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10 Dec 2009 : Column 545

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What does the hon. Gentleman say to the critics who would compare the activity and work of our students with other students in other countries and suggest that our students do not work hard enough?

Mr. Boswell: I would always take that with a measure of scepticism, although not always from the hon. Gentleman, but this kind of thing needs analysis. Even within our own student sector, the word on the street is that some courses, some universities and some types of approach are much more or less demanding than others. It is a bit odd that this has arisen through a quality framework that is supposed to be delivering not a uniform product but a product to uniform principles, if I may put it that way.

Mr. Andrew Smith: Would not it be appropriate at this juncture to place on the record our appreciation of those aspects of student activity that do not so often capture the headlines in our local press or come to us in our mailbags-the enormous contribution that students make to charitable work, community activity and to politics, as well as to sporting activities in the areas served by the universities? That work greatly benefits local civic society.

Mr. Boswell: I hugely agree. It is very important. To be frank, I doubt very much whether I would be a Member of Parliament now had I not participated in junior common room activity at university and done things that were, frankly, probably more educational than the courses that I may, or may not, have taken at that time. Let us celebrate that and not be mealy-mouthed about it. It is good news and, as I said, a force for good.

One only has to be a constituency MP to be sensitive to the pressures that are now coming on to students. The House knows that we did not engage on the fees issue ahead of Lord Browne's review; it would have been improper and unhelpful to do so. But, without being pointed to the Minister, it would be difficult to overlook the known problems with the Student Loans Company and the recent Office for Fair Access report on the widespread lack of awareness of bursaries even when they were on offer. Whatever eventual student support package is hammered out has to be fair, affordable and sustainable.

On the access issue, there are two levels. One is touched on in the report: the admission of students with regard to their own context and background. The second, which is much more difficult to identify, is what I might call the non-admission of students who have never been encouraged to apply in the first place and whose experience of the state education system seldom, if ever, gave them a chance to do so. There is a chilling effect, as well the pressures on students who do get in.

Across the student scene, the quality issues to which I have referred will be pointed and aggravated by the squeeze on public funding, about which we heard yesterday. Clearly a cut of public support for higher education on the scale envisaged-£600 million, I gather-even if it has been heavily discounted in advance and if prudent higher education institutions have factored it into their planning, is likely to change many aspects of the scene quite radically. I hope that, as the report suggests, we will encourage Lord Browne in what seems to be his widening remit to look at some of the wider issues, not just the tuition fees issue on its own.

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We touched in our report on the issues of postgraduates, overseas students and, my own particular interest, part-time students, who already make up a major, or even in some cases a preponderant part of the student body in many institutions. Trying to meet their needs and the needs of our future society will need a radical and more flexible approach. I hope that in due course we can look afresh at the unique importance of the student support package. Frankly, the Education Act 1962, when I was an undergraduate, is still the driver of all this. The good old ship has gone along for 47 years, collecting barnacles, wrinkles and all the other things that good old ships have, but occasionally they have to be taken to the breakers' yard and we have to start again.

Our entire concept of funding, and of the regulation of student numbers, is driven by this good old model, yet the reality is that student life is now far broader and more diverse than ever it was then. To cater for the conventional cohort-for the students the media still write about-is often to neglect the legitimate interests of other students. The entire locus of business, further education, skills acquisition and the needs of the future economy are simply not factored in. I personally would favour initiating a process of shifting-over time, I stress-to a package of support for all post-compulsory education together. That would need to be largely student-driven, and it would include entitlements to public funding based on entry qualifications and neutral as to the mode and time of delivery, topped up with student savings, inputs from employers, and any top-up national or local public funding to meet specific needs.

There are, perhaps, welcome signs of the Government, in their present economic difficulties, moving towards this-I heard the Chief Secretary being interviewed on "Newsnight". Sadly, however, this is largely motivated by the need to make cuts, rather than by a desire to enhance the role of students and their universities, but this mode of thinking in responding to these much more diverse needs is nevertheless right. Also, although the Minister undoubtedly faces difficulties ahead, he must plan for happier times as well, and I detect a real readiness among higher education institutions to get on with that job.

In all of this, I am conscious of the need to work with the grain of academic opinion and student interests. No Minister in the United Kingdom should claim to deliver higher education, and no Minister should aspire to do so over the heads of those who actually do deliver higher education. Furthermore, no Minister should wish to ride roughshod over academic interests in the cause of the nostrum of the day.

There is a perfectly proper role for Parliament in acting on behalf of the taxpayers, and that is one of the jobs our Select Committee has decided to try to advance. We have a right and a duty to inquire about, and call for, appropriate changes and developments, but the House will not expect me, at this late stage of my parliamentary career, to shun the importance of the great institutions that we have at all levels, or to denigrate their palpable achievements to date.

