Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe: My Lords, I support the amendment, although I have a few minor caveats. However, I am very pleased with its wording. Noble Lords will recall from our debate in Committee that I felt it was important to protect all stages of the admissions process. However, the amendment leaves one area of that procedure vulnerable. One part of the wording inserted by my amendment in Committee meant that admissions decisions are protected by the phrase,

So there are one or two minor drafting points. It is my understanding that requirements are to be determined by regulations, and hence by the Secretary of State rather than OFFA.

On a minor point, paragraph (ii) refers to provisions set out in "section 23(1)". I wonder whether that should be "section 31(1)"? Perhaps my noble friend on the Front Bench will be able to clarify whether my understanding is correct.
14 Jun 2004 : Column 568

Those issues aside, I strongly support this proposal. I have been concerned about the risk that OFFA might require institutions to make reference to particular courses of study in their plans. My noble friend has been most reassuring on this point, but the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, would put the matter beyond doubt. I hope that these brief comments can be considered and I repeat my support for the amendment.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it is a new experience for me to have inspired a Conservative amendment. I am not sure whether to be flattered by that or slightly nervous about my reputation in the Labour Party. However, I support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, although I cannot comment on its wording. I am not sure whether it will stand up technically, but that is for my noble friend to determine. However, the point he makes in principle should be supported.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, my name is also attached to the amendment. In Committee two different versions of moves to protect academic freedom were on offer, but because the Minister accepted the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, that was the one to be incorporated. However, I did remark to the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, who I think is the author of this amendment, that I had a slight preference for her form of words. I am delighted to see that it has been brought back and I reiterate my endorsement.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I too support the amendment. The key principle behind this is that decisions on the admission of students must be made individually. That cannot be done if one has to produce a statistical tally. We have to be able to decide whether he or she is the best person in front of us. That must be done by consideration of the person's mind.

I do not think that people always understand exactly what we are doing when selecting students. We are not assessing past performance. In fact, my objection to using A-levels as a way of selecting students is that it is always like betting that the winner of the Derby will be the horse in the lead at Tattenham Corner. I am told by those who know more about these matters than I do that on that principle one would lose a very large sum of money.

What one is looking for is promise; the ability to develop talent. To achieve that, one needs to get the students thinking about something that they have never come across before; an unfamiliar piece of evidence; a strange idea. One needs to look to see what they do with it. Therefore, the handicap suffered by people from schools which are rather less adequately endowed is that of a smaller library; far fewer things are familiar to them and therefore far more are surprising to them. In some cases the difference has been so extreme that I have been unable to assess candidates except by interviewing them on matters right outside their academic field and on which they could not possibly have been expected to prepare.
14 Jun 2004 : Column 569

But the word "require" in Amendment No. 29 is, I hope, understood in Amendment No. 30. It is absolutely vital because one cannot carry out this duty according to any conscience but one's own. A colleague of mine resigned from an extremely good job because her superior demanded that she alter the transcription of a word in a manuscript which he had not seen. He may perfectly well have been right, but he could not possibly have known he was right. He had not seen it, she had; he simply did not have the authority to do what he did. For that to be met by a resignation was perfectly right.

Were I to be still in office—I have now, unfortunately, retired—and were I to be faced with a requirement to select student X in preference to student Y, even if I intended to do so anyway, I would feel bound to resign rather than submit to an order to do it. One cannot delegate one's conscience in that way; one has to make one's own judgment and has to be free to stick to it. Without the guarantee of academic freedom one cannot have that and the wonderful variety of the academic conscience allowed full play.

I remember listening to and speaking opposite the right honourable gentleman Mr Oliver Letwin when he spoke at the Oxford Union on 26 February. He began his argument from the proposition that the state has failed. When he said that, what he meant was that it had failed as a manager; that the state does not understand how to manage universities. It does not understand how to manage hospitals or schools or railways simply because it does not have expert knowledge of the bodies concerned.

What he left out, which is also important, is that the state has equally failed in any attempt to hand over to the public the selection of people who are to receive these privileges. There is no way of making a market carry out an equitable allocation according to merit and without reference to money. In fact, to do so without reference to money is to contradict the very nature of the market. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, would not disagree with that.

My noble friend Lady Sharp, in her Second Reading speech, mentioned figures—to which I do not think the Minister will object—showing that the proportion of people from the lower social classes at Harvard and Yale was less than half what it is at Oxford and Cambridge. So, if the market cannot select and the state cannot manage, you need some kind of combination; you need the state to provide the money for the selection but to keep out of the management. If it does not keep out of the management, you simply cannot do the job. That is why the principle of academic freedom is so vital. If it is not enshrined it will be eroded. The Civil Service, like Hobbes's man, has a perpetual and restless love of power after power that
14 Jun 2004 : Column 570
ceases only in death. If we do not go for death—which is a little draconian—let us see whether an Act of Parliament will make a good second best.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who brings to debates his experiences as a university teacher, which I half-shared in a previous don manqué existence.

One of the clichés often hurled at modern leadership and government is "control freakery". I come to legislation as a layman. What it is intended to enact is in itself important but, as I said earlier, the signal that it gives out to the wider community is, to me, equally important. The academic community would find the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, welcome, appropriate, right and proper. I hope that it is taken very seriously.

Baroness Perry of Southwark: My Lords, I have little to add to the splendid points that have been made already by other noble Lords. Not only is academic freedom indivisible, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said in 1992, it is also a very delicate plant. On it rests many of the freedoms on which this country depends. I do not think it is possible to repeat too often in legislation the defence of academic freedom.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as I have indicated already to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I cannot accept the amendment as drafted. However, let me begin by stating that we fully appreciate and support the need for the director to respect academic freedom. That is why at Committee stage we accepted the amendment that makes explicit on the face of the Bill that the director must have regard for academic freedom, particularly in respect of the admission of students. I know that is an issue of real concern, as has been indicated in your Lordships' House.

This amendment seeks to go further and would give the director a duty to protect academic freedom. This is not necessary because, used in this context, the phrase,

obliges the director to perform his duties with this in mind. Were he demonstrably to fail, he would be open to legal challenge. I am very happy to consider how best we might meet the noble Lord's concern and to spell out—as he has attempted to do—what we mean by "academic freedom".

I know that my noble friend Lady Warwick has retabled an amendment, which we shall debate in due course, which would preclude the Secretary of State including admissions policies or procedures in the content of plans. As I indicated during the debate in Committee, I am inclined to accept the amendment if the noble Baroness moves it.

The combined safeguards of these amendments offer a real reassurance on the face of the Bill. So, with the commitment that I shall accept the amendments in principle, I shall work with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and my noble friend Lady Warwick to
14 Jun 2004 : Column 571
agree an amendment which, if you like, encompasses the amendment to the amendment I am going to accept in order to take on board the noble Lord's points. With that explanation, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page