MPs strive for a united front

October 20, 2000

The Commons' report on higher education will have to pull together a broad spectrum of opinion, says Claire Sanders

The 11 members of the House of Commons select committee inquiring into higher education have been visiting universities in the United States. They now have to narrow the extremely wide-ranging terms of reference into a few key areas. It will not be easy.

This is the first time in 20 years that a select committee has carried out such an inquiry. Although chairman Barry Sheerman has promised not to do "another Dearing", the committee has already taken evidence from more than 40 witnesses and received 83 submissions and shows no signs of letting up.

The committee's original terms of reference, drawn up under the chairmanship of Malcolm Wicks, subsequently promoted to become minister for lifelong learning, start with quality, move on to funding, access and research and end with passing references to the local community and the student experience.

When the committee started to take evidence in April, the focus was on the Cubie report on Scottish funding and its implications for England.

It went on to look at access, in part as a result of Gordon Brown's outburst over Oxford University's failure to admit Laura Spence, a bright student from a comprehensive, to a medical degree.

Later this month the committee members should receive a draft report on access, with a view to getting an agreed version out by early November.

And then what? It is clear from our interviews with four key members of the committee that they all have different priorities.

Mr Sheerman believes he will be able to focus on key issues and produce a valuable report, but agrees that getting agreement becomes harder as a general election approaches.

Barry Sheerman
Labour MP for Huddersfield. Education and influences: "Posh" Hampton Grammar School in Surrey. He was the youngest in his family and the only child his parents could afford to send to the school. He left at 16 to get a job, but later went to evening classes at Kingston Technical College, where he took three A levels in a year, gaining three A grades. He went on to study at the London School of Economics where he eventually took a masters in political science. He has lectured in history at Cornell University and is now a governor of the LSE.

"The terms of reference for the committee were set before I became chair," he said. "They are very broad and the question now is how to move on in a way that will add the most value to the debate on higher education."

One of his first acts as chair last November was to organise a series of seminars to help focus the committee's work. He has also appointed two new special advisers to complement the work of Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, and Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University's centre for education and employment research. The new advisers are Davina Cooper, professor of law and research dean for the faculty of social science at Keele University, and Janet Beer, head of the English department at Manchester Metropolitan University.

"It was obvious that we needed to look at aspects of finance," said Mr Sheerman. "We limbered up by looking at the implications for England of the Cubie report and took evidence from Tessa Blackstone. We will return to the issue of finance."

Mr Sheerman said the decision was taken that finance could not be considered without looking at access. "The chancellor's remarks on Oxford heightened our awareness of the issue, but we were not driven by his remarks. Certainly they brought forward a number of written submissions."

The committee decided it was not going to focus on the Laura Spence case in its deliberation on access and members were forbidden to use her name. "It would be dreadful to focus the access debate on Oxford and Cambridge. It is an issue for the whole sector," said Mr Sheerman.

He has already indicated that the access report is likely to call for a much better partnership between universities and the government to tackle the under-representation of certain social groups. And he has said that universities need to be more professional in their approach.

Mr Sheerman is keen to identify future trends in higher education and to ensure that higher education in this country is "positioning itself correctly".

"I hope to call innovators such as Andrew Colin as witnesses," he said. Mr Colin is former chief executive of Study Group International, which produced a turnover of Pounds 80 million by providing university preparation courses, degrees and English-language and vocational training. He sold the group to Daily Mail and General Trust last year.

"I developed partnerships with universities in Australia, North America and the UK," Mr Colin said. "Some see their core business as brand identity, postgraduate teaching, research and quality control - not necessarily teaching undergraduates. There is nothing to stop undergraduate teaching being outsourced."

Then there is the whole world of professional qualifications. "I was in Canada last month," said Mr Sheerman, "and there they admit freely that American universities are setting up all over Canada to provide these qualifications. It is a huge market and here we have been very sleepy."

The goal must be to create a "globally recognised diverse system of higher education", he said. "I am not an ideologue. We must not get trapped into discussing the means and not the ends."

