Red-letter day? Hardly

July 2, 2004

The Bill is bad news for universities, but what did they expect after such a lame fight, asks Colin Renfrew

As a university professor who happens to be a Conservative life peer in the House of Lords, I have found the outcome of the Higher Education Bill distinctly disappointing. Even the "gap-year victory" celebrated in the pages of The Times Higher (June 25) - the only Lords amendment to be accepted on the Bill's return to the Commons last week - is no cause for celebration. It allows students beginning university after a gap year in 2005 to escape top-up fees, but it leaves universities in the position of having to find the means to replace those fees. It is certainly not the victory it would have been had the Government been obliged to find the difference.

In the Commons, the most vehement criticisms of the Bill came from the Labour Left, furiously combating the notion of variable ("top-up") fees.

They forced Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education, to make provision in the Bill for an Office for Fair Access, with the power to oblige universities to draw up plans for attracting applicants from underrepresented groups.

But the Commons failed to tackle the central problem - that the additional tuition fee income reaching universities (about £1.3 billion, before deducting the costs of the bursaries and other schemes to placate Offa) goes only about half way to meeting universities' annual £2 billion deficit. This deficit rises to some £9 billion when capital expenditure is taken into account.

The bad news for universities is that, despite the introduction of variable fees, they will still have a massive recurrent deficit. Academic salaries, which have fallen as much as 40 per cent behind those of other white-collar professions over the past 20 years, are unlikely to be significantly increased in the foreseeable future. And, as I pointed out in the Lords debates, despite the Government's emphasis on access, it is likely that many potential students from low-income families will be deterred from going to university, especially to universities with the best teaching and research records, by the substantial student loans they would have to incur. Students from low-income backgrounds are often understandably debt-averse.

Universities and the Opposition in the Lords did not, in my view, put up a very impressive battle. The Liberal Democrats, who have a policy of opposing tuition fees - preferring to see much greater government support for the universities to be met by general taxation - somehow managed to support and carry a Conservative amendment that, while waiving the additional fees for fourth and higher-year students on a first degree course, placed the cost in fee income lost on the universities rather than the Government. Although they supported a further amendment, which I moved, to transfer that cost to the Government, that amendment was lost: the chief executive of Universities UK, who sits in the Lords as the Labour life peer Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, voted with the Government.

Indeed, the position of UUK seemed not to differ from that of the Government on any financial issue. The Conservative team, ably led by Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, was evidently hampered by the lack of discernible Conservative policy for financing higher education.

Backbench and crossbench peers formulated several amendments, but all of these have been negated by the Commons. The sad thing is that this Bill, after all the huffing and puffing, does almost nothing to halt the decline in higher education.

Colin Renfrew, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, is Disney professor of archaeology and director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University.

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