Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Noble Lords: Chancellor!

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am sorry; the Chancellor.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, the Vice-Chancellor is much more important.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the expertise, enthusiasm, knowledge and experience contained in this great Chamber is unrivalled. However, in this debate my suspicions were roused by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham. There is emerging a theme running through the policies proposed by this Government, amounting to an attack on what is perceived by the Government as elitist and which, in the interests of all, should be destroyed. Old Labour, under the guise of New Labour, is alive and well. The philosophy of egalitarianism and the politics of envy are still in place. The dictum is, "If it is not possible for all to benefit, then no one shall benefit". In just a few short months so much has been threatened: grammar schools; selection; grant-maintained schools; Church schools; and now two great universities, Oxford and Cambridge and their colleges, which are truly world renowned.

We are, however, witnessing an interesting tension between No. 10 Downing Street and education Ministers. The Prime Minister has already intervened in respect of aided Church schools. We also understand from a number of representations that have already been made to the Prime Minister that he is likely to be sympathetic to the very strong case being put today for the retention of college fees for Oxford and Cambridge.

As the Prime Minister experiences at first hand the remarkable success of grant-maintained schools and the reasonable but sensible forms of selection at the schools being considered suitable, quite rightly, for his daughter, I believe that the case for intervention in policy will prove even greater for him. For what is indisputable is that allowing the best to flourish provides encouragement and incentives to raise standards throughout the educational system. Simply put, a policy of levelling up, not levelling down, is the key to raising standards for all.

There is no argument between us that additional resources need to be found for higher education. Indeed, the Dearing Report was commissioned with that in mind. It is deeply unfortunate therefore that the Government have moved away from Dearing's recommendation on tuition fees in favour of a proposal that will do so much to deter bright young people from poorer homes from entering higher education. That policy together with the loss of college fees at Oxbridge colleges will adversely affect the quality of provision for the very brightest of such young people. If that were not enough to exacerbate the issue of higher education funding, the Government have remained dogged in their

12 Nov 1997 : Column 205

determination not to give an undertaking that moneys raised from tuition fees and saved from maintenance grants will be dedicated to higher education.

The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge are not complacent about access. So much has been and continues to be done by Oxbridge colleges without compromising standards to improve access for students of ability from all backgrounds. In response to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, college admissions tutors are very energetic and proactive in their efforts to widen access and seek out potential applicants, including among other things visiting and liaising with schools where there has not been a tradition of applying to Oxford and Cambridge, the running of summer schools, the holding of open days and the provision of additional funds to support needy students, scholarships and hardship funds.

My Lords, make no mistake: the loss of college fees will create serious problems for colleges. For some colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge those problems will be insuperable. The fees are not top-up fees as such; they replace in part the income once generated by charging at these independent free-standing institutions with their own Royal Charter. Any return to charging would benefit the wealthy and, in turn, affect access by able young people from poorer homes. As the noble Lord, Lord Plant, has said, Oxbridge would become more exclusive. Redundancies would be inevitable, as the collegiate tutorial system, which is key to the success of an Oxbridge education, would be very badly affected.

It may well be that the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and Sir Christopher Ball--who, incidentally, made an outrageous accusation which is recorded in today's Guardian--believe that the loss of college fees of approximately £35 million can be easily borne by Oxford and Cambridge. If so, the noble Baroness must explain how that can be done. I believe that, given that the fees represent between 30 per cent. and 50 per cent. of income to some colleges and over 50 per cent. to others, this loss would be irrecoverable. Any suggestion that income from endowments or investments by the two universities and colleges could produce annual revenue income on this scale year on year is fanciful. A redistribution scheme to support the poorer colleges already exists within both universities. However the idea that there is capacity to generate additional millions over and above the amounts already raised by the colleges is, as I have said, fanciful.

One cannot over-estimate what is at stake here: two universities which are among the best, if not the best, in the world, with an excellent reputation for the quality of their teaching and research and an extremely low drop-out rate, all underpinned by an unrivalled collegiate tutorial system. Any attempt to damage this would be myopic in the extreme. Whatever the Government decide eventually, any proposal that undermines the Oxford and Cambridge tutorial system which has proved so successful will not receive my support nor, I suspect, the support of this House.

What is being argued today is simply that there is a powerful case for continuing the long-established policy to support the unique and highly successful collegiate

12 Nov 1997 : Column 206

tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge and that, should the Government argue that moneys are needed elsewhere in the higher education sector, to destroy what has proved to be a world class provision by removing college fees to be dispersed elsewhere in the system is perverse, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. I do not believe that any noble Lord who has supported my noble friend Lord Beloff today wishes to detract in any way from the needs of other universities and colleges. The thrust of the case that is put today is that to remove college fees and destroy something that works well is no way to resolve another problem elsewhere in the sector.

