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Wilf_4x3.jpgWilf Stevenson on the government’s misjudged proposals for the UK’s higher education sector

In a recent article for The Financial Times, columnist Martin Wolf asked why the Conservative Party had abandoned a basic tenet of its political creed: to “understand the value of independent and enduring institutions, particularly in higher education”. Going on to say: “Make no mistake, this is a fully-fledged government takeover of the UK’s university sector.”

The Higher Education Bill, which has its Lords Second Reading today, is the first for a decade and long overdue. Since 2012, our higher education system has been transformed – but not for the good. Reforms under the Coalition government introduced, among other things, a voucher system for funding universities, tripled the cost of both full- and part-time courses, and abolished maintenance grants.

As a result, we have students leaving university with personal debts of around £50,000, a huge uncovered gap in public finances (as most loans will not be repaid), the most expensive courses in the world, a complete collapse in part-time provision, and a tiny proportion of new universities (few of which attract more than a handful of students). If there is a market in higher education today it is a very atypical one, with many unfortunate side effects, and almost certainly restricted to central London. Hardly a resounding success!

So while welcoming the chance to debate higher education in the UK, we do not welcome this Bill. Not only because it fails to focus on promoting scholarship, encouraging research or a concern for truth. But we are also concerned that the proposals will turn the sector into one that is even more market-driven. 

Universities do not simply offer factual knowledge in a passive mode. They shape society as well as preparing students to be active, constructive members of their communities. By introducing the practices of reasoned debate, dialogue and discussion, and responsible problem solving, undergraduate education instils democratic habits of thought and action. Such habits are central to what Amartya Sen calls “public reason”; and what John Dewey referred to as “social inquiry”. It is not a market transaction, to be constructed solely around the provisions of the 2015 Consumer Rights Act. 

For a long time, a core mission of our universities has been to provide their students with skills that will allow them to get jobs and prosper in business and industry. But it is equally important that universities educate their students to think critically and engage with the knowledge which comes from scholarship. And they must also help them to develop the ability to engage in life-long learning, which will be so necessary in the labour markets of the future.

Along with its weaknesses, the Bill also has many glaring omissions. Where is boost for part time provision? What about degree level apprenticeships? We were hoping for something on credit accumulation and transfer, but it’s not there. What of the flexible provision of degree courses? There is virtually nothing about taught higher degrees or postgraduate training and research. We will bring forward amendments on these areas during Committee stage of the Bill.

The UK is currently the second most successful higher education system in the world, with four universities ranked in the top ten. The sector faces substantial challenges if we go ahead with the sort of Brexit currently being demanded by some from the ‘Leave’ side of the referendum campaign. At the same time, we are struggling to retain our market share of overseas students, because of the Home Office’s unfounded paranoia about illegal immigration in the sector.

This does seem a rather bizarre time to consider, let alone drive through, further market-led reforms in our important university sector.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Shadow Higher Education Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @Missenden50 

Published 6th December 2016

Market bizarre

Wilf Stevenson on the government’s misjudged proposals for the UK’s higher education sector

Jill_Pitkeathley.jpgJill Pitkeathley on the dilemma facing politicians over the long-term sustainability of our social care system

Earlier today, I led a Labour opposition day debate in the House of Lords on reviewing the current social care system. A debate that took place against an all too familiar backdrop of negative newspaper headlines. Pick up any newspaper or tune into a news bulletin and there’s a good chance you’ll be met with stories about a social care system at tipping point. A service which is slow, patchy, cruel and in need of additional funds.

It’s never nice to read these headlines. Not least because behind every story there’s a real person who, through no fault of their own, isn’t getting the care they deserve. That isn’t the Britain that I want, and it certainly isn’t the Britain my party wants.

The only crumb of comfort is that following years of negative stories, there now appears to be an emerging consensus that identifies both the problems and how to resolve them. There was of course, some past agreement but it never reached across so many political parties and health organisations. Now, when even the Chief Executive of the NHS says extra money should be devoted to social care, we are perhaps ready to address the issues.

Last week, following the Autumn Statement, many of us were appalled that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond felt he could ignore pleas from all sides and fail to put extra resources into social care. His decision has rightly been met with incredulity and dismay.

There is a shortfall in social care funding of over £2bn pounds each year, according to the Kings Fund think tank. 80% of councils do not have enough provision – especially for care at home – and it is estimated that one million people are going without the care they desperately need. Despite warm words from ministers on family carers’ rights, many are finding it increasingly difficult to cope. And the results of the shortfall in funding are only too apparent.

