Higher Education and Research Bill Committee Tuesday 6 September 2016

The first two sittings of the Higher Education and Research Bill Committee, of which I am a member, were held on Tuesday 6 September 2016.


Sitting 1


The Committee examined the following witnesses: Professor Simon Gaskell, Gordon McKenzie, Professor Joy Carter, Pam Tatlow, Alex Proudfoot and Paul Kirkham gave evidence.


I asked the Minister for Universities and Science whether there had been any discussions about how the change in the machinery of government would affect the Bill, given that it would be split between two Departments.


The Minister responded and said that the machinery of Government changes had gone through in July and that the lines of ownership were clear


I asked the witnesses:


Valerie Vaz MP: I think the UK leads in the league table of Nobel prize winners, so we need to protect that. On the split between education and research, do you think there is enough protection for, for example, postgraduates who do some of both? What are your views on the split between the two departments?


Paul Kirkham: I think some consideration should be given to how those two arms of the regulatory system will work together.


Pam Tatlow: We are at risk of forgetting that HEFCE has funded postgraduate students and undertakes the research excellence framework exercise. There are implications for the devolved Administrations as well. There has to be on the face of the Bill a very clear idea of joint working, because some things are not referred to. The section on UKRI very much concentrates on what are currently the research councils. We have to do better on what we think those responsibilities are. One final thing is that I have no idea why students should not be on the board of UKRI as well. I do not agree with the idea that students have no interest in it. We want not only the great and good scientists there, but people who deliver innovation and who are very engaged.​


Gordon McKenzie: I agree with that. There is an opportunity to make it clearer on the face of the Bill that both the office for students and UKRI have a joint responsibility for the sector as a whole.


Valerie Vaz MP: A quick question about clause 2, which is on general duties. Subsection (1)(c) refers to “the need to promote value for money”. Do you know what that means and do you think it would help to include a public interest amendment there?


Professor Simon Gaskell: That covers a lot of things. I think universities absolutely do know the value for money. Certainly my finance and investment committee is very keen on value for money and we work on that all the time. In a sense, this addresses a general point—the fiction that the universities do not work in a competitive environment. The current environment is highly competitive. Talk to my colleagues who worked like Trojans a couple of weeks ago on confirmation and clearing—hugely competitive. All this adds up to a very significant current demand for value for money. So, yes, universities do understand what that means.


Valerie Vaz MP: To touch on the split between research and education—you have made your views clear—is there anything that would help the collaboration between the two parts? Obviously, there is still a big gap about where postgraduates fit between the two. We would like people, rather than having lots of discussions and meetings, to just get on and do their work. This is not a leading question, but is it your view—this is to all of you—that it would be better if it sits in one Department?


Sir Alan Langlands: I think it may well be better if it sits in one Department. There have been instances in the past where the educational activity in higher education has been in one place, and science and research has been in another place, but not since 1992 have the questions of funding for teaching and quality-related funding for research been separated. That would be a big thing, and something that we have to be careful of. The Government are very clear about wanting to protect dual support, and that is welcome. We are dealing not just with quality-related funding for research. At the moment in HEFCE, there is funding related to charity support, support for research degrees, and businesses research and innovation. All those things need to be resolved. It needs to be very clear between UKRI and the Government who is doing what in those areas.


Valerie Vaz MP: Briefly, on science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, there is a great opportunity to put things into this Bill to protect certain subjects. You do not operate on a basis on which you can make a profit on things like that, because all those subjects operate at a deficit. There are laboratory issues that you have to work with, and medicine is a long degree. What can we do that is not already in the Bill to protect those subjects? To the best of your knowledge, how can we protect the strategically important vulnerable subjects—for example, chemistry and physics?


Sir Alan Langlands: We probably should not get into the funding argument, but there is, I think, a funding shortfall in the top-up for STEM subjects, and that should be registered very clearly. I think people are aware of that. You struck an important point in focusing on the health of subjects. That is where the research community and those who oversee it and the education community need to come together. If you want to worry about the health of physics and chemistry, or other subjects, such as foreign languages, in the UK higher education sector, you need to do so from an educational and a research perspective. The two things have to work hand in hand. That is why the office for students and UKRI have to work together. At the moment, HEFCE is able to fulfil that role, but often it does so with reference to the wider research community and the charitable community.


Sitting 2


The Committee examined the following witnesses: Pete Moorey, Neil Carberry, Professor Chris Husbands and Martin Lewis.


Below are the questions that I asked:


Valerie Vaz MP: I want to pick up on some points that you have made. I have not got the feel of a definitive answer from any of you as to whether the Bill puts students at its heart. Professor Ebdon, you have been doing the job around fair access. My view is that students think they are paying £27,000 net for higher education, and yet they are receiving bills for £45,000, which comes as a great shock to them. Also, I cannot see anything about lifelong learning here—the value of education throughout one’s life. Could you be a bit more definitive about whether you think this is a good, necessary Bill and whether it fulfils the function of putting students at the heart of it?