It is a much talked about prediction--it is even hinted at by the noble Baroness herself--that the noble Baroness may become the next chairman of the Arts Council. Should that come about perhaps I may in anticipation offer my warmest congratulations. Further, I implore the noble Baroness as a possible valedictory act to abandon any notion of removing the college fees from Oxford and Cambridge and to make a commitment, if possible today, that monies generated from tuition fees and saved from the abolition of the maintenance grant will be dedicated to the higher education sector. It is mean-spirited politics to see excellence as a form of unacceptable elitism. We should not only celebrate excellence but encourage and nurture it.

6.46 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, I begin by congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely and the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, on their splendid maiden speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, gave me some advice. I am sure that he will give me more advice in future debates. We have been sparring partners for many years. I shall enjoy his advice but I must tell him that I shall not always take it.

I welcome this opportunity to debate an issue that is attracting a great deal of interest, which has been reflected in the many contributions made by noble Lords in the House this afternoon. I have listened carefully to what Members of your Lordships' House have said today, and I should like to thank all those who have participated in today's debate.

This is an area where angels, let alone mere mortals like me, fear to tread. But I hope today that I shall be able to reassure noble Lords of the Government's determination to safeguard the future of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge which are held in high esteem both in this country and internationally. Noble Lords will recall that when asked about priorities for the new Government the response of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was "Education, education, education". The third and very important element of that trinity is higher education. I can assure this House that the Government are committed to a world-class higher education system based on high quality learning and teaching.

12 Nov 1997 : Column 207

The new Government have already taken decisive action to address the serious funding problems for higher education left by the previous government, to which the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, and my noble friend Lord Desai referred. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced on 23rd September a package of measures which will allow an extra £165 million to be spent on higher education in 1998-99. Universities and colleges will have an extra £125 million for that year to maintain and improve quality and standards and to make a start on the backlog of maintenance and equipment replacement left by the previous government. Four million pounds will be available for a limited start on growth, mainly through sub-degree courses, and £36 million will be available to improve access, including measures to help part-time and disabled students. That is about the same amount of money that is currently spent on fees at Oxford and Cambridge. That is not a paltry sum, as some speakers in today's debate have claimed. The Government's total package ensures that universities do not face cut-backs at the level planned by the previous government.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, suggested that the Government had made no commitment about using the extra funding to be gained from the new system of student support for higher education. Perhaps I may correct her. The Government have, on more than one occasion--and in this House, and in another place--said that the additional funding will be used for further and higher education.

The noble Baroness suggested that the new system of charging a tuition fee, with changes to the maintenance system, would be unfair on many students and deter them from entering higher education. I would remind her that her right honourable friend Mr. Steven Dorrell said in another place on the 23rd July that he was passionately against tuition fees. She has now told us that she is in favour of tuition fees. Moreover, her right honourable friend, only a week ago, seems to have changed his mind. He now wants fees without the means-testing that the Government are introducing in order to help young people who come from low income families. The Opposition seem to be a little confused and are chopping and changing their minds about this.

We value excellence in all areas of our education system and we wish to encourage those universities which are renowned centres of excellence for their teaching or internationally known for the quality of their research. A number of noble Lords have referred to the outstanding quality of research conducted at Oxford and Cambridge and the need to safeguard that excellence. Oxford and Cambridge do indeed have an enviable international reputation for research across a wide range of disciplines, and we do not intend to jeopardise that.

Unlike many other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, I have no personal interest to declare. I am one of the small minority who have spoken today who is not a graduate of either Oxford or Cambridge, nor have I been directly employed in teaching or research at either university, although over the years I have collaborated with a number of people in both

12 Nov 1997 : Column 208

universities and members of my family have attended them. My external examiner for my doctorate, whom I have always held in very high esteem and who has been an important influence on me, was from Oxbridge. Of course, I have many close friends in both universities, including past and present heads of houses.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that it is always dangerous to listen to common-room gossip--perhaps even more dangerous than listening to gossip in the bars of the Palace of Westminster. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that I have no intention of becoming the chairman of the Arts Council. She, too, should not read gossip which is sometimes found in the columns of our newspapers. I am very much enjoying my present job and I intend to continue with it and deliver a higher education system of which this country can be proud rather than the sort of system left behind by the previous government.

My noble friend Lord Plant, the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said that we should not forget that Oxford and Cambridge are not the only centres of excellence in the country. Indeed, it is disparaging of other universities who are doing work of the highest quality, which also have an international reputation, to suggest that there are only two excellent universities in this country. At least six other multi-faculty institutions, and a host of specialist institutions, have half or more of their research-active staff in departments rated five or five starred at the last research assessment exercise.