Too many people end up in acute care in hospitals already bursting at the seams. A lack of capacity in the system is leading to so-called ‘bed blocking’, and that’s before winter pressures set in. So, the government must recognise that the current situation is bad for everyone. For councils, the NHS, care homes and carers. Most of all however, it’s bad for anyone who desperately needs access to quality, compassionate care but is unable to pay for it themselves. That is not how I define ‘a society which works for everyone’.

One of my main concerns when discussing the issues facing social care is the danger of criticism sapping the morale of staff who do their best despite low pay. We owe it to them as much as the recipients of care to think boldly.

It’s fair to say that the world has moved on since the modern health and social care systems were established after the Second World War. At that time, there was no need for the type and range of care needed in the modern era and ministers therefore need to get serious about reform. Various attempts have been made at this but no government has given a sufficient response, and it is clear that solutions will take years to implement. So we need a cross-party approach which takes an honest look at the system and is then equally honest with care recipients about what they can expect.

A single health and social care budget would enable the NHS and care providers to agree the best use of public money, and to focus on services which reduce the demand for long-term care. Proper coordinated care can only happen if there is a single budget controlled by service providers, rather than politicians. If the government refuses to adopt this approach, its only option is to come clean with the public about how the system works, its shortcomings, and exactly what services they can and cannot expect to receive. A much, much tougher call.

Baroness Jill Pitkeathley is a backbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords and the former Chief Executive of Carers UK

Published 1st December 2016

Tough choices, obvious solutions

Jill Pitkeathley on the dilemma facing politicians over the long-term sustainability of our social care system

DianneHayter.jpgDianne Hayter on why the government must build a national consensus around its Brexit plans

The House of Lords will today discuss the options open to the government as it negotiates the UK’s future relationship with the European Union. A debate led by my colleague Roger Liddle will explore the issues the Prime Minister has to consider – although photographed handwritten notes are the closest we’ve seen to a plan.

The cold fear around the City of London, the CBI, economists, industrialists, investors, trade unions and others is that the government is heading for a hard Brexit. One where the UK is removed from the Single Market, and detached from common regulations and minimum standards that help our businesses, their workers and our natural environment. Labour is clear that a hard Brexit would be hugely damaging for our economy, climate and wider politics. That’s why we’re working for a Brexit that prioritises jobs and living standards, with no watering down of existing protections.

The service sector is crucial to our economy. But even if a new free trade agreement with the EU is secured, this sector’s exports could drop by 60% if it is operating outside of the Single Market. Financial services are vital for the earnings they generate but also for the businesses, financial flows, insurance and re-insurance needs of umpteen sectors. As has become increasingly clear however, in my discussions with colleagues from across the EU, it will be very tough for the City of London to get a good deal.

EU passporting rights allow UK-regulated bodies to do business across the EU without being regulated separately in other member states. Continued access to this is linked to membership of the Single Market.

Britain is also a global hub for legal services – with businesses choosing to use our laws in their contracts. Withdrawal from the current regime would impact on US law firms operating in London, along with 36 of our top 50 firms with offices in other EU countries. EU Directives enable our lawyers to represent UK clients in those countries. And because our judgments are recognised and enforced abroad, and because parties in contract law can choose widely recognised English law, we have become the preferred seat for arbitration. So, the government must give our world-leading legal sector a fighting chance, by retaining access to the Single Market.

Many other sectors also rely on close cooperation with the EU. Our excellent pharmaceutical industry needs access to European markets to promote life sciences, ensure access to the best researchers, and allow collaboration with scientists in other countries. The government must prioritise participating in EU research frameworks and allowing UK firms to access much-needed funding and networks. Ministers must also listen to the Higher Education sector, which should be included in the negotiations framework to continue our close relationship with the remaining member states. Only then will it be able to attract and retain students and academics in the way it does now.

These issues are complex. Unwinding 40 years’ worth of trade, co-operation and interdependence was never going to be easy. But our peers will do what the government is failing to do: engage with the stakeholders, debate the complexities and work to ensure our departure from the EU does minimal damage to our economy and futures.

Along with the economy, jobs and living standards must be the UK’s priorities in the Brexit negotiations. The government needs to accept this, outline a clear plan that works for everyone and seek to build a national consensus.

Baroness Dianne Hayter is Shadow Minister for Brexit in the House of Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 1st December 2016

Negotiation game

Dianne Hayter on why the government must build a national consensus around its Brexit plans

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