5 Lord Desai debates involving the Department for Education

Mon 6th Mar 2017
Higher Education and Research Bill
Lords Chamber

Report: 1st sitting: House of Lords
Wed 18th Jan 2017
Higher Education and Research Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Wed 18th Jan 2017
Higher Education and Research Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard - continued): House of Lords
Wed 11th Jan 2017
Higher Education and Research Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

Higher Education and Research Bill

Lord Desai Excerpts
Viscount Ridley Portrait Viscount Ridley (Con)
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My Lords, I will not detain the House for long, because a lot has been said by the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay about Amendment 5, but will briefly express my support for this position. One of the prime purposes of the Bill is to open up the higher education sector to new entrants and to the fresh breath of air that they could possibly bring. We have heard, since the Bill started, not just of the many small providers, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, but also of Sir James Dyson’s expansion of his university. That is magnificent, but even he has admitted that it is very hard to start up a new university. How much harder would it be for those with fewer resources? There are huge barriers to entry in this field.

In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, and I argued for a new committee to encourage new entrants to come forward. Even at the time, I expressed some reservations about adding to the number of committees in the world, and I am delighted that my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay has come up with the simpler idea that this function should be added to the functions of the Office for Students. For a Bill designed to encourage new entrants in the university sector, there is surprisingly little in the Bill that actually addressed the encouragement of new entrants, and this is a modest and welcome suggestion.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise to support the amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, put forward, as well as his argument. There is a problem with getting universities together, because they very proudly differentiate themselves from each other. One thing about British universities, where I have worked all my life, is that they do not want to permit student transfer between them. It is almost impossible for a student to do one year in one university and then go to another one, because the courses are not comparable and there is no system of scores or grade points. It will take a special effort to create a group spirit among English higher education providers, especially the old ones, although the new ones will be better. The suggestion made here about creating this collegium of former students or graduates may actually be very helpful now that we have the instruments to do that. Their experience may be able to tell us how to improve the interrelationship between universities, so we can present a united front regarding the quality of English higher education.

Baroness Brown of Cambridge Portrait Baroness Brown of Cambridge
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My Lords, I rise in opposition to Amendments 12 and 13, which are in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. In doing so I thank him for raising a very important point, but I suggest that we already have a very effective mechanism for doing what he wishes to see happen, which is the British Council. I urge the Minister to ensure that the British Council is properly funded to undertake talks of this sort in the future.

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Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait Baroness Garden of Frognal
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My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. He has set out the arguments on this important issue convincingly and comprehensively, both in Committee and again today, so I shall not repeat them. It is simply wrong that either the amount a student should pay in fees, or indeed if a person can come to study in the UK, should be determined by whether a university achieves a gold, silver or bronze standard rating, or whatever grading system is put in place. Our Amendment 73 in a later group is linked to this and also seeks to disconnect the ability of international students to attend a course from the quality rating of the provider.

On the matter of international students, the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, referred to an already challenged system, but we can read today in an analysis by Universities UK that they generate some £26 billion for the economy each year and support 206,000 jobs across the UK. It is folly to take actions that deter international students on financial grounds and, possibly even more important, it is folly to do so given their contribution to international relations, academic standards and generally to our quality of life. I add my strong support from these Benches to this amendment.

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.

Higher Education and Research Bill

Lord Desai Excerpts
Lord Lipsey Portrait Lord Lipsey (Lab)
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My Lords, I chair the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, which I think is a very effective conservatoire. On Monday night I was closeted with my board, making one of the most difficult decisions that as chairman I have faced: should we go in to the TEF, which I think is supposed to close in about a week’s time, or not? The situation was simple. None of us thinks anything of it, particularly because of the presence within it of the metric of the National Student Survey, on which I will say a bit more in a minute and a lot more in our next debate.

But if we did not go in for it, we would have £250 less per student to spend on teaching, on instruments and on bringing them up to our very high standard. The board decided to go ahead. I very much hope that, before we finish with the Bill, they will be shown to have been right for a different reason—because the Government have backed off from these really very ill-considered decisions.

Incidentally, I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, said about Chris Husbands: if there is a man who can sort out TEF, it is Chris, and we should wish him every power and a fair wind from Ministers at his back.

I am a bit of a statistician; I chair the All-Party Group on Statistics. I will go into this in more detail on a subsequent occasion, as I said, but the NSS seems to be a statistic that makes the statement on the side of the Leave buses an exemplar of statistical validity. It is just frightful. In particular, for a small institution such as mine, the sample sizes are tiny. It has had the most coruscating reviews from the Royal Statistical Society. The Office for National Statistics put it more cautiously but nevertheless said the same thing: you cannot use it to compare institutions—which is exactly what the gold, silver and bronze ratings do.

