My Lords, it was Benjamin Franklin who said: “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest”. A teacher at my Birmingham grammar school helped me to see that a university education might, in the long term, be better for me than playing soccer for Aston Villa. I am not sure that Villa would have gained much from my services as a footballer, but my life was certainly enhanced by university experience. I speak with the privilege of being the Chancellor of Bournemouth University, which has a good reputation for business-focused degrees. I declare that interest.
I was the first in my family to go to university. As a young student, my idea of a balanced meal was a biscuit in either hand, but I did have a local authority grant and was able to focus on getting my degree without too many financial worries. The situation is far more complex for today’s university students. It is now accepted by many that our higher education is in crisis. Although student numbers have increased, funding has not. The ratio of staff to students has fallen, and so have the salaries of lecturers in comparative terms.
Today’s students start their working lives in debt through no fault of their own. I am totally persuaded that it is only right and proper that a graduate must repay loans from future income, but I must admit to being somewhat concerned that we are introducing to students the tempting culture of “borrow now, pay later”, before they have even started their working lives. The sadness of the Bill is that it will only increase the overall burden of student debt; there will still be a shortfall in the funding that higher education needs.
Perhaps there is a dilemma about what higher education is actually all about. It seems to me there are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living, obviously, but the other should teach us how to have a life—the quality of living. Getting the balance right is the challenge. There is also the dilemma of choosing between academic and practical courses. The Government appear to be obsessed with the 50 per cent target for under-30 year-olds in higher education. These days, it seems that good reliable plumbers and electricians are more difficult to find than unemployed graduates. Are we getting the balance right? The Government need to acknowledge that there are some brilliant students who have practical skills which do not require a university degree.
The main issue is not whether more funding is required, but how it will be achieved. If we must have top-up fees, they must be at a reasonable level. I am concerned about the variable nature and the circumstances under which the cap can be lifted. We do not want the situation in which students choose courses simply because they are cheaper. I am particularly concerned for ethnic minority students who come from the poorest sections of our community. Many noble Lords know Professor Gillian Slater, the excellent vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University. She has been clear in her opposition to variable fees, for the reasons that I have just outlined.
Because this Bill will still leave a funding gap, alternative methods of paying for higher education are needed. Both private endowments and commercial sponsorship need to be encouraged by tax concessions. The Lambert review last year stressed the need to raise levels of business spending on research and development, channelled through higher education. Lambert also highlighted the need to enhance the role of the regional development agencies, in forging partnerships between universities and local business. The red tape barriers which deter some small companies from forming that partnership with universities need to be tackled. Local employers, in return for investing in local universities, should have an input in the course content. Why not have a voluntary code of governance for university management to ensure that it is in tune with the needs of local business? A good model of university and business working together can actually be found at Bournemouth, where Professor Slater has made it a priority.
In conclusion, the funding gap which this Bill will still leave should not be met by simply punishing students, their families or the general taxpayer. Education is a journey, not a destination, and the challenges change with it. It is time for us to use more lateral thinking in our funding of higher education. The motto perhaps should be: “Seek and ye shall fund”. 19 April 2004