Lord comforts Whitehall's whore

March 8, 1996

If you want someone to cut through cosy clubbability, Lord Beloff is your man.

He is more acid rain than breath of fresh air, but his directness stands out against the over elaborate courtesies of the House of Lords. As the house debated university funding on Wednesday, the welcome extended to the appointment of Ron Dearing, certainly a future member, to look into the system was warm and unquestioning.

But Beloff, characteristically, saw it differently: "Sir Ron is no doubt a valuable and experienced public servant. But he has no experience of higher education at any level and as I have gone round since his appointment and consulted people I have found a lack of confidence that he can overcome this disadvantage. In a hospital, if you need a heart bypass performed, you send for a surgeon rather than a plumber, however good your hospital may be."

But the general welcome for Sir Ron was also accompanied by a sense of urgency over current difficulties apparently lacking in the lower house's cross-party consensus. As the Conservative Lord Renfrew pointed out: "Some universities may be bankrupt before any of Sir Ron's reforms can be in place."

Among those speaking from the cross benches, Lord Annan, who opened the debate, is not an automatic critic of Government policies but his concern was clear. "I have nearly always been a blackleg among vice chancellors because I thought the universities were selfish in the days of their prosperity, did little to help the Government reduce their expenditure and were indifferent to the plight and standards in the schools. I thought the Government wise in abolishing tenure . . . but today I speak in anger."

He also criticised the shift of science from the education to the trade ministry. "Science has been turned out and made to walk the streets of Whitehall like a whore. At last she has been picked up by the department of trade and industry. It is as if Jane Austen had been told to lodge with Casanova."

Often compared to a retirement home, the Lords also functions as a national collective memory. Former university grants committee chairman Lord Dainton criticised the term "efficiency gain" as a "misuse of the language", noting that the unit of resource in older universities had dropped by 65 per cent since 1972/73. And the historian Lord Russell found room to cite both Cromwell and James I in his demolition of the Public Finance Initiative. Comparing PFI with a 17th-century scheme to cultivate ostrich eggs, he said "those eggs didn't hatch and neither will these".

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