HL Deb 12 November 1997 vol 583 cc156-212

3.20 p.m.

Lord Beloffrose to call attention to the case for safeguarding the future of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall allow for the movement of lemmings in both directions.

Noble Lords


Lord Beloff

My Lords, I begin by thanking the many noble Lords who have been good enough to put their names down for today's debate. I also thank the authorities who have enabled us to have a four-hour debate so that noble Lords' contributions will not be too limited. The House will look forward in particular to the two maiden speeches that we are to hear. We shall hear the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely whose presence, along with a number of other figures from Cambridge, means that I do not need to mention Cambridge again in the course of my remarks!

I wish particularly and personally to welcome the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking. I say "personally" because we were pupils of the same schoolmaster. I hasten to add that I was a pupil at the beginning of that schoolmaster's career whereas the noble Lord, Lord Baker, was a pupil at the end of that schoolmaster's career. The main objective in life of that schoolmaster, who was a considerable scholar, was to ensure that the boys in his care attained places at either Oxford or Cambridge. I say that because it is relevant to one of the features of the debate about the two universities; namely, the worry about whether access is wide enough. The example I have mentioned, and others I know of, show that the decision that is taken by a young person to apply to a particular university will depend more than anything on the advice he receives from whoever has taught him at the pre-university stage.

Both universities have made enormous efforts to change their patterns of admission, their examinations, their interviews and so forth, in order to make entry easier for people from schools which have not hither to been providers of applicants. However, there is a limit to what can be done in that direction. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Plant, will be able to give us more detail on this. I know that many colleges send people out to schools, or bring school-children into the colleges, in order to encourage them. But if, as one hears occasionally, school-children are positively discouraged by certain schoolteachers, the chance of their getting to Oxford or Cambridge is limited.

Everyone declares an interest nowadays, even non-financial ones. I shall not depart from the pattern. I have an interest to declare. As an undergraduate I became a member of the University of Oxford 65 years ago. Sixty-five years is, I believe, the utmost limit of the life of the millennium dome, which puts the matter into perspective. But in the life of the University of Oxford 65 years is almost nothing when one thinks in terms of centuries.

Those 65 years have seen major changes. Some of them, I believe, were changes for the better, but others which I shall not mention, I was critical of at the time. They can be summarised in two broad bands. First, the university has become much more conscious of the role and position of the natural sciences, and particularly medicine. It is, after all—as it was not 65 years ago—a recognised centre of medical excellence throughout the world. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, will confirm that when he speaks. I merely remind noble Lords that the curative properties of penicillin were first tried by a team from the University of Oxford in the local hospital. Everyone who has benefited from treatment with antibiotics over the past half century is, whether he knows it or not, a direct beneficiary of the University of Oxford.

The second great change is the development of graduate studies and, with them, research in a number of fields, some of them already traditional in the university, such as archaeology and languages, some of them relatively new, and many of them with an important international aspect. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, who has recently retired from heading one of the two most important new graduate colleges—where, if I may say so, I was in at the beginning—will tell us more about that important aspect of the university's new life.

This is a constantly changing scene. I do not imagine that anyone taking part in this debate imagines that there will be no further change. What we are concerned with, as I understand it, is the need to safeguard the future of these two universities. What are the arguments for safeguarding them? The primary argument must be that in an age of competition it is important that any part of our national heritage which directly contributes to the standing of this country in the arts and the sciences is maintained. It is not difficult to find evidence for the fact that both these universities contribute in major ways.

It is also clearly important that we should consider what are the elements that attract bright young people to these universities and which retain bright scholars who might otherwise be tempted by the greater material rewards available to them across the Atlantic. One of those, I believe—this will no doubt be talked about by other speakers in this debate—to be the collegiate system. That is unique. Tutorials are part of the collegiate system, but you could have—and some institutions do have—tutorials without a collegiate system. The collegiate system which brings together both people at the beginning of their careers and hardened scholars—if one can put it like that—in a personal tutorial relationship is, I believe, the principal attraction, and the principal reason the universities retain this attraction.

One does not need to look far for examples of the attraction. The President of the United States of America and his current ambassador to the Court of St. James are both former Rhodes scholars; so, I believe, is a certain judge in Massachusetts who has managed to hit our headlines in recent days. We attract a lot of people.

The system is extraordinarily efficient—and this is where comparisons with other systems become inevitable. Its efficiency can be measured in a variety of ways. It is efficient in the sense that a very high proportion of students—far higher than in any other British university, let alone continental European universities, where most students never take a degree—take the degree which they came up to read. That means that the effort that is put into teaching them is not wasted. The comparison could be made in the job market at various levels; it could be made in all kinds of ways. But fundamentally, the system is efficient and cost-effective. That does not mean that it is not expensive. Indeed, much of the current interest arises from the problem caused by its expense, or the public share of that expense, to those examining the budget for higher education, which is under very considerable strain.

It is difficult, and it would be wrong, to make comparisons between universities in a single country. They have, or should have, their own methods and aspirations. However, there are some important cross-national comparisons which can he put in very crude terms. If we take France as an example (and we are always told that things are done better in France) the amount of money spent by the French state on each student attending the grande école—the école polytechnique, the école normale, and so on, which correspond roughly in their purpose and ethos to Oxford and Cambridge—is three times the amount that is spent on students in French universities. That is a far bigger differential than even the college fees add to the difference between expenditure on Oxford and expenditure on other British universities.

If we take, again, the institutions with which Oxford and Cambridge are most properly to be compared, the great research universities of the United States—Harvard, Yale and Princeton—the cost of sending a student to one of those institutions is something like three times the cost of educating someone in Oxford or Cambridge. Even if we allow for the greater wealth of the United States and other factors we still arrive at the fact that we seem to be able to do, on less, what Harvard, Yale and Princeton do admirably, on more.

To return to my point about the effectiveness of the college tutorial system, one comparison that can be made is that tutorial teaching in Oxford is still done by mature scholars. I remember as a schoolboy coming up in 1932 and discovering to my astonishment that the people whose books I had been asked to read at school were actual, living people, walking in the streets and sometimes condescending to give me a tutorial, to take me for a walk, or whatever the customary method of tutorial instruction was in those days; whereas, as we know, in the United States a great deal of that kind of teaching at undergraduate level is done by graduate students. That is a method which, on the whole, we ought not to welcome as a possible result of cutting down on college income. That is perhaps the most striking difference. Perhaps I may ram it home by means of an anecdote. Many years ago I was a colleague of Albert Einstein. We were both members of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. A number of hopeful mothers sent their offspring to Princeton University—a different institution, a great one—in the hope that they would be tutored in their mathematical studies by Albert Einstein. I do not say that everyone who comes to Oxford is tutored by the equivalent of Einstein; but at least they receive tuition on which they can rely.

What has brought this matter to a head is clearly the controversy about college fees. Fees to colleges have always been paid. They date back to the foundation of colleges. Most colleges include the payment of fees by categories of students in their foundation documents. From decade to decade, and century to century, efforts have had to be made to see that whatever assistance was available for students should go to make sure that the payment of fees did not impede attendance by people from non-noble or non-gentry families. If we turn to the Oxford of the 17th century, a period of great growth before the decadence for which Gibbon's account is noted, we find exactly the same controversies in relation to fees as exist now—except that it was then charitable foundations for livery companies and not public money that was involved.

It is clearly not possible to change the system overnight. One has to realise that, if the subsidy for college fees were to be abolished over a year or so, it would mean a number of colleges going bankrupt and others being forced to part with members of staff; it would mean that places would have to be filled by those who could afford, out of their pockets or their parents' pockets, to pay the fees. The effect would be contrary to that which the proponents of this change seem to envisage.

Nor is it possible, as some people occasionally think, to meet the difficulty by the redistribution of money between colleges. It is true that some colleges are wealthy by comparison with others; but they are often obliged to spend their income on particular aspects. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, who will speak in the debate, will be aware that a great deal of Christ Church's money goes to the upkeep of his splendid cathedral, its services and its choir. That cannot be transferred, let us say, to a college such as Mansfield, of which I am an honorary fellow, which lives entirely on what it receives from the students whom it educates.

There are schemes by which, gradually, capital is being moved from richer to poorer colleges. However, that is a long drawn out process and we are talking not about capital but about income. Most people know the difference. I am not sure that everyone does, but most do. That is not a way out.

It is probable—here I speak not as the voice of the university, which I know is very divided on this matter—that in the long run, when there is a total recosting of the financing of British higher education—as it were, the post-Dearing years—Oxford and Cambridge will be obliged to rely more and more on private funds, whether through benefactions, endowment or the payment of higher fees, compensated for, as is done in American universities, by a generous scholarship system. I do not regard that as outrageous. All I think one can say this afternoon is that, if that is to be the future, time is needed to prepare for it. A sudden upheaval, which would bankrupt a number of colleges, is no way to prepare for the future. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Plant of Highfield

My Lords, first I must declare a direct interest as Master of St. Catherine's College in the University of Oxford. I wondered whether it was appropriate for me to speak in the debate in the light of that interest but I thought it might be useful for someone at the sharp end of these issues to comment upon them.

