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Diana Warwick intervention in the House of Lords debate on the Queen's Speech - Education Day

Universities UK Media Release, November 18, 2002:

Below is the text of the Chief Executive of Universities UK, Diana Warwick's speech:

My Lords, I rise to speak on education, and particularly the future of higher education; and I declare an interest as Chief Executive of Universities UK. 

Although there is to be no higher education bill this session, I welcome Her Majestyís reference to the ongoing review of higher education. Indeed if what emerges is a White Paper after all, this might well lead to future legislation. So this is an ideal time to shape the results of that review.

We at Universities UK are clear what we want to see in the review Ė and any future legislation. Itís a vision that will safeguard our world class university system, a system which has strength in diversity, which delivers world class teaching and research, and to which there are no financial barriers to participation for those from less well-off sections of society.

My Lords, rest assured that I donít intend in this short intervention to deal with all aspects of HE policy that might be covered in such a White Paper. I will concentrate on one key issue Ė resources.

There is little disagreement that our universities have been seriously underfunded for more than 20 years. Iím sure all Noble Lords will agree. Indeed, in a paper published on his Departmentís website only yesterday, the Secretary of State acknowledged the funding deficit: I quote "there is a funding gap which needs to be filled. I accept the case for filling it." 

My Lords, our evidence shows that the sector now faces a major investment backlog. There is a bill to clear this backlog and to meet Government targets which stands at a little under £10 billion. But I fear from ministerial statements that this bill cannot be fully met from public funds. 

It is, of course, the Governmentís decision whether or not this is the case, and whether part of this bill will be met from increased private contributions. But I have to say that such increases in private contributions will not, on their own, meet this bill. Public funding will need to remain central to the delivery of excellence in HE.

So what can we expect in the review? There has been much speculation about where the Government is heading, talk of so-called top-up fees, of a graduate tax, of a return to grants. There clearly needs to be a full debate about what will strengthen our universities and what unforeseen dangers might lie ahead. 

However, whatever new system the review leads to should be based on a number of key principles that Universities UK, speaking on behalf of all universities, believes are essential if any reforms are to be implemented successfully.

First, any recommendations must generate sufficient additional funds so that the sector is placed on a sound financial footing. If the Government decided to increase private funding for universities, then it needs to be truly additional, and not offset by reductions in existing taxpayer support. 

Second, any changes in the level of private contributions must be judged in terms of their impact on the participation of students from lower socio-economic groups so that the efforts of universities to widen participation arenít compromised. 

Third, if a more market-based fees system were to be introduced, as has been suggested in the media, a transparent national bursary scheme is needed to meet the cost of fees for those who were not liable to pay them from their own resources. It canít be left to individual institutions to create their own. There is a danger that this would be unaffordable for many universities and would create something of a confusing mess!

Fourth, a new funding scheme for universities will need to be accompanied by revised arrangements for maintenance support for students that are based on principles of clarity and consistency. 

Fifth, any funding solutions must address the financial problems of all universities and not just some. It would be iniquitous to create what would in effect be a two tier system. 

It would betray the very promise that the Government wants to make to talented but disadvantaged young people Ė that they will be guaranteed a first class higher education that will open up great opportunities for their future. 

Nor would it solve the financial problems of the sector, and it could seriously damage the reputation of British higher education at home and abroad. 

And finally, we need to ensure that standards are maintained as a result of this review, with universities maintaining their control over the award of degrees. This is vital in safeguarding the attractiveness of UK HE in the international market place. 

I realise that my noble friend the Minister will not be able, at this stage, to indicate the path for increased funding that the Government may eventually choose. There is a White Paper expected on this in January. 

So, can I ask my Noble Friend, does he agree that despite all the problems of past funding faced by universities, and acknowledged by the Secretary of State, despite these problems, universities across the board have maintained the world class reputation of British higher education? Will he agree with me that the maintenance of a wide range of institutions across the country, all different but all with their own strengths, is vital to achieving targets to widen participation, and promote high quality research and involvement in local communities?

And finally, will he confirm that the Government is committed to maintaining high standards and quality across the HE sector by providing new investment that benefits the sector as a whole and does not draw artificial boundaries between different institutions.

November 2002

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Last updated: 22 November 2002 10:55
Created by: Rachel Tunstall

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