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August 1, 2003

Barry Sheerman says Charles Clarke seems set to ignore any criticism of government policies.

Charles Clarke may be surprised at the level of my disappointment with his response to the education and skills select committee's report on the future of universities. My frustration comes from the rejection of most of our recommendations, despite a few honeyed words and phrases about the quality of our endeavours. Crucially, the government's proposals lack transparency. They also fail to contend with what we say about the unique character of UK higher education and how we maintain it.

Having done what diligent select committees do - take evidence, listen to witnesses, read the views sent to us - we came to the conclusion that our universities' selling point was high-quality provision based on the foundation of teaching and research carried out in the same institution.

Quality, however, is costly, and, while recognising that the large investment in higher education over the next three years will make a profound difference, we pointed out that government spending in the sector has, in recent years, lagged well behind other educational priorities.

Our view was that the Dearing wisdom was right. Higher education should be paid for by those who benefit: society through the taxpayer, the employer and the individual graduate. Given this, and the extreme hostility that the government faces from its own backbenchers and The Daily Mail, it should be possible to ensure that access to a university education for students from poor backgrounds is not made more difficult. Hence our strong recommendation that the department cease providing a blanket subsidy through interest-free loans to everyone and target resources by giving generous maintenance grants to the poorest students.

The government resisted our call but made some minor concessions on student finance and gave hints of greater ones to come when the autumn conference season arrives. But the overall message is clear: the government is not interested in changing its white paper. This is a disappointment to most of us who genuinely believed Mr Clarke when he declared that this was a "white paper with green edges". We were convinced as a committee that our experience - garnered from three previous inquiries into access, retention and student finance - would be valuable in informing the developing policy.

We were disappointed by the government's response on at least six other counts. The first surrounds our serious misgivings about further concentrating research funding in even fewer institutions. There was widespread disquiet among witnesses on this aspect of the government's proposals. We said clearly in our report that "a broad research base will provide more scope for innovation and research excellence than an increasingly narrow one". Our advice was ignored.

Another shock was that the government washed its hands of the vital issue of staff salaries, putting the onus on the institutions to decide how they wished to spend their increased budget. In evidence to our committee, the Higher Education Funding Council for England had said that a fundamental lack of government funding was holding down teaching pay levels, and that the sector would be lucky to afford an inflation-level rise this year.

On foundation degrees, the government was deaf to our plea not to link its expansion targets in higher education solely to the growth in the new two-year courses. We were sure that there was a valuable role for foundation degrees, but this link could entirely undermine its credibility in student eyes. With a classic belief in the management of the supply side, the government said: "Government has a duty to help higher education meet the needs of the economy, and an obligation to students to help ensure that the qualifications they take match likely demand from employers."

The Office for Fair Access had almost no support from our witnesses or from evidence that we gathered. The government has brushed off our criticisms and is determined to micro-manage in this area.

While welcoming the committee's support for the key principle of the Dearing report, the government peremptorily dismissed our suggestion that employers should pay a levy to support university research and development.

Finally, Mr Clarke is not persuaded by the evidence that convinced us that higher education institutions dedicated solely to teaching would strike at the very heart of the distinct British university ethos.

All in all, some members of my committee may be wondering this summer whether all the work and effort that went into what many regard as a thoughtful and innovative report has made any difference at all to government thinking. Hopefully, there is a world outside the government that will carry on the fight for the higher education system that our country needs and deserves.

Barry Sheerman is chairman of the House of Commons education and skills select committee.

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