It seems to me that there are two principles to be considered here. The first is that differential funding needs to be publicly justified and periodically reviewed, and I am sure that the Government are right to do that. Secondly, if there is to be differential public funding, there should be the highest degree of equality of opportunity to secure access to the benefits of such funding.

Before discussing the issues in terms of those two points, I should like to put the issue of college fees in context. I have to speak of Oxford but I am sure that most of what I say applies equally to Cambridge. In Oxford, college fees provide over 50 per cent. of the income for 18 colleges. In some cases that rises to 70 per cent. or more. There is no doubt that terminating the government payment of fees is a very serious matter which bears on the survival of some colleges in Oxford, and I am sure that the same is true for Cambridge.

What is the defence for differential funding? First, there is no doubt that Oxford and Cambridge are world-class universities in research terms. That is not to deny that there are others in the United Kingdom. That judgment is not based on Oxbridge self-regard or self-congratulation but on the funding council's own research assessment exercise which found that 92 per cent. of all academic full-time staff in Oxford were in the highest grade departments—thatis to say, 5 or 5*.

The critic of college fees will say that, while that is true, it is wholly irrelevant because Oxford and Cambridge receive extra money from HEFCE because of their research excellence; college fees, in contrast, are about teaching. That is, however, a fallacy. Research in Oxford and Cambridge is embedded in a collegiate structure which is bound to be more expensive and will not survive if college fees disappear.

There are close links between college structure and research performance. Posts are jointly funded between the university and the colleges and involve shared facilities. Colleges pay a percentage of the cost of lecturers of various kinds in the university. In the case of CUF lecturers, colleges pay 60 per cent. of the cost of 400 academic posts and 16 per cent. of the costs of other university lecturers. Colleges fund research fellowships, junior research fellowships, graduate studentships and graduate scholarships from their own income. Those commitments to research will decline or disappear if fees are not to be reimbursed to colleges. In addition, colleges provide research funds for their own fellows, which in turn sustains or enhances the world-class performance of the universities. Colleges also play a significant role in providing facilities for visiting researchers from the United Kingdom and overseas to enable them to pursue their research. There is an intimate relationship between the research performance of Oxbridge and the collegiate system.

In addition, there is a defence to be made—as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, has done—of the college tutorial structure. I would not want to say that the tutorial system is the only excellent way of teaching undergraduates since that would be a denial of my own teaching experience in other universities over 27 years. Nevertheless, I believe it produces a high standard and a very challenging academic environment which fits neatly into the Dearing Committee's concern for diversity. It obviously attracts high-calibre applicants in that our average A-level score of 29 points compares with an average of 18.8 points elsewhere. We have, as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, said, a very low drop-out rate. We have a very good employment record, with only 2.6 per cent. of graduates unemployed six months after graduation compared to the national average of 8 per cent. Of the university professors listed in Who's Who, 67 per cent. were educated at Oxford or Cambridge. If I may be parochial for a moment to illustrate the benefits of the tutorial system—for which I do not make wholly exclusive claims—my own college, founded in 1962, has produced three Nobel prize winners and 12 Fellows of the Royal Society among its alumni. That is a fairly decent result for a young college based upon the tutorial system. Overall, in terms of both teaching and research, Oxford offers a very good public/private partnership: the Government put in £19 million in fees and the colleges contribute £43 million to academic purposes.

What will happen if the Government decide not to reimburse fees? I think it would be a very naïve view to suggest that colleges would carry on more or less as before. By and large, individual colleges at the lower end of the scale do not have the resources to increase their income to the extent that would be necessary. My own college would have to produce about £900,000 a year more. It cannot do that by taking more overseas students; it cannot do it by increasing conference attendance; it certainly cannot do it by increasing its endowment, which would have to double the size achieved over 35 years.

Where is the money to come from? The only way in which colleges as individual institutions could cover the costs would be to continue to charge fees to undergraduates even when they were no longer reimbursed by the state. I believe that that policy would be little short of disastrous in terms of access and it would be a very odd outcome for the Government that I support to produce. It has been suggested that the Government are contemplating legislation to prevent colleges from continuing to charge fees, which they have in many cases charged for centuries and which, as I understand it, they have a common law right to do as chartered corporations. I should like to ask my noble friend specifically whether she is contemplating introducing legislation to prevent colleges from charging fees. Like the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, I do not believe that there is a pot of gold in Oxford to rescue the poorer colleges. The endowments for colleges were declared to HEFCE in the recent negotiations with them, and the university and the colleges have offered an independent audit of the endowment structure in Oxford to show that there is no such pot of gold.

I believe that any alternative to the existing system will make Oxford more socially exclusive. I am passionately concerned with equality of opportunity. I was brought up in a poor area; I failed my 11-plus; and I went to a secondary modern school. It was only because I lived in the 1960s, when there were plenty of opportunities available, that I was able to go to university and eventually make an academic career for myself. Any alternative to the existing system will cause Oxford and Cambridge to embody a denial of greater equality of access. The existing fees should be retained but they should be dependent upon Oxford and Cambridge, showing by a report to the funding council or the Department for Education and Employment that they are doing all that they can to increase access for the poorest groups of students.

3.48 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I look forward warmly to the maiden speeches of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely and the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking. I also look forward warmly to the speech of my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. The chancellorship of Oxford is an institution about a generation older than Parliament. It would not be easy to rank the chancellors in order of merit; but, were it possible to draw up a short list of chancellors since Robert Grosseteste, I think my noble friend would be high on the list.

Like others, I must declare a variety of interests, all of them non-pecuniary save for my ordinary and regular salary. I am a graduate of the University of Oxford; I am an honorary fellow of Merton, my old college, an honour in which I take great pride; I am a professor at King's College, London, and would not wish to imply by anything I say that my colleagues' standards in teaching and research are in any way lower than those at Oxford. My noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, of the London School of Economics, is unable to take part in the debate because he is travelling to a meeting in Luxembourg, but he asked me to ensure that that message was heard from both sides of the Aldwych. I have also taught at Yale which, by any calculation, is Oxford's equal in standards of teaching and research. But despite attempts to create it, it does not have the Oxford college tutorial system and that makes a very considerable difference.

Sir Ron Dearing's tests for a higher level of provision for particular places are, first, an approved difference in the provision of education and, secondly, good use of resources. By "good use" Sir Ron, as I understand it, means value for money in comparative terms. Those are fair tests. It is my contention that Oxford and Cambridge pass them, but it is no part of the wording of this Motion to assert that nobody else passes them. The key difference as regards Oxford and Cambridge is the residential college system. Other places have colleges; other places, including my own college, have tutorials. What is unique is the combination of the two: the teaching inside the residential community which means that a better undergraduate education is provided irrespective of the quality of the teaching, because not all education happens inside tutorials or lectures. Education happens, as it did in Plato's Republic, whenever two or three people are gathered together with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee or whatever other liquid seems congruous. Education happens in conversation.

In Oxford and Cambridge we have universities uniquely run according to the principle of subsidiarity—decisions are taken at the lowest possible suitable level. That is a good principle. Its excellence shows in the decisions taken inside the university appointments. It creates cross-subject communities. People often complain about the division of departments. My son, when he was three, used to refer to the "history compartment". I fear he was not quite as wrong as I would have liked to think. But in Oxford and Cambridge this does not happen. People regularly sit down to talk every day with people concerned with other subjects and from other countries. One of the biggest differences between Oxford and Yale is that Oxford is a genuinely international community. I never got over the shock at Yale academic ceremonies of watching a national flag flying. It seemed to me remarkably like a contradiction in terms. And when I go and address a meeting in Sri Lanka and find that the man in the chair, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Bar Council, is the man whom used to address as "Mr. President, sir" in the union when I was an undergraduate, I feel that my point is confirmed.

Also, of course, there is a vital interest here in research. The tutorial system takes a great deal of time, and although my experience is like that of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, I was taught by those who had written the books. I was also taught by younger people, many of whom are now fellows of the British Academy. This was not second-rate teaching. The junior research fellowships in Oxford and Cambridge are something in which I believe there is a national interest. They are vital to a system of preferment in just the same way, if the right reverend Prelates will forgive me, as curacies are to the Church, because the best livings do not become vacant when the best candidates are ready for them.

Were the junior research fellowships to disappear, it would be necessary to double the number of British Academy post-doctoral fellows, at the very least, and that would be a considerable extra charge on public funds.

Some say that the argument I have been putting forward is élitist. I think they should think through that argument. Nobody, so far as I know, is recommending a universal system of higher education up to the age of 21. We agree that there must be selection. Nobody, so far as I know, is suggesting that that selection should be done on anything other than merit. So if you defend those two propositions are you in any position to condemn élitism?

A year ago we were talking vigorously about the need to encourage better competitors in the Olympics. The talk was all about encouraging gold medallists. There was no provision for extending training facilities to everyone at every standard. If gold medallists, why are Nobel prize winners any different?

