Why Lords are a-leaping

December 12, 1997

Yesterday the higher education bill had its second reading in the Lords. Three peers offer their views


Max Beloff is a Conservative peerand was the first principal of the University of Buckingham

The Teaching and Higher Education Bill makes it clear that the attack upon the Oxford and Cambridge differential to allow for college fees was only a skirmish before the real battle between two irreconcilable views of the future of higher education in the United Kingdom. To take powers for the secretary of state for education to limit the ability of universities to charge fees to all or part of their student body is to claim authority over independent institutions governed by their royal charters - many antedating by centuries the office of secretary of state.

Quite apart from the merits of any action that some universities might wish to take and how funds received from wealthier students could be used to widen access for others, on the familiar United States model, there is a deeper clash.

On the one side there is the conviction of most serious scientists and scholars that a healthy university provision is one of many independent institutions, fulfilling different roles, with public funding as only one source of income. In their vision, British universities compete on the world scene for the best brains as well as for the largest endowments. In Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics, in Warwick, Manchester, Edinburgh and St Andrews and in other famous British centres of science and learning, they think of the universities of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Chicago as their friends and rivals.

On the other hand, David Blunkett, Baroness Blackstone and their Scottish counterparts, while paying lip service to variety, are clearly devoted to creating a single state system of institutions to be financed in terms of equality and subject to ever-tighter controls by central government and its agencies.

In the same way, Margaret Beckett, the president of the Board of Trade, tells Save British Science how devoted she is to research but does nothing to stem the deterioration in the scientific infrastructure, which is making it impossible for universities to offer facilities for major research projects that are bound to seek alternative locations abroad. Politicians, like other people, should be judged by their actions not their words.

What we are to get from this government is another step towards the kind of systems that exist in some continental countries, where university conditions are so poor that those who can afford it prefer to send their offspring abroad. How otherwise can one explain the reiterated ambition to recruit another half-million students by the end of this parliament when it is impossible to provide a proper higher education experience for the students already recruited in the rush to expansion over recent years? All that is offered to the next generation of would-be students is more frustration, leading to a higher drop-out rate.

What should be done is the precise opposite to what the bill proposes. Universities should be encouraged to market their wares as well as to seek private benefactions. State funds and energies could then be devoted to nurturing other institutions with more limited horizons - local or regional institutions - so that their students also may truly enter the magic worlds of science and learning.

"Top-up fees" is a silly expression: fees are just one means by which the country can be persuaded to put into higher education the funds needed if Britain is to retain its place in the world. LORD QUIRK OF BLOOMSBURY

Randolph Quirk is a crossbench peer and former president of the British Academy

It is good that, just as doctors have their General Medical Council, there is to be at last a General Teaching Council. Teachers have taken a lot of stick over the past decade, and anything that will help them hold their heads high is greatly to be welcomed. As is a second major provision of the bill: a considerable strengthening of the role of Ofsted, a body that has also come in for its share of stick but has fully earned this government's confidence.

But clarification is needed of the functions of the GTC and Ofsted, as they are set forth in the bill. The GTC is to advise on standards of teaching and teacher training - but so too must Ofsted and the Department for Education and Employment's new instruments, the Standards Task Force and the Standards and Effectiveness Unit. We need an assurance that responsibilities will be clear and that these various bodies will not get in each other's hair.

The GTC is to advise on teacher training, as is Ofsted. There also is the Teacher Training Agency, not mentioned in the bill, but it is known that education secretary David Blunkett has sent a letter in recent weeks reaffirming the TTA's "central roleI to draw up and implement effective policies across all aspects of teacher recruitment, teacher training and teaching standards". Again, we need assurance that there is no danger of crossed wires.

Although I welcome the provisions of Part I of the bill, Part II is something else. I shall need to hear better arguments than have been advanced for levying a flat tuition fee but prohibiting top-up fees. And I look for clarification on the matter of extra fees already charged for field trips and so on.

It is some relief that the new fee is to be demitted in respect of some professional degrees such as nursing and that the PGCE will also escape. But why stop there? We are desperately short of good recruits for mainstream teaching degrees. We are also short of secondary teachers in subjects such as maths and modern languages. Why not use the new tuition fee as a device to influence student choice of degree? For example, if graduates in maths and modern languages are not as plentiful as graduates in, say, media studies, why not exempt maths and modern languages from the Pounds 1,000 fee?

