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5 Feb 1997 : Column 1116


Queen's recommendation having been signified--


Queen's recommendation having been signified--



    That, during the proceedings on the Flood Prevention and Land Drainage (Scotland) Bill, the First Scottish Standing Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it shall meet.--[Mr. Peter Ainsworth.]

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Higher Education

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Peter Ainsworth.]

10.30 pm

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham): I have instigated this somewhat intimate debate--[Interruption.] It will be intimate in a moment. I have instigated the debate since it is one that would not occur naturally. That is because the condition of our universities is something that Parliament instinctively avoids. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. I ask hon. Members to carry out their negotiations elsewhere.

Mr. Walden: Higher education faces severe problems--the students know it, the academics know it, the vice-chancellors know it, the media know it and Members of Parliament know it. But the subject cannot be openly debated in the House of Commons, because the solutions are as unpalatable to the public as they would be to their parliamentary representatives. The public are not anxious to hear the truth about higher education, and we in this House are in no hurry to tell it to them. In that sense at least, the cover-up over the state of our universities is fully democratic.

I have seen the recently published Government evidence to the Dearing review--published, I believe, only yesterday--and I see no mention there of what I consider to be the realities about funding. Yet whatever they say in public, I doubt whether either the Government or the Opposition believe that the present position on funding is sustainable. The Dearing review will be a handy means of procrastination and obfuscation during the election period--which is why, it can be assumed, it was welcomed by the Opposition.

I make no criticism of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for using the existence of the review to postpone, rather than to seek to answer, questions. In his position, I would no doubt do the same. But someone has to win the election--whether or not they come to regret it--so it is worth putting on record the position as one Back Bencher sees it. Should my hon. Friend the Minister chance to agree with any part of this speech, let me assure him that I fully understand why he will not feel able to say so.

Schools need more money. Universities need more money. It goes without saying that neither of them will become better at education merely by having it, and that cash is a necessary but by no means a sufficient condition of their prospering. Nothing I say this evening should be seen as distracting from that self-evident central truth. Nowhere can so much money be spent to so little effect as in education. Yet that assuming we know what we are about in the classroom or lecture hall, adequate funds are needed for reasons to obvious to spell out.

It can safely be assumed that the Dearing review will not be so irresponsible as to conclude that the Government of the day should give the universities the cash they ask for. In any case, that would be a waste of breath, since no Government would do so. Nor is there a case for any more state money. Seen internationally, our universities are far better funded than our schools.

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If money is to be made available for education, it should go to the schools, and be made conditional on changes of educational practice and philosophy. Our universities would then benefit to the extent that they would not find themselves in the position of acting as remedial institutions, which they do now to a far greater extent than they are ready to acknowledge in public.

My preferred solution to the cash crisis in universities is for students to contribute to tuition fees, through a graduate tax of some description. I see no long-term alternative. When, as Minister with responsibility for higher education, I was asked whether loans for maintenance were the thin end of the wedge, I was wary of denying it, because that is exactly what it seemed to me that it would be.

The debate has moved on since then--outside Parliament, at least. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has come up with imaginative and realistic proposals in its evidence to the Dearing review, which includes the words:

Since I was a little rude about the vice-chancellors in a book that I published recently, I should like to take this opportunity to retract those criticisms, and to praise them for their contribution to the Dearing review.

Not so many years ago, I was spat at while selling the notion of loans for maintenance. Now, opposition to the principle of loans has dried up, along with the expectoration. It is encouraging that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals was not mobbed or vilified for taking the logic of loans to its predestined conclusions.

When I spoke at a recent debate at the London School of Economics on the subject, the atmosphere was as civilised as the treatment of the issues was constructive. Nicholas Barr and Iain Crawford especially are to be congratulated on their work in this field, as is Professor John Ashworth, the former director, for daring to put the issue on the agenda.

I do not approach the problem in a spirit of market dogmatism. I have no metaphysical belief in the market--like democracy itself, it is simply the best way that anyone has thought up for getting things done--and am happy for Government to subsidise the arts, broadcasting and higher education to the extent that is sensible. But to promise to pay full tuition fees in perpetuity for a million or more students at the level necessary to maintain the traditional quality of our universities is not sensible, because, given other priorities, it cannot be done.

The consequence of spreading available funds increasingly thinly will be a dilution of standards in what was once, by international comparison, the best part of our educational system. We have done two things that, taken together, will prove a terrible blow to the quality of our higher education: we have tripled the number of students without providing the means, and we have expanded universities on the basis of inadequate schools.

