that they can provide high-quality education. Any new higher education provider awarding their own degrees or calling themselves a university must meet the same high requirements as existing universities. The bar to entry must be high in order to protect students and the global reputation of the sector. We need robust criteria for new entrants that reflect the role of universities in teaching, research and scholarship, as well as wider civic and social roles. I believe the new clause will help to achieve that.
My Lords, I feel incredibly nervous speaking surrounded by chancellors past and present, professors, masters, wardens et al, as someone who received a certificate of education and then did a part-time degree while he was working. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, that the reason for the clause is the Bill itself and what it might cause to happen, and what we are seeing on some of our university campuses in terms of academic freedom and freedom of speech.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Smith, that the wording of any definition has to be precise. Subsection (3) of the proposed new clause states:
“UK universities must provide an extensive range of high quality academic subjects”.
It is the phrase “extensive range” that worries me. Your Lordships will be aware that there are specialist universities such as the University for the Creative Arts, the Arts University Bournemouth and, in my city, the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, which was set up by Paul McCartney to develop the creative and performing arts. By their nature, they do not have an extensive range of academic subjects; they have a specialist, narrow range. I am sure that the clause was not intended to exclude them, but that irks those colleges and goes to show how important it is to get the wording right.
As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, the Bill is imperfect, and this is the opportunity to make an imperfect Bill perfect. The new clause can be simply dealt with if the Minister responds by saying, “Yes, it is important that we have a definition and state the functions of a university, and we will spend time getting the wording right”. If that does not happen, it will presumably have to be pressed to a vote.
Does the noble Lord agree that, under the conventions of this House, if we vote on the amendment today, we are stuck with it; we cannot change it any more? If we want to do better—to produce an amendment with the same sort of effects but which takes into account all the good advice from, for instance, the noble Lord, Lord Broers, and the noble Lord himself—we must not vote today; we must aim to vote on a better amendment.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. That is why I said that when the Minister replies, he must state clearly his intentions regarding the functions of universities. If he spells that out, there will be no need to press this to a vote.
My Lords, I have no offices to declare and I hope I will not bore the House, but I had experience of setting up a new university, the University of the Highlands and Islands, some 20 years ago. I recall that there was huge opposition from existing universities, which did not like the idea of a new university using new technology and the emerging internet, so I have reservations about the amendment. By creating a definition, it appears to be restricting the opportunities for change, variety and diversity in the university sector, so I think it is fundamentally misguided.
I also think that it is a great mistake to have declarative clauses in any legislation. If the amendment were passed, how would it be enforced? What kind of trouble would it cause existing universities, with people bringing judicial review and so on? Then I thought: why are so many very bright, intelligent and knowledgeable people getting up to make speeches in support of it? The elephant in the room is that we are worried about the content of the Bill and the effect that it will have on the autonomy and freedom of speech of the universities. As the noble Lord, Lord Myners, pointed out, we are also worried about the extent to which corporate governance in some universities is strong and effective enough to ensure value for money for the taxpayer. So the Minister has a difficult task.
The problem arises because of the content of the Bill. It would seem better to address the issues that are included in the list by looking at what the legislation says. I am a free market Tory; I do not believe in government interfering in institutions that are doing perfectly well, thank you very much, but I do believe in getting value for money. However, I do not think that it is right to create a situation that we had in Scotland recently—if I can use the referendum word—where the principal of my former university, St Andrews, complained about Mr Alex Salmond putting pressure on the university for political reasons. That is a good example of how things can go very badly wrong.
We should focus on the content of the Bill and what the Bill says to strengthen the autonomy of universities. To pass the amendment would be a very great mistake because, as many people have said—including my noble friend Lord Willetts—by putting in a definition of this kind we may actually achieve the opposite of what is intended in its purpose. I speak in support of the Minister, who has a difficult job. I think that he should reject the amendment, but he should also go back to his colleagues and say, “There is a problem here. What can we do in terms of the substance of the Bill to address the concerns about having autonomy in our universities and keeping government and outside organisations from interfering in their day-to-day work and in their views on how they should be run and expanded?”.
Following on from the noble Lord’s comments, if the Minister is minded to reject the amendment and go and think about it, could he think in particular about the many institutions that sometimes appear in different parts of the world under the title of university, which may not be universities that this Bill is designed to promote or protect, nor institutions where we would want many of our young people to seek their education? I have in mind not merely the well-known Hamburger University, which has a rather limited set of subjects on the menu, but also those universities that are in fact annexes or derivatives of respectable universities which set themselves up in other parts of the world and which would be most attracted to setting themselves up in a place where students have access to funding for their tuition. Those places offer a very narrow, minimal and perhaps not very demanding set of subjects.
The Minister told us at Second Reading that the big problem currently is that the legislation is needed to update the regulation of universities. I accept the point, but it would be much more helpful to know which specific mischiefs the Government hope to remedy with this piece of legislation. There are specific mischiefs—the noble Lord, Lord Myners, mentioned one of them; there are places where too little teaching is done. But I am very certain that, if the Bill goes through unamended, there will be many more universities, so-called, where very little teaching is done. It is quite ordinary for institutions to compete not to be the best or to have the best offerings but to make the greatest profit and to do it in the most cheap, cheerful and economical way. As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said, as we move through a technological revolution, of which MOOCs will be a serious part, we need to think very hard about what is not a university. That may be rather easier than defining what is a university.