Take University College of London, for example, with 33 out of 47 departments rated five or five starred. Or Imperial College London, with 18 out of 24 departments rated five or five starred. Neither of them--or other institutions with very high research assessments, such as the LSE or Bath or Sussex or UMIST or Warwick or Lancaster--would take kindly to the notion that there are only two centres of excellence in this country.

Let me now set out the factual position on college fees. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge--like other universities--receive support from public funds in the form of grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and tuition fees paid at present through mandatory awards. The Oxbridge colleges, constitutionally independent of the universities, are not funded by the Funding Council. Their only source of income from public funds is the college fee, which has been paid on behalf of students by local authorities under the Mandatory Awards Regulations since 1962. I hope this clarifies matters for my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris and the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, both of whom seemed to slightly misunderstand the present system.

College fees for Oxbridge undergraduates currently range from £2,500 to £3,400. Incidentally, perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, that we are talking about undergraduates today, not postgraduate students.

The college fee represents the provision of a wide variety of services--tuition, libraries and other facilities--which in Oxford and Cambridge are provided

12 Nov 1997 : Column 209

in addition to services provided by the central university. It also reflects the Oxbridge individual tutorial approach. In order to avoid double funding, the funding council adjusts the teaching grant to the two parent universities, effectively clawing back some 40 per cent. of college fee income. Once allowance has been made for the 40 per cent. abatement of HEFCE grant to the parent universities to take account of the college fees, the net extra cost to the taxpayer is, as many noble Lords have said, some £35m. Once the adjustment has been made to avoid double funding, the level of funding per student is an average of £5,800 compared with average funding of £4,000 in other universities. As my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham has said, this represents a 45 per cent. premium for Oxford and Cambridge.

Under the previous government, annual adjustments to the level of college fee were calculated according to a formula. I would explain to my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris that the negotiations were conducted by the funding council, but the final decision rested with the Secretary of State.

As your Lordships know, the report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, chaired by Sir Ron Dearing, was published on 23rd July. The national committee was set up by the previous government with cross-party support. The terms of reference asked it to take into account a number of principles, including that students should be able to choose between a diverse range of courses and institutions, and that value for money and cost effectiveness should be obtained in the use of resources.

The committee endorsed two further principles, one of which was that

    "the various beneficiaries of higher education should share its costs, and public subsidies should be distributed equitably so that individuals are not denied access to higher education through lack of financial means".

Against the background of this latter principle the committee recommended that there should be no variations in the level of public funding for teaching--outside modest margins--without very good reasons.

It suggested that such good reasons might be that, first, there is an approved difference of provision and, secondly, society, through the Secretary of State or his or her agent, has concluded after examining an exceptionally high level of funding, that in relation to other funding needs in higher education it represents a good use of resources.

The committee recognised that college fees at Oxford and Cambridge represent a substantial addition to standard funding and proposed that the Government should review them. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, for accepting that it was right for the Government to respond to the Dearing Committee and ask for a review and for advice.

In August, we wrote to the funding council asking for its advice. We asked it to have regard to the points raised in the report of the Dearing Inquiry, and to its new funding method for teaching, which will be based on the principle of a standard price for each of four broad subject groups.

12 Nov 1997 : Column 210

The funding council has been consulting the two universities and their colleges. We expect its advice later this month. There have been reports in the press of what the funding council is likely to say but I must stress that it has not yet submitted its advice to the department and I am not going to make presumptions about what that advice is likely to contain.

When we receive the funding council's advice we shall consider it carefully along with the arguments which have been advanced today, and in the wider more public debate that has been taking place. We recognise the need to maintain the very high quality of education offered at Oxford and Cambridge and to seek to ensure that, in any change, those colleges that do not have historic funds or legacies on which to draw are not disadvantaged seriously. I hope that that reassures my noble friend Lady David and the noble Baroness, Lady Park.

Mention has been made today of the scale of Oxbridge college assets. The colleges are private, autonomous institutions and my department does not have access to information about their net assets, though articles on the subject appear in the press from time to time. But we fully take the point that there is a considerable disparity in the wealth of individual institutions, depending on the age and nature of their endowments.

I am also fully seized of the need to respect the constitutional relationship between the universities and the colleges. That is clearly a complex area and I do not underestimate the difficulties that there would be in implementing any change.

