In this second reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill Lord Bilimoria discusses the Universities in the UK and the need for them to stay free from political interference. He argues that this Bill should preserve that freedom and ensure that students entering the UK to study are not counted as immigrants.

Higher Education and Research Bill

06 December 2016

Moved by: Viscount Younger of Leckie

That the Bill be read a second time.

Lord Bilimoria:

My Lords, according to UUK, the UK higher education sector is a success story with a global reputation for excellence in teaching and research, supporting over 2.5 million students from the UK and around the world. I declare my interest as chair of the advisory board of the Cambridge Judge Business School. The University of Cambridge strongly believes that the success and global competitiveness of the UK’s universities rely on the core principles of sustainability, diversity and institutional autonomy. According to the Russell group’s report, Jewels in the Crown:

“International comparisons show that universities produce more outputs when they have the freedom to operate autonomously and face strong competition for people and funding”.

Martin Wolf wrote about the reform of Britain’s universities being,

“a betrayal of Conservative principles”,

and felt that the measures constitute a serious threat to Britain’s world-class and highly innovative universities.

I am proud to be the chancellor of the University of Birmingham, where we are very fortunate to have Professor Sir David Eastwood, one of the most respected figures in higher education in the UK and a former chief executive of HEFCE. As many noble Lords have said, he says that this is the first major change in the sector since the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which is just after I started Cobra Beer; it is a long time ago. It has lasted all this time, so what we are doing now will be there for a number of decades ahead. So this is really important; it is not just tampering around. He also makes the point that the UK has a co-regulatory approach that has maintained the autonomy of universities and relies on their own governance arrangements where appropriate, allowing universities such as Birmingham to be flexible and responsive to the needs of their students and employers, including shaping the curriculum in the light of the latest research findings, to think long term about global challenges and remain free from direct political interference. It is vital that that cornerstone of UK higher education is preserved throughout the Bill.

Then there is talk of removing royal charters, which are precious things. We should not just remove them—absolutely not.

The strength of our universities is based on collaboration. This wretched referendum has caused a big uncertainty about losing funding from the EU. But it is about much more than losing the funding—it is about the collaboration. When we at the University of Birmingham carry out our own research, we have a field-weighted citation impact of 1.87, when Harvard carries out its own research, it has a field-weighted average of 2.4, but when we co-author together it is an average of 5.69. That is the power of collaboration.

The Prime Minister wrote a letter to Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, the Nobel laureate, fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and president of the Royal Society, only five days after she came into office, saying:

“Our research base is enriched by the best minds from Europe and around the world—providing reassurance to these individuals and to UK researchers working in Europe will be a priority for the Government”.

We have the insecurity and anxiety caused by Brexit, and the Prime Minister’s refusal to provide that reassurance now, when 30% of academics at top universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Birmingham are foreign. One example from Birmingham is the discovery of or proof of the existence of gravitational waves 100 years after Einstein’s theory of relativity. Two of the professors working on that from Birmingham University are Professor Alberto Vecchio and Professor Andreas Freise, both EU scientists.

On higher education and the new organisation that has been formed, Times Higher Education reported that John Kingman, chair of the newly created UKRI, wrote that it is,

“nine brains in one body”,

explaining the governing philosophy of the research and innovation funding organisation. The noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, spoke about this. Do we really need to bring this all into one organisation? Stephen Curry of Imperial College said:

“Unlike schools, our universities compete nationally and internationally—indeed, this competition is one of the drivers of quality—and need the freedom to innovate in all sorts of ways … Excessive intrusion by the OfS could well stifle the vigour of the sector”.

We are already competing in a global arena. Then Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, talks about recruiting overseas students depending on rankings of universities. What is she talking about? I was the youngest university chancellor in this country when I was chancellor of Thames Valley University, now the University of West London. It had world-class excellence in areas such as hospitality and catering, something that Oxford and Cambridge could never do. Just because universities are lower down in the rankings, does that mean that they should not be able to recruit foreign students? I think that the Home Secretary needs to learn quite a few things.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, in her excellent speech spoke about students being against all this, but what about staff? The University and College Union feels that this is going to harm its globally renowned education system, as 15% of UK university staff are EU nationals and many more are from further afield. Of course, from India we have had a 50% drop in students since 2010; they feel that the Bill will do nothing to help this.

The best classroom teaching that I have experienced in my life was at the Harvard Business School, of which I am an alumnus. Professor Ranjay Gulati, whom I consulted on this, said that it was more about education, not evaluation—I am talking about the teaching framework. He feels that there should be measures that allow for guidelines in a holistic way, not mechanical, because that could be dangerous. It surely should be about teaching effectiveness, not teaching excellence. At Birmingham, we have teaching awards that come from the students, which is fantastic. Students look at world rankings and country rankings of universities.

To conclude, we have 450,000 international students in this country. I am the president of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, which represents those international students. On the Government’s attitude to international students—we continue to include and categorise international students as immigrants in the net migration figures, but this Bill is an opportunity once and for all to sort this out. I hope that we will address this and remove international students, sending out the signal that we welcome them. I know that our Minister, Jo Johnson, is totally onside with regard to this, and I hope that we can go ahead with it.

Finally, this is the brunt of it all—we are talking about a Bill and evolutionary reform, which we need, but the real essence of it is that we punch above our weight as a research nation. The UK represents 1% of the world’s population but accounts for 11.6% of citations and 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited articles. This is in spite of the UK spending only 1.7% of GDP on R&D. As to the £2 billion extra, if we want to catch up with the United States at 2.7% or Germany at 2.8%, it should be £20 billion more a year just to catch up. When it comes to higher education, we have the best universities in the world, and we do that by investing well under the US, the EU and the OECD averages as a proportion of GDP. That is the real crux of the matter.

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