Sector fears for future as its Commons champions are lost

More incoming MPs are graduates but few have worked in higher education. John Morgan reports

May 13, 2010

Higher education lost many of its key parliamentary supporters in the general election and may be vulnerable when crucial decisions about the sector's future are made, senior figures have warned.

The loss of several MPs with higher education knowledge or experience comes in advance of important debates on the sector's funding and the conclusion of Lord Browne's review of fees and funding.

An analysis of the new MPs suggests that about one in 20 has worked in higher education, compared with one in 10 with financial-services experience and one in five with a professional background in politics.

There were also warnings about the loss of MPs with science backgrounds and a possible knowledge gap on post-1992 institutions - 69 per cent of new MPs graduated from research-intensive universities.

Among the most prominent higher education champions to lose their seat was Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat science spokesman. While Dr Harris said that he intended to return to the House of Commons "sooner rather than later" (see box below right), other MPs with significant sector knowledge also lost their seats - including former higher education minister Bill Rammell and his Labour colleague Charles Clarke, the former education minister.

Among the MPs to step down were Phil Willis, former chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, and Brian Iddon, a former committee member and academic chemist.

One senior sector figure said: "I think it's notable that a large, talented pool of MPs with close connections to higher education either stepped down or lost their seats in the election ... Whether people agreed with them or not, Charles Clarke, Bill Rammell, Evan Harris - those are all people who understand in a huge amount of detail the tensions and strengths of the system. It is a concern to the sector that they've gone."

The source, who asked to remain anonymous, pointed to the loss of experience on the Science and Technology Committee. Estimates suggest that overall the number of MPs with science backgrounds has fallen from 86 to 71.

The source said: "Filling those committees with people who know about higher education is a concern. There are really big issues for higher education that need to be debated in the next six months to a year. Having MPs who are well informed about those issues, not just in terms of students and student support, but also the broader issues of universities' contribution to the economy and the role of science and research - we can't take it for granted that people know about them."

Of the 231 new MPs elected, biographical details compiled by the communications consultancy the Madano Partnership suggest that 13 have worked in higher education as an academic or student officer - 5.6 per cent of the total intake. Another five have PhDs.

Academics entering the House include Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge and a computational biologist at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. He is regarded as a potential key voice for science.

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of Million+, which represents post-92 universities, said: "There is concern that we have lost a number of colleagues within the House ... People who have taken a particular interest in science seem to have been lost.

"Everybody is trying to evaluate the new House and what experience it has, but the indication is that the number of science graduates has gone down."

Dr Harris also warned of the consequences of a drop in the number of MPs with science backgrounds, adding that stern opposition would be needed if proposals were made to "turn the tap off" for science funding.

Graduate riches

Ninety per cent of MPs in the Commons are university graduates, a rise from 72 per cent in the 2005 Parliament and the highest proportion of graduates in the Commons' history. According to figures from the Sutton Trust, 69 per cent of the new MPs graduated from research-intensive universities, including 28 per cent from Oxbridge.

Professor Ebdon said: "Individual interviews with some of the prospective parliamentary candidates did show that they were unaware that the vast majority of graduates obtain their education in post-92 universities.

"They were unaware of the amount of research that went on in those universities."

Mr Willis said there was "a bias towards research-intensive universities that is going to be even greater from a particular class of graduate".

Such bias could damage the UK's global competitiveness, he suggested, if allied to renewed scrutiny of the structure of higher education from the Right, "who have always regretted the 1992 move to end the polytechnics, who believe that higher education students should be academically and socially elite".

The new House includes 150 MPs who signed a pledge to oppose any rise in tuition fees proposed by Lord Browne's review, a campaign organised by the National Union of Students. About 1,500 parliamentary candidates signed up in total.

Despite the concerns about the make-up of the new Parliament, it has also been suggested that it could offer greater influence to academics.

Writing on the Times Higher Education website this week, Christopher Tyler, executive director of the Centre for Science and Policy at Cambridge, said: "In today's hung Parliament, there is an additional role for scientific advice and evidence-based thinking: to provide a platform for cross-party consensus."

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

(See the related article link on the right of this page)

FEES, FUNDING AND PLACES: ACADEMY'S PRIORITIES FOR THE NEW GOVERNMENT

Million+

Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group representing post-1992 universities, said: "We've got more than 100,000 potential students who applied to university this year who won't get in. Additional places are the number one priority. It is time to get these places for September so we don't have a lost generation who tried to get to university and did not succeed."