First, I declare an interest. I am an emeritus governor of the LSE and a life member of court of Newcastle University as well as being a fellow and life member of court of Lancaster University.
My experience in those quarters has left me in no doubt that this new clause is definitely needed, and this has been an interesting debate about what its exact shape should be. It should be looked at in relation to Amendment 65, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and Amendments 165 and 166 in the name of my noble friend Lord Stevenson. They make the crucial point that this legislation should state that the Secretary of State has an inescapable responsibility to uphold academic freedom and freedom of thought. That first principle should be there, right at the beginning of the Bill. I am very glad that my noble friend has tabled those amendments, but it would have been better if their proposals had been included in this new clause.
There are some pressing issues which make this more urgent than ever, and colleagues in the House have spoken about them. The post-truth society is being talked about: there is a desperate need to rebuild and regenerate a commitment of some weight to the search for truth and excellence. That is crucial. I have sometimes reflected that the real test of a good university is the strength of its departments of ethics and philosophy. There is not much ethics these days in most universities. More than this, there is a terrible confusion growing in society about the difference between education and training. If we are to operate our society effectively, of course we need very good training. Some will be vocational training which is sometimes terribly impressive in its quality and its leadership. We also need increasingly to be able to see issues in a multidisciplinary context. It is trite, but it can be said that these days it is a matter of knowing more and more about less and less. We have to have somewhere where things are being brought together and views challenged from different perspectives.
This new clause is very important; we need to make sure that all these ideas are taken on board, as I am sure my noble friend would be the first to agree. His opening speech was very conciliatory and invited suggestions about how the situation could be improved. I hope he meant that because it is important—I am glad and relieved to see him nod his head.
This has been an excellent debate and it would be very unwise not to take these ideas fully on board. Coming back to my first point, we must not, with all our preoccupations, miss the opportunity to leave future Secretaries of State in any doubt about their personal, direct, ministerial responsibility to uphold the principles of academic freedom and autonomy in every way that they can.
My Lords, many issues have come up in the debate on which I agree with the speaker, but the difficulty is that not all the speakers agree with each other, which results in a bit of a patchwork. However, on one or two points, not least the point about definitions, this illustrates something. The risk with a definition is that you can get the detail wrong and thus invalidate much of what you want to do, and I have much sympathy with the points made by those sitting on the Benches to my left.
That said, I turn to someone whose works I read at university but subsequently lost, the philosopher Wittgenstein, who wrote about definitions. He was not very keen on them because of the risk that you think you have got them right when you have not. He suggested instead—it is a bit difficult if you are legislating, but it has a place here—that rather than legislate through definition we should assemble examples as a reminder of the richness of what we are talking about. Earlier in the debate, we heard an excellent example of what universities are about. Two Members of the House who are professors at King’s College London publicly disagreed with each other. That is marvellous; that is what universities should be doing. There should be room for that. The risk with a definition is that it could miss out the University of the Highlands and Islands, the Open University or all sorts of other examples. The Imperial College of Science and Technology was under very close scrutiny when the University of London was asked to set it up, but where would we be today without it? Therefore, I simply sound a cautionary note about the risk of overlegislating through definition.
My Lords, I apologise to the House as I was not able to take part in the Second Reading debate, so I have listened to the debate this afternoon particularly carefully. I always listen carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, but also to the other expert Members of your Lordships’ House.
In so far as this amendment emphasises the importance of academic freedom and autonomy, I understand and support it, although whether it will achieve that is quite another matter. We have already heard several examples, from my noble friend Lord Willetts and others, of unintended consequences and how the amendment may have the opposite effect to the one that is intended. My concern is that noble Lords’ speeches, with the exception of that of the noble Lord, Lord Myners, have made only the briefest acknowledgement of the shortcomings in the way in which universities currently operate. The spirit behind the amendment, and of the speeches on it, seems too often to suggest that things should be left as they are, that things need to be done, but that universities can be left to get on and make the necessary reforms from within their own ranks. I have to say that I do not share that confidence.
Before I go any further, I declare an interest as an honorary fellow—I emphasise “honorary fellow”—at an Oxford college. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, said that he spoke from the experience of his time in Belgium. I speak from the experience of having four children who have recently gone through a UK university, and their friends, some of whom are still at university. From their point of view, the undergraduate experience is all too often unsatisfactory. It does not, in the phrase of my noble friend Lord Forsyth, represent value for money. This is not the place to go into all that, because we shall get into it in more detail later in the Bill. However, it is clear that from undergraduates’ point of view the over focus on research leads to them feeling they are being neglected. In science subjects, it is clear that large classes are too often taught by PhDs from overseas whose first language is not English and therefore cannot be understood; and that in the arts there is a lack of a proper framework, with students preparing two or three essays per term and otherwise being left to read around in the library. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, offered us a quotation. Somebody who wrote to me about this debate said: “I am effectively paying £9,000 per annum for the use of a good library”.
