Our friends in high places

November 6, 1998

Universities will suffer by reform of the Lords, says Conrad Russell

Since the 1988 Education Act, universities have got used to looking to the House of Lords as their defender. Votes on university issues since 1988 sound like a long list of battle honours.

The Jenkins amendment of 1988 enshrined the principle of academic freedom in law. The Beloff amendment of 1992 reaffirmed the principle of academic freedom in content of courses and selection of students, and blocked a government attempt to smuggle in two-year degrees.

Perhaps the most sensational was the Lords' success in forcing the government to withdraw the proposal which would have abolished student unions, the only time in ten years the Lords have stopped a whole government measure.

The academic peerage is a formidable body. It includes academic professionals, chancellors, freelance scholars, Oxbridge heads of houses, relatives of academics and peers who simply regard themselves as friends of universities. Academics are currently hugely over-represented in the house besides, say school-teachers.

How will this be affected by the government's plans to reform the House of Lords? Will this power simply disappear? Stage one is the expulsion of the hereditary peers. That may not do too much damage to the universities' interest. Among the 40 or so speakers for the universities, only four have been hereditaries: Lord Adrian, Lord Kirkwood, senior lecturer in engineering at Sheffield, Viscount Combermere, a lecturer in adult education, and myself.

To lose us would not be a loss of academic honour but of chalk-face experience. The great and the good do not include many serving lecturers. However, our loss would not greatly reduce the size of the university lobby in the Lords.

We are on different ground with stage two of the reform - conferring legitimacy on the House of Lords. There is a growing consensus that stage one should not be allowed through until we know more about stage two. If stage two is to confer legitimacy on the house, it must mean a second chamber which is wholly or partly elected.

This would fill the house with professional politicians. The vice-chancellors, the Fellows of the Royal Society and British Academy, would be replaced by people who know "education" only as a political brief.

So universities should be interested in a chamber which is partly elected and partly nominated. Once legitimacy is put in issue, elections must follow but that does not mean the house should be wholly elected. The cross-bench peers, for example, who take no party whip, are a vital part of what makes the house work. They can only be preserved by nomination. It is nominated peers taking party whips who must go. The Cook-Maclennan agreement between Labour and Liberal Democrats suggested a ratio of 50 nominated peers to 250 elected peers.

Universities cannot expect is to do as well out of this proposal as we do now. The professional element will be sharply diminished. If academics are reduced to our fair share within that professional element, we will be even more sharply diminished. There is no legitimate way we can oppose this. All we can do is make sure we get our fair share and say it was nice while it lasted.

Conrad Russell is a senior Liberal Democrat peer.

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