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Higher Education

December 2, 2009

Competition: The Ultimate Consumer

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Wilson on introducing this important debate. Its focus, understandably, has been largely on access and funding, as we heard from Mark Williams. I want to add a few thoughts of my own.

I know well the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East as it includes the town I was brought up in. I was educated at the local grammar school, Reading school, as I mentioned earlier. John Weeds, the principal, does a fantastic job. When I was there over three decades ago, it opened up a lot of opportunities for a lot of people from relatively deprived backgrounds. I fear that its academic excellence, coupled with the fact that its catchment area is rather broader than it was in the 1970s and early 1980s when I was a pupil, mean that it probably has more children from middle-class, aspirational and professional backgrounds than when I was there. It continues to have fantastic academic results. It is a beacon, and it is rare for it to slip outside the national top 10 state schools for academic results.

At this stage, I ought to declare an interest: I have spent the past almost five years as a member of the advisory committee of a private college called the London School of Commerce. I do not know whether the Minister has yet visited it, but his predecessor, Bill Rammell, who is now Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, did. It has strong connections with the university of Wales institute, Cardiff, so I have been to Cardiff a number of times and am therefore aware of some of the funding and broad structural issues to which the hon. Member for Ceredigion referred. Professor Antony Chapman and his team at UWIC do a tremendous job developing an international flavour and first-class courses, particularly MBA courses, which have grown out of recognition over the past few years.

That role is an example of having an outside interest in an area in which I did not have much experience. I was a businessman before I entered Parliament and, obviously, representing my seat, as the Minister and other hon. Members will recognise, most of my interest and expertise in the House is on economic and financial matters. My interest in the college has opened my eyes to how higher education and quality higher education operate. The London School of Commerce is an innovative and leading college, the founding college of the Association of Independent Higher Education Providers, and it focuses on best practice.

I wish to touch on visa issues, if I may. The college works closely with the Home Office, the British Council and visa control staff in our embassies abroad to ensure that, as far as possible, there is proper attendance-there are strict guidelines on expected attendance. Through text messaging and state-of-the-art technology, it ensures that it keeps tabs on its students, particularly those with visas coming from abroad. Working with other colleges will set a template that I know it will be proud of as time goes on.

We face some problems. This year’s student visa changes have left stranded many thousands of foreign students who wanted to come to this country. I am pleased that by the end of the year we anticipate the results of an urgent review by the Home Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the operation of the visa system. It is right to ensure that a proper visa system is in operation, but everyone will accept that some hard cases have gone the wrong way.

A lot of colleges require money from international students. Let us face it: higher education is one of our biggest international businesses and the visa issue has become a major problem. There are issues at stake here. We need to promote education. Some £1.5 billion a year is raised from overseas students, which inevitably helps to cross-subsidise British students. In many ways, tuition fee levels cannot be discussed without considering the number of international students.

I am lucky enough to represent a constituency that takes in three of the finest of our global universities-Imperial college, the London School of Economics and King’s college. I spoke with Sir Richard Sykes, then rector of Imperial college, and he made it clear that to balance the books he had to take a lot of overseas students. He felt that there was an obligation, which I think applies to all our institutions, to ensure that we also take our home-grown product and do not allow the desire-and, in many ways, the need-for funding to crowd out suitably qualified students, particularly at postgraduate level and, to a lesser extent, at undergraduate level from our institutions. However, we should not forget the importance of overseas students to our economy. Not only do they bring in £1.5 billion in fees annually, but they spend about a further £2.5 billion off-campus and have huge export earnings.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion, Liberal Democrat)

Of course this is about bringing money into our system, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is also about building meaningful partnerships between institutions in this country and institutions abroad? I think of my example of Lampeter, with its Chinese students and Confucius institute, which is partly funded by the Chinese Government. That is an example of meaningful links between two countries.

Mark Field (Cities of London & Westminster, Conservative)

I was just coming to that. The single most important issue here is that this group of relatively young people will, we hope, go back to their own countries and become ambassadors for this country, or perhaps I should say these countries, given that I am speaking to the hon. Member for Ceredigion.