Despite a more mature debate outside the House, student contributions to fees are still treated by many as immoral. By that yardstick, many of the best foreign universities operate on an unethical basis. The best moral

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guide to the question is still that provided by Lord Robbins. When he rejected loans as undesirable in 1962, he made an important proviso. As higher education continued to expand, he said, and more women entered, the time would come when there would have to be an experiment with student loans. He gave three reasons: social equity, distributive justice, and the need to encourage a sense of financial discipline and self-reliance among the students.

Contrary to folklore, for that is all it is, there is no ethical difference between loans for maintenance and contributions to fees. Lord Robbins's wise arguments about equity apply to both. In his time, there were 200,000 students. Now there are over five times as many, of which nearly half are women. A fivefold expansion is surely enough to trigger what could be called the Robbins caveat on student finance in an era of expansion.

The same arguments that applied to loans apply to contributions to fees. Yes, higher education benefits society, but it also benefits the individual. Seen that way, the equitable solution is simple. Why not split the cost?

We are told that many people would be prepared to pay more taxes if that meant ensuring for themselves and their children a better quality of higher education. Such a position is presented as evidence of civic virtue; it is nothing of the kind. The minority would get more money for themselves from the public, the majority of whom do not, and will never, receive a university education.

For those who insist that people would be only too ready to pay more taxes, a graduate tax would be the ideal opportunity to do so. Not only would their itch to swell Treasury funds be assuaged, but they could be assured that the proceeds would go directly to higher education rather than, say, to nuclear submarines. For that reason, among others, the case for the tax knows no natural political frontiers.

At this point, the objection is made that a graduate tax would dissuade people from aspiring to higher education. The middle classes are notoriously resourceful in defending their interests, but that is one of the most cynical and least intelligent defences of the status quo that I have heard.

The idea that the overwhelmingly middle-class student body must continue to receive free tuition out of solidarity with its less fortunate brothers, many of whom do not make it to university at all, is cant of a high order. There is something a little indecent about students and parents from well-to-do families using the poor as a human shield against contributing to the true cost of their own privileged education.

The argument does not wash. The point of a graduate tax is that it would be payable only after a graduate had secured a job that was well enough rewarded to enable him or her to contribute, and the objection that the tax would put off the poor neglects the real source of inequality in access to higher education: poverty of aspirations and inadequate education at lower social levels. Children who are born in dismal places tend to go to dismal schools, with dismally low expectations of what they can achieve. People at that level of society are not privileged enough to get into a state about university fees.

It will nevertheless be maintained as a last line of defence that some people from modest backgrounds have an in-built fear of getting into debt. Such people exist, and one understands their fear, but the force of that argument

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depends on our readiness to base the entire financial structure of our universities on the irrational apprehensions of an unfortunate minority. We should not base policy on such fears; we should try to dispel them.

Student contributions to fees would have academic as well as material benefits, of a kind alluded to by Lord Robbins. At a time when there appears to be some uncertainty about what higher education is for--that, too, needs to be addressed by Dearing--a graduate tax would concentrate minds usefully.

I am sure that the Opposition would agree that the tax would give students a stakeholding in their institution and make them more demanding about the teaching and quality of their courses, and their intellectual content and utility. Few students will get indignant about a mediocre course of dubious use to themselves or the world if someone else is paying. Many more would wake up to their responsibilities if they were contributing to the cost.

I will not say that things cannot go on as they are. Things are going on as they are, and can go on as they are pretty well indefinitely. There is no reason why British higher education should not go on sliding gracefully downhill for many years to come, assuming that we are prepared to contemplate a mass, low-quality system of the kind that the French have found themselves historically saddled with.

Not all academics feel it politic to tell the truth about what is happening to standards, but there are distinguished exceptions. On his recent retirement from Manchester university, Sir John Mason said:

Baroness Warnock recently said openly what everyone knows to be true: that A-level standards are at risk, to the point where some of our universities could end up as little more than sixth-form colleges.

As a former Minister with responsibility for higher education, I must accept my mite of responsibility for some of what has gone wrong, but one should never forgo the luxury of being right after the event.

In fairness to myself, and, above all, to the late and sincerely lamented Lord Joseph, it was understood at the time that the question of student fees would one day have to be faced. He made a typically gallant and naturally foredoomed attempt to do it.

At that time, about a decade go, neither Parliament nor the country was ready to contemplate the truth. Everyone favoured expansion as a matter of conscience, and to ask who was going to pay for it was to sully their ideals with base materialism. Now that we have seen the results on our campuses of the peculiarly distasteful brand of high-toned evasion that afflicts much of our national debate on education, perhaps it is permissible to raise the question again.

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