My final reason as to why universities will not be able to reform themselves is that when one of my children was at university there was the non-contentious issue of how the organisation could be made to operate more effectively. I went down, not in a litigious or combative frame of mind, to say, “This could be done”. If I had been stuck on the shoe of the person I spoke to, I could not have been treated worse. I was given five minutes. I was told that my child was over 18, that I had no reason to interfere or get involved, as it was up to them to make any complaints, and that I should please go away. That is why, living in this bubble, universities will need to understand that there is more to be done. Therefore, change is needed, and in so far as the amendment wishes to enhance the status quo with regard to undergraduates, I hope that my noble friend will not accept it.
My Lords, I should probably have declared my interests in my Second Reading speech—but they are in the register and I declare them now.
I will start with a theme that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and other noble Lords brought up: autonomy. I shall not, given how long the debate has gone on, repeat the points that the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, my noble friend Lord Winston and other noble Lords made. In particular, my noble friend Lady Warwick made a substantive speech which I hope will command the attention of the House. I remind the House of the mechanisms that we utilised in the past to try to ensure that university autonomy was sustained whatever the Government of the day, however unpopular or controversial the issues that might be raised, and however much public sentiment might not approve of them.
All through the history of modern universities, this country has inserted buffer arrangements between the state and higher education—and that is not an accident. It was an absolutely deliberate intention to make sure that the great qualities of universities could be sustained, irrespective of the calamities—the world wars and the other huge movements in tectonic plates. There was the UGC, later HEFCE, and even, when the polytechnics were going through the process of becoming universities, the work of the CNAA, which was designed to make sure that the older universities played a part in ensuring that the quality of the newer universities would be sufficiently adequate or better than sufficiently adequate to take their place as universities among the entire group—a system which worked well in England, Scotland and, as far as I am aware, in Wales. However, in every single case, and in particular in relation to teaching, the processes were both thorough on the part of those buffer bodies and also a protection of the autonomy and independence of universities so that they could pursue matters with genuine academic freedom.
In the field of research, the work that was originally done on quality assurance was never made prescriptive in a way that interfered with the autonomy of universities but expressed a desire to see great excellence being achieved in those places where it was possible and a broader spread of excellence in those places which perhaps could not do some of the work in particle physics or whatever it might be. I can remember—it is one of the interests I have declared—the negotiations with the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, about the character of the research excellence framework that he wished to see. Even the annual letter from the Secretary of State, first to HEFCE and then through the more recent period, was a general outline of what the expectations of the country were. It was never a set of orders to which universities must subscribe, which would lead, were they not to do so, to them being closed, cut back or denigrated. These were genuine protections. I am not trying to repeat a Second Reading point but these were the values to which this country signed up in 1997 in the UNESCO normative treaty on academic freedom and the independence of institutions, which this Bill would tear up.
I think that very careful thought about this amendment, which I intend to support, would be repaid, and the Minister will have to give very convincing reasons why, even in Committee, we should not consider it. Some of the arguments that have been put forward in your Lordships’ House this afternoon do not bear much examination. For example, as my noble friend Lady Cohen said, it is not the case that universities must all provide the full range of subjects. The wording is “an extensive range”.
I put it to the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, for whom I have great admiration, that it is not the case that many of the more specialist institutions are so narrow that they do not do a wide range of things, as those of us who have had the privilege of being Ministers covering higher education will know. Imperial College London was mentioned a while ago. The college is rich in every science, including all the social sciences, and it has absolutely magnificent ratings in all those areas. Even the conservatoire music colleges have usually extended their range. SOAS is certainly another example—and there are many. For the avoidance of doubt, there may be an opportunity in what the Minister says to achieve greater specificity regarding what we mean, but in my view that is the bottom line.
In conclusion, I am absolutely astounded by our squeamishness in worrying about whether we can define a university. There have no doubt been massive debates right across time about whether we can do that. I remember recently reading an account of whether Bob Dylan really had created literature, and there was a huge debate about what literature might be. There are always debates about these broader concepts. However, broadly speaking, when you go around the world and talk to people about coming to a university in the United Kingdom, they know very well what you mean. It is not an accident that so many people apply to come to the United Kingdom to study in our universities and they do not all complain that the terminology is fusty and old. I can imagine a focus group saying, “If only we didn’t call them universities. Let’s call them ‘higher education providers’ and floods of people will suddenly appear. The marketing will be transformed”. People come because of their expectations.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, that there may very well be people who are dissatisfied, or whose children are dissatisfied—but, broadly speaking, when you look at the number of people who want to come here and who understand perfectly well what we offer, you do not see a system that has broken down, although of course it could do with some reform. I have looked high and low to see what crisis the Bill is intended to resolve and I do not believe that it can be found. If it could, I can tell your Lordships that three areas for which I used to have responsibility—the Chevening, Marshall and Commonwealth scholarships—would be devoid of people wanting them. On the contrary, every single one of them is fought for.