It is important that we build those links. As part of my involvement with the London School of Commerce, I have been to Dhaka in Bangladesh and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, where there are two overseas colleges, both of which are thriving and doing tremendously well. It is no secret that many of our top universities-even those in the Russell group-are actively seeking connections with China and increasingly with India and other places in Asia as an important part of their growth.

In this country, we obviously have the benefit of speaking the lingua franca-English-which is vital in attracting students to these shores. We also have an internationally respected system. We must pay some tribute to this Government, although I hope that the same will apply to past and future Governments, for the fact that we have a rigorous examination system and a rigorous inspection system for our higher education product, which means that that product remains a great success.

We need to look at other countries, particularly the United States and Australia, which have a tremendous track record in higher education. Again, that is appealing because they speak English. We should recognise that we are talking about an important growth industry: 20 million people a year are being added to the ranks of the middle classes in China and India, so there is a tremendous opportunity for some of the brightest and the best to do postgraduate and, on occasion, even undergraduate courses here. This is an important market and we should be looking to plug into it.

I say that not least because, in the light of the credit crunch and the financial crisis, I have all too often given speeches in the past couple of years saying that we cannot and should not be overly reliant on the financial services industry in the years to come. Everyone recognises the need to achieve a balance of business. That is not to say that we should not admire our world-beating financial services industry, but it would be unwise to become overly reliant on it, as we have perhaps done in recent years, particularly in the tax income that comes from it.

We must look at other industries that will be sources of great strength, and those include the creative industries, environmental technologies and education. Calling education an industry may make one or two vice-chancellors quake-it is and remains a profession-but it provides an important overseas service and we should recognise its great importance.

One of the most encouraging aspects of my relatively limited experience in this field is that when I speak to vice-chancellors and other leading lights in the universities, they recognise the importance of broadening their horizons beyond this country and of ensuring that we are a beacon throughout the world. We need to keep a close eye on developments in this area, because they will provide a great opportunity not only in the next few years, but in the decades to come.

If we can position ourselves, we will reap enormous benefits, not least from the relationships that we will build institutionally and individually. As I said, one of the most important things that we can do is get some of the brightest and best young Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs of the future to spend a year or two in this country. That will provide some of our most important links. As we know from people we met in our own undergraduate and student days, if we can get people at that stage, it can make a terrific difference to this country.

I appreciate that I have spoken on a somewhat different plane from the other two contributors to the debate, but I think that we need to look at two issues. First, we need to have a quality product. To be honest, there has been some complacency in this country. As a graduate of Oxford, I certainly think that my alma mater has been rather complacent about its place in international league tables. A huge number of American universities are gradually making more and more progress in many of the international research tables, not least because they benefit from huge alumni funding and can attract some of the brightest and best students and academics. However, we have some tremendous universities, and a positive comparison can certainly be made between their positions in world tables and those of other European universities.

None the less, we need a much more global outlook. One needs only to look at the technology colleges and technology universities in India going back to the time of Nehru to see that they remain strong competitors. In a couple of decades, some of the best operators among the Chinese universities will also be global players. In terms of the quality product on which we will look to base our international appeal, therefore, this is and will remain a very competitive world.

We also have to look at the issue of quantity; we should not shy away from that. Obviously, there will be funding issues. One complaint is that some of our universities have put too much effort into getting bums on seats and filling courses, almost regardless of the quality of the product provided. However, the reality is that more and more people will want to go to university and will recognise the benefits of a university education as not only this country but the world becomes more middle class in its aspirations and outlook.

That is not to take away from the debate that has taken place about access, which is important, but it is vital for our quantity product that we look at some of this country’s competitive advantages on the higher education scene. We will not necessarily need a heavy touch from the Government, although much of our testing and regulation stand us in good stead. Degree-awarding status should not be watered down for the sake of it, because we want to ensure that our degree-awarding bodies set something of a gold standard in the international world of education.

I have had an opportunity to speak for rather longer than I thought I would. Hon. Members who have been able to make contributions feel passionately about this issue and higher education is an important aspect of this country’s expertise. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East for his contribution and look forward to what the Minister has to say about what I am sure is a very much a work in progress, although we will no doubt return to these debates in the months and years ahead, as higher education maintains its importance in the British economy.