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House of Lords

Tuesday, 7 December 2004.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury.

Higher Education: Funding of Part-time Students

Baroness Lockwood asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is undertaking a fundamental review of the funding methodology to support teaching in higher education institutions and plans to consult the sector on the principles of the new method in the spring. The HEFCE is separately considering the submissions from the Open University and Birkbeck about levels of support for institutions at which courses are provided predominantly for part-time students. A key discussion is expected in January and a board decision is expected in February 2005.

Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, does my noble friend recall the assurances given by the then Minister in this House on 14 June, when we debated the Higher Education Bill? She acknowledged the particular circumstances of Birkbeck and the Open University and undertook to arrange with HEFCE for the review to take place in the autumn. We are now nearing the end of the year and the Minister is advising the House that the decision will be in February. Can the Minister give us an unambiguous assurance that we will get a result in February? As is well known, these two institutions in particular have great difficulty, first, in increasing their charges, because of their clientele, and, secondly, because the nature of the Open University and Birkbeck means that they cannot cross-subsidise fees.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I recall and have reread the assurances given by my noble friend Lady Ashton. It was genuinely hoped that all the meetings could be held by 30 November, when they were scheduled, but not everybody was available on that day, and the issue has got into the cycle that directly follows. But the assurance sought is given.

The Open University and Birkbeck are two very important institutions, but in 19 other institutions more than half the students, in full-time equivalent terms, are part-timers. So the formula worked out must be durable for all those institutions.

Baroness Boothroyd: My Lords, in view of the fact that HEFCE is directed by government, through the
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Secretary of State's letter of grant, on how its priorities should be reflected in the distribution of funds, does the Minister share my concern as chancellor of the Open University that the process seems to be taking an inordinate length of time? More especially, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, has pointed out, the former Minister said in this House:

I recall that some related amendments were withdrawn as a result of that commitment. How many more reviews are we to have?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I had hoped that I had emphasised in my previous response that there was a genuine desire to conclude the matter by 30 November. Through no fault on either side, it was not possible to reach a decision on that occasion, as not everyone involved could be there. It is now intended to meet in February. I believe that I am right in saying that the two institutions concerned, and the other institutions where there are significant numbers of part-time students, will be in a position to deal with their financial issues well before the major review, which will be concluded in 2006. Plainly, everybody would agree that this matter could not have waited for that review.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I declare an interest as an honorary fellow of Birkbeck. I wish to add to what my noble friend Lady Lockwood has said. Amendments were withdrawn during the passage through your Lordships' House of the Higher Education Bill precisely because of the way in which the Minister responded. Is my noble friend aware that sympathy and reviews are fine—I welcome the review—but that priority must be given to this enormously crucial area of part-time education? Can he assure us, as my noble friend requested, that priority will be given and funds provided? It is a crucial area. It is not enough to have a review; at the end there must be an assurance that funds will be made available to maintain these vital institutions.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, the major review that HEFCE is conducting will be concluded in 2006. I have made the point—and I believe that it is an assurance—that the matters concerning the two colleges will be concluded in February next year. That will be well ahead of the others and therefore they are plainly prioritised.

If the formula for part-time students changes, it will have to change for all part-time students, not just those in the two institutions concerned. There would have to be some winners—the institutions with part-timers—and some losers, because the pot from which the money must come is finite. My noble friend Lady Ashton made that point very clearly. The process will be accelerated for the two institutions concerned.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, 79 science and engineering departments in universities across the UK have been forced to close due to lack of funding, affecting many part-time students. What is the Government's response to the problem?
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Lord Triesman: My Lords, my right honourable friend Charles Clarke has written to the Higher Education Funding Council to ask it to ensure that there is a strategic review of the subjects of national importance. As the noble Baroness will know, aside from the science subjects, languages and mathematics subjects have also been raised in this House. Plainly there needs to be a proper strategic review.

Perhaps I may say that we have to face one rather difficult truth. The key problem is on the demand side: too few people want to take the courses. It is an uncomfortable truth that however much money is thrown at the supply side, it does not necessarily generate a single additional student on the demand side.

The real issue for the Government and your Lordships' House is to ensure that schools up their game considerably in sciences and languages to ensure that the demand side is replenished in that way.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, does the Minister accept that as institutions such as Birkbeck College and the Open University have to get prospectuses out, it is vitally important that those decisions should be made as quickly as possible? As the Minister pointed out, that also applies to other universities where a very large number of students—more than 50 per cent in the case of 19 universities—are part-timers.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I wholly agree with the noble Baroness. It is my understanding that the arrangements which will come to fruition in February will not compromise the production of university prospectuses and other documentation directed at students.

European Commission

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty's Government:

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, yes. The Government have every confidence in President Barroso's Commission. We can only applaud the new Commission's focus on delivery, reform and better regulation. We look forward to working with it to face some of the great common challenges—Africa, climate change and European economic reform—during our presidency next year of both the G8 and the EU.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that admirably succinct reply. But is she aware that the new Commission contains six former communists, an agriculture
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Commissioner who benefits from the CAP, an anti-fraud Commissioner who has been tried for fraud, Monsieur Barrot who was found guilty of fraud but who was pardoned by President Chirac, for fairly obvious reasons, not to mention that fine example of British political probity, Mr Peter Mandelson?

Does the noble Baroness further agree that the Latvian candidate did not make it on to the Commission because she favours member states retaining their tax systems and that Signor Buttiglione was excluded because he is a good Catholic and a thoroughly decent man?

In those circumstances, can the noble Baroness tell the House why Her Majesty's Government are happy to see most of our new laws largely controlled by such people, as they now are?

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