On Monday the 19th April, the higher education bill entered the House of Lords for its second reading, facing possibly one of the most lively debates the House of Lords has ever seen, with 46 speakers on the speakers list, this was somewhat larger than the usual 5 or 6 speakers to speak on a Bill. Clearly the never ending controvesy has concerned many peers in the Lords, with much debate about possible other means of funding higher education or what implications it could have on future UK students. The Bill went on late into the night until it was put forward to the committee stage at 11:30pm since starting at 3:00pm.
As NPC has been promoting for some time, the higher education bill does contain good news in some areas, the introduction of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) brings good news to postgraduates in those disciplines, and further good news was heard from Baroness Ashton of Upholland:
"I was very pleased to see the welcome for Part 1 [the formation of the AHRC]. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, asked me about the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the funding to implement the Roberts review. The council will benefit through a minimum PhD stipend of £10,000 a year and funding to support the development of transferable skills in postgraduates. There will also be more stable funding to support a proportion of the 1,000 new academic fellowships announced. If I can give the noble Lord further details, I shall of course write to him."
This is excellent news for NPC, and further excellent news is the response to remove Visitorial Jurisdiction from student complaints:
"The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, was the only speaker whom I recall touching on the issue of visitors. She welcomed the changes. We will debate that; there are noble Lords present who perform that role, and I hope that the issues raised will have a fair and good debate."
Despite this excellent news and support from the House of Lords for reform that NPC has long campaigned for, the controvesy of the introduction of variable tuition fees caused immense opposition. In the opening speech of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, he says:
"What are we to make of this Bill, which repudiates the clear and specific manifesto commitments made by the Government and the other political parties in the House of Commons? It is no wonder that voters are cynical, as a poll published today shows, when more than 600 Members of Parliament stand for election declaring that they will not introduce top-up fees and then legislation doing so is dragooned through the House of Commons by a government with a majority of 161 and presented to this House having only just survived its Second Reading by a majority of five. The noble Baroness must be ashamed of her Government. What exactly did Labour's 2001 manifesto mean, when it said: "We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them"? What did the then education Minister, Mr Blunkett, mean when he said to the House of Commons that, "the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 permits us to rule out top-up fees . . . As I have just said, with our majority in the House after the next general election, we shall ensure that those fees are not levied"?
Much opposition was expressed by a number of individuals highly concerned about the expense of undergraduate education, although no person did raise the issue of access to postgraduate education, as the debate has so far not focused on. A useful point to note for postgraduates, however, is that of part time students, where other peers questioned the issue of there being no funding for part time intensive institutions (60% of postgraduates in the UK) who will not benefit, and most possibly be disadvantaged by this bill. The response from Baroness Ashton reads:
"We will continue to consider the issue, and we have said that the next student income and expenditure survey will include a more comprehensive examination of the issue of part-time students. The survey has not previously included Open University students, but it will this time. It
would be wrong for me to say to noble Lords that we had not considered the issue of fee deferral. For the moment, we have decided on grounds of cost
that we would not want to do that, but I am sure that we will continue to debate the issue at length."
Further concerns were expressed by peers over mature students, that the bill was working under the assumption that the repayments would be from a 21 year old graduate. On the 10th May, this bill will go to committee stage, where further scrutiny will be made with a number of amendments.
For more information about the debate, with speeches written up, you can visit the Hansard on the House of Lords Website at here.