My Lords, I apologise for taking more of the Committee’s time but I feel that we are losing sight of one of the major reasons why my name is attached to this amendment. I believe very strongly that we have to consider, up front, a definition of a university in the Bill. It is a question not of whether we do or do not have a definition but of who controls that definition. Absolutely rightly, the Bill distinguishes between degree-awarding powers and the title of “university”. So it should and so it must, because we are now in a world where many institutions which are not and will never wish to be universities give degrees. Further education colleges are a very obvious and important sector.
We are also, I am delighted to say, moving into a world with degree apprenticeships. The question is whether the definition of a university is perhaps not super-precise but clear and perfectly workable, like almost every other definition in legislation all over this land, or whether we leave the decisions about what a university is to the bureaucrats of the Office for Students, who will make those decisions but will never actually have to make them public.
So I come back to the purpose of this amendment and why we feel it is so important. If we do not have a definition in the legislation, there will be a definition but we will none of us have any control over it and we will never know what it is.
My Lords, I want to speak very briefly at what I assume is getting towards the end of an interesting debate. What worries Members of this House most about the Bill are the clauses about new providers, and my noble friend Lady Warwick made this very clear in her excellent speech. We have a system of higher education in this country that is highly regarded all over the world. We have many great universities from the point of view of research but we also have many great universities from the point of view of the quality of their teaching and the advanced vocational training that they provide. We do not want this great system undermined by too easily recognising new institutions and giving them degree-awarding powers before they have been through a proper probationary period, in which they are associated with existing institutions that will support their development and growth and help them gain the capacity to become institutions of higher education that we can recognise, embrace and support. That is at the centre of the concerns that have led to a wish to place at the front of the Bill a set of propositions about what constitutes not just a good university but a good system of higher education.
The other point I want to make is that for many, many decades, higher education has embraced not only universities but many other kinds of institution. Some of what has been said when discussing the question of whether or not universities should cover a wide range of disciplines has not quite taken into account the fact that there are specialist institutions that have for a long time, as I have said, not been defined as universities. In some ways, I think we may have made a mistake in deciding that some of these specialist institutions should now be called universities. Looking back, we see that colleges of education, medical schools, music conservatoires, specialist arts colleges and, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, mentioned, the Royal Agricultural College, were not defined as universities but as being part of a system of higher education. We might be able to bring some new specialist institutions in, but they should not necessarily—at least not at the beginning of their existence—be called universities.
Most people understand that the concept of a university covers a range of disciplines, allows academics to mix with colleagues from a wide range of subjects and allows students to work not just with those studying exactly the same subjects as themselves but with students studying a wide range of subjects.
There is, in a sense, a bit of a contradiction in this legislation. One principle of all good legislation is that it should be internally consistent and its parts make up the whole in a way that is appropriate and easily understood. On the one hand, Part 3 of the Bill is asking for an umbrella body—UKRI, which would cover all areas of research—in order, we are told, to ensure that there is cross-disciplinary research rather than researchers being in separate little boxes not communicating with each other. That is what good universities do. They are institutions that look at a particular intellectual problem from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives and try to solve that problem. That is why some of the institutions that I mentioned earlier are to me higher education institutions, but they are not universities as normally understood.
To pick up what the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, said a little earlier, what we should be doing now is not to try to define what a university is, because this Bill should not just be about universities. They are the main provider of higher education, but they may not be the sole providers. Rather we should start with something that sets out what the principles of good, strong, high-quality higher education should be. Of course, that should cover institutional autonomy, freedom of expression, academic freedom and a whole variety of other things that are mentioned in the amendment. But the way in which it has been framed at the moment leads to a certain concern that it is not definitionally perfect.
Will the Minister consider coming back to the House with a new amendment to start this Bill off that covers the sort of issues in the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Stevenson, and Cross-Bench and Liberal Democrat supporters? That would reassure us a little that the Government are concerned about these principles and will not rush into a set of legislative changes that will undermine the quality of our higher education system by bringing in new providers that will not meet these principles.
I speak as a lawyer, not as an academic. Indeed, until recently I thought that I was the only Member of the House who has not ever been a governor, chancellor or vice-chancellor of one of these institutions. As my noble friend Lady Wolf has now twice explained, the only direct relevance of this proposed new clause goes to the title of the body in question. In short, it goes only to Clauses 51 to 55 of the Bill. I understand her concern to be with regard to bodies being allowed to be called universities. Effect would be given to that if one said at the start of this new proposed clause: “For the purposes of Clauses 51 to 55, a higher education institution”—because that is what the whole of the rest of the Bill is about, assiduously avoiding any distinction between universities and those such bodies that are not—“should be regarded as entitled to use the title of university if it is an autonomous institution”, to return to the language of Amendment 1, et cetera.
With the best will in the world, although it seems to be the opinion of many in the House that the amendment will affect the view generally as to the autonomous nature of these institutions, as drafted it will not. It goes only to the title. It does not go even to the degree-awarding powers. That has nothing to do with whether a body is or is not called a university. Therefore it is much more appropriate, when concerned not with the title but with the autonomy of these higher educational institutions, to look at the amendments to which others have referred, Amendments 65 and 165, which deal not only with universities but with all higher education institutions.