One might object that not all graduates in maths and German go on to become school teachers. But many do, and if the TTA's campaigns and the GTC's recruitment role are successful, many more must. Indeed, it is to be hoped that the GTC will speedily influence universities to work more closely with the profession that so many of their graduates will join.

A couple of years ago, Patricia Spacks, president of the Modern Languages Association, told American universities that they must accept "responsibility for what happens in earlier years of education", and she added: "The current attempt to articulate national standardsI for secondary schools dramatises the consequences of the vagueness and multiplicity that currently mark higher education".

Perish the thought that any such remarks could be directed at British universities, although it is not far from that expressed last week by Mary Lord, policy head of the Training and Enterprise Council. She wants universities to build "work-related learning into every undergraduate curriculum". A tad extreme to many, but we must not forget that universities have always been concerned with the future careers of their students.

Of course, it must continue to be from our BAs and BSc's that future FBAs and FRS's will be elected and success in blue-skies research achieved. But far more of our graduates will become school teachers, and this career pattern should be very much in the mind of those guiding their steps at university. It makes sense that those designing degree curricula and those in the universities responsible for monitoring quality should seek liaison with Ofsted, the new GTC and, perhaps in due course, the proposed Institute for Teaching and Learning, so that those graduates who choose to enter teaching can go on to professional training confidently equipped.


Bryan Davies of Oldham, the former Labour spokesman on further and higher education, will be the next chair of the Further Education Funding Council

TO OFFER the red meat of a radical education bill to the House of Lords is boldness itself when peers have already rushed to defend Ox-bridge college fees, to challenge the principle of student tuition fees and to dramatise the problem of Scottish four-year degrees.

The bill's most contentious provision, the reform of student finance, should have been enacted a decade ago. Its concept of student maintenance loans, contingent on income and repayable through the Inland Revenue over a long earning period would have obviated the hardship caused by the existing mortgage-style short-term loans that still fail to provide for more than a third of students entitled to them.

Moreover, the new scheme underpins the crucial concept of lifelong learning. It can be extended to those left out of present provision, part-time students in higher education and students in further education. The recommendations of the Kennedy report, which ministers have espoused, envisage extended opportunity to excluded social groups. Financial support for students aged 16 and over will be of great importance.

The real challenge in the Lords, however, is certain to concentrate on the issue of charging fees to students. It will be argued that the Pounds 1,000 fee will be a significant deterrent, particularly to students from less well-off homes. The minister will stress that the fee does not fall on that third of students from the least well-off households and is payable in full only by the most prosperous third. Surely Baroness Blackstone will be right to argue that the greatest barrier to educational opportunity is the limit on places. I applaud the government for "raising the cap'' on student numbers and recognising that hard-pressed institutions need immediate resources.

Battle will really be enjoined over the government's determination to prevent universities charging fees over and above the Pounds 1,000 fee - the soc-called "top-up fee". Those who ideologically espouse the market-driven model for higher education development will be joined by more moderate voices concerned by the government's intrusion on university autonomy. Both are wrong. The market model would create unacceptable strains in an already very divergent higher education system. Elite institutions would become increasingly populated by well-off students. Students' choice of courses would be dictated more by cost than by appropriateness. Expensive subjects, however essential to the nation, would find student recruitment difficult.

Threats to the freedom of universities can be readily exaggerated. Had this been a major issue, it would have arisen repeatedly in the past decade, when universities were doubling their numbers with limited additional resources under a government with few declared scruples about educational democracy. A Labour-dominated House of Commons will be very watchful over the abuse of power in educational communities.

On the teaching front, the provision for the necessary qualifications for head teachers will command wide support, as will the principle of establishing the General Teaching Council. The government will be under pressure to define more clearly the council's relationship to the Teacher Training Agency. Most controversial is the extension of Ofsted to the inspection of higher education teacher training courses. Ministers have set as their highest priority the raising of standards in schools, and the extended role of Ofsted is the logical extension of forging the closest links between teacher training and the school experience.

Finally, the bill addresses the greatest weakness in the country's post-system provision. Young people in work without qualifications will be entitled to time off to reach level 2 in vocational qualifications (equivalent to five GCSEs), the minimum standard of employability in the future world of work.

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