2.2 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I was one of those non-grammar school boys who were fortunate enough to be admitted to the university of Hull in 1958.
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In those days, there were only 23 universities. This report talks a lot about access, but access to universities is a lot easier today than it was in 1957 when I was due to matriculate. I must admit that I had never heard of the word "matriculate"; I thought it was a medical term, but I soon realised how hard matriculation really was, because in those days in order to get into university it was necessary to have an O-level in a foreign language. Greek and Latin were preferred, but French would also be accepted. However, my only language was "Lancky", and getting into a white rose university when speaking with a strong Lancashire accent was even more difficult.

However, I made it to the university of Hull, and it was a life-changing moment, such as everyone has. There are only a few truly life-changing moments. Coming to this place was another one for me, but going to university was the most life-changing moment. I think that is true for almost every young person who is fortunate and privileged enough to go to a university.

Going to university is not just about gaining a qualification. I went to university to graduate as a chemist. I wanted to study chemistry ever since I got my first chemistry set at the age of 11. That is all I wanted to do, and the chemical industry was looking for thousands of graduates in chemistry, so my reason for going to university was plain and simple. However, I realised soon after entering university that it was about more than getting an education. I was from a small country village. I had never met a black or Asian person, or a Buddhist or a Muslim. I met them at university, however. I was fortunate enough to be admitted to Ferens hall on the Cottingham road site of the university of Hull, and I was thrown together not with my chemistry colleagues, but with lawyers, philosophers and mathematicians from all over the world-Mauritius and Canada, for example. I send a lot of Christmas cards now, which is very expensive, but I do not mind because I have kept in contact with all the fabulous people I met. I learned about their culture and their opinions.

I was also surrounded by Tory students. My family had always been strong socialists. I did not go to university to be a politician, but I soon became one, because I had to defend my opinions against other people strongly expressing theirs. That was the case all around the university.

The library was fabulous, with row upon row of books. I did not browse only the chemistry stacks; I looked at all the other books, too, although I could not read them all, as there was not enough time. We have to realise that, for every student who goes to university, the experience is much more than studying the subject. Of course I studied hard-I had to-but I learned so much. It was a true life-changing experience.

Halls of residence are important in this regard. So many of our students now live in terraced housing in the cities, sometimes four or five in a house, and they learn from each other, of course. However, I learned a lot more by being in a hall of residence, and I regret the fact that we are not building student accommodation on the same scale as in the past. It was not cheap, either, by the way. Of course, I was lucky enough to get a grant, as I came from a family with a modest income. That is why I was always cautious about grants and fees, and I still am cautious in the debate about top-up fees-a topic I may return to soon.

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In those days, there was also a certain deference to members of staff. We could not challenge some of the professors, as they were elitist. That is something else that has changed-and for the good, in my opinion. Students are much more challenging today. They are much more willing to challenge their professors and lecturers about their opinions. When I was lecturing at university, I always said to my students, "Don't believe every word I am saying or every word you read in the textbook. I am only giving you today's opinion. Tomorrow's opinion might be different." I think all lecturers should get that message out clearly to all their students.

Another difference between now and then is that there were far fewer courses to choose from. The prospectuses were half as thick as they are today, and it was fairly easy to choose a subject to study. Today, however, prospectuses contain a mind-boggling variety of combinations of courses. As the Chairman of our Select Committee, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), has already said, some prospectuses are not very well laid out. I think that students are drawn to the more attractive prospectuses, however, and universities are now realising that one way to attract good students is to produce a colourful prospectus with lots of clearly laid out information.

There are far more students nowadays, too: 2.3 million of them, as has been said. Consequently, lecturers are having to teach much larger groups. I have lectured in a lecture theatre to groups of 100 people, mainly coming in from different departments for a lesson on an ancillary subject. I would not like to lecture to 100 or 200 students regularly, however, because the personal contact between lecturer and student is very important. It is particularly important in tutorials, but nowadays tutorial groups are very large, sometimes with 20 or 30 students. I used to have groups of five or six, and I got to know all my students quite well. I was therefore able to know their abilities and classify them almost before they got their degree classifications-without telling them, of course. The move to teaching larger groups of students at universities has taken away some of that important personal contact.

Mr. Hayes: Does this changed dynamic the hon. Gentleman describes-the altered relationship between teacher and taught-not emphasise the need for us to be clear about the quality of teaching and learning, as the Select Committee report argues?

Dr. Iddon: Yes, I absolutely agree. It is okay to lecture to large groups, but university teachers must be able to meet students in smaller groups as well. It is also extremely important to have tutorials run by a lecturer, rather than by a graduate student, which is increasingly the trend today.

