Old rivalries resurface in Commons committee

November 23, 2007

Labour's anti-top-up campaigner to lock horns with the more pragmatic Lib Dem chair of new body overseeing higher education. Zoe Corbyn writes. Two MPs with key roles in a new parliamentary committee set up to scrutinise the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills have already disagreed on how it should deal with the issue of top-up fees.

As The Times Higher revealed earlier this month, Phil Willis, the former Liberal Democrat shadow education secretary and former chair of the now disbanded Science and Technology Select Committee, has been confirmed as chair of the new 14-member Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee.

But a surprise inclusion on the committee is Ian Gibson, the Labour MP for Norwich North and rebel anti-fee campaigner. He was replaced as chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee in 2005 by Mr Willis after he fell foul of Labour whips for opposing the Government's proposed top-up fees.

Dr Gibson told The Times Higher he hopes student fees will be one of the committee's priorities and wants to examine the impact of fees thus far.

But in his first interview since being appointed as chairman, Mr Willis stressed he did not want the committee's higher education agenda to become sidetracked by minutiae such as student funding.

"Getting bogged down in whether undergraduates pay £3,000 or £3,500 really must not dominate what we do," he said.

He told The Times Higher that there needed to be a "vigorous debate" on the future of higher education, but agreed with the Government that the question of top-up fees should be left to a review in 2009.

The committee, which intends to consider science policy across Government, will next month draw up its priorities and decide whether to have a sub- committee (although it is unlikely to be for science alone). A series of hearings has already been planned for next month, including meetings with Lord Sainsbury, the former Science Minister.

CHAIRMAN SEEKS 'MASSIVE CHALLENGE'  

No one could accuse Liberal Democrat Phil Willis of lacking the credentials to chair Parliament's new Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee, although even he acknowledges that the Government's reorganisation presents a "massive challenge".

Whitehall's Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, he said, "is one of the largest departments of state with (a budget of) some £38 billion ... the real difficulty is not to get bogged down in minutiae".

Mr Willis, 66, was a head teacher for 20 years before entering Parliament at 55. He chaired the now-defunct Science and Technology Select Committee from 2005, with a remit covering everything from university science provision to human-animal embryos, and spent eight years as his party's spokesman on higher education and then education and skills.

A separate Science and Technology Committee to parallel the IUS committee would have been preferable, said Mr Willis. However, he is confident he will be able to make the new committee work in an "innovative" way. He suggested that the scientists who were "so vociferous" in their desire to retain a Science and Technology Select Committee should pass judgment on how well the new committee scrutinises science across Government.

He anticipates a greater volume of inquiries for the new committee, which has three more members than his previous committee, as well as a sub- committee. He emphasises that the sub-committee will have a broader remit than science alone.

"I favour members going on and off (the sub-committee), depending on what it is looking at. For the whole committee not to do major science inquiries would be fundamentally wrong."

LIB DEMS' VOICE OF OXFORD  

Evan Harris, 42, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, is another controversial re-appointment to the committee.

Branded "Dr Death" by the Daily Mail for backing "embryo experiments, euthanasia and freer abortions", he was a junior doctor prior to his election in 1997. He is currently the Liberal Democrats' science spokesman and has been outspoken in encouraging academic freedom on campus.

He lists this, along with access to university and research careers, as areas he is particularly keen for the committee to examine, as well as a continuation of scientific inquiries into issues such as embryo research and abortion laws.

"The biggest challenge will be finding the right balance between the scrutiny of the DIUS and the need to look at science across Government and the wider society," he told The Times Higher.

LABOUR REBEL RETURNS TO THE FRAY

Ian Gibson, the colourful rebel Labour MP for Norwich North, is back.

Thrown out as chair of the Commons' Science and Technology Select Committee in 2005 for his campaign against top-up fees, he has gained a place on the new committee following a battle by fellow backbenchers.

"I have very strong views as you know," he told The Times Higher, adding that if he were Prime Minster he would disband the Russell Group. "They have created a tier system irrespective of top-up fees," he said.

He spoke of "welcome back" letters pouring in from the sector. "They know I know the field and will say what needs to be said."

Dr Gibson, 69, was born in Dumfries. He has a PhD in genetics and was an academic at the University of East Anglia for 32 years before being elected in 1997.

His priorities for the new committee include addressing the lack of risk- taking in research and what Scottish independence would mean for the university system.

It is top-up fees, however, that exercise him most. "I have a certain bitterness at losing by five votes," he said of Parliament's 2005 vote in favour of their introduction. "In 2009 there will be another hell of a battle. That is why I am staying on - to have that fight."

Phil Willis said it was good to see Dr Gibson back: "To have him prowling the corridors and not on the committee was a huge waste of his talent."

Dr Gibson says he does not anticipate confrontation but hopes for "real arguments" and predicts there will be more votes on the new committee.

COMMITTEE MEMBERS

Adam Afriyie
Conservative MP for Windsor

Millionaire entrepreneur and first black Tory MP. Shadow Minister for Innovation, Universities and Skills, focusing on science and innovation, he has been tipped as the party's first black leader. Sat on the Science and Technology Select Committee (STSC).

Ian Cawsey
Labour MP for Brigg and Goole

Former computer analyst and bassist of MP4, a rock band composed of four MPs. Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Miliband when the latter was School Standards Minister. Recently appointed vice-chair of the Labour Party.

Roberta Blackman-Woods
Labour MP for Durham

Former deputy dean and professor of social policy at Northumbria University. Former member of the Education Select Committee.

Nadine Dorries
Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire

Nurse, businesswoman and later director of BUPA. Former adviser to Oliver Letwin and a member of the Court of Bedfordshire University. Elected vice- chair of the all-party parliamentary group for further education and lifelong learning in 2006. Sat on the STSC.

Brian Iddon
Labour MP for Bolton South East

Visiting professor in Liverpool University's chemistry department. Sat on the STSC; a vice-president of the Parliamentary Scientific Committee.

Gordon Marsden
Labour MP for Blackpool South

Educated at Oxford University and winner of a Kennedy Scholarship to Harvard, he is a former editor of History Today and a former Open University tutor. The only member of the disbanded Education and Skills Select Committee to join the IUS Committee.

Bob Spink
Conservative MP for Castle Point

An engineer whose previous roles include director of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology 1993-97. Sat on the STSC.

Ian Stewart
Labour MP for Eccles

Had long career as a full-time official for the Transport and General Workers Union and has campaigned for industrial education. Sat on the STSC.

Graham Stringer
Labour MP for Manchester Blackley

Former analytical chemist who spent more than ten years as head of Manchester City Council. Sat on the STSC.

Des Turner
Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown

Turner is a biochemist and medical researcher who developed sidelines as a teacher and a brewer to fund his research. Sat on the STSC.

Rob Wilson
Conservative MP for Reading East

Entrepreneur who has acted as an adviser to David Davis. Became Shadow Minister for Higher Education in July.

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