GuildHE

GuildHE, one of the UK's two representative groups for higher education, sees student demand, the fees review and the sustainability of institutions as the key sector priorities for a new government. It said: "The current gap between full- and part-time funding and support structures must be narrowed, and student choice and student opportunity (must be made) secure."

1994 Group

The 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities sets out four principles in its Advice for an Incoming Government. These are to: "prioritise maintaining the academic quality of UK universities"; "promote the diversity and differentiation of task and mission, which underpins the excellence of higher education"; "ensure institutional autonomy"; and "support internationalisation".

University Alliance

Libby Aston, director of the University Alliance group of "research-engaged, business-focused" universities, said: "The government needs to understand that spending on universities is an investment in the future: driving economic recovery; shaping the new economy through innovation; and equipping graduates for the 21st century."

PROTECTION PLAN: PARLIAMENT'S OUTGOING ADVOCATE FOR SCIENCE SETS OUT KEY CONCERNS

A new government should be ready to direct universities towards protecting science and modern languages, according to a former MP regarded as Parliament's foremost advocate for science.

Evan Harris, who was Liberal Democrat shadow minister for science, lost his Oxford West and Abingdon seat in the general election by the narrow margin of 176 votes.

He told Times Higher Education that he planned to win the seat back "sooner rather than later", and outlined a series of priority issues in higher education that must be addressed.

On higher tuition fees, he said: "I asked David Lammy, the previous (higher education) minister, twice whether he would say that any increase in fees would deliver additional funding for universities and he refused to do so.

"People shouldn't rely on that (for extra funding), and it is going to make it even more difficult to get fairer access."

On the sciences, Dr Harris said: "One of the things I was campaigning for was to ensure that there was some protection for science departments and resources - and also modern languages - because that is what Britain needs."

He added that it was "not clear that a new government will care to be specific about what posts and courses universities need to ensure are protected".

Dr Harris, who is a medical doctor, also raised the issue of immigration rules in higher education.

"We have a clumsy, over-reacting, populist immigration context in politics and that may have serious implications for the ability of UK universities to be attractive places for international students and academics," he warned.

Asked about the decline in the number of scientists in the new Commons, he said: "I've never argued that you need to be a scientist to get science policy right. However, there is an issue to do with a critical mass of people who understand the scientific method."

He added that he hoped Julian Huppert, the new Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, would take over as the advocate for science in Parliament.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

DRAMA, BUT NO CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS

A constitutional crisis was avoided in the immediate aftermath of last week's indecisive general election thanks to the groundwork done by academics.

Scholars who foresaw the potential for difficulties in the event of a hung Parliament were involved in drawing up a document setting out how negotiations on forming a coalition government should be framed, ensuring the Queen was not dragged into proceedings.

Among the authors was former senior civil servant Robert Hazell, director of the Constitution Unit at University College London's department of political science. Professor Hazell said he had spent much of last year working on the report, Making Minority Government Work.

The document - published with the Institute for Government in December - spoke of the "real possibility" of a hung Parliament, even when polls were predicting a comfortable Conservative victory.

Major players in the Civil Service were shown sections of the analysis and asked for feedback prior to its completion. Professor Hazell held meetings with Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet secretary, and spoke to officials at the Palace.

This led to the publication by the Cabinet Office of a draft chapter from a broader Cabinet manual in which the requirements of a hung Parliament were discussed.

Professor Hazell said he was "very pleased" with the way his work had been drawn on in the past week. "We spent 12 months preparing for this," he said. "We began to persuade (the Civil Service) of the need for a Cabinet manual and I think that it began to see how valuable it would be in the event of a hung Parliament."

He added that one of the key goals of the report - to avoid the Queen being drawn into any decision on how to form the next government - had been achieved.

"People might say we are in a political crisis, but we are not in a constitutional crisis. Nobody is questioning the fundamentals," Professor Hazell said.

Peter Hennessy, Attlee professor of contemporary British history at Queen Mary, University of London, had long argued that constitutional practices needed to be committed to paper.

"(The document) has made a great deal of difference. Everyone knew what the constitutional position was," he said.

Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at the University of Oxford, also spoke to the Commons Justice Committee about hung parliaments earlier this year.

He said: "Academics can be helpful in this sort of situation by drawing upon historical and comparative evidence about how we, as a country, dealt with similar situations in the past, and how other countries deal with them."

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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