Our report also talks about plagiarism, which has not been mentioned yet. We talk to students and lecturers alike about plagiarism, which is undoubtedly on the increase. It is a much bigger problem today than in my day, but it existed then. Let me tell hon. Members a little story. As a chemist, I used to give unknown chemicals to my students, and they had to go and analyse them chemically and with instrumentation. I would give them compound No. 24, for example, and they would come back with a perfectly written account, with the right answer at the bottom, about what chemical
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it was. I had a very bright student who always came back with the right result. His copy was absolutely perfect-I could not fault it-but I became very suspicious of him. I thought that he was picking up the practical books of students from former years, finding out exactly which chemical compound No. 24 was, and giving me the right analysis. He was plagiarising. So I decided to crush some Polo mints up and give them to him as compound No. 36. He came back with a perfect analysis for compound No. 36, only to be very disappointed when I said, "I don't know how you've got that, because what I gave you was just Polo mints."

We have to be careful about plagiarism, which is harder to pick up today. Some lecturers have told us that they can pick out, with complicated computer programmes, students who are plagiarising, but I think that students are smarter than computers.

Mr. Sheerman: Does my hon. Friend accept that the House deserves to know whether the student he mentioned got a first at the end of his degree? Secondly, he will remember that when he and I were university teachers, new ways of teaching and learning might not have arrived, but we were not taught or given any instruction about how to teach.

Dr. Iddon: My hon. Friend's latter point is absolutely true. In answer to his first point, I have conveniently forgotten.

Another sad thing about universities today is the fact that academic staff are not encouraged to take on extra-mural activities. The postgraduate side of work has killed that, and the research assessment exercise, which is now known as the REF-research excellence framework-exercise. In my time, academics were positively encouraged to get involved in the community and to be councillors. I was a councillor for 21 years. I still did the same amount of teaching as all my colleagues and I still ran a research group, but I felt comfortable enough to do another job, as well, which I hope was of benefit to my local community. Academics were also encouraged to be justices of the peace on the bench of the local magistrates court, and to be school governors. I picked up an interest in demonstrating my chemistry knowledge and did a famous "magic of chemistry" show once a month for 29 years. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) has seen that show in Huddersfield city hall.

Today, however, because of the pressures on academic staff, they rarely get involved in the community. I was a safety officer for 13 years in my chemistry department, which was the largest in Britain. As such, I was often asked to investigate deaths, fatalities, explosions and fires to give a chemical analysis of what had happened. I investigated the burning down, in Manchester, of the biggest coffin factory in Britain, and I investigated a fatality in a small dye house in Brighouse, in Yorkshire. That wide-ranging experience meant that I was able, as a lecturer, to excite the students by giving anecdotes in between all the facts they needed to acquire from me. Universities have changed enormously, and academic staff and students have a lot more pressure on them today than I ever had.

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In the past 10 years, under Labour Governments, we have had a 21 per cent. expansion in the number of students in universities, so access has become a lot easier for many people in that time. We have increased the amount of money spent on universities by 25 per cent.-in real terms, taking inflation into account-so I am very pleased with the way in which universities have developed in my time in Parliament.

I would like to take a pop at vice-chancellors, who have been very sensitive about the report-some more so than others. I should like to say to the people who have been caught by the report that if they have been a bit upset by it, we have done our job, because the only Select Committee reports we have ever done any good with are those that generated a lot of controversy. We once announced to the Royal Society that we were going to look at how it spent public money. My goodness, what an uproar there was! People asked how we dared to look at the Royal Society and the cream of scientists in Britain, but they were spending public money. In the end, the report was good, but it created a lot of debate and discussion about the Royal Society. I think that we helped to put it on the map. Some people had never heard of it. Similarly, this report has generated a lot of criticism and debate, but that is all to the good and is for the health of students and universities, both of which are the subject of the report.

Let me address some further comments to the vice-chancellors. The other day I saw a graph of salary rises for ordinary workers in all organisations and of salary rises for those who manage those organisations, which were well ahead. By the way, I declare an interest in this matter. I am a member of the University and College Union, so I speak from that point of view. If one looks at the way in which the salaries of vice-chancellors and academics have risen, there is no comparison between the two. I heard yesterday that public sector salaries were going to be pegged back to 1 per cent. next year, but I do not think that the salaries of vice-chancellors, and of chief executives of housing associations and other public bodies, will be pegged back to 1 per cent. I hope that they will, but I do not think so. Of course, I shall be reminded that they are independent organisations and that we cannot control the salaries of vice-chancellors-or can we? After all, we control the salaries of the staff who work for them.

Moving on, the relationship between teaching and research is discussed in the report. I have always believed, and still do, that it is important for teachers to be at the cutting edge of their subject. As far as I am concerned, with the odd exception, the only way of being at the cutting edge of one's subject is to do research, or through scholarship, which I accept is equal to research in some subjects. I found, by doing research in my subject and learning about what was happening in every laboratory all around the world, I could put on special courses for my third-year students about big molecules and carbon-60-and that was before Harry Kroto got his Nobel prize. That sort of thing excited my students, because they could see the frontiers of their subject advancing and many, although not all, of them wanted to do research. It is important to be at that cutting edge as a lecturer, so that one can pass on one's enthusiasm and passion for the subject that students want to know about.

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