If we want to give universities some special status, which this Bill as drafted at the moment assiduously does not, we have to recast the thing as a whole and say, “If you are a university, not only will you be able to call yourself such but these consequences follow”.
My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity on the first day back after the Recess to discuss our vision for universities. However, before I turn to the amendment I want first to thank noble Lords for their strong engagement to date. I have had time to reflect, as I am sure have other noble Lords, on the lengthy debate at Second Reading and I have been working hard over the Christmas period to consider the points that were raised and to engage on the issues, as we have throughout the passage of this Bill. I hope that noble Lords have received my subsequent letters. I and the team have been kept somewhat busy with the not inconsiderable number of considered and thoughtful amendments that have been tabled to date and I look forward to responding to each and every one of them. I also look forward to a good debate over the coming weeks and welcome the scrutiny that a Bill as important as this rightly deserves. As I said at Second Reading, we have been listening and continue to reflect, and I am looking forward to hearing the views and contributions of noble Lords from across the Committee. It is fair to say that we have made a pretty good start on this, the first debate.
The Bill before us today is the product of lengthy and thorough consultation and consideration, from the 2011 White Paper of my noble friend Lord Willetts entitled Students at the Heart of the System through to the White Paper published by the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation in May of last year, supported by a Green Paper that received more than 600 responses. The Bill also incorporates recommendations from Sir Paul Nurse’s review of the research councils, the review undertaken by the Higher Education Commission and the report of Professor Simon Gaskell on the long-awaited and much-needed reforms to the regulation of higher education.
Our English universities are some of our most valuable national assets and are powerhouses of intellectual and social capital. We believe that our reforms will help them to continue to thrive into the 21st century and beyond. The noble Baronesses, Lady Wolf and Lady Warwick, and the noble Lords, Lord Winston and Lord Krebs, have spoken authoritatively and passionately about their history, from papal bulls to the Dearing report. I also want to assure noble Lords that we do not intend to stop consulting and listening. In fact, we have listened carefully to the concerns raised around the pace at which we intend to implement the reforms, and I would like to take a moment to set out how we now intend to respond to these valid concerns.
As stated in the White Paper, we are aiming for the Office for Students to be in place in time for the 2018-19 academic year. This new regulatory framework, rather than being overly regulatory, as the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, suggested, improves on the current piecemeal approach to regulation. It will reduce the overall regulation of the sector for a risk-based approach. However, like noble Lords, we recognise the risks to students and providers of taking forward the implementation of the new regulatory framework in a way that may cause unnecessary disruption and instability to the sector. It is also important that further detailed development of the new regulatory framework is driven by the OfS executive team rather than it being led by the Government and then handed over to the OfS to implement. The campaign to recruit a chair is live and we expect to launch the CEO campaign shortly. The Director for Fair Access and Participation recruitment process will follow shortly afterwards. Therefore, subject to the passage of the Bill, this will allow the OfS to consult on its new regulatory framework in the autumn of this year and to begin accepting and assessing applications from new and existing providers in 2018, in time for the 2019-20 academic year rather than in 2018-19. This allows more time for thorough consultation on the detail of the new regulatory framework and for the sector to be ready for the new regime.
The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, asked whether the Minister had had discussions on these reforms with the skills Minister and I can reassure her that this has indeed happened. Regular discussions take place and the Bill is also complementary to the Technical and Further Education Bill, thus carrying out two reform programmes in parallel. This gives the best opportunity to support young people, a point rightly raised by the noble Baroness.
Let me now turn to this proposed new clause. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, has already quoted the definition that was set out by the Minister for Universities and Science in the other place and I agree that it is worthy of note. I note that several definitions have been made. Many of them carry favour.
Thank you very much to those who have contributed to this very good debate, which has been high-level and high-quality. I have particular thanks to those who signed up to my amendment. This will set us up well for the rest of Committee. We have already had more than 500 amendments tabled to the Bill and I gather that there are more to come. According to the Public Bill Office, this is the most amendments for any Bill in recent memory—although it then covered itself by saying that it had records going back only seven years, so there may be others. However, it is still quite a lot and a record.
I expected to have put myself up for an attack on my drafting and if you do that, you certainly set yourself up for it. I felt that while most people were very fair to my efforts, there was a bit of an attempt to play the man and not the ball. I also felt that a red card was due to the noble Lord, Lord Myners, for grading me a lower second for offering a contribution to improve the quality of the Bill. The theme was an offer to the Government to try to work together on this issue, which has obviously caught the interest of the House. Among the 30 Back-Bench speakers and two Front-Bench speakers, I think there were only four or five who could claim to support fully where the Government are trying to get to. I am afraid that the Minister lost the House in his long and rather difficult-to-follow explanation of why he wanted to refuse our generous offer to work with him to improve a statement that would enhance the Bill. I hope that people will remember that as we go forward into other issues.
We clearly have different visions about how to proceed. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, and to some extent, rather surprisingly, with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that the way forward is perhaps not to push this too hard at this stage because there is an opportunity to improve it later on, if the Government will play ball. But if the Government do not play ball, where are you? You are stuck. In this situation, it is therefore right that we take up the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury: we should take the courage of the conviction of those who spoke today, move forward with this amendment and, if necessary, amend around the Bill to improve any infelicities that there may be in the current drafting.