3.55 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Ely

My Lords, I should like my first words in this House to be those of gratitude to the staff who have organised as friendly a welcome to a new boy as could possibly be imagined. When I hear the phrase "the right reverend Prelate", I still look round to see who is being addressed.

Participation in this debate is mandatory for someone who has spent the major part of his life in universities, and who for 19 years both learnt and taught in the University of Cambridge. Bishops of Ely are bound to confess a personal interest in view of the fact that ex-officio they hold visitorships in three of these colleges.

When I was a young don it was often said in the college that one had to be on one's guard against episcopal interference. Indeed, when a row broke out, I was assured by an older colleague that the mere threat of referring the matter to the visitor was sufficient to bring the fellows to their senses. I am happy to say that so far that unflattering maxim has remained true in my own case.

If I were to make a very brief and conventionally uncontroversial intervention in this important debate, I should like to draw upon my experience of having left the University of Cambridge for a chair in the University of Durham where I spent 11 very happy years. That journey taught me a great deal about the contrasts and comparisons between universities and it forced me to confront, in a rather sharp and personal way, the inequality of provision, especially at the collegiate level.

I left a St. John's College, which had a new building built, thanks to a wonderful benefaction, to several times UGC specifications, and I joined, in the University of Durham, a St. John's College where there was anxious debate about whether the college could afford new duvet covers.

My faith has a good deal to say on the subject of envy but during those 11 years, which became increasingly challenging as the university reforms of the early '80s took effect, I might have been forgiven for casting envious eyes at the funding arrangements further south.

In the faculty in Durham of which I was a member we actually did teach in small groups, and shortly after I left in the mid-80s that had to be abandoned because of the pressures of numbers. But in Cambridge, with the added protection of the college fee, that was and is still possible.

In singling out one or more institutions for special praise, one of course appears to be dispraising others. In my case I would find that quite simply impossible, all the more so because there are two universities in Cambridge which is also host to one of the sites of the Anglia Polytechnic University. I have learnt to respect, very deeply, the work of those who teach and encourage students not of top flight ability, or who take risks with people from unconventional backgrounds. There are simply too many places of excellence in the universities of this country for anyone to imagine that medieval foundations, centuries long benefaction, and a tradition of autonomy were the necessary conditions for first-rate achievement.

It is from that standpoint that I would like to pay my own tribute to the institutions of proven excellence which are the subject of our debate this afternoon. I would like to single out in particular, as other speakers have done, the contribution made by the colleges in particular, which my predecessors in the see took such pains to found and to endow. Were they places of backward-looking complacency, they would of course be quite indefensible. But in my experience they deploy their autonomy and their resources, in the main, responsibly and imaginatively.

I should like to refer especially to the encouragement the colleges are able to give to younger scholars on the brink of academic careers, in those very uncertain years between the completion of a Ph.D and taking their first academic appointment. The colleges compete vigorously with each other to attract and nurture the best talent they can find, and they offer them vital opportunities for small group teaching as well as support in research, scholarship and publication.

No former fellow of a Cambridge college or a visitor is likely to be unaware or completely innocent of at least two other of the deadly sins, those of pride and gluttony. But there are ways in which a traditional institution can be reminded, chivvied and goaded into virtuous behaviour; and continuous innovation has, as a matter of fact, been a characteristic of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. I am very proud that one of my predecessors saw fit to confer the title of "Universitas" on the society of scholars who fled from Oxford, for very good reasons, in the 13th century; and that another founded the first college in Cambridge later in that century, pro utilitate rei publice.

The test of the public good must surely be the key to this important debate. My hope would be that an appropriately non-partisan way can be found in the current review so that excellence can be encouraged to the benefit of the whole higher education system.

4.2 p.m.

Lord Porter of Luddenham

My Lords, the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely on his memorable maiden speech. As a Cambridge graduate and don himself, his eloquence and his wise words speak volumes for the excellence of his university and college. We look forward to hearing them often in this House.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, for initiating this debate, which offers the opportunity to me and, I am sure, many others here, to express our gratitude to the schools and universities, and the teachers in them, who played such an important part in our lives.

In my case this was not only Oxbridge. I graduated from the University of Leeds and have attended in various capacities other universities in this country and in the United States. I am deeply indebted to all of them. However, the benefit that I gained from my nine years in Cambridge, immediately after the war, as a student and later as a young don, stands out as the greatest good fortune in my life.

As has been emphasised many times, two of the special qualities of education at Oxbridge are the colleges and their associated tutorial and supervision systems. These do add to the cost of students' fees but the extra cost is very small compared with the value added. It would be a niggling false economy to eliminate a system that has proved itself such a success, provided always that we do our best to ensure that extra public funding for special education goes to the people most likely to contribute to the future of their university and the world, whether they are at Oxbridge or not.

The smaller unit of the college makes it possible for a member to participate in a very wide range of academic, social and sporting activities. In this respect the colleges provide a healthy antidote to the élitism of the big blues of the university teams while offering the opportunity for those with special talents in any field, probably unrecognised talents, to discover their potential.

In the academic sphere the college tutorial system was where I first obtained a real understanding of science, in a manner which is not always recognised as one of the virtues of the system. Education is a two-way process in which the teacher often learns as much as the taught.

The system would be even more expensive, or probably impossible, without employing research students and junior dons to carry out the supervision. Here I differ slightly perhaps from the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. In my case I gave six tutorials a week, for six years, with one or two students at a time. It was the hardest school of learning I ever entered, and undoubtedly the best.

Does the system work, and is it worth the expense? When our descendants in the next millennium are asked what permanent contributions did our 20th century generation make to the history of mankind, it will be difficult to find anything that surpasses the advances such as those in medicine referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, or in the physical and biological sciences, such as those that have flourished, and flourish still, in Cambridge. Nothing compares with the development of particle and nuclear physics at the Cavendish laboratory in the first half of this century, beginning exactly 100 years ago with J.J. Thomson's discovery of the electron. In the second half of this century, nothing compares with the development of molecular biology, which owed so much to Lawrence Bragg and his refugee collaborator Max Perutz, again at the Cavendish laboratory, and their colleagues Crick and Watson of the genetic code, Fred Sanger, who won two Nobel prizes, and the many who followed.

What is the explanation of this phenomenal success at Cambridge? It is that excellence breeds excellence. No one questions the need for centres of excellence in sport, music and the arts and few would wish to level out our sports teams by setting aside our fastest sprinters until the slow ones catch up. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to this factor in another way. The encouragement of excellence in the sciences, and their applications, is at the heart of national achievement not only of our culture but of our health and wealth. If a precious asset such as Cambridge science is lost, it may never be recovered.

4.8 p.m.

Lord Baker of Dorking

My Lords, it is a great honour for me to be making my first speech in your Lordships' House, and particularly on a Motion moved by my noble friend Lord Beloff. As he said, we were both taught by the same history teacher. That teacher was a good deal more successful in instilling scholarly academic excellence in my noble friend than in me. I am particularly glad to be speaking on the question of Oxford and Cambridge fees.

Perhaps I may begin by saying that in 1988 it fell to me to bring before both Houses of Parliament what was then a very controversial education Bill. Fortunately, it is not controversial now. The different parties in our country have accepted virtually all the parts of it. That I welcome because I think that, on the whole, if one could drain party politics out of education, there would be a great benefit.

That government had a large majority in the Commons, as this Government have a large majority in the Commons, and so one had no trouble getting the Bill through the House of Commons. The trouble was this House. I spent a great deal of time down this end of the corridor, particularly on the matters of higher education. I think it is fair to say that the only major changes in that Bill came about as a result of the debates and the views expressed in this House. So I hope that the noble Baroness will be as sympathetic and responsive as I was all those years ago because the collective wisdom in this House in higher education, some of which has already been displayed this afternoon, is remarkable and much better than in the House of Commons.

In a way I am surprised that this issue has become so prominent. The Dearing Report had 93 recommendations. This was not a particularly important recommendation from the Dearing Report. The Funding Council is asked by that report to address 19 different matters and suddenly this matter is catapulted to the head of the queue and one begins to wonder why. I suspect that it is probably because of the Treasury. It has an eagle eye for picking pockets and this is quite a good pocket to pick (£35 million) particularly when the head of the Treasury, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has made some quite strong and adverse comments about Oxford and Cambridge. I am rather surprised that such a politician would do that. An equivalent politician in America would never criticise Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Chicago or Stanford. The land of the brave and the free has no trouble with elitism. The sum of £35 million sounds a lot of money, but in relation to the full expenditure on higher education in our country each year, which is £10 billion, it represents 0.35 per cent. If one were to spread £35 million of college fees around the 181 institutions of higher education in our country, each would get £193,000.