This is the first time that a piece of legislation for the post-fact era, where facts no longer matter, has made it to the statute book. It must be changed. Fortunately, it can relatively easily be changed, because I think we are all after the same thing: we are after a true measure of teaching effectiveness. I do not mean just whether students like it. At one stage, I joked to my board that I was thinking of withdrawing all music teaching at Trinity Laban and instead providing free beer in the bar every night. They would be jolly satisfied with the quality of their courses if they had free beer every night, but they would not be learning to play their instruments—which is bloody hard work, I can tell noble Lords who have not tried it. For that reason, this metric is dotty.

I have one or two other points to make. Information is very important in the new era. It is difficult enough to choose an institution now and, if the Government get their way and there is a proliferation of institutions, it will be more difficult in future for students to choose institutions. One thing that does not help is misinformation. We did not do terribly well in the National Student Survey this year. It was fine for me because I was able to say, as I had pointed out every year to the board, that the previous year had been completely different, because this number fluctuates almost completely randomly. But I had members of staff who were reduced to tears and considering resignation because we had a bad NSS score. Think how much more that will be so if it is incorporated into the midst of the TEF. Managers would then say, “You have a very bad NSS score, so we will do badly in the TEF, so we will have less grant”. The pressure will be enormous, crushing and based on wholly false information. We need proper information and a proper TEF based on the kind of assessment that Chris, with his team, is well capable of undertaking. New metrics are being developed that would help with this, although whether they will be available under the Government’s timetable is not yet clear.

We can get a TEF that works, which I would welcome. There are institutions that have not been as successful in their teaching as they have in other aspects of their work. If it fulfilled the Conservative election manifesto in the process, that is the sort of thing that we have to put up with in life. But please do not let us take this false step of a phony TEF that will reward only those who are good at gaming these things, not those who are doing what we really want: teaching well.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, I was present at Second Reading, when I did not speak, and I was not going to speak on the amendment, but I would like to make some contrary observations to what has been said so far. The first time I saw students rating teachers was in 1961, when I was at the University of Pennsylvania. The anger of teachers then was more or less the same as the anger being expressed now: “How dare anybody judge us, especially our students? They are so stupid that they will not like difficult courses. They are so stupid that they will always go for the soft option”. I do not want to comment on the quality of the National Student Survey, but we ought to reflect on whether we are not respecting our students enough if we think that they are stupid and likely to hurt themselves by grading soft courses higher than hard ones.

Several problems are getting mixed up here. First, can teaching be evaluated at all? Some people think it cannot. I was involved in the first round of the research assessment exercise, and virtually the same arguments were made by academics: “You cannot grade research or compare it; it is very difficult”, and so on. This was being evaluated by their peer group but, by and large, we academics are rather conservative people when it comes to being judged by others. Ultimately, I think that the research assessment exercise performed a very good function. It mattered that some universities were five star and others were three or two: if they were three star or two star, they had to get their act together and improve. There is no reason to believe that something as important as teaching cannot be judged and therefore that there can be no competition because it is such a pure product that it is impossible to find a methodology to judge it.

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai
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My Lords, the question is: is anybody going to fail the exam? You cannot just have first, second and third, with nobody failing. If nobody fails, the third rating will be counted as failure.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie
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As I have said, the consultation has led us to believe that this rating system is the best that we have come up with. I have explained already that various other systems have been looked at and we believe that this is the right way forward. I understand that there is some passion around what methods should be used, but we believe that this is the right way forward.

I will continue on the same theme. My noble friend Lord Jopling and the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, suggested that the TEF metrics will be gamed. We expect the assessment panels to take a holistic approach in assessing all the evidence, not just the metrics, and therefore it will not be easy to game the system. In addition, the role of the external examiners, a robust quality assessment system and the ONS review of the data sources we use are all important in tackling this issue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, suggested that the TEF will mean that some students will be forced to study at bronze institutions due to their circumstances. However, as I said just now, a bronze provider is still one that has passed a high bar on the quality we expect it to offer. The TEF assesses excellence above that baseline and will, we expect, incentivise and encourage that bronze provider to offer a better quality of teaching to that student than they do at present.

Then noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked how lecturers and teachers will know how to improve their teaching on the basis of the TEF ratings. The TEF provides clear reputational and financial incentives for providers to improve teaching quality, but it is not for us to tell universities how to teach. However, all TEF provider submissions will be published and we would expect those in the sector to learn from one another and to continue to feed back to us as the TEF develops.