The major point made by the noble Viscount when he came to respond was that we would be placing burdens on universities by the form of the drafting. That point was explicitly refuted by the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, and picked up by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne of Eaton-under-Heywood, who said that it was not the case. The Minister has no argument for not accepting this proposal. As he will not, I wish to test the views of the House.
Committee (1st Day)
Relevant document: 10th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“UK universities: functions
(1) UK universities are autonomous institutions and must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech.(2) UK universities must ensure that they promote freedom of thought and expression, and freedom from discrimination.(3) UK universities must provide an extensive range of high quality academic subjects delivered by excellent teaching, supported by scholarship and research, through courses which enhance the ability of students to learn throughout their lives.(4) UK universities must make a contribution to society through the pursuit, dissemination, and application of knowledge and expertise locally, nationally and internationally; and through partnerships with business, charitable foundations, and other organisations, including other colleges and universities.(5) UK universities must be free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society.”
This is surely extraordinary, but does it really matter? Cannot the Office for Students just know one when it sees one, add a little procedural guidance and decide whether to bestow title accordingly? I suggest that that is not a good idea. First, it is a very odd way to proceed with something which is so important and financially valuable to people, and where the Government clearly believe that we need change. Definitions also matter because the term “university” means something special, and we need to know what it is in order to protect and promote it.
Universities are different from other providers of education, whether schools or other tertiary institutions. They are different because the concept of a university has at its core distinctive values and a commitment to society at large. Individual institutions may or may not live up to and deliver on these—and there are far too many countries in the world where Governments systematically obstruct their universities’ ability to do so—but that does not change the point. We recognise universities as distinct, while also sharing the quotidian activities of teaching, research and consultancy with other institutions, including many that award degrees and diplomas.
Obviously, we could spend weeks or months defining the term, but the question is, first, do we need a definition and, secondly, is the one we are offering today good enough? Other countries have concluded that they need a definition and have defined universities. I suggest that we also need the term to be defined, because otherwise one cannot distinguish clearly between what one asks of, gives to and demands of a university because it is a university and what one asks of other providers. In the past, universities and tertiary or higher education were pretty well synonymous, but that is no longer true. Across the globe, tertiary education is exploding and well on its way to becoming universal in many parts of the developed world.
Universities have changed the world because of what they are: because they are different and distinctive. That is why dictatorial Governments take them over and close them down. It is why people care so much about how government deals with them, and we should make it clear what we believe a university is.
The second question is whether the definition which stands in our names is good enough. I submit that it is: that it identifies the key characteristics of a university while allowing for diversity and evolution. It highlights autonomy, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of expression, as well as teaching, scholarship and research and, critically, universities’ direct contribution to society.
My favourite document on the topic of what is a university is a papal bull which Bishop Elphinstone succeeded in getting to authorise the University of Aberdeen, well before the Reformation. As people will know, university scholars and teachers were often a thorn in the side of the Church, just as the Church was a constant irritation to monarchs who would have liked to be absolute in the exercise of power. The reason I love this papal bull is not just the eloquence and elegance of its prose but because of how it conceives of a university: not as something that brings private gain to students or economic prosperity to the north but something established for the public and social good, to bring,
“that most precious pearl of knowledge”,
to a part of the kingdom deprived of it and,
“to found a university which would be open to all and dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of others”.
The Bill offers the opportunity to recognise what universities are and what they are for, and I hope that we will do so.
It is surely sad if there is a perceived need by so many Members of your Lordships’ House to have a definition of what a university should be. Clearly, we can argue about whether there should be “musts” or “shoulds” everywhere; it will not be actionable in any event. It has surely been taken for granted until now that there is no need to have such a definition, but now some of the principles are being challenged in the Bill. They are also challenged by some activities within universities. I worked with the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on tackling the anti-Semitism which permeates a number of our universities and is not clamped down on by overweak vice-chancellors, but that is perhaps a by-way in this. In my judgment, this is an admirable summary of the core principles of what a university should be about.
My only reservation, which has already been mentioned, is that by including one excludes, and that by defining there is a danger of excluding. All the principles are admirable. It may well be that the Government will have many ways of saying that they accept that there are broad principles here and that they wish to consider them and reflect on them but will reject the amendment because it is not perfect. I am sure that all Members of your Lordships’ House would be happy if the Government were to say today that they agree that there should be an honest attempt at a definition and that they are prepared to return, after due reflection, with a reformulation. Let that be.
I think noble Lords would agree that there are many parallels between this description and what the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, set out in his proposed new clause. However, I fear that the amendment imposes many more legal obligations on universities than it does government. Yes, it describes universities as autonomous, and, as I will set out in more detail, I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. I believe the Bill contains numerous provisions that are entirely consistent with the need to recognise institutional autonomy.