It would tax the imagination of even the most dedicated egalitarian to believe that by giving a new university £193,000 one would transfer it by that act alone into a world-class institution. It would take much more; many years and many decades. So I hope that that will not happen. The latest proposal that has been leaked is that the money will not be spread so widely over the 181 institutions, but that a fund will be set up to which other institutions can bid for teaching excellence. I am not against that; it would be an admirable idea, but not at the expense of Oxford and Cambridge. I believe that teaching excellence should be recognised. There are other universities in our country which are world-class apart from Oxford and Cambridge. There are different departments in some other universities which are world-class. They should bid for it. I say to the noble Baroness that if she is going to set up such a scheme she should be very patient because a scheme to assess research excellence, which is much more objective, has taken nearly 10 years to settle down. If she were to devise a scheme which was to be very subjective as to which university taught better than another, she would have to make it very robust to sustain the bickering and in-fighting at which all universities excel. I have no doubt that the college fees should remain with Oxford and Cambridge.

Some mention has been made of the difficulties of the smaller colleges. I believe that some would become insolvent and some would go bankrupt. Again, I would not wish that on the noble Baroness. had to deal with a university which almost went bankrupt. I can tell her that it is a very messy affair and that it is much more expensive at the end than at the beginning. So I encourage her not to pursue a policy which would lead to that.

I believe that on the whole it would be better to leave well alone. Oxford and Cambridge are both widening access the entire time. I was the first member of my family to go to university and I went to Oxford. Since then access has been much wider and both universities are extending access each year. Therefore, I hope that the Government will rethink this policy.

At the moment they are setting great store on new Britain. It is a new approach. They are positioning Britain as a young, dynamic country. I find it a little strange that in this great desire to reposition Britain we are going to make ourselves the home of tobacco-sponsored Formula One racing while undermining Oxford and Cambridge.

Finally, I say this. If the Government decide to persist in this policy and they take away college fees from the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, they will have to provide some means for the colleges to raise that money themselves. Natural justice surely will lead us to accept that if one denies or takes away from an institution a certain amount of money to which it has been entitled, one should not deny it the chance by legislation to raise the money in other ways. It is like making someone walk the plank and then introducing legislation that they should not be thrown a lifeline. I am not particularly advocating top-up fees. In fact, as the noble Lord, Lord Plant, said, that would make Oxford even more elitist, as it were. But that may well be the policy that the colleges will have to follow. I say to the noble Baroness that the colleges are old corporate institutions and have rights which go back a long way. To take away their right to charge fees, particularly when the Government are incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into our own domestic legislation, will lead the Government into something of a mess. I hope very much that the Government will take cognisance of what has been said in this debate this afternoon and decide that, as we are fortunate enough in having great institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, built up by centuries of devotion and scholarship, we should not harm them. You do not improve the worst by hitting at the best.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, on behalf of the whole House may I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Baker, on a brilliant maiden speech. I would of course have expected no less from someone who has occupied so many of the senior offices of state and who has even given his name to a day. Training days for staff in all our state schools are invariably known now as "Baker Days". So we look forward to hearing a great deal more from the Lord with a day to his name.

I now propose to do something that I have never done in your Lordships' House before. I propose to make a short speech slowly. Each Oxford and Cambridge college is autonomous. That is recognised by HEFCE's refusal to give full weight in the research assessment exercise to college-based researchers who were not also university employees. That was treating them like convicts in Dartmoor required to sew mailbags for nothing. But even if colleges themselves cease to receive money from the state, either through fees or otherwise, they will continue to benefit from the funds which the state provides to their two universities. Even apart from the payments for the services which a college provides for the university, most of the earned income of a typical college fellow is provided by the university. Colleges will therefore remain accountable to the country for their policies and in particular for their admissions policies.

Both Oxford and Cambridge admit more undergraduates from the independent sector than from the state sector, yet even among the school leavers with three "A"s at A-level, there are many more from the state sector than from the independent sector. Oxbridge colleges argue that they can only admit those who apply to them and many of the best students from state schools do not apply. That is true. The usual reason for that is that they believe that Oxbridge would not welcome them. Colleges must therefore make a greater effort to attract such students even if it means admitting fewer of those students who are photographed each summer staggering out of their final examinations clutching their Meet et Chandon or their Veuve Cliquot.

The cost of college fees at Oxford and Cambridge is presumably now a charge on the overall higher education budget and thus the fees are in direct competition with the other needs of higher education. It is therefore logical to place on the Higher Education Funding Council the responsibility for taking account of the collegiate structures of these two universities, whether through the college fees or otherwise. That would involve adding to the existing block grant to that council the £35 million which college fees currently cost.

The University Grants Committee was set up after the First World War to ensure that while the government provided financial support to the university system, Ministers could not show favouritism between one university and another. In the legislation which transformed the UGC first into the UFC and then into the three higher education funding councils, one consistent theme has been that Ministers must not influence the distribution of block grant to individual universities. Indeed, their general power to give directions to the funding council specifically excludes any power to give directions about the level of funding of any individual university. That is a matter for the funding councils—and for the funding councils alone. Ministers can properly be concerned with the mode by which the two collegiate universities are funded, although I believe that even that would be better left to the funding council.

My noble friend the Minister responsible for higher education has asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to report to her on the future funding of Oxford and Cambridge. It is hard to believe that that is simply idle curiosity. There is widespread concern that she may be about to breach the spirit of the legislation and perhaps even the letter of it. This House is entitled to expect from her an assurance that she will not seek to influence in any way the decisions of the funding council about the grants to individual universities, whether Oxford, Cambridge or any other.

4.21 p.m.

Lord Lewis of Newnham

My Lords, I must first congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely and the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, on their maiden speeches. From today's performance, we can clearly look forward with considerable expectations to their contributions in future.

Before discussing the topic under consideration, I fear that I must declare an interest. I have been the head of a Cambridge college for the past 23 years and a professor of chemistry at Cambridge for 25 years. My college, which is the most recent foundation in Cambridge, would certainly fall into the so-called "poor" class of college and we are heavily dependent on college fees to maintain teaching and research programmes. Like the noble Lord, Lord Porter of Luddenham, I have had experience of teaching at other universities. I have taught at five other universities in this country. I am not a graduate of either Oxford or Cambridge. As a chemist, I have had the opportunity to visit at least 35 chemistry departments as an external adviser, so I think that I can speak with a certain degree of expertise at least with regard to chemistry in this country.

What worries me in part about today's debate is that terrible misconceptions occur with regard to what really happens at Oxford and Cambridge. Indeed, those misconceptions almost verge on myths. Perhaps I may quote Claude Bernard: It is what we think we know that keeps us from knowing". I am afraid that, in many instances, that is one of the problems facing us today..

I should like to become domestic and to focus my remarks on two areas: the relationship between the colleges and the position of postgraduate courses in the university at both the teaching and the research degree level—it is extremely easy to say that the colleges have little influence in that area—and on the position of overseas students, which has not yet been touched on in your Lordships' debate.

I turn first to the situation with regard to chemistry. The chemistry department in Cambridge is arguably one of the top three or four chemistry departments in the world. I am sure that others may disagree. When we make comparisons, it is with places such as Harvard, Berkeley and other such institutions. One of the strengths within the department is its close relationship with other science departments in the university and the degree of interdisciplinary work that is being carried out. The college system is one of the most effective mechanisms for facilitating interaction between the various workers. I have a group that works in part in chemistry and in part at the Cavendish physics laboratory on a topic. The generation of such interaction was very much due to collegiate sources.

Perhaps I should emphasise that in my other universities it was often difficult to interact with other departments. Indeed, professorial standing was required before I was allowed into other departments. That makes the possibility of discussion extremely difficult for young junior members of staff. Many university departments—although not all. by any means—are independent and often verge on being isolated empires. In Oxbridge, the collegiate system provides an effective mechanism to overcome that isolationism.

It is important to appreciate that today major advances in the sciences are occurring at the interface between different disciplines. In Cambridge that is not a new phenomenon, as the noble Lord, Lord Porter, explained. Perhaps I may repeat one of his examples and refer to the solving of the DNA problem by Watson and Crick—a problem of biology which was solved in the department of physics. That is a typical example of how the collegiate system works, with its facility for undergraduate teaching and awards of fellowships. That is not an insignificant point. There are about 300 research fellowships in the university, with another 150 associated stipends coming from the colleges.

I turn now to the important matter of overseas students. I must again declare an interest in as much as I am the executive chairman of the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust and the Cambridge Overseas Trust. Those committees are responsible for helping with the funding of students who come to Cambridge from overseas. Their guiding light is Dr. Anil Seal, who has made a major contribution to the university by operating the programme.

The university receives about 9,500 applications per year for research or higher degrees through its Board of Graduate Studies, of which between 5,500 and 6,000—that is, two-thirds—come from overseas students. In total, about 2,500 are admitted each year. I do not want to confuse the matter with figures, but seek to give an indication of the highly selective operation that applies. The standard is normally very high and we have some extremely good students. Last year, excluding the European scene and the Ukraine and Russia, participants came from about 85 different countries. That is not an insignificant representation. About 750 of those applicants were able to obtain some partial funding with the aid of Dr. Seal. That money is often obtained via the college system—not all of it, but certainly a significant amount. The ORS award scheme is a mechanism whereby the Government have agreed to pay the difference between the fee for overseas students and that for UK students. We have about 175 such awards. In 1993 there were about 320, but that number has been reduced to reflect government funding policy and is based on a quota system. Therefore, we now doubly need to earn more money to try to find the extra money for such students.