He is keen to give universities more freedom. "We cannot close down their options on top-up fees, internet services, the way they teach, the changing way in which government funds are handed out," he said.

Gordon Marsden
Labour MP for Blackpool South. Education and influences: Stockport Grammar School, New College, Oxford, and London and Harvard universities. Edited History Today and was an associate lecturer at the Open University.

"As this is the first report on higher education by a select committee in 20 years, we need a comprehensive report looking at the key aspects of higher education," he said.

"The focus of the inquiry so far has been the student experience. We've been asking questions about elitism in the system and the balance of research and teaching. I am clear that there is no point in broadening access if the experience of students is of overworked lecturers."

He hopes the inquiry will look at the three key issues of remuneration, the balance between teaching and research and the research assessment exercise.

"On remuneration, I am not sure we will have time to go over the Bett issues, but we do need to look at issues around the employment of women and ethnic minorities - these have already come up in passing," he said.

"And on teaching and research, it is my personal view that it is fine if some institutions are largely teaching. However, the corollary cannot be that they are seen as second-class institutions," he said.

He has been a long-time critic of the research assessment exercise. "One of my concerns is that younger academics do not benefit from it," he said.

On access, he reiterates Mr Sheerman's point that it was never just about access to Oxbridge. "You got the impression at one point that the whole of civilisation was in danger of falling apart because working-class kids were under-represented at Oxford," he said.

"One of the strong messages that has come through the access sessions so far is how complicated the issue is. I want to get across that it is not just about getting certain types of 18-year-olds into certain types of institutions, it is about access to a series of higher education opportunities throughout life. I think universities across the board can do more to improve access, but this cannot be done on the existing resources."

He says one of the issues the committee has "teased out" is the diversity of application rates across the country. "It came as a bit of shock when listening to the evidence of the Four Counties Group (a pressure group from East Anglia) that there were great swaths of the country where no one had applied to higher education. It is very much part of the government's agenda to look at these 'cold spots'."

Mr Marsden has already said that the new educational maintenance allowances need to be linked to rising participation in those parts of the country identified as cold spots and he has called for the establishment of tertiary education action zones.

He has also long called for access to loans for part-time students, now partly being addressed through the Learning and Skills Bill.

The committee members visited a range of public and private universities in the United States. "I was particularly keen to look at how they recruited students through the feeder mechanism of the community college network and at how students can transfer credits between different institutions," he said.

"The main thing I want to come out of the inquiry is a recognition of the enormous changes and challenges that higher education has faced and continues to face," he concluded. "We need to ensure that the student experience is both satisfying and diverse in accordance with notions of social inclusion and social justice."

Nick St Aubyn
Conservative MP for Guildford. Education and influences: Eton and Trinity College, Oxford. He said having five children at various stages of their education is an enormous influence, as is having the University of Surrey in his constituency .

"The whole Brown episode over Oxford pinpointed a key area of debate, ie, why are universities there?" he said. "Are they there for students or are students there to meet the objectives of the university?" Some members of the committee attended a seminar at Cambridge addressed by Marlyn McGarth Lewis, head of admissions at Harvard. "It became clear to me that the most successful universities are ones that set their own objectives and then look for ways of meeting them. In the UK the government is trying to dictate what universities should do and how," said Mr St Aubyn. "We see it in the funding of research, where you have civil servants trying to spot winners - something they are clearly not equipped to do."

"We can't tell universities who to select," he said. "They operate in a globally competitive market and have to be free to choose their students."

Last month the Conservatives published their pre-manifesto, "Believing in Britain", which proposed privatising universities by freeing them from dependency on state cash for teaching. While top-up fees are not part of the Conservative plans, it would be hard to stop essentially private universities from charging them.

"Any proposal to increase fees has to be linked to access to more scholarship funds and grants," said Mr St Aubyn. "It has taken Harvard 40 years to build up endowments to offer enough scholarships.

"In my view, top-up fees are a second or third-order issue," he added.

"Universities can increase student contributions by charging more for residential halls as it is, whereas top-up fees are rather like a red rag to a bull."