However, I fear that the amendment would, rather than protect, undermine institutional autonomy by placing legal obligations on universities that some would fail to meet and that all should be wary of. The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, said that the Bill has nothing to say about universities. However, I remind the noble Baroness that a university has never been defined in legislation before. We are not aware that this has led to particular problems in the system. My observation is that towards the tail end of the debate further doubts have been raised about the efficacy of placing a definition in the Bill.
As my noble friend Lord Willetts said, the clause would for the first time see the Government prescribing in statute how an autonomous institution should approach its mission and provide in a uniform manner its purpose, form and functions. While I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and agree with much of the spirit behind the amendment, higher education providers, including universities, are rightly autonomous institutions. They must continue to be free to determine how best to meet the needs of their students and employers, and to support wider society. It should not be for the Government to prescribe.
I am similarly wary of imposing wide-ranging obligations on universities of the sort the amendment proposes. As the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, said, the danger is that, in seeking to set out in legislation what might otherwise seem highly desirable aspirations, we set legally binding standards in a range of areas that universities and other providers will find extremely difficult to interpret as a matter of law and, hence, to meet. This point was alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Cohen.
My noble friend Lord Lucas made a very important point about the definition of a university and what it must do, and said that it might create a path for abolishing Oxford. In response, if a student, disgruntled business partner or rival institution brings a legal challenge and convinces a court that a university does not offer, for example, an extensive range of high-quality academic subjects, is it no longer a university? Surely not, but that is what accepting the amendment might lead to. Arguably, it opens up a much greater intrusion into institutional autonomy.
I think we would all agree that we want to see providers of higher education getting on with the job. By having to put in place new systems or processes to monitor and demonstrate compliance with a raft of new and extensive legal obligations, we risk them being diverted from that path. If we impose binding obligations in the areas covered by the amendment, I worry about what would happen if a provider fell short, even perhaps to a relatively minor degree. For example, could a business take a university to court if it decided not to enter into partnership with it? The proposed new clause does not say so, so we cannot be sure, but there must be some consequence for not complying with a legal duty; otherwise, that duty is meaningless. Again, what might on the face of it seem sensible codification might well have highly damaging effects in practice that we should be very careful to avoid.
Having made those general remarks, I turn to the individual themes that the detail of the amendment raises. I will first focus directly on academic freedom. As I said, I absolutely agree with the emphasis placed on the importance of academic freedom and independence. I hope that reassures the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, and many others who have spoken this afternoon. I refer noble Lords to an article that the Minister for Universities and Science wrote for Times Higher Education in December. As he said:
“The freedom to interrogate, discover and learn upholds the UK’s prosperity and delivers breakthroughs that can change the way we live and work. Nowhere is this principle more revered and more vital than in universities”,
where their “independence and autonomy” has allowed the sector to stand the test of time and “become world leaders”. That is why this Bill contains numerous provisions which are entirely consistent with the need to recognise institutional autonomy and which explicitly protect academic freedom. I hope that this reassures noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, who spoke passionately about this issue.
In this Bill, the Government have gone considerably further to protect academic freedom than in the previous legislation—that is a very important point that I want to make. The Bill defines explicit new protections for the freedom of English higher education providers. These protections are applied at every point in the Bill where the Secretary of State may influence the OfS: through guidance, conditions of grant and directions. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, raised the question of particular courses of study. We strengthened those protections through amendments on Report in the other place in response to concerns expressed about the Secretary of State having undue influence over the ability of higher education institutions to choose what subjects to offer. The Bill explicitly protects in Clause 14 the principle of freedom for academic staff to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial opinions without putting themselves at the risk of, at worst, losing their jobs.
Perhaps I may turn this argument around. Universities already have a legal duty to uphold freedom of speech. Under Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, they must take reasonable steps to secure freedom of speech for staff, students, employees and visiting speakers. Universities must issue and publicise a code of practice setting out procedures to be followed in relation to meetings or activities taking place on their premises. The Bill does nothing to alter this duty and how it applies to universities and other higher education providers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, spoke of the powers in the Bill to revoke university title. The Bill introduces refined and express powers for the OfS to revoke degree-awarding powers in university title to ensure that we do not allow poor quality in our system that would undermine the reputation of English universities—which I am sure we would all agree with—and put students at risk. Let me reassure the House that the powers will be rarely used but they are a necessary safeguard to protect quality. That is a very important point. The powers are limited and subject to rigorous safeguards: first, that they can be used only where they are proportionate; and, secondly, any decision to use them can be appealed to a tribunal. There is also an affirmative process that has to be taken through Parliament.
Several speeches highlighted the importance of university teaching; for example, the development of critical or abstract thinking—the noble Lord, Lord Smith, put it rather succinctly, and many other speakers raised the issue—so I want now to focus on teaching quality. I, too, agree that universities must provide excellent teaching, with teaching informed and supported by scholarship and research which enhance the ability of their students to learn throughout their lives. As set out in the White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, only higher education providers that successfully gain full degree-awarding powers will be eligible to apply for university title.
As set out in the criteria for degree-awarding powers, a higher education provider must ensure that its staff maintain a close and professional understanding of current developments in research and scholarship in their subjects and, where relevant, keep in touch with practice in their professions. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, raised concerns about for-profit providers. We hear that they will not act in the interest of students, but this is simply not true. That is demonstrated by the University of Law, which is a for-profit provider and came joint first for overall satisfaction in the most recent national student survey. We are streamlining processes and strengthening regulation and not lowering quality.