The success of the university in attracting overseas students is of considerable importance. The spheres of influence of overseas students will spread for many years to come. I believe that that is of major importance for this country. The two main areas of attraction for them are Oxbridge, if I may use the generic term, and London.

Finally—I hope that your Lordships will excuse me for taking a little longer than is allowed—perhaps I may point out that the position with regard to college fees is not a new one. We have been discussing this for the past 20 years in various—

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord has now passed the eight-minute mark.

Lord Lewis of Newnham

My Lords, perhaps I may complete this point. I hope that the present Government will consider carefully Recommendation No. 74 of the Dearing Report. If Oxbridge is diminished, I believe that it will drop out of the international league of universities. Is that really what the Government want?

4.30 p.m.

Lord Dahrendorf

My Lords, we owe a great debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, for initiating the debate today. For the first time in 50 years I do not have to declare an interest in taking part in a debate on universities. I am not a student, professor, chancellor, vice-chancellor or head of house, but I have a certain amount of experience and one or two relevant memories. One vivid memory is that of the late Lord Robbins nearly 24 years ago luring me from the fleshpots of Brussels to the more frugal if also more wholesome fare of the London School of Economics. His legendary charm was certainly one element in my decision. Another was my abiding love for LSE. But there was something else. Almost without exception continental European universities had seriously declined as a result of policies introduced in the 1960s, whereas British universities had not only kept up their traditional strength but had emerged as the best in Europe. Indeed, they were the only ones to hold their own in comparison with the great American schools of Harvard and MIT, Columbia, Yale and Princeton, Chicago and California. The reason can be put in one simple statement: expansion without differentiation. That was the problem of continental universities, and it continues to be their problem. British universities remained strong because there was differentiation and expansion—at least the first wave was absorbed by a differentiated system.

Alas, since then matters have changed. The second wave of expansion 20 years later was almost a copy of the continental mistake. There was expansion of the universities without adding resources or adjusting the system. Instead of differentiation, a levelling process began. It started with the classless society, introduced ironically by a Conservative government, and that classless society was applied to higher education. Instead of 45 universities 10 years ago, today 90 universities are governed by the same legislation and funding principles. There remain, to be sure, some of the justly famous old Scottish universities, the major colleges of the University of London and Oxford and Cambridge.

When, having spent 10 years as director of the LSE, I went to Oxford as warden of St. Antony's College in 1987 for another decade of academic responsibility, I had no doubt that my college was one of the world's great graduate schools of international studies which thrived on being part of one of the top 10 universities anywhere. I still have no doubt that that is the case. Such excellence is expensive. When all is said and done about the value of tutorials and the attractions of college life, the simple truth remains that Oxford and Cambridge assemble a large number of outstanding academics in an environment of discourse and exploration with a relatively small number of high quality students. Almost nowhere else in the world are the chances for students and teachers to meet and inspire each other as great as in the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge. This has to do with colleges and the value placed on teaching, but not least with numbers; that is (to use the jargon), an extremely favourable staff/student ratio.

I do not find it difficult to make the case for public support of excellence. A civilised country should be proud to have such institutions and do everything to keep them going. It was always a puzzle to me that throughout my past 20 years, first, as director of the LSE and then as warden of St. Antony's, inevitably I had to defend the places for which I was responsible to Prime Ministers and their Ministers for higher education. If an appeal to the values of a civilised country is not enough another point suggested by a lifetime of experience is that a system of higher education is as good as the best in it. Access is important. I have always defended education as a civil right. That right loses all meaning if the places to which it provides access decline to the same drab mediocrity. Rights which fail to offer opportunities for choice become a sham if not a fraud.

Students from many continental countries come here to escape mediocrity at home. I hope that they will continue to do so, but they will continue to do so only if Oxford and Cambridge, London and the great universities of the country keep their quality. I believe that state measures to prevent colleges from raising their own revenue would be an outrage and an attack on liberty, quite apart from the implicit denial of quality. Thus, the very least that we can expect, if publicly-funded college fees have to go, is active encouragement for our great universities to charge fees which enable them to continue their quality teaching and leave enough to provide a place for those who cannot afford it. I am beginning to doubt whether in my lifetime I shall also see a government which actually express proud support for institutions like Oxford, Cambridge and other universities—institutions which when the Spice Girls have become grey panthers and the millennium dome has long been consigned to the scrapheap will still add lustre to Britain's name and spread the achievements of the country far and wide.

4.37 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, that is a hard act to follow. I speak as an Oxford graduate from a state school who became principal of my college. We are debating whether the Government intend to withhold a total of £35 million of college fees annually from our two great collegiate universities. To do so will do significant damage to institutions that are universally recognised for their academic excellence and innovative research. According to the Dearing Committee, it should be assumed that legislation will prevent the charging of a top-up fee, so the choice is between huge redundancies—since the colleges pay a large percentage of the stipend of most tenured academics and the university the balance—and the immediate raising of massive further endowment.

Perhaps I may tell the House what that decision would mean for my own college, Somerville, together with at least a third of the other undergraduate colleges, the graduate colleges and the private halls. The women's and former women's colleges in particular do not have land or inherited wealth. They are young. We are only 118 years old. They have very small endowments which are dedicated entirely to specific matters: teaching, student need, research or the library. Ours is one of the best undergraduate libraries in Oxford. Their pots of gold are tiny and hard won. The college fees represent one-third of Somerville's annual income and are spent entirely on academic and academic-related stipends. The withdrawal of the fees can only lead to redundancies with their associated capital payments in academic staff because endowment money is tied. That would hit teaching, research and the supervision of graduates. Our junior research fellowships are funded by dedicated endowments. It will be said that the colleges should raise more endowment to replace the public contribution. At a rough guess Somerville alone would need to raise endowments of some £4 million to £5 million to generate that money. It has worked hard to raise substantial sums to increase its endowment and has to continue to do so to stay solvent. It is difficult and takes a long time to raise money. Somerville would not be alone. The other poor colleges would be fund-rasing at exactly the same time.

If some colleges have to take the path of redundancies they would be forced to reduce their admissions to maintain the quality of teaching, and there would of course be a significant brain-drain of excellent academics. If any had to close, it is worth noting that more than 90 per cent. of undergraduates in Oxford live in college accommodation built from charitable endowment funds. College and university are so inter-dependent in terms of libraries, laboratories and teaching, that the loss of colleges would be a severe blow to the whole institution.

But what Government in their senses are going to unravel an institution such as Oxford which generated £105 million in income from research grants and contracts last year; which has long attracted major industrial support; which produces Nobel prize winners and young firms like Oxford Instruments, Oxford Molecular and Isis Innovation; which is, like Cambridge, at the forefront of the information technology revolution and attracts the best graduates from the US and Europe as well as employing more research staff than any other British university?

There are those who regard Oxford as exclusive and class-ridden. That is not true, and I can testify to the immense efforts made to attract candidates from state schools and the north, through open days, teachers' dinners, summer schools, the access scheme and, above all, the efforts of the undergraduates themselves, for they are making these efforts and always have done. With college encouragement and support, they regularly go out to schools which are not sending candidates to Oxford. Somerville has always prided itself on the high proportion of undergraduates who come from state schools, on average very nearly half; on its intake of mature students, it is one of the few colleges with a crèeche; and on its disabled and ethnic minorities. Time does not allow me to give figures, but they are there.

In my time as principal, one of the problems was, sadly, the dogmatic attitude of some teachers who thought that Oxford was "not for their children". That is not true either, but the prejudice is there. One of our undergraduates, who went on to get a First and a tenured academic post, was pilloried in her school by her teachers as a class traitor for trying for Oxford.

We are not fighting for those already privileged but to preserve the possibility of access to excellence of a special kind for the less privileged. Damaging the collegiate structure is putting at risk a national asset which belongs to all and which is an essential element in the diversity which the Government rightly support.

Many speakers have listed the formidable research and teaching successes. I do not propose to add to that except to remind you that 92 per cent. of the academic staff in Oxford scored five star or five in the research assessment exercise. I think also of the brilliant, enterprising young undergraduates among whom my life was spent for nine years—not statistics but real people, our future. They came from every class and quarter, and many are working now, not to enrich themselves but to serve in NGOs, in medicine and in many other caring professions. Somerville—until lately a single-sex women's college but now flourishing in its new status—has produced many distinguished women. I want it to be able to continue to produce graduates of quality.

I cannot believe that any Government which believe in education and in success at what is known as the cutting edge, can seriously consider damaging or destroying one of the nation's greatest assets and the envy of the world. The strikers in the 1968 students' revolution in France came to Oxford to seek support from their peers. They went away saying to the Oxford students: "You already have everything we want, but most of all you can talk to your teachers whenever you wish".