And what key message would he like to see come out of the inquiry? "The brains at the top of our world-class universities outclass the brains at the top of the Department for Education and Employment. We have to stop trying to second-guess what universities have to do."

Evan Harris
Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. Education and influences: Blue Coat School, a state school in Liverpool. He read medicine at Wadham College, Oxford.

"Funding is a key issue for me," he said. "Top-up fees are clearly a big issue. To berate the Russell Group for wanting to charge them is a bit like blaming a drowning man for trying to save himself. They are desperate measures.

"The Bett report and the pay gap between men and women are basic issues of funding that we must address," he added.

He said the committee should have produced a report on funding after taking evidence on the Cubie inquiry. "The government has said it wants a debate on top-up fees - but why do they want a debate if they have ruled them out? I was extremely disappointed that during our hearing on funding, we only had 45 minutes with Baroness Blackstone. I would like to have asked David Blunkett why he has ruled out top-up fees during his time as secretary of state, while pointing out that he will not be secretary of state forever."

His post-bag is full of letters from people saying they dare not apply to university for fear of debt. "This government removed grants from the poorer students. By focusing on fees Lady Blackstone was able to argue that because the poorer students do not pay them, they are not being deterred. That is an easy way out for the government. We have to look at the whole issue of grants, endowments and benefits."

He argues that any debate on access has to bring in not only the issue of funding in higher education, but also levels of funding in the state schools. "You cannot blame admissions tutors at Magdalen if students in Sunderland are leaving school at 16," he said.

On the question of Ms Spence's application to Oxford, he said, "The idea that there is bias among admissions tutors is extremely insulting. I have yet to find one that did not go to a state school."

He says, though, that there may be an argument to have a central admissions system, to lower thresholds for certain inner-city schools and to get the names and addresses of the best-performing GCSE students and to approach them.

He feels the committee was wrong to rule that Ms Spence's name could not be mentioned. "I don't believe a select committee should gag itself. My main concern is that this inquiry should not subjugate a logical approach to a political one," he concluded.


The evidence so far...

On funding: In the early hearings on funding and the Cubie report, Scottish academics warned that fees had become so politicised an issue in Scotland that they had become discredited.

In July, Baroness Blackstone failed to rule out the introduction of top-up fees during the next Parliament.

On access: In June Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said that universities needed more money if they were to take the sort of professional approach to access that their American counterparts undertake.

Later in thesame month the Higher Education Funding Councilfor England also argued that it had sought to widen access against a background of cuts and that more money was needed.

Academics from the Four Counties Group, a consortium of eight universities and colleges in the four East Anglian counties, gave evidence of "cold spots" in their region, where participation was low.

Independent schools later warned that itwould be a "dangerous move" to start ignoring private school candidates with better all-round qualifications in favour of state school pupils.

As the Laura Spence debacle thundered on, Oxford University was given time in early July to set out its case and in a spirit of openness only recently matched by Cambridge, later published the state: independent school ratios for individual colleges.

Oxford's vice-chancellor, Colin Lucas, defended Oxford's admissions procedure.In a separate session, representatives from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals also said that university admissions in general were "fair".

But later that month, Gerry McCrum, an emeritus fellow atHertford College, Oxford, said the interview shouldbe scrapped in favour of A-level results becausetoo many mistakes were made in the interview. Chelly(A. H.) Halsey,emeritus fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, arguedthat if Oxford switched to post-qualification entry it would get a far greater proportion of state school entrants.

The Association of Colleges also told the committee that just 5 per cent of applicants to Oxford and Cambridge come from further education colleges.

Committee members: Barry Sheerman; Gordon Marsden; Nick St Aubyn; Evan Harris; Charlotte Atkins, Labour MP for Staffordshire Moorlands; Valerie Davey, Labour MP forBristol West; Derek Foster, Labour MP for Bishop Auckland; Michael Foster, Labour MP for Worcester; Helen Jones, Labour MP for Warrington North; Stephen O'Brien, Conservative MP for Eddisbury; Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough.

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