An unloaded chamber

November 12, 1999

The Lords have furthered the cause of higher education in the past. Alan Thomson asks whether a diminished upper housecan help in future.

The histories of universities and the House of Lords are closely linked, as is their ongoing reform.Both have been perfectly club-like in their exclusivity but, after 800 years or so, both are now under fire in Tony Blair's democratic onslaught against elitism, privilege and conservatism.

Universities have educated the nobility and middle classes, many of whom later took up seats in the Lords, either by right of birth or, particularly after the 1958 Life Peerages Act, by ennoblement.

For centuries there has been a clearly defined route from universities to the upper chamber. The same can be said of the university-Commons link, but there is a key difference.

Peers, both life and to a greater extent hereditaries, are less mindful of the party whip. While MPs are expected to subordinate personal interests and opinion to party policy, peers have enjoyed more freedom. Either they are hereditaries who owe their seats in the Lords to no party or, as life peers (even though they are placemen and women), they have been rewarded for a lifetime's achievement with a tenured position and have no need to toady to party whips to advance their careers.

So while universities may have been able to count on support from the Commons, historically amounting to a cosy laisser faire approach, the Lords have tended to be more demonstrative in their support. Will this active support diminish now that most of the hereditaries have gone?

Lucy Burns, parliamentary officer for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said: "I do not think we would have fears about the reform of the Lords. While we have had a lot of valuable contacts in the Lords and would keep our links with hereditaries, changes to the way government operates, such as the No 10 Policy Unit, mean it would be shortsighted to concentrate on the Lords."

John Brooks, vice-chancellor of Wolverhampton University, which has just named life peer Lord Paul as its new chancellor, replacing the Earl of Shrewsbury, said: "We were aware of the imminent changes and we spoke to Lord Paul and found we shared strong common interests. My view is that the change in the nature of the working of the House ... will assist us in being better informed."

Scores of peers, many of whom went to university, actively reinforce the university-Lords link by becoming chancellors of institutions, or sit on university courts and senates, or are visitors. Few universities are, or have been, without a peer or two to fight their corner, or that of the sector as a whole, in the House of Lords.

There has also, certainly since 1958, been a liberal sprinkling of academic peers. The roll call includes the late Lords Beloff and Dainton, Lords Plant, Flowers, Cox, Butterworth, Butterfield, Dearing, Oxburgh, Renfrew, Desai, Peston and Winston. Add to this the formidable talents of hereditaries such as Earl Russell, professor of history at King's College London, and Lord Kirkwood, lecturer in metallurgy at Sheffield University, and one begins to see the weight of the lobby.

The benefits to universities have been considerable. Two recent examples include Lord (Roy) Jenkins, chancellor of Oxford University, amending of the 1988 Education Reform Bill, effectively enshrining the principle of academic freedom in law. Four years later Max Beloff amended the 1992 Further and Higher Education Bill to again protect universities' freedom by allowing them to define the content of their courses and select their students.

Throughout the first half of last year, peers harried the government and amended the controversial Teaching and Higher Education Bill which set up the General Teaching Council, abolished maintenance grants and paved the way for the charging of tuition fees for home undergraduates.

Peers' amendments may have been overturned in the Commons but the higher education lobby achieved a lot. Clarifications were the main victory in the protracted arguments over a bill described, in its original state, as "skeletal".

The House of Lords's stamina in what became a game of political ping pong between the two chambers succeeded, among other things, in ensuring that the GTC has more power than was originally written into the bill and forced the government to limit increases in the rate of tuition fees charged to no more than the rate of inflation.

The peers' repeated attempts to get rid of the Scottish anomaly and to reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students will be remembered when the Cubie committee, as anticipated, publishes its recipe for a Scottish fudge on fees.

It is true that most of the peers who caused so much trouble over the Teaching and Higher Education Bill were life peers, not hereditaries. But to take this as evidence of the relative and collective uselessness of hereditaries is, perhaps, to miss the point of Lords reform.

There are considerable ideological, not to mention moral, objections to allowing hereditary peers the right to challenge the policy of a democratically elected government. They are certainly not representative of the body politic, being, by and large, well-off, middle-aged white men. Though whether this means that as people they cannot grasp, empathise with and positively intervene in the issues and problems that affect the rest of the population is open to debate. After all, Mr Blair is a public school and Oxford-educated, wealthy, white, middle-class male.

If the obvious objections to hereditaries are set to one side then the debate turns into one about the pros and cons of bicameral legislatures and the mechanisms for selecting their members. In other words, why is an individual born with a title any more or less perceptive and wise than the disadvantaged person made good?

A Royal Commission is considering longer-term reform of the upper chamber and, in the interim, the number of hereditaries has been whittled down from 759, at the last count, to 92, 75 of whom were elected by fellow peers last week. It is the long-term form of the second chamber that may have more of an impact on the effectiveness of the university lobby.

The commission, chaired by Lord Wakeham, is due to report by the end of the year. It could make the upper chamber more democratically legitimate by recommending that members should be elected. But that might make the upper house just as legitimate, in terms of public mandate, as the Commons. On contentious issues, where public opinion chimes with the upper chamber, the government in the Commons could be hard-pressed to assert its authority. Legislation or a written constitution could be required to set down the rules of engagement.

Furthermore, if elected on the basis of party affiliation, the composition of the second chamber would probably mirror that of the Commons. This could compromise the independence of peers and their role in scrutinising and challenging poorly drafted legislation. And independent crossbenchers, the second largest grouping in the previous Lords with 353 peers behind the Conservatives' 471, could disappear. Would such a body have put up such a spirited fight over the Education Reform Act or the Teaching and Higher Education Bill?

If the upper chamber was entirely nominated by a commission or by party leaders then it runs the risk of attracting the same sort of criticisms over illegitimacy that led to reform.

Liberal Democrat peer Earl Russell, who does not defend the hereditary principle, has been elected as one of the 92 hereditaries to sit in the interim chamber. He said: "What we will lose out of the disappearance of the hereditaries is people at ordinary levels of teaching. There is a feeling that the great and the good (life peers) are too compliant with government. I want to see some people in the second chamber who are still engaged in teaching."

University lobbying has improved in leaps and bounds over the past few years. Representative organisations such as the CVCP employ parliamentary liaison staff and currently have a Labour peer, Lady (Diana) Warwick, as their chief executive. There can be few greater lobbying opportunities.

Whether the House of Lords remains as important to the university sector as it has been in the past will depend largely on the future structure of a second chamber.

Perhaps the recent experiences of the Scottish and, to a lesser extent, Welsh universities are a sign of things to come if devolution proceeds apace. As a spokesman for the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals said: "The House of Lords? They just do not do anything directly relevant to us."

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