HL Deb 10 June 1996 vol 572 cc1489-91

3 p.m.

Lord Beloff asked Her Majesty's Government:

What criteria were used in the selection of members of the national committee of inquiry into higher education (the Dearing Committee).

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, we sought to reflect a broad balance of interests in higher education while keeping the committee to a manageable size. Members have been drawn from a range of institutions which provide higher education across the United Kingdom and also from those who benefit from higher education, whether as students, employers of graduates or users or research.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a prime consideration should have been that the committee had the confidence of the whole university community? Is he aware that, alas, the selection does not come up to that criterion?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not accept what my noble friend has said. We have seen relatively little criticism. I accept that there have been a couple of letters in The Times commenting on the appointments, but I believe that the committee and its composition have been broadly welcomed. I say to those who object to the appointment of some of those on the committee that it was open to them to put forward their own suggestions.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, given the vast size and importance of the faculties of arts and social sciences and humanities in the universities, and given indeed the inherent importance of the humanities in our national cultural life, which appears to be recognised in the terms of reference of Dearing, would not the Minister agree that the excellent credentials of those who will be speaking for industry and science on the Dearing Committee might be matched by equal excellence on the part of those speaking for the humanities?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we have no plans to appoint any further members to the committee. I should remind the House that there are several members with backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences. It is also open to the committee itself to take evidence from individuals or representatives of certain sectors. It will also be open to the committee, should it so wish, to co-opt members on to the committee or on to sub-committees.

Lord Annan

My Lords, while not dissenting from what the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, said, does the Minister agree that it is extremely important that the committee should consider the colleges of further education? It is upon them that Sir Ron Dearing's committee will have to concentrate, because it is there one finds the greatest of our weaknesses; we need to make professional qualifications at the lower level valid.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I should remind the noble Lord that the review is not into further education but into higher education. It is therefore that sector, the representatives of that sector and those who will be making use of that sector who we believe should be represented.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, does the Minister agree that whatever else they have done the criteria have created a committee with powerful expertise in financial planning, and that university funding is now a matter of the utmost urgency? Does he further agree that the Robbins Committee took three years to report upon a much smaller and simpler constituency, and that the Dearing Committee must not be rushed if its report is to have comparable authority and weight? If he does, would it not be wiser now to defer cuts in capital expenditure until after the general election, and ask the Dearing Committee, as a matter of urgency, for an interim report on funding in the summer of 1997, and a full report thereafter?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord asked a number of questions. Perhaps I may remind him that we spend well over £7 billion on higher education throughout the UK. Over 20 per cent. of the budget is spent on education throughout the country. That is a significant amount of money. It is also a large amount of money considering all the priorities that exist in the educational world. We also believe that it will be possible for Sir Ron and his committee, if they pursue the appropriate methods, to report by next summer. That is what we hope they will do, and what I believe that we on this side and the noble Lord and his party would welcome.

Lord Dahrendorf

My Lords, given that the Dearing Committee can trigger major new expenditure in higher education, in which case it needs, above all, the confidence of the Government, or invite the whole community of higher education to engage in a process of reform, in which case it needs credibility within that community, and given the criterion for which the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, asked, which was to place more emphasis on confidence in government than on credibility within higher education, may we assume that there will be a massive increase in the resources made available as a result of the Dearing Committee report?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I regret to say that I think that the noble Lord's logic is somewhat tortured. It may be that Sir Ron and his committee will make recommendations that require extra new expenditure, but I have to remind the noble Lord that it will be the Government of the day—I believe that that will be a Conservative Government—who will make the decisions as to what expenditure is required. Perhaps I may repeat, we already spend about £7 billion on higher education in the UK. That is a significant sum.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, further to the supplementary question asked by my noble friend Lord Beloff, is it not more important that Dearing 3, as I believe it is known, should command the confidence of the whole country rather than, if necessary, the confidence of the university sector, especially for those of us who are beginning to wonder whether there is any system of quality control at all in higher education?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is right to draw attention to the dangers of the committee being seen to be a mere cosy collection of academics. That is why we wanted to ensure that the committee represented not just higher education but, as I said, those who benefit from higher education—the students, those who will later employ students and users of the research from the universities.