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Baroness Blackstone moved Amendments Nos. 104 to 107:

Page 13, line 46, leave out ("any specified matters in connection with").
Page 14, line 1, leave out ("specified") and insert ("prescribed").
Page 14, line 3, after first ("amount"") insert (", in relation to any such class of persons attending courses of any such description,").
Page 14, line 6, leave out from ("fees") to end of line 7 and insert ("payable by such persons in respect of their attending such courses.").

The noble Baroness said: With the leave of the Committee I shall move Amendments Nos. 104 to 107 en bloc.

There have been allegations in this Chamber of the threat to academic freedom that Clause 18 poses. Some have alleged that it is a back-door route for a hostile government to interfere in the courses provided by individual universities with a view to closing them down. Those allegations are quite misplaced. This Government are firmly committed to the principle of academic freedom. It has never been our intention to tell universities which courses they should or should not provide. We therefore wish to make clear on the face of the Bill that the only penalties that might be imposed on an institution that decided to impose top-up fees would be financial ones.

We hope of course that we never have to use the power to impose conditions controlling top-up fees. But ultimately there would need to be some sanction against an institution that broke ranks and decided to charge fees in excess of the £1,000 grant for fees that we are proposing. In that unfortunate and, we trust, unlikely event, our intention is that we would ask the Higher Education Funding Council to hold or to see the repayment of grant equivalent to the additional income raised by the top-up fees. If significant time had elapsed, then the payment of interest on that sum might be appropriate. That would ensure that such an institution did not gain an unfair advantage over other universities which had shown restraint in not charging top-up fees.

But, in all cases, we would seek the appropriate financial penalty. Amendment No. 108, along with the parallel Scottish Amendments Nos. 120 and 127, make it absolutely clear that imposing some other penalty is out of the question. These amendments put beyond doubt that it will not be within the power of any

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Secretary of State, whether current or future ones, to control top-up fees in order to interfere in a university's academic affairs. I beg to move.

The Earl of Limerick: I seek clarification. I accept that I should perhaps have mentioned the matter on Amendment No. 103. Can the noble Baroness confirm my understanding that the difference between "specified" and "prescribed" for this purpose is that "specified" means specified by the Secretary of State, which can be done by a procedure which comes nowhere near Parliament, whereas "prescribed" means that it has to be prescribed in regulations that come before Parliament? Would that be a correct interpretation?

Baroness Blackstone: I believe that to be the right answer. Perhaps I can write to the noble Earl confirming it.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Baroness Blackstone moved Amendment No. 108:

Page 14, line 10, after ("further") insert ("financial").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Blackstone moved Amendment No. 109:

Page 14, line 13, at end insert--
("( ) No condition under subsection (4) shall apply in relation to any fees which are payable, in accordance with regulations under section 1 of the Education (Fees and Awards) Act 1983 (fees at universities and further education establishments), by students other than those falling within any class of persons prescribed by such regulations for the purposes of subsection (1) or (2) of that section (persons connected with the United Kingdom, etc.).").

Baroness Blatch: I rise only to make this point. I took the trouble to adapt my own Bill to these amendments and to write out the whole list of amendments. I shall need to take legal advice to understand them. They are extremely technical amendments, so I need more time to think about them.

I know that a great deal of discussion has gone on between the CVCP and the department. I heard a rumour before I came in today that the CVCP are not happy with the amendments, but that is not direct information, so I shall certainly follow that up.

This way of operating with the universities creates tensions between the department and the universities--to say, "If you do one thing, we will threaten you with something else". I understand why it is this way round. It is because they are free-standing, chartered institutions and it would not have been possible under the law to put a direct clause in the Bill to stop a university from doing what it wanted to do.

There is still a great deal of anxiety about the lever that the DfEE will have over the academic freedom of the universities. I retain a residual concern about that. But until I can be talked through these amendments to

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understand precisely what they mean and I am hoping that the safeguards for the universities are there, I want to reserve my judgment as to what to do about them.

The Earl of Limerick: Again, as a point of clarification, in speaking to these amendments the noble Baroness made some very helpful statements which I and others shall wish to study in detail.

It may be that I am raising this point on the wrong amendment, in which case I apologise. But one of the points she put to us was that there would be a further amendment defining what was meant or what was not meant in terms of top-up fees in relation to such matters as field trips. That is something I would have raised at a later stage.

May I take it that in the course of consultation or discussion on what is required in that amendment she will take into account other matters which I think have already been raised? I have in mind such matters as course materials. At universities such as mine, where we have courses concerned with goldsmithing and silversmithing, clearly these are not trivial matters when it comes to the materials concerned. May I take it that that consultation will go fairly wide?

Finally, if I have understood the situation correctly, in relation to Amendment No.109, to whom it does or does not apply, it could be summarised in a way by saying that he who does not pay the piper does not call the tune. Therefore, where there are no fees payable in respect of those students, there would be no powers taken to regulate the contents of those matters.

Baroness Blackstone: Perhaps I may begin with the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. We have had very extensive discussions with the CVCP about these amendments. They are acceptable to them and they have been agreed with them. I put that forward just to reassure her on that matter.

The amendments define those categories of students to which Clause 18 will not apply. In that sense I think it is providing reassurance that there is no intention of withholding grants for top-up fees for postgraduate students, for example, and overseas students, to which the noble Earl, Lord Limerick, has just referred.

As far as the noble Earl's question on types of charges is concerned, as I said earlier, we are still in discussion with the CVCP about that. We will come back at a later stage if and when we can reach agreement. I hope that is helpful.

11 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I have with me a copy of a letter from the Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University. It states:

    "We remain unhappy. The Secretary of State might instruct us ... but henceforth it will be a condition of grant that institutions are able to demonstrate that their admissions policies are based solely on merit and not on the ability to pay. That would not require Clause 18".

The suggestion that the universities subject to these amendments would be happy to accept Clause 18 is a considerable exaggeration. All of us who have any

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connection with universities are deeply unhappy about Clause 18 as a whole. That is something we shall want to come back to at Report stage.

Baroness Blackstone: At no point did I say that the universities were collectively happy with Clause 18. I said they were happy with the amendments that the Government have just brought forward in relation to identifying those categories of students to whom this clause would not apply.

I am aware that the Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University has written to suggest that Clause 18 is unnecessary. He has suggested that the Secretary of State should instruct the Higher Education Funding Council for England that from now on it will be a condition of grant in the financial memoranda that institutions are able to demonstrate that their admissions policies are based solely on merit and not on ability to pay. That suggestion simply will not work. Section 68(3) specifically bars the Secretary of State from framing conditions of grant with reference to the criteria for the admission of students. That is why we need to seek a further reserve power to control top-up fees through Clause 18.

Moreover, this is not simply where the universities base their admissions policies on the ability to pay. There is also the question of how students will react if different universities charge different amounts for full-time undergraduate and PGCE courses. There remains the danger that students will base their choice on the price of the course rather than suitability for them. Much as I would like to have been able to accept what Maxwell Irvine, the Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University, has said, I am afraid that it just is not acceptable or appropriate. It will not work.

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