Chair to the hot seat: Browne may have to give evidence to MPs' inquiry

January 6, 2011

Lord Browne of Madingley is likely to appear before a cross-party group of MPs when a wide-ranging inquiry into the government's reforms of higher education is launched.

Adrian Bailey, chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, said he intended to ask Lord Browne - whose independent review paved the way for a hike in the annual tuition fee cap to £9,000 - to give evidence to the inquiry later this year.

The Labour MP for West Bromwich West plans to begin the inquiry after the government produces its higher education White Paper, expected in late February or March.

He indicated that the sessions would represent an exhaustive investigation of the reforms, looking at everything from higher fees and funding cuts to regulatory reform.

Mr Bailey said he was particularly interested in focusing on the effective "privatisation" of arts and humanities subjects and policies to improve access for poor students.

This would include exploring the links between further and higher education, he said, such as the decision to abolish the £560 million education maintenance allowance (EMA) scheme, which he said could have a "profound effect" on universities.

Students from poor families receive an EMA of £30 a week if they remain in education after the age of 16, but the government believes that most of the money is wasted as it goes to people who would stay on at college or school anyway.

Mr Bailey said: "The abolition of the EMA is, I think, going to knock out one or two of the bottom rungs you need to enable low-income students to climb the educational ladder...If students are not staying on post-16 or taking appropriate courses because of the withdrawal of funding, there's going to be a reduced flow of people into higher education."

He said there were major question marks over specific proposals for widening access at university such as the national scholarship programme and agreements for institutions charging more than £6,000.

Mr Bailey made clear during the debate on tuition fees in the House of Commons last month that although he was not opposed in principle to higher fees, he was concerned about the degree by which the cap had been raised.

"I quite expected and would have backed a calibrated rise in tuition fees provided they were linked to improved accessibility and extra funding for universities."

However, he said, government policy appeared to be "basically privatising university funding in arts and humanities and creating a market situation without any guarantee that it will add anything to our higher education sector whatsoever".

Mr Bailey added that the 11-member committee - which comprises the chair and five Conservative, four Labour and one Liberal Democrat MPs - might also have to question ministers further about the cash-flow problem facing universities ahead of the higher fees regime.

He cited as a "major potential problem" the impact of the 6 per cent cut to the teaching grant in the 2011-12 financial year, which starts in April, before the current academic year ends in July.

Questions about this to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, could be the subject of an earlier session ahead of the inquiry.

However, Mr Bailey cautioned: "What I don't want to do is have the minister in to question him on these issues and be told all the time: 'Well, we are waiting for the White Paper.' That gives them a stock excuse for not answering any difficult questions."

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