Gloves are off as bell rings for round three

April 23, 2004

There were bloody noses all round when the peers debated the government's plans for an access regulator this week. Paul Hill took a ringside seat

Lord Forsyth stepped up to the despatch box like a retired prize-fighter tempted back into the ring for a final bout, only to find his boot laces tied together by his own corner team.

After a seven-year absence from front-bench politics, the former Tory Cabinet minister set out his party's opposition to the higher education bill in the House of Lords.

No punches were pulled. The government had "dragooned" the bill through the Commons, he said, in a "political fix with its revolting backbenchers and universities desperate for cash".

Proposals for the Office of Fair Access were an assault on university independence and the government's scheme would cost more to implement than universities would receive, Lord Forsyth said.

But barely in his stride, the Tory champion suffered a bloody nose. Could he explain, asked Lord Holme, Liberal Democrat peer and chancellor of Greenwich University, precisely what Tory policy was?

Matters took a turn for the worse. Tory peers and his former cabinet colleagues Wakeham, MacGregor and Waldegrave explained that, despite reservations, they quite liked elements of the bill, such as variable fees.

Indeed, according to Lord Wakeham, chancellor of Brunel University, the government was not going far enough in creating a market in higher education.

Lord Waldegrave chipped in: "I'm not in the habit of criticising my own front bench. The last time I did was in 1981 and I was punished by being made minister for higher education."

But there were problems, too, in the red corner, where education minister Baroness Ashton defended variable fees, Offa and plans for an arts and humanities funding council.

Fifty peers - many of them academics or chancellors - lined up to have their say during Monday's debate.

Barely had Baroness Ashton stood up than former Commons speaker Baroness Boothroyd, chancellor of the Open University, leapt to her feet to slap the government down.

"Over the past three decades, the Open University has by far made the greatest contribution to increasing access... so why have institutions such as the Open University not featured in this major item of legislation?"

Baroness Boothroyd asked.

Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, welcomed the bill but nonetheless jabbed at Offa. "Responsibility for giving young people from social classes C, D and E a fair start in life begins much earlier than the university admissions process," she added.

Listening to the debate, nodding, smiling and pensively chewing his pen by turns, was Lord Dearing, author of the 1997 report on the future of higher education.

Playing on the words of Rab Butler about the 1944 Education Act - the legislation that established compulsory secondary education - he declared:

"On the wellbeing of the universities the future of this country depends."

Lord Dearing concluded: "It's the best show in town. It's the only show in town and we had better take it."

Following convention, the bill passed its second reading in the Lords unopposed and now moves to clause-by-clause scrutiny by peers.

Yet there will be more blood on the political canvas before the bill receives Royal Assent.

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