Higher Education and Research Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Education
It took us rather a long time to learn about the various stages of development and how to go through them and get representation. It always has done. Unless we can get better guidance for those taking this support, we may end up wasting a great deal of money and causing people a great deal of grief. All that is required is some form of coherent strategy and guidance. The current document does not provide it and we waited six months for it—it was six months late.
Baroness Deech Portrait Baroness Deech (CB)
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My Lords, as regards equality of access, I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I declare an interest as a former head of the Oxford college that gave the most bursaries in Oxford, and was once chairman of the Oxford admissions committee. There is no doubt that bursaries make a difference. They range from £3,700 and are not paid for by the students by and large but by former members of the college, alumni of the university and some admirable institutions such as the Sutton Trust. There is no drop-out issue due to poverty, not in Oxford anyway. I have never known a student drop out due to lack of funds. That was simply unheard of. It is very difficult to do a randomised trial because it interferes with privacy. However, it is not just money that guarantees success at university. Things happen to students such as their parents divorcing, which has more effect on their continuing quality of education than almost anything else. Therefore, I speak in support of the access provisions in the Bill and against Amendment 97.

None Portrait The Lord Bishop of Oxford
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My Lords, I add my voice in support of Amendment 7 in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the two related amendments—Amendments 94 and 98—proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Addington.

Disabled young people are about half as likely to hold a degree-level qualification as those without a disability. True opportunity of access needs to make certain that everything possible is done to ensure that every student who wishes to partake in further study is able to do so and to succeed to the fullest of their potential with reasonable adjustments being made for them. Some institutions make excellent provision for disabled students but there are many cases where the ordinary pursuit of their studies entails many obstacles and challenges. The amendments would help to ensure that provision was present and excellent in every institution, including those that may be new, small or highly specialist, and that disabled students had the same wide level of choice in their education as all other students.

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, I will be somewhat maverick. I have spent a lot of time in British higher education. I started when the whole idea of charging students fees was thought to be outrageous. At the LSE we initiated research into income-contingent loans, which students would take for higher education. While it was said at the time that it would be terribly harmful, not much harm has been done.

However, there is a great liking for uniformity in this country, because uniformity is mistaken for equality. I was involved in the first research assessment exercise back in 1988. In research rankings, we have information on universities by different departments. They have been ranked from five star to one so that students know which universities are good and which are not. They consult this information before they apply. It is no good pretending that somehow students will not look at the quality of universities and so on.

However, I agree that universities should be allowed to charge different fees for different courses. The noble Lord, Lord Quirk, who was vice-chancellor of the University of London many years ago, proposed during debates in your Lordships’ House some years ago that there should be not a single fee for all courses in a university but different fees for different courses. But that is a separate issue.

I am reluctant to force the system into uniformity so that people have to pick up signals of quality differences somewhere else. If a university wants to charge £15,000, let it. If it is no good, people will not go there. I do not see what the problem is. This is how the American system has survived for many years and thrived. It has very good outcomes in higher education. We have somehow tied ourselves into knots that things must be uniform, that things must be like this and that there must be overregulation. We are then surprised that universities create silos for themselves—they do not co-operate with each other and so on. I am sceptical that this is a desirable amendment.

Baroness Deech Portrait Baroness Deech
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My Lords, I remind the Minister that, if the amendment is not passed, the Government’s efforts to increase social mobility and diversity will be very badly damaged. By and large, the established—we might say “better”—universities will be able to charge more and will attract those students who can afford to pay it and who can afford to choose. By and large—of course not always—less-established universities will come out lower and will not be able to raise their fees. Not so well-off students will go to them.

Add to that the fact that the Government’s policy has been to get rid of the grants that enabled students to travel to other parts of the country and pay for accommodation in universities that were not in their home town. There are loans there, but those grants have gone. In other words, it is more expensive for a student to leave home and go to another university. That will increase ghettoisation. We already know that students tend to cluster in one type of high school. They may be forced to attend their local university because they cannot afford anything else. It may not be a very good one. The inequalities will simply reinforce themselves. If we detach fees from gold, silver and bronze, we stand a chance of increasing social mobility under the amendment. If we do not, social mobility will be frozen and ghettoisation will increase. I therefore support the amendment.