The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, raised the issue of the impact of the TEF on social mobility, which is a very fair point. She asked what effect the Government think that the linking of fees and teaching quality will have on social mobility. Fears about only the Russell group providers doing well in the metrics are, we believe, misplaced. The metrics have benchmarks that recognise the student body characteristics of each provider, and a number of other safeguards are in place to ensure that the TEF should actually enhance the quality of teaching for disadvantaged groups. I know that Les Ebdon has made some comments on that, which will be very much known by the Committee.

In conclusion, while I recognise the concern that has been expressed around the ratings of gold, silver and bronze, we should not deceive ourselves. Both home and international students already make judgments as to the relative merits of different universities, based on all sorts of unreliable measures. The TEF will allow those judgments to be better informed, based on evidence rather than prejudice. These amendments would undermine the TEF’s ability to provide clear ratings and clear incentives to the sector to drive up teaching quality.

As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, has requested this stand part debate, I remind noble Lords that removing this schedule in its entirety would remove any link between quality and the fees that a provider was able to charge. It would also mean that the sector would not receive the additional £16 billion of income by 2025 that we expect the TEF to deliver. I do not think that this is what we, or the noble Lord, want.

Higher Education and Research Bill

Lord Desai Excerpts
Moved by
133A: Clause 13, page 8, line 26, at end insert—
“( ) a condition requiring that all student assessments, written and otherwise, including assessed dissertations at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, are either—(i) robustly blind marked to ensure the identity of the student is not known to the marker, or(ii) where it is unavoidable or probable that the identity of the student will be known to the marker, secondarily marked by an independent marker to whom the identity of the student is unknown.”
Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 133B. They are pretty straightforward. They concern the notion that students should not feel that they are being discriminated against; they should not actually be discriminated against and they should not perceive that they are being discriminated against. The suggestion is that there should be blind-testing as far as possible—and if blind-testing is not possible, there should be a second examiner who should not know the name of the students.

Amendment 133B applies the same principle to admissions. BAME students in particular feel the possibility of discrimination, so this is to reassure them. I beg to move.

Lord Bew Portrait Lord Bew (CB)
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My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Desai. I learned earlier this evening that he taught at the University of Pennsylvania, as did I and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. That university is about to be further distinguished by the fact that one of its alumni is to become President of the United States in two days’ time. But I did not agree with his saying that it is easy to assess university teaching, partly because of the mixture of research that is involved with teaching and the difficulties of making judgments in that area.

I will come to this issue in Amendment 189, in my name, but there is a real danger that the Government are aiming for a spurious scientificity in their attempt to deal with the problem. On the other hand, Amendments 133A and 133B hit on something that can and should be dealt with to protect students’ interests. It shows greater objectivity in the treatment of students, which is all the more necessary in the epoch we are now in, when these matters are greatly disputed, much more than they were a generation ago. Broadly speaking, it is easier, and I think more appropriate, to meet the requirements of the government manifesto by aiming at things which actually hit at what I might call the fecklessness of university teachers—not marking properly or quickly enough, not being good enough at getting in contact, not replying to emails. Those are things that legislation should be aiming to correct to protect teachers, but it should not aim at a spurious scientific metric, which is quite a dangerous thing to do.

The thinking behind Amendments 133A and 133B, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, is very solid and goes to the heart of putting, as the Minister said, the student and the legitimate protection of the student’s interests at the heart of things, rather than seeking a bogus popularity among students. This is a legitimate concern for students and they have a right to be protected in this matter.

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There is no doubt that the amendments are well-intentioned and speak to issues of great importance, but I suggest that the principle of institutional autonomy and the good work the sector is already doing in this area mean that it would not be appropriate to include them in the Bill. I therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and my noble friend Lord Watson, and of course the Minister for her reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 133A withdrawn.

Higher Education and Research Bill

Lord Desai Excerpts
Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Portrait Baroness Wolf of Dulwich (CB)
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My Lords, I also would like to support this amendment and all the amendments in the group, one of which bears my name. The comments we have just heard go to the core of the problem. Everybody believes that part-time and mature students are very important—the Government believe it and every previous Government in my memory believed it—and yet, at the moment, we see not a rise but a decrease in their numbers, and they are not more evident as part of the higher education system but less so than they were quite recently. My view is that the root cause of this lies with the current funding system for higher education, which clearly cannot be dealt with by this Bill. However, the Bill can and should make explicit the responsibilities of the OfS to make these groups central to its concerns and mission and not, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said, something to be added on at the end.