Oxford has always moved with the times. Its past informs and strengthens its future.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, there is nothing so edifying than to listen to the rich claiming to be poor. I have had a great time. I have been unwashed by British education; I have not studied at Oxford or Cambridge or anywhere else. I have only taught at the London School of Economics. I have not heard more fallacies in my life than I have heard this afternoon.

We are talking about £35 million—the Oxford and Cambridge income is much larger—and we are told that if you take this away the entire edifice from medieval days onwards will collapse; it is so delicate. Take a penny away and they will be poor.

The reason we are discussing this matter is the Dearing Report. The Dearing Committee was appointed because, as the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, said, in the past 15 years the financing of higher education in this country has been savaged—and let us not forget which government were responsible. The people who claim elite privileges have badly treated British higher education. In my first 15 years of teaching I did not have to worry about money, even at the LSE. In the past 17 years not a day has gone by when we are not struggling every day to finance students, to think about research and worry about redundancies.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, in a typically uncontroversial speech—probably one of the most uncontroversial speeches he will ever make in this House—used the standard argument that the wealthy use against redistribution: "We do not really have that much money. If you divide our wealth among everybody they will only get a penny each. So please do not take this seriously".

It is only £193,000 for the 93 universities. Every year, however, it is "Give me £193,000. I will be grateful. I will finance something like 20 graduate students, perhaps 30 undergraduate students. I will be able to finance maybe 10 junior lectureships at sweated wages. That is about all we can afford to pay nowadays. Hurry, that is an awful lot of money for us". It may be small beer for Oxford and Cambridge.

A lot has been made about the excellence of the college system. I have taught in an excellent place. We do not have tutorials, and we do not do that badly. Oxford came first in the RA exercise because it conveniently omitted ten of its dead-wood persons; it only submitted 90 per cent. We submitted 98.5 per cent. at the LSE and we came second. If corrected for numbers submitted. we did better than Oxford. All that money is not producing all that is great and outstanding. It is outstanding, but we do better without that much money.

Colleges obviously duplicate costs—separate admissions, separate administrations. Small may be beautiful, but it is extremely cost ineffective. The question is, are Oxford and Cambridge worth that extra little bit? And we are talking about a little bit. We are not taking everything away—no such luck—we are talking about £35 million. If that money is taken away, would the damage be so great that Oxford and Cambridge would cease to be universities of excellence? Compare them with the London colleges which do not get that £35 million. How do we manage? We do manage, you know. Imperial College, unfortunately, has not been represented this afternoon, but it is very good in natural sciences. As far as economics is concerned, we at the LSE have more Nobel prizes than do Oxford and Cambridge; we can be excellent.

The self-indulgence of the rich Oxford and Cambridge colleges is to pretend that they should go on having privileges because they have always had them. It is not value added if you take the best students from around the world and make them slightly better. Value added is in the polytechnics, where you take people who have very little and you add a lot of value.

Nor does the access argument work. Let me put it this way. Everybody thinks that the working classes do not go to British universities because the fees are so high. That is a fallacy. Even when higher education access was free, there were no working class students in British universities. Why not? It has nothing to do with the level of fees. It has to do with the state of our secondary school education and the high leaving rate of 15 and 16 year-olds from the working classes.

The level of fees has nothing to do with access. That is a fallacious argument. If Oxford and Cambridge were to charge double fees access would not be affected as much as people predict. That is a fallacy. That will not do. I believe that the £35 million should be put up for national competition for teaching excellence—universities which have a good teaching record. We are now being valued and ranked all the time. Let the 10 best universities share the £35 million. Then let us see how Oxford and Cambridge survive. Some of the colleges may shut. Oh dear! After having argued the need for a lean and fit British industry, when we allowed all sorts of things to go to the wall, the little Oxford colleges are to be protected. How sweet! Many universities further down in the education system will shut. No one will save then, because Oxford and Cambridge must be saved. Blessed are the rich, because they shall inherit the earth.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that there is one difference between Oxford and Cambridge and the civic universities? It is that the civic universities have a post of senior lectureship which does not exist at Oxford or Cambridge. If there were to be a redistribution, I hope that the noble Lord would agree that the post of senior lectureship should be abolished.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I might like to agree with the noble Lord. If we have to go into the differences, there are many more differences that I should like to abolish, including the high table and free dinners, but I cannot go into that.

4.52 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, like other noble Lords I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his balanced and humorous maiden speech. He came to the Bench of Bishops after a distinguished academic career, and it is good that we shall now have the benefit of his judicious mind in this House. I should like also to express my appreciation for the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking. With his long experience of public life, he clearly has a great deal to offer to the House.

Like other noble Lords, I have close connections with both Oxford and Cambridge, but my relationship to the University of London is no less close or fond. Furthermore, within the Diocese of Oxford there are six universities, not just one, all of which matter. I am concerned with higher education as a whole, and do not believe that maintaining the particular excellence of Oxford and Cambridge should detract from, or be seen to detract from, the distinctive ethos and excellence of those other universities.

My first concern, if the extra money that Oxford and Cambridge at present receive is taken away or drastically reduced, is that inevitably they will become the preserve of the wealthy. I listened with great attention to the noble Lord, Lord Desai. The arguments he put forward have to be attended to carefully. He seemed to imply that if that money were taken away Oxford and Cambridge would collapse or a good number of colleges would collapse. That is not true. What will happen is that sooner or later they will be allowed to charge more, and they will merely become a club for the wealthy. That would mean excluding those other students who are there now on academic ability alone, because their parents would not be able to afford to pay that extra.

It would be sad if, as a result of government legislation, Oxford and Cambridge became a club for the relatively well off, with all that that would imply for future jobs and careers, an accentuation of the worst kind of élitism.

Then there is the college system. Students in London often have to make a long journey from halls of residence and digs. Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge are situated at the heart of the university: indeed, they are the heart of the university. Those colleges seek to be places of genuine community, not just providers of accommodation. Cardinal Newman's vision in The Idea of a University is as important today as when it was first formulated. That vision is of people of different academic disciplines interacting with one another, learning to live with one another, that their minds and capacity to make sound judgment might be trained and prepared for a whole range of future contexts.

Colleges provide an environment in which students studying different subjects can discuss easily with one another and their teachers in a community of learning. As the Dearing Report put it: We do not believe that students will in the future see themselves simply as customers of higher education but as members of a learning community". That is an ideal for all universities, but it already exists at Oxford and Cambridge, and we should do nothing to destroy something so fundamental to the learning process and the future good of the country. Again, to quote Dearing, that personal contact between teachers and students, as well as between students themselves: gives a vitality, originality and excitement that cannot he provided by machine based learning, however excellent". The second aspect of the collegiate system that I should like to emphasise—it is not one that has been touched on previously—is the opportunities that it provides to contribute to the wider community. Staff do that, and so do the students. In Oxford, undergraduates can go to places such as Blackbird Leas to help in literacy programmes. They can become involved with housing and homeless issues. Of course students everywhere can do that, and many do, but in a college, being of the nature of a community, it is possible to build up an ethos in which wider concerns become part of the very air that people breathe. It is not just a question of good dinners.

For 800 years the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge were primarily training grounds for the Anglican clergy and for Anglican laymen to serve the state. That is no longer so of course, but wider concerns, very often encouraged by the college chaplain, remain a part of that milieu.

I end with the point with which I began—there are different kinds of excellence. We do not serve those other kinds by weakening the distinctive quality which Oxford and Cambridge have to offer: that distinctive quality integrally related to the college system. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, suggested that the money saved by that £35 million could purchase a certain number of junior lecturers or research students. I should like to bet that were that £35 million taken away it would not be redistributed in such a way. All of us, whichever universities we represent, should be fighting together to improve the quality of university education as a whole in this country. We should stand together on that. We do not serve the cause of all other universities by thinking that Oxford and Cambridge can lose with impunity £35 million. It would be a highly retrograde step if, in the future, those colleges could be afforded only by the wealthy.

I hope that a way can be found of safeguarding those universities, and what they offer, on the basis of academic ability alone.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, before the right reverend Prelate finishes, does he accept that were there a Bishop of Cambridge, which, unfortunately, there is not yet, he would agree with every word of what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford has said?

5 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I echo the congratulations which many of your Lordships have given to the two maiden speakers, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely and my noble friend Lord Baker. I also express my gratitude and that of the whole House to my noble friend Lord Beloff for having raised the subject at this time, before the Government's intentions reach concrete form. As yet, there have been only rude and rough warning noises off stage which are a cause of concern. Of course, people make strange speeches on windy days at the seaside in October, but the attitude of the Chancellor of the Exchequer at Brighton appeared to give cause for concern.

Your Lordships may be aware—I was not until recently—of a gem of a remark made by no less a person than the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council. He said that colleges must learn, to migrate to a lower resource level". It is sad to think that anyone who is remotely connected with education would lower himself to using such appalling language. I believe that what he was saying can be translated into two sentences: first, "You can't have the money you need.", and, secondly, "Mediocrity is acceptable; excellence is beyond us".

