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Higher Education & Research Bill

July 19, 2016

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)

I will try to keep this even shorter, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a great pleasure, as a London MP, to be here with ​the dynamic duo who have now taken over our education system: my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who is, unfortunately, not in her place, and my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson). Having sat here for the past two hours, I can confirm that he has slightly blonder hair than she does, although I will allow excuses to be made about that. We have another London Member here, the birthday boy, no less: the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). Mysteriously, when I read The Guardian today I saw that it said he was born in 1972 and I was sure that must have been a misprint— he does not look a day over 55 to me. I look forward to hearing his words later on.

At this point, I should make a brief declaration of interest, in that I have spent the past 11 years on the advisory board of the London School of Commerce, which is a private higher education provider.

Michael Gove

I am sure the House is delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend is a reader of The Guardian, but may I say that I am glad we do not have mandatory reselection in the Conservative party, because such a confession might not endear him to his constituents, and I very much hope he is here for many years to come?

Mark Field

That is very kind. As a vice-chairman of the party, may I say that there might be mandatory reselection in Surrey Heath before too long if we are not careful? I thank my right hon. Friend for the observation. Perhaps this is another Guardian misprint; perhaps that is what the problem has been.

As I was saying, before I was rudely interrupted, my role on the advisory board of the London School of Commerce has been enthralling and interesting. I have watched the development of a private education provider that has dabbled with the idea of having full university status and trying to get degree-awarding powers but has actually expanded overseas. This debate is probably not a great opportunity to talk about the Government’s immigration-related policies, but let me say that I do recognise that they have had an impact on the broader higher education sector; a school that had some 7,500 students coming from abroad only 10 years ago now has about a third of that number. However, one interesting thing has been that this college provides two-year degrees and charges well under the £9,000 limit, and there has been growth in the number of domestic students in recent years; there is a sense that this is a vocational, value-added degree going forward. I have watched the college develop further colleges overseas in places such as Kuala Lumpur and Dhaka in Bangladesh, and in a number of European centres. The fact that the college is often just regarded as an alternative provider fails to acknowledge its genuine contribution to the vital eco-system of higher education, where this Bill, perhaps belatedly, is doing important work. Elements of this Bill would have come into place some five years ago had it not been for some high-profile problems arising.

It is fair to say that there is an apparent sense of rude health in this sector, and we all have to recognise that this is a hugely important business and revenue generator for UK plc. That is partly because of the benefit of our having the English language, but to a large extent it is because we have highly recognised and highly approved ​standards of quality. We perhaps take that for granted with our own education providers, be they in the HE or the FE sphere, but this is not necessarily the case in many other parts of the world. The Minister will know that we have some 125 publicly funded HE institutions, which have almost 2 million students. The sector employs 170,000 academic staff and has an income in excess of £25 billion per year.

The research side of what is being proposed in the Bill is crucial, as innovation is at the heart of what is done in many of our universities, although not all. It is right to recognise that some providers in this sphere will not go down the research route, recognising that they will be focusing largely on vocational education. It is also important that we bear in mind that it is not just spin-off companies from the Cambridge universities of this world that do well; a huge number of high-tech companies, in pharmaceuticals and in other areas, have tremendous successes.

I have been the MP in this district for the past 15 years. Right in the heart of London, we have a tremendous array of HE providers. We have the super Russell Group of the London School of Economics, King’s College London, Imperial and, just outside my constituency, University College London. They are globally successful universities, and in many ways the dominance in popular culture of Oxbridge is now being threatened, in a positive way, by the raising of standards by those four London universities, which are now global players in what they do.

I also have in my constituency one of the sites of the London Metropolitan University, which has been a troubled institution. I have worked with a number of MPs across the House to try to make the case for its continued existence in these troubled times. When I hear debates such as the one that took place earlier today on the idea of allowing universities to fail, I think that that is an important part of any economic eco-system. I do not deny that the implications of such a failure for employees and for students cannot be ignored, but I believe that that is a healthy state of affairs if universities are not doing the job and not providing the education that they ought to provide. If that education is not of appropriate quality or there is insufficient demand for it, universities should not be preserved just because they have existed as institutions for a long time.

I welcome the Bill. I shall focus my brief comments on part 1, which deals with the creation of the office for students. No one can deny that the regulatory system in this sector has evolved into a bafflingly complex framework of organisations and an alphabet spaghetti of acronyms. The overlap between the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Office for Fair Access and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education has rightly been identified. The new mechanism will get rid of that overlap.

I wholeheartedly support the recognition of the role of students as consumers. They are far more conscious of that role than they ever were in my time as an undergraduate in the mid-1980s, and that is a positive thing. One of the by-products of students paying for their education is that they want to get good value from it. They will be much more critical of poor or repetitive teaching. They will want to ensure broadly that the facilities, both academic and non-academic, within the institutions to which they are paying that money are of ​a high standard. When I see undergraduates in my constituency, I am struck by how focused they are on getting the best out of their education. One might say that that is consumerism; one might say it is a source of regret for those of us who were at university in bygone decades. I think it is a healthy state of affairs that students take such matters seriously. The Bill implicitly recognises that by setting up the office for students.

The Bill needs full scrutiny in Committee and in the other place, where there are plenty of experts in this field. There are concerns about the granting of provisional degrees, which were mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden). The proposals to relax the criteria for validating degree-awarding powers will need to be examined thoroughly. I have some sympathy with the view that because the title of a university is much respected, it should be clearly protected and defined. I hope that if we have a system that allows market failures, the Government will make provision for the interests that need to be protected. No university should be seen as too big or too old and established to fail. A range of regulatory relationships will need to be clarified, but the Bill establishes an important new architecture for the higher education system.

One aspect that will no doubt be debated here and in Committee is Government and ministerial interference in university courses. We need to ensure above all that those institutions retain as much academic and administrative freedom as possible. That is important going forward.

I take this opportunity to congratulate the Secretary of State on the ambitious proposals set out in the Bill. She has already shown herself willing to put excellence and elitism at the heart of the state school system, with her open-mindedness about the expansion of the grammar school sector. As a committed Conservative and former grammar school boy, it is tremendous for me to hear a Conservative Government putting social mobility at the heart of our educational philosophy.

I regard the promotion of competition, variety and consumer choice as long overdue, so I am delighted that this Secretary of State and her Minister for Universities and Science have indicated the intention to take on the vested interests in this field. There are few things as conservative as the left-leaning cadre of vice-chancellors. I wish the Bill Godspeed and look forward to hearing the rest of the debate on it this afternoon.