Peer who moved from Left to the bank aims to be accommodating

But Lord Triesman has few kind words for v-cs and £9,000 fees, he tells David Matthews

August 2, 2012

Blame game peer claims it is unfair to say that New Labour paved the way for £9,000 fees

In a career that has taken him from student radical to general secretary of a teaching union to New Labour minister and now adviser to a merchant bank looking to rapidly grow its student accommodation business, few can boast such varied experience of the academy as Baron Triesman of Tottenham.

In June, the bank, Templewood, announced its first foray into the sector with a £120 million deal to build a 2,000-bed student complex in Newcastle. Lord Triesman was a founding partner of the firm, which was set up in September 2010, and is chair of its board of advisers.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, he said he relished being back in the higher education sector but was scathing towards the higher fees that are being ushered in this September - and vice-chancellors' response to them.

Lord Triesman was part of the government that introduced variable tuition fees in 2006, but argued that it was unfair to say that Labour had paved the way for £9,000 a year charges.

"I really don't believe there was ever a time when we talked about a level anywhere near approaching £9,000," he said, even in the face of pressure from many vice-chancellors whom he said wanted higher fees to "balance their books".

He said the coalition had failed to research "bog-standard" questions about the impact of higher fees, particularly whether students would pay £9,000 a year to attend institutions from lower-ranked mission groups.

Lord Triesman also criticised vice-chancellors' failure to speak out against the reforms.

"I think they've been so desperate to get the extra money that they've been pretty silent about the likely consequences" of policies such as providing teaching grant for only science, technology, engineering and mathematical subjects, he said.

"I may be wrong ... but I can't imagine Diana Warwick (chief executive of Universities UK from 1995 to 2009) allowing something like that past without there having been a really robust discussion at the least, and probably a pretty tough response. We don't seem to live in that world now."

Open attitude

Asked to draw on his experience as leader of the Association of University Teachers to offer advice to Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, the peer said that the UCU should have a "very much more open debate" about changes in the sector.

When he led the AUT, he said, "it wasn't sensible" not to recruit academics from the private University of Buckingham and the London Business School.

Lord Triesman would not be drawn on whether this was a comment on the UCU's opposition to private and for-profit providers, but added that he hoped the union's criticisms were "evidence-based".

Asked whether as head of the AUT he would have approved of his current role facilitating private accommodation, Lord Triesman pointed out that the vast majority of student accommodation was already owned by private landlords.

"There are all kinds of (private) ancillary services (for students)," he argued. If universities ran them all ("maybe they did in the Soviet Union, I don't know"), he said it would be legitimate to ask them: "Are you guys focused on your core business? Aren't you supposed to be educating these people and doing research?"

Rooms to grow

Templewood has grand ambitions, Lord Triesman said. "In five years, I think, we will certainly be the third- and probably the second-biggest provider" of private student accommodation in the UK, he predicted.

To become the second-largest provider, Templewood would have to overtake the University Partnerships Programme, which in 2011 had 21,500 student rooms in operation or development.

As a result of higher fees, university "had better be a very much better kind of experience" with students demanding higher standards of new accommodation, he added.

However, Templewood will be targeting cities possessing either a Russell Group or a 1994 Group institution because "the sad truth is that it is very, very much harder to compute the risk across other parts of the sector", he warned.


1943: Born on 30 October

1968: Suspended from studies at the University of Essex after breaking up a meeting addressed by a defence industry scientist

1993-2001: General secretary of the Association of University Teachers

2001-2003: General secretary of the Labour Party

2004-2008: Made a life peer and begins a government career across several departments

2007-2008: Appointed first "minister for students"

2008-2010: Chair of the Football Association; resigned after being secretly taped suggesting Russia would bribe referees at the 2010 World Cup

2010-present: Opposition spokesman for Business, Innovation and Skills; moved to Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2011.

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