However, while I agree that teaching should be informed and supported by scholarship and research, I have to agree with the changes made under the Labour Government in 2004. As my noble friend Lord Willetts explained, those changes to the criteria for university title removed the requirement for universities to need to award research degrees and also removed the requirement for a university to have students in five different subject areas. The amendment would be a regressive step. The changes were rightly made to allow for a greater diversity of specialist universities in higher education, and recognised that teaching is a legitimate primary activity for a university. If we place barriers in the way of new and innovative universities, we risk diminishing the relevance and value of our higher education sector to changing student and employer needs—becoming a relic of the 20th century while the rest of the world moves on.
There are many excellent institutions that match closely the description set out in the noble Lord’s proposed clause, but there are other forms of excellence that are equally valuable to students and to society. We want to set the groundwork for the coming decades: if we want to allow innovation to flourish, we must allow room for different approaches, perhaps ones that we cannot now even predict. In particular, the requirement for a university to offer an extensive range of academic subjects would not only conflict with international experience of excellent single-subject institutions, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, but would exclude current universities which are already making great contributions to the UK.
For example, Harper Adams University became a university in 2013 and focuses its provision on subjects that directly support the rural economy. It has an excellent international reputation and was chosen as the modern university of the year in the Times Good University Guide 2017. The Arts University Bournemouth has not only made great contributions to the arts but official statistics in 2013-14 showed that it had the highest percentage in the UK of graduates going on to employment or further study within six months of graduation, at 97.4%. Imperial College, perhaps the greatest example of all, became an independent university in its own right in 2008 but has a much longer and distinguished pedigree as a college of the University of London since the early 1900s, which I am sure I do not need to detail to noble Lords. It focuses on only four main disciplines: science, engineering, medicine and business. In fact, the amendment would prevent many of the prestigious colleges of the University of London seeking independent university status in their own right should they wish to do so.
I agree that our universities have a role to play in supporting local, national and international partners and the wider society. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, raised this point, and I agree with a lot of what they said. However, I disagree that all universities need to do this in a prescribed and uniform way. Universities should, and do, support the achievement of this aim in very different ways. Some will need to focus their limited time and resource on their locality to support economic growth in disadvantaged areas of the UK; some will want to focus activity regionally or nationally, to support access to higher education and promote social mobility; others may decide to focus activity across international boundaries to support important knowledge transfer. Universities should not have to do all these things in a way prescribed by government. A number of Peers made this point. For example, forcing a university that does not currently have an international focus to divert time and resource into doing so could quite easily be at the expense of its home students.
I also disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, in so far as I believe that protections around academic freedom, teaching quality and freedom of speech must apply to all higher education providers, not only universities. Whether a student is undertaking their higher education course at a university, a higher education college or, indeed, a further education college, we expect that provision to be high-quality. Our reforms seek to set a framework to achieve this. I remind noble Lords that Clause 77 defines what a higher education provider is. I do not believe that we should define separately what a university is. It is not in the interests of students or wider society to create a two-tier system of higher education providers, where some benefit from the protection of academic freedom, or some are expected to deliver high-quality provision, and others are not.
In fact, I would go further and suggest that there is nothing in the criteria that the noble Lord has set out on the importance of supporting the student experience. The role of universities in looking after their students and taking an interest in their welfare is long established, and is important in helping every student get the most out of their time at university and achieve their full potential—the so-called student experience. Universities also have an important duty to take steps to encourage applications from all those with the potential and ability to enter higher education regardless of an individual’s background. Widening participation in higher education helps drive social mobility and universities have a significant role to play.
I therefore cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, that the Government should best nurture the excellence, innovation and independence of our universities by requiring all universities to follow a single model set out by statute. In fact, I would again go further and suggest that, as demonstrated by my examples of the importance of supporting student experience, social mobility and widening participation, and as my noble friend Lord Waldegrave said, it is dangerous to try and define what a university is by prescribing a statutory uniform that a university must wear. Doing so would risk excluding and undermining the importance of other critical activities. This could never be comprehensive or stand the test of time.
Our international reputation for higher education has gone from strength to strength with each wave of sector expansion. New universities have not sought simply to replicate a single model but to innovate and develop their own unique contributions to their students and to national life. The success of higher education does not reflect a script written by government or Parliament but a complex system of interacting bodies and individuals: some public; some private; some within the scope of our legislation and some not. The Bill is intended to reflect this and to facilitate the development of our higher education sector to accommodate its splendid diversity. The Bill must protect institutional autonomy. It must also allow for the unexpected, for innovation and for diverse providers that reflect the diverse needs of students, researchers, businesses and wider society.
I ask noble Lords to think carefully about the way in which this amendment would undermine and not protect institutional autonomy and, furthermore, how a large number of existing high-quality providers would be likely to fall foul of it, if it were passed. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, to withdraw his amendment.
9 January 2017
Division on Amendment 1
Amendment 1 agreed.View Details