Professor Les Ebdon: The Bill is not fundamentally about funding the system and that is not my responsibility. Parliament decides on the level of fees and I believe you may soon have a vote on that matter. I am concerned that we continue to make progress in fair access so that people from all parts of the country, all groups, can get to university. We have seen a 65% increase in the numbers of students from the most disadvantaged communities in our universities since 2006, in the first 10 years of access agreements. The entry rate has gone up by some 65% for the most disadvantaged 20%. I want to see us building on that and increasing that dimension and I think that we can do that. We have found in access agreements a way of doing that. Incidentally, the application rate is up by 76%. If we could turn that increase in application rate into an increase in acceptances, we would be doing even better.


Valerie Vaz MP: I sometimes get responses like this from the Minister, who says lots of people are doing it, but if you drill down into the figures, that is not quite what I was asking you. I was asking, is the Bill necessary, does it put students at its heart, and does it address the issue of lifelong learning? After all, that is what education is about. We do not just do it at university, we go on—for example, the diversity, the part-time learning, that kind of thing. I do not want to deal with Brexit that much, but there is a change. We also have a change in the machinery of government. Are all those issues really addressed in the Bill?


Alison Goddard: My answer to that question is no, but that is at least in part because it is a very difficult thing to do. When you try to put students at the heart of the system, your first question is, what do we mean by students? We heard from the previous panel how parents ​very much value the way in which children grow up at university. The person who arrives is not the person who leaves at the end. You have the elements of lifelong learning.

I would say the Bill does not take on lifelong learning and it really cannot put students right at the heart of the system, not least because students are evolving the whole time, they are a diverse bunch of people and the institutions at the heart of this are the universities, which are ancient institutions that have a very strong track record of providing high-quality, world-class higher education and research. So, at present, the university is very much in the driving seat.


Valerie Vaz MP: Dr Kingman, you are obviously quite interested in the science side of things and preserving that. I want to focus on the research element of UKRI and the teaching element given that postgraduates have to do the two. Do you think it will work having it separated like that?


Dr John Kingman: I am very confident about this. In my role so far I have obviously had a great deal to do with colleagues in HEFCE because there are very important links, as you say. All that dialogue has been incredibly constructive and helpful. I think it is quite clear that this whole structure could not be made to work unless these two bodies work hand in glove. I have no doubt whatever about our ability to do that.


Valerie Vaz MP: You will know the understanding and definition of dual funding. That definition has slightly changed in the Bill in clause 95, where it is called balanced funding. Do you understand that to mean exactly the same thing as dual funding and preserving dual funding?


Dr John Kingman: Yes, and for what it is worth I have always been a very strong supporter of a dual support system.


Valerie Vaz MP: Why do you think there has been a change in wording?


Dr John Kingman: I am afraid I do not think that I am qualified to answer that. It is probably a legal question. [Laughter.]


Colleagues on the Bill committee laughed at one of the answers. I said: It is not actually funny, because it is not a legal question. This person will be the head of an institution that is going to try to understand what that is, so it is not funny. It is about money going to certain areas of science research. With the greatest respect, you should understand the difference.


Valerie Vaz MP: You were involved in the White Paper, weren’t you? Were you involved in the White Paper?


The Chair: Order. This is not a personal conversation, so let’s have an answer for the room.


Valerie Vaz MP: He is a witness and I am entitled to ask the witness a question.


The Chair: Would you like to answer the question, then?


Dr John Kingman: What I believe very strongly is that it is a huge strength of the UK support system for science that we have both project-specific support within research and institution-specific support. If that were to change, I think it would be a huge step backwards. I intend to preserve it, but even if I did not intend to preserve it, I think the Bill ensures that I have to preserve it.


Valerie Vaz MP: I understand your commitment absolutely and appreciate that. My question was why was there a difference in the terminology and do you understand the difference to be the same? Are you convinced that the change of words is going to protect dual funding?


Dr John Kingman: I am absolutely confident of that and that is how I understand it.


Valerie Vaz MP: One last question. I know you are a Treasury man. If I was a researcher I would be a bit terrified of this. You hope that the aim is making sure that we invest every pound wisely. Do you believe that is currently not taking place in UK research?


Dr John Kingman: I go back to Paul Nurse’s report, which I think sets the agenda for the organisation I have been asked to lead. It does not describe a broken system, but it does describe a system where certain things are lacking. One is strategic prioritisation between disciplines across the system, particularly when it comes to interdisciplinary work, which is becoming ever more important; another is a perspective across the system and an ability to speak for the system. I think the organisation I have been asked to set up is one that needs to be very clearly focused on those specific roles and not, as it were, attempt to throw up in the air the institutional arrangements underneath it which broadly speaking, I think, do an excellent job.