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Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I, too, welcome these amendments, which are about the Director of Fair Access and ensuring that part-time higher education is looked at when that office is operating. I want to pick up what has been said about the Open University. I also received the letter from the Open University, and I say to the noble Baronesses, Lady Carnegy of Lour, and Lady Howe of Idlicote, that I
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was a bit surprised by it. It did not seem to me that the letter reflected what my noble friend the Minister said when we had a debate about part-time higher education last week.
Like my noble friend Lord Graham, I believe that over the coming months and years your Lordships' House will be looking at what the Government said on that occasion, and we will be ensuring that the commitment that was made is followed through. Like my noble friend Lord Graham, I am confident that it will be. If it is not, plenty of us in this House will take it up again. We should recognise the major concession that the Government made last week, not just through these two amendments, but on the issue of funding part-time student places.
We are grateful for that, as is Birkbeck College. I happened to be there last night, as was my noble friend Lady Lockwood. Birkbeck is pleased about what happened last week. I believe that the Open University is probably pleased as well, even if that was not reflected in its letter.
Lord Dearing: My Lords, as the Minister referred to me in her opening sentence it would be curmudgeonly not to thank her, and I do, most warmly. For what we hope to receive, may we be reasonably thankful.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, as someone who has had a lot of difficulty with this Billand has indicated that in the Division LobbiesI congratulate my noble friend, my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton and my noble friend Lady Blackstone, all of whom have been lobbying the Government very powerfully over the past week or two, on this extremely important issue. It is pleasing to know that flexibility was possible in this Bill.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed yet again to this very important debate. I have one disappointment of course in that there will be one Peer not at the Labour Peers' party this evening, for I have two Bills back to back. I hope noble Lords will think of me, if nothing else.
I am also sorry that I did not receive the letter from the Open University. I appear to be the only Peer who has not done so. It is very difficult to deal with some of the issues raised in it, as I am not fortunate enough to have a copy.
I can say a number of key things, however, to noble Lords. The first is to say to my noble friend Lord Graham, the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and others who have spoken yet again with great passion about the Open University, that the commitment of this Government remains firm. The Open University receives £150 million, almost 4 per cent of the total for the sector. The next highest payment is to Leeds, just under £80 million. The Open University receives that money because we believe in that institution. It is in all our interests to ensure that it continues properly. I stand by all the commitments I made on Report, but I am not going to reiterate them. I am sorry the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, was not there, because a lot of
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what he is looking for from me was addressed then. Perhaps I might ask him to look back at that debate and come back to me if he has further queries. The Higher Education Funding Council is looking at the case for the Open University and Birkbeck. We have commended it for that.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, that I always look concerned about this "nine tenths", because I am waiting for the figures. We sometimes have real difficulty with lots of figures being around, but it is actually very difficult to get underneath them. I hope and am sure that the Open University will provide the information to the Higher Education Funding Council in order for it to look at it carefully and properly. I urge it to do so as soon as possible.
The main thing I take away from this is broad welcome and support for what we have already achieved, support for the role of the Director of Fair Access within this, and recognition that this job is not yet finished, as I made plain on Report. I made a commitment that we would look at the needs of part-time students, the student income and expenditure surveyto include part-time students for the first timeand, having looked at our students and who they are, we will then consider what more can be done. We have funded the Open University to get this information for us. Although noble Lords have been concerned about it, there is nothing in this legislation to stop us moving forward if that seemed the appropriate thing to do.
I stand by all those commitments. I recognise that if I were to fail in those commitments, there are plenty of noble Lords who have made it perfectly clear that I should be back here answering important and detailed questions. There is no intention to do other than what we said on Report, and I hope these amendments will be received in that spirit.
"(1A) In the performance of his functions under this Part, the Director has a duty to protect academic freedom, including, in particular, the freedom of institutions (a) to determine the contents of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised or assessed, and (b) to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases. (1B) The Director must, in the performance of his functions under this Part, have regard to any guidance given to him by the Secretary of State."
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am delighted that during our debates on this Bill, this House has continued its tradition of defending academic freedom. We have had some very helpful discussions about this in Committee, on Report and with other noble Lords outside of the Chamber. I hope that I have by now reassured noble Lords that it is not our intention that the Director of Fair Access should interfere in matters which are, quite rightly, for institutions to decide for themselves, particularly the criteria for the admission of students.
As noble Lords will know, I was happy to accept an amendment to the Bill in Committee and another on Report, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, one of which confers a duty on the director to have regard to the need to protect academic freedom. The other ruled admissions criteria out of regulations. But I recognise the desire of the House for further clarification on this. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for tabling an amendment on Report which sought to define academic freedom. Although, as the noble Lord knows, I could not accept the exact wording of the amendment, I undertook to consider further and come back at Third Reading with a proposal.
I agree entirely that academic freedom should be safeguarded, and Amendments Nos. 5 and 13, tabled in my name, will further strengthen that principle. Amendment No. 5 will clarify Clause 31(1)(b)(i), which confers a duty on the director to have regard to academic freedom. We have already made it clear that it embraces the freedom for institutions to determine their own admission criteria for students. The Bill will now make it clear that that freedom also embraces the freedom to determine the content of courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised or assessed. I know that there has been concern, for example, about whether the director might think that the manner in which a course was taught had affected applications from under-represented groups and whether he might therefore be tempted to intervene. The amendment puts it beyond doubt that he cannot. The definition used in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 also refers to freedom in the matter of the selection and appointment of staff. We have not included that phrase here simply because that is so clearly removed from the functions of the director that its inclusion is not necessary and, indeed, would not make sense.
Amendment No. 13 is a corresponding amendment, which clarifies that regulations may not require plans to contain anything relating to such matters or any reference to particular courses. In other words, it absolutely rules out the possibility that institutions will have to include measures related to individual courses in their plans in order to gain the freedom to charge higher fees.
The amendments, together with the earlier amendments that I accepted on the matter, will protect the important principle of academic freedom, which the House rightly holds dear. I beg to move.
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