It has rightly been said that colleges are not mere halls of residence; they are places and institutions of teaching in which people grow up and receive all kinds of unknown and almost intangible benefits. It seems to me that they seek to provide the best for those whom a rigorous system of selection has indicated as being the best. That is said to be élitism. It seems to me that a nation which does not have an élite—and I> do not refer to an elite of birth—and is unable to develop one will be very much the poorer for it. Perhaps without causing the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, any great offence I may say that from listening to her speak, observing the way in which she bears herself and the authority which she has developed she is obviously a member of the élite, although one which has surprisingly strayed.

There are those who believe not only in fairness in the sense of equality for all, but who wish to go further and to have absolute equality in that if a good thing is not available to everyone nobody shall have it. Procrustes would seem to be an excellent leader for such people. Your Lordships will recall that amiable gentleman, a brigand of ancient Greece, who possessed a bed. He made a practice of kidnapping people. Those who were too long for the bed were cut down to size and those who were too short were stretched until they achieved the necessary dimensions.

I wish to be reasonably careful in what I say. I have heard from sources both in Oxford and Cambridge that the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, is not regarded as an impartial judge in these matters; that on too many occasions she has declared her own hostility to Oxford and Cambridge and to the colleges therein. I hope that in winding up she will say that she has none of those feelings and I will gladly accept that denial.

Oxford and Cambridge colleges are not halls of residence, nor are they centres of wealth and privilege, despite what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, and others. Some of them are very poor and I propose to conclude my remarks by quoting from a letter which I received from the Master of Fitzwilliam College, one of the poorer colleges of Cambridge. He pointed out that 70 per cent. of its students come from the state sector and that college fees amount to 40 per cent. of its income. He gave the interesting fact that 800 people were interviewed for 135 places for October this year. No government money goes to upkeep, maintenance or improvement of the buildings. That does not indicate any great excessive privilege.

I wish to quote two sentences from the master's letter. First, he stated: We consider our students excellent, also they are an elite, hut an academic elite, not a social elite as often implied by that much abused word.". The second sentence states: It is my belief that the Oxford and Cambridge colleges provide a unique and superlative tutorial system which, together with learning opportunities supplied in the two Universities, provide the best education available in the UK and, arguably, in the world". I earnestly hope that the Government will not allow themselves to be swayed by the understandable prejudices and meannesses of those who would seek to take the guts out of venerable but useful and valuable institutions, which are the envy of the world. If they do so, they will be much blamed for a very long time to come.

5.6 p.m.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, I usually enjoy very much the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, but I regret his personal attack on my noble friend the Minister, who has a reputation for looking at issues objectively. The issue that we are debating today is important and I hope that all of us can subscribe to the sentiment of safeguarding the future of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. But the debate must also be about diversity, quality and, I suggest, equity.

Diversity has been one of the strengths of our higher education system and one which I hope will continue. But there are a number of factors in that diversity. The collegiate system, with its individual tutorials, is one; no doubt the oldest and most valued, especially by those who have benefited from it. Others have developed in more recent times, but are no less valuable for that. As the higher education sector has expanded more centres of excellence have emerged, as was said by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely in his most thoughtful and welcome maiden speech.

Some universities have specialised and excelled in particular subjects in both teaching and research, without the resources of Oxford and Cambridge. There has been emphasis on new technologies by the former CATs; innovation in new subjects of real relevance to today's world; and widening links abroad—Oxford and Cambridge are by no means the only universities which have important links abroad—either by students coming here or by taking our higher education system to other countries. There have been strengthened links with industry in general and with particular companies.

Most universities have their own strengths and specialities which are perceived by students in making their choice of institution, sometimes to the surprise of their parents. In all that, the strengths of Oxford and Cambridge are apparent in both research and in the best of the teaching in those institutions. They stand high by international standards of excellence and bring a prestige which reflects on the system as a whole.

Therefore, the question is: how can we safeguard that situation without prejudicing the fairness, universality and equity of the funding system? In putting their case, advocates of Oxford and Cambridge say that £35 million is minuscule when compared with the total HE budget. Equally, it is minuscule when compared with the collective wealth of those two universities. Or, to put the matter in another way, it is equal, for example, to the total income from funding council grants for 1995-96 to the University of Durham, which also has a collegiate system.

I know that not all colleges are wealthy, especially the women's colleges, as the noble Baroness, Lady Park, reminded us. But we are discussing universities as an entity, and surely there is a responsibility on the central body to assist those which are not so wealthy. I was glad to learn from the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, in his opening remarks, that steps are being taken to do that. But in the light of that and in the light of the decline in the unit of resource by something like 40 per cent. and the pending introduction of the £1,000 student tuition fee, the claims of Oxford and Cambridge must be balanced.

Dearing was aware of the complexity of the situation and recommended that the position of the two universities be reviewed by HEFCE in the light of the two principles set out in recommendation No. 74. The Government have done that, and in a press release dated 5th November, the funding council also signalled that, it would wish to consider, as one of its new initiatives, introducing a premium for teaching quality. This would be applied across the higher education sector in England, benefiting the two universities and other institutions offering excellent provision.". That might go some way—I do not suggest it would go the whole way—to help to safeguard the position of Oxford and Cambridge and, at the same time, would address an important measure of quality in our system. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, whose maiden speech was robust and perhaps a little controversial, indicated that there could be problems in establishing an effective system of measuring quality. That may be so, but it is essential that we introduce such a system as soon as possible and all the partners in the higher education system are wedded to that concept.

Therefore, I hope that when the funding council brings its advice in the very near future, it will be possible to resolve the position of Oxford and Cambridge without breaking the principle of equity but without destroying the quality of those two universities.

5.14 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Beloff for providing us with this opportunity to debate the future of the universities at Oxford and Cambridge. We have been privileged to hear two outstanding maiden speeches today.

Like other noble Lords, I must declare a personal interest both as graduate of the University of Cambridge and an honorary fellow of my old college, Girton, and now as president of Lucy Cavendish College in the University of Cambridge. Unlike some of my noble friends, I have total confidence that this Government, and in particular the Minister, are committed to sustaining excellence wherever it is found. The Minister's previous distinguished record in higher education puts that beyond doubt.

I see today in the newspapers headlines about the Oxbridge gold-plated towers. That is not the experience of my college. Lucy Cavendish College is dedicated wholly to increasing access for mature women. It was founded in 1965 and by a happy stroke of timing, it received its Royal Charter from Her Majesty yesterday, thus replacing the college of the noble Lord, Lord Lewis, as Cambridge's newest college. It has by far the single largest concentration of mature women within the university and that makes it an irreverent, vibrant and exciting place to work. We have no high table; the fellows are called by their first names and are indistinguishable in age from the students.

The students come from a variety of backgrounds and each has a powerful story to tell. It is an unusual woman who, at the age of 30, 40 or 50, can match the intellectual speech and academic sharpness of the bright and high-achieving 18 year-olds who make up the majority of student entrants to Cambridge. Persuading such women that they can hold their own in Cambridge and providing them with the confidence and support necessary for them to succeed is the job which the college admissions tutor, directors of studies and college lecturers perform with great skill and commitment every working day.

I should like to tell your Lordships the story of some of those students. The first is one of our first-year entrants this autumn. She is a woman in her late twenties who ran away from an abusing father when she was 16. She lived homeless on the streets of Liverpool for some years until the day when, in her own words, she felt there must be more to life. She enrolled in a sixth form college to take A-levels and worked in the evenings to make enough money for private tutoring to help her catch up.

As it so happened, the private tutor she found was a Cambridge graduate who quickly recognised her unusual intelligence and advised her that she should try for a place at Cambridge. He told her that Lucy Cavendish was a college for mature women like herself. However, she then consulted her sixth-form tutor who said, "Cambridge, that is a place for snobs and rich kids. Give me a match and I'll burn the place down tomorrow". She returned to her tutor in great distress and said, "I don't think I could possibly fit in there. I am a scouser off the streets and my teacher tells me that Cambridge is for snobs and rich kids". Her tutor said, "Cambridge isn't like that any more. Go to Lucy Cavendish and see for yourself'. She did; we offered her a place; she achieved three "A" grades at A-level; and I have every confidence that she will be an outstanding success in her career.

Another student came to us from the Armed Forces. She too was told by her friends, "Cambridge is a place for officers. You are only of the ranks. They will never take you and if they do, you will never fit in". She was recently able to tell a group of those same friends, "There is no elitism here. The only elitism is of highly motivated and intelligent women determined to succeed".

A third student is now in the second year of her law degree. She says of her own experience, "I had lived and worked in Cambridge for several years in different jobs until I realised it was time to settle down and find a real career. I went to further education college and took two A-levels and achieved an A grade in them both. That gave me the courage to apply to Cambridge even though, as a mature, black woman, wanting to become a barrister, I knew the going would be tough. The workload is huge and challenging but I say to myself, 'If I can cope with the work here, I can cope with anything'" and, my Lords, she is coping very well indeed.

