In his contribution to the debate regarding the first amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill Lord Bilimoria stresses the idea of innovation and the importance of this to UK Higher Education. He highlights the need for variety which should be striven for by universities along with specialisation which he feels is in the spirit of this amendment. He argues that UK universities are not necessarily about working towards a vocation but about what is learnt in the academic environment itself. He concludes by stressing that to view universities as simply places of education and research misses the point and so this amendment ensures it is clear that universities should be more than this.

Higher Education and Research Bill

09 January 2017

Moved by: Lord Stevenson regarding the insertion of a new Clause before Clause One

“UK universities: functions

(1) UK universities are autonomous institutions and must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech.(2) UK universities must ensure that they promote freedom of thought and expression, and freedom from discrimination.(3) UK universities must provide an extensive range of high quality academic subjects delivered by excellent teaching, supported by scholarship and research, through courses which enhance the ability of students to learn throughout their lives.(4) UK universities must make a contribution to society through the pursuit, dissemination, and application of knowledge and expertise locally, nationally and internationally; and through partnerships with business, charitable foundations, and other organisations, including other colleges and universities.(5) UK universities must be free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society.”

Lord Bilimoria:

My Lords, the amendment is very important for one reason. Having taken part in Second Reading, I declare my interests once again as chancellor of the University of Birmingham, chair of the advisory board of the Cambridge Judge Business School, and honorary fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge—I could go on.

This is a once-in-many-decades opportunity to improve the higher education sector in this country. One could argue that we have the best universities in the world, along with the United States, in spite of underfunding. The key issue is that we underfund our universities. If we put in the funding equivalence of the United States of America, or of the European Union, or the OECD average it in itself would improve our universities hugely. But, as an entrepreneur building businesses, I live by the mantra not of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but of restless innovation, of the world belonging to the discontent.

To that extent, I applaud the Bill’s objective to try to improve our universities. I also recognise the Minister, Jo Johnson, for his commitment to this, for listening through the entire Second Reading, and for being here with us today. I know he and his department will listen, as, I hope, will the Minister.

I therefore agree with the noble Lords, Lord Waldegrave and Lord Willetts, that the use of “must” in this clause does not make sense in many circumstances. For example, in India, 1.5 million students apply to get into the Indian Institutes of Technology. The first cut is 130,000. Ten thousand of them make it. Some of the brightest people in the world have come out of that funnel and run some of the biggest organisations in the world today. It has nothing to do with engineering, but it is a specialist engineering science institution. Caltech is always ranked among the top universities in the world. It is a pure science institution. One cannot therefore prescribe that all universities must do everything, but the spirit of this amendment is absolutely right: that universities on the whole must strive for variety.

Lord Giddens:

Caltech has a range of other departments, including philosophy, history, social sciences and English.

Lord Bilimoria:

I was stressing that it focuses on technology—that is its strength and why it wins all those Nobel prizes—but I acknowledge what the noble Lord says.

I go back to areas of specialisation and the purpose of universities. The mindset of certain people, including in this country, is, “You should study at university what you can apply in a job thereafter”—that is, a sort of vocational mindset. Our universities are not what that is about. My oldest son is reading theology at Cambridge. I do not think that he is going to become a priest, but if he wants to, that is up to him. I do not think that that will happen—he will probably become a management consultant—but what he will learn in that environment is phenomenal. He gets one-to-one supervisions with world leaders in his subject. Not every university does that or can afford to do it, but he has that ability. I consulted Cambridge on this. It said that it recognises the importance of diversity in research and teaching and that the success of global competitiveness of the UK’s universities relies on the core principles of sustainability, diversity and—here is the crux of it—institutional autonomy. That is what worries so many of us about this Bill and why this proposed new clause, right up-front, is so important. It is the spirit of it that I completely support.

The pro-vice-chancellor for education at Cambridge, Graham Virgo, has spoken about the last part of the amendment, which is about being a critic and conscience of society. To narrow down the definition just to teaching and research will be to miss the opportunity to improve our universities and to miss the point. Professor Virgo pointed by way of example to the New Zealand Education Act 1989, which had five criteria for defining a university. The fifth of those was for an institution to accept a role as a critic and conscience of society. That is so important and it is why the amendment sets right up-front the essence of what universities should strive to be about, so that we do not go down the wrong track in this once-in-many-decades opportunity to improve our already fantastic, best-of-the-best, proud, jewel-in-the-crown universities.

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