Let me stress that the Government and the funding council are clear about the need, in the words of the Motion for today's debate, to safeguard the future of both universities. The funding council's commitment is already more than evident by the scale of funding which the two universities receive--some £110 million a year each, taking account of income from college fees. Each of them will receive some £50 million this academic year in research funding from the funding council alone. Together they will receive some £100 million out of a total £700 million: that means around 15 per cent. of all HEFCE research funds go to those two universities alone. If we ignore staff paid for from specific funds, each research active member of staff at those two universities is funded to the tune of some 80 per cent. above the average for other universities. I stress that that has nothing to do with college fees. A different sum is provided for research excellence, and it can be fully justified in terms of research excellence. It is already a great deal more than other universities receive.

It is clearly in no one's interest to undermine the reputation of Oxford and Cambridge, but we and the council must have proper concern about value for money. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will accept that that is the job of government. We must always consider that matter. As I have already said, and as other noble Lords have pointed out, other universities of course achieve excellent ratings in teaching and research assessments. Some, as the right reverend

12 Nov 1997 : Column 211

Prelate and other noble Lords have pointed out, have tutorial groups, even though they do not have the benefit of the substantial premium from college fees.

There is a proper balance to be struck and the funding council will, I am sure, take due account of the special features of Oxbridge in putting forward its advice. We for our part will bear those special features in mind in considering that advice.

Various points have been made by noble Lords today about particular aspects of expenditure by the colleges. Mention was made by my noble friend Lord Desai of duplication of administrative functions and the scope for rationalisation of college administration. Those are all points which we would expect the funding council to cover in its advice.

My noble friends Lord Morris of Castle Morris and Lord Davies of Oldham commented about the high proportion of Oxford entrants who come from private schools. Other noble Lords have pointed to the commendable steps--and they are commendable--some colleges are taking to widen access to admit more students educated at state schools. Some of them are clearly able to do that. I hope that more will be able to in future.

Oxford and Cambridge are, like all higher education institutions, responsible for their own admissions procedures and the Government have no locus in that area. So I cannot confirm the claim of my noble friend Lady David about the LSE. The review of college fees is not about admissions.

Let me take the opportunity to reaffirm this Government's passionate commitment to widening access, and our determination to increase participation by those groups which are currently under represented in higher education. Let me stress the importance that we attach to the principle that access to particular institutions should be based on academic merit rather than ability to pay for private schools. Some noble Lords have urged that universities and colleges should have the power to charge top-up fees and let the market rule. As I have already said, we believe that access to particular institutions and courses should be based on academic merit rather than the ability to pay.

Choice of institution should not be distorted by the level of the fee charged. We agree with the Dearing Committee, that no able student should be denied access to an institution of his or her choice through lack of funds. We have already made it clear that top-up fees play no part in the Government's proposals for future funding arrangements for higher education. In answer to my noble friend Lord Plant, the Government are still considering whether they should take a reserve power to prevent universities or colleges charging a top-up fee for full-time undergraduates, charged up front, over and above the fee that is to be set by the Government.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, that that does not mean that individual institutions cannot raise some of their own revenue. Universities, not just Oxford and Cambridge, raise their own revenue in a variety of respects. They have appeals. They raise money for particular research projects and funding from outside the

12 Nov 1997 : Column 212

public funding through the HEFCE. They raise money from letting their facilities during the vacation. There is no reason why any of that should not go on. The Government's concern is merely about charging a top-up fee over and above what is to be charged under the new system, which we think would deter students from going to the universities that decide to introduce them.

In conclusion, having listened carefully to what has been said in the debate on both sides of the argument--and of course there have been two sides--I can assure the House that we shall consider carefully the funding council's advice in deciding the way forward. We shall do so, first, with a view to value for money, in a context where the university sector was left in a serious financial crisis by the previous Government; and, secondly, the preservation of high quality teaching and research at Oxford and Cambridge.

7.10 p.m.

Lord Beloff: My Lords, we have had a very interesting four hours and have heard many speeches. I thank all noble Lords, although not all necessarily by name. One always wonders what will emerge in Hansard. I hasten to say that there will be one total inaccuracy. The noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, was mistaken in his belief that I had anything whatever to do with the foundation of the Open University. No doubt the new biography of its true founder, written by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, will give him the correct answer.

I learnt that the noble Lord, Lord Desai, is not a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge or any analogous British institution. I can only say how much I regret that. I believe that if he had been subjected to the discipline of an Oxford tutorial his eloquence would not have been marred by an indifference to the facts that he was discussing.

Much was made about access, and rightly so. I have always wondered how one would broaden it. It is probably the greatest problem facing the major universities, not only Oxford and Cambridge. But when one looks at Oxford, at any rate, it is remarkable that, wherever undergraduates come from, in the end they form a community and do much the same things. Perhaps I may give two examples. One student comes from a grammar school, works very hard, becomes President of the Union and gains a first-class degree. The second student comes from a public school, plays a guitar in a pop group and gains a second-class degree. Yet there they are at the other end of the Palace, almost interchangeable! I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page