I will mention one other group mentioned in the amendment: workplace students. Again, those students are tremendously fashionable in political statements but do not tend to be very numerous in reality. Twenty or 30 years ago, we had a well-developed ONC/HNC route for those students, but we no longer do. Since I totally agree with those noble Lords who have underlined the rapidly changing nature of the jobs market, I think that this group, too, needs explicit attention from the Office for Students.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, I will make a short plea for something that has not been mentioned so far. Most people have spoken about part-time students as people who want a degree, a skill, a job and so on. I do not know where further education is in all this—perhaps it is not part of this debate. Many people go into further education not necessarily to get a diploma or a degree but to educate themselves. I had enough of primary, secondary and higher education to suit me for several lifetimes, but I did go to Morley College for a family French class with my children. Children and adults studied together and it was a very pleasurable experience—I even learned some French. So I think that there may be ways of learning without actually taking a degree.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Portrait Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been a good debate focusing on three main strands. First, the dire state into which the current provision for mature and part-time students—particularly part-time students—has fallen as a consequence of the changes in the arrangements, was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf. She is right: it is the fee structure and the underlying economic approach to the provision of part-time education that has caused the trouble, but I disagree with her that the Bill may not be the right place to deal with that. We might return to this at some future point in the discussions. We regret that the current situation is not satisfactory and we should look to the Bill to see changes.

A number of speakers have pointed out that the opportunity to engage with this issue, although it is present in the Bill, has been missed. The Bill always uses the phrase “and part-time” or “and mature students”. It could be rewritten and refocused to try to make sure that the inclusiveness of which it talks and the ability to reach out to all those who wish to participate in our presently excellent higher education system are made central to the activity. It is not sufficient simply to have it there; it must be there in a way that drives the initiative. That is why these amendments, which affect the central architecture of the Bill and the formation of a new body called the OfS, are so important.

If the OfS is not made accountable for, not directed towards and not doing the work day by day—putting this classification system into practice—we will never achieve what we are trying to achieve. It needs to be central. My noble friend Lord Blunkett is right. There are already good examples across the system of work that has been done and is currently going on but they are not being brought together in the mainstream. There is no sense in which the system is open to people who wish to come in at different points in their own personal lives. There is no sense in which the Bill tries to address the idea of flexibility; of dropping in or dropping out of the higher education system, which is such a feature of institutions in other countries such as the USA. There is no sense in which an appropriate way of studying is to do a bit of work, go back into college and then go out to work again, perhaps to try practise some of the things that one is learning.

When I studied part-time at an institution, I had to do so in the evening and in my own time. I had to struggle to make the resources available. It was a tough time—almost as tough as participating in your Lordships’ House on this Bill—but I benefited from it. There is, therefore, also a third strand in this: somehow we delude ourselves if we think everybody comes to the higher education system straight from school. People should be encouraged to go in at any point, from early years right through to the age of 92, and even while you are travelling, as is possible with the new technologies. We should support that. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on this and I hope he will take up some of these points.

Academies Bill [HL]

Lord Desai Excerpts
Wednesday 23rd June 2010

(14 years ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Perry of Southwark Portrait Baroness Perry of Southwark
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My Lords, it is apparent that academies will have more money in their fist, so to speak, than community schools. As the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has just made clear, an enormous amount of money can be withheld by the local authority, which will now come into the academies’ own purview for them to spend. The difficulty with having an outside agency to lay down frameworks or even to observe the frameworks is that there is enormous variety from one local authority to another in the amount that they hold back and the amount of these services—the noble Lord read them out—that they provide. Authorities such as the London Borough of Wandsworth, where I live, withhold less than 5 per cent from school budgets for their central services, whereas others withhold well over 20 per cent to provide centralised services. The inequality will be very apparent. I share the wish expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, to have some way in which to demonstrate that fairness is being exercised and is being seen to be exercised, but it would be difficult to do that, given the huge disparity at present. Of course, it will be possible for schools, once they become academies, as they do now, to contract back with the local authority for some of these services, which will return that money to the local authority. However, in many cases—it is the case in Hackney, for example—very few of the academies do that.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai
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My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lord Hunt. I apologise to the Committee that I did not speak at Second Reading, so I shall keep my intervention short. There is a great desire on the part of the new coalition Government and the Secretary of State to free lots of schools, but there is a paradox in that that requires his dictatorial powers to free everybody—he will lay down what freedom means to everybody. Our task is to ensure that the Secretary of State makes it clear to us in the legislation in what sense he is not taking away powers from your Lordships and another place. We need to scrutinise that, because there are a lot of anxieties about the scale and ambition of this project and the haste with which it is being implemented. There is also a worry that there might be some unintended unfairness to schools left outside the academies field or to local authorities. It would be good if the Minister could make it clear that considerations of fairness and equity and not taking powers away from the legislature arbitrarily will be adhered to.