MPs savage white paper proposals

July 11, 2003

MPs tore into the government's higher education white paper this week with a report attacking most of its key proposals.

The report, published on Thursday by the cross-party education and skills select committee, criticises ministers for the limitations of their vision for higher education as set out in January.

Committee chairman Barry Sheerman told The THES: "The white paper marks a unique moment in the history of higher education and if this opportunity is missed, then we are going to regret it for a very long time."

One important slice of good news for the government was that the committee gave its blessing to top-up fees. The support for higher tuition charges might help convince more Labour backbenchers to drop their plans to oppose the top-up fee legislation, due to be introduced later this year.

Two Labour members of the committee, Jeff Ennis and Kerry Pollard, are signatories to a parliamentary motion opposing top-up fees, yet both put their name to the report. Mr Pollard told The THES that the evidence from the sector had changed his views.

But even the committee's top-up endorsement is partial. It suggests fees should be raised from the £3,000 a-year proposed by government, to £5,000 to create a genuine market with price differentiation between courses.

The most savage attack was mounted on the government's plans to further concentrate research funding in top-rated departments and universities leaving weaker research institutions to focus on teaching and building links with local employers.

Mr Sheerman said: "We decided that the most important thing about UK higher education is maintaining our high-quality universities, and we found that the unique selling point of UK higher education is the link between research and teaching. This has been seriously underestimated by the government."

Foundation degrees and the government's expansion target also came under fire. The report calls the 50 per cent participation target arbitrary and attacks the government's plan to reach the target largely by expanding the numbers of students on two-year foundation degrees. The report warns of insufficient student demand for foundation degrees and calls on the government to expand the number of honours degree places.

Academic pay receives high billing. Committee members are amazed that the white paper had little to say about the need to improve salaries despite one of the best financial settlements for higher education in a generation.

Other conclusions and recommendations include:

  • Full fee remission for poor students
  • Maintenance grants of up to £5,000 a year paid for by increasing the interest rate on student loans
  • The abandonment of plans for an Office for Fair Access
  • Doubts on plans to award university titles to institutions with no research degree-awarding powers
  • A higher education levy on business.

Universities UK said the report reinforced much of its response to the white paper. It called on government to respond positively.

Geoffrey Copland, rector of Westminster University and chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities, welcomed the report but said he was surprised by its level of criticism.

Paul Holmes, the only Liberal Democrat on the committee, tabled an amendment to the full report that sought to rewrite key parts it, primarily because his party opposes tuition fees.

Education secretary Charles Clarke welcomed the report and said he would study it carefully. But Mr Clarke insisted that £3,000 was the right level at which to cap fees and that the government had the right balance on research concentration, adding that good teaching did not depend upon an institution also carrying out leading-edge research.

Mr Clarke also said that foundation degrees were already proving successful and that higher interest rates on loans would hit the poorest hardest. He said there was £170 million for human resources from 2004-05 and it was up to universities whether they spent this on pay. Mr Clarke stood by the proposals for Offa.

The government is due to publish its full response later this month. A DFES spokesman said that a full Commons' debate on the report and the white paper might be arranged for September.

Details: www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/education_and_skills_committee.cfm

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