The last student that I should like to tell your Lordships about is now studying for her Ph.D at Lucy Cavendish, having come to us four-and-a-half years ago to start her undergraduate degree. Our cockney sparrow, as she calls herself, lived all her life in the East End of London. She had worked for several years as a barmaid before she felt that she would like to take her newly discovered love of English literature into a more formal framework. She also registered at a further education college, taking three A-levels in one year and achieving three A grades, from a standing start with no formal O-levels or GCSEs in the whole of her previous life.

Again, in her own words she says, "My partner drove me up to an open day at Lucy Cavendish and I fell in love both with Cambridge and with the college which accepted mature women from any kind of background". That cockney sparrow achieved a Cambridge First and intends now, when she has finished her Ph.D, to pursue a full-time academic career.

I am proud of these women and proud of their achievements. I am also proud that Cambridge University has a place for them, and for a college like Lucy Cavendish. It distresses me greatly when I hear people say that Cambridge is only for the privileged, or the rich. It is of course elite in the sense that it accepts only the very bright and very motivated: but intellect and motivation are not the preserve of any one social class; we prove that every day.

I feel very privileged to be president of a college which succeeds in attracting, supporting, teaching and retraining women of the magnificent quality, humour, wit and courage which our students manifest in all aspects of their lives. Many of them are coping with family commitments of young children or elderly parents; many of them have mortgaged their homes, sold their cars, cashed in their insurance policies, borrowed from family and friends, in order to come to Cambridge to study there. The world would be a very much poorer place without them. Many have gone on to resounding success in business and in public life: all have gone forward into much changed careers and lives, providing themselves, their families, and this country with an intellectual wealth without which no civilised country could survive.

I have tried to give brief pen portraits of four Cambridge undergraduates who are personally known to me, and who form part of the fabric of Cambridge life. There is still an uninformed minority of critics who, like the sixth-form teacher of my first student, might say, "Give me a match and I'll burn the place down". But such people do not speak for anything except their own unhappy envy and resentment. The reality of Cambridge lies in the experience of students such as those I have described and hundreds of their fellows who have found, as one of my students said to me only the other day, that, everybody can fit in here, provided they have the brains—and the sense to use them".

5.20 p.m.

Lord Weidenfeld

My Lords, I should like to speak briefly about a factor of growing importance to university finance—private sponsorship and, particularly, foreign sponsorship. The collegiate tradition and the tutorial system of Oxford and Cambridge are not only a determining attraction for many overseas students, they are also particularly interesting to foreign sponsors, the private sector, business companies, foundations and foreign governments.

I speak with some experience because during the past six or seven years I have been closely involved with the Oxford Development Programme, keeping in continuous contact with European and especially German benefactors. As one rather munificent foreign supporter of Oxford put it rather robustly, perhaps even indelicately: We want to pay for our young people to have the benefit of a highly individual education that differs from our own impersonal knowledge factories". He had in mind extended classrooms, the fact that students do not meet their teachers and that, at best, they learn to accumulate knowledge, not to argue in dissent or to discuss issues with their teachers. Those perceptions are borne out by the steep rise in applications and entries to Oxford. Applications from Germany and France have jumped by 50 per cent. in the past five years. In the current academic year there are now 354 students from Germany, a figure that is only exceeded by students from the United States.

The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, mentioned cost effectiveness in his comparison of international costing. Oxford is not only less than half as expensive as MIT, Harvard or Stanford, but France, with its endorsement of intellectual meritocratic elitism, is much more generous than we are. The idea of more private universities springing up in places like Italy, Spain or even Germany is a very interesting new phenomenon. As the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, put it, there is a feeling of a downward spiralling of intellectual standards in the state-run universities.

It is generally recognised that the considerable intellectual resources of Oxford and Cambridge allow for a flexibility and variety of courses, curricular and extra-curricular, which benefit mid-career students and appeal to multinational corporations and foreign governments. A hampering and restricting of the methods of teaching of Oxford and Cambridge would not necessarily benefit other British universities so far as concerns private and foreign sponsors. It would most likely head them off into other directions abroad.

As a world class university in the lingua franca, overseas students, especially from the Far East, regard Oxford as a gateway to a wider Europe. It is noteworthy that Oxford, which has traditionally focused its efforts on the English-speaking world, has now opened itself up to a wider preoccupation with European postgraduate studies. It would be the height of paradox if we were now to jeopardise or at best reduce the status of Oxford and Cambridge as European world-class universities at the very time when our government make a strong claim to a leading role in Europe, a role which they can only justify by demonstrably backing academic centres of excellence.

5.25 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I should like, first, to thank the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, for giving us the opportunity to debate the funding of Oxford and Cambridge. The issue is that students at Oxford and Cambridge receive just under 50 per cent. more than average students at other universities. That is a big differential and is what we are really discussing this afternoon. It would have been quite wrong if the Government had not arranged for the review. After all, it was recommended in the Dearing Report and I believe it is an issue which should be addressed most thoroughly.

Special pleading is never an attractive argument, although we have heard some very eloquent special pleading today. I recognise much of what the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, said. In particular, I recognise much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, said in her speech. It so happens that a friend of mine has just gone to her college as a mature student and I hope that she will make the best of the facilities available to her.

I speak as one of the very few speakers in today's debate who has no association with either Oxford or Cambridge. I went to red brick universities, including Imperial College, to which someone referred earlier. Nevertheless, I can say quite honestly that some of my closest friends did go to Oxford and Cambridge. I say in all humility that I do recognise that they are of the higher standard; indeed, they are now making very distinguished contributions in their chosen professions. I took it upon myself to talk to many of my friends about their experiences at Oxford and Cambridge. To be honest, they defended the extra cash available to the universities, but they defended far more vigorously the tutorial system through which they had been educated. They were a little more reticent about defending the money.

The gist of what I want to say is simply that I wish to remind noble Lords that there are other élite institutions that can surpass Oxford and Cambridge in what they actually produce as opposed to what they actually cost. I believe that it is absolutely right that the HEFCE should reflect that in the recommendations that it makes. I must say that I was most attracted to the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Desai that the top 10 universities should compete for the £38 million. That seems to me to be fair.

What I really want to talk about is my perspective as an employer. I spend quite a lot of my time interviewing people. As I have said in previous debates in this House, I am an engineer and a manager in a small oil company. I recruit engineers, geologists and, occasionally, accountants to work as expatriates in Russia. I tend to look for people with about 15 years' experience. Just between noble Lords and myself, I can say that we pay them about £100,000 a year. So we can reasonably expect to attract top quality candidates.

I spent this morning looking through the files of the CVs that I have received over the past four years. So far as concerns accountants, there is a complete spread with only a few from Oxford. If there is any preference, it tends to be towards the Scottish universities: indeed, we do seem to get quite a lot of accountants from them. As regards engineers, Imperial College comes top of the league quite easily. We have also had a number of applicants from Cambridge and also from Heriot-Watt and Leeds. It is not surprising that those universities are strongly represented because they have good mineral departments. I have to admit that I have never received a CV from an Oxford-educated engineer. I do not know where they all go, perhaps they all become accountants. They certainly do not apply to my firm for a job.

As regards geologists, Imperial again is well represented. Oxford and Cambridge are also well represented but, funnily enough, Kingston Polytechnic is also well represented. That polytechnic has a strong geology course. A couple of our current employees have taken that course. We have just recruited a sedimentologist from Birkbeck College. He managed to overcome much strong competition as a result of that sedimentology course. His qualifications were exactly what we were looking for.

As an employer I recognise that there are élite institutions and I believe that there is a compelling argument for preferential funding for them. There are some 10 or a dozen élite institutions. I spoke to my manager about this matter today. He used to be the chief engineer at Shell which, of course, is one of the largest recruiters in Britain. He told me that when he was chief engineer at Shell it recruited from about 12 universities across Britain, although he added that that might have changed in recent years. Oxford and Cambridge were included, of course, in those 12 universities, but Shell tried to recruit from a far wider net.

It is absolutely right that the HEFCE should recognise this breadth of excellence in our universities and should fund that accordingly. Special pleading is not the right way to proceed. Excellence needs to be demonstrated. I have no doubt that Oxbridge can demonstrate its excellence.

5.31 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, first I wish to thank my noble friend Lord Beloff for introducing this debate on the future of Oxford and Cambridge. As an Emeritus professor of the University of Cambridge and an Emeritus fellow of one of the graduate colleges of Cambridge, I feel it would be rather presumptuous of me to claim that Oxford and Cambridge are superior to the rest of the universities in this country. Enough people have already done that this afternoon and have made comparisons, some of which have been objective and some of which have been subjective.

Many of the objections to the system at Oxford and Cambridge are the fruit of a complete misunderstanding or a lack of understanding of the collegiate system in these two universities. Sometimes it is difficult to understand what goes on in the university system when one is within it, let alone without it. I particularly wish to address an issue raised in the Dearing Report. Recommendation No. 74 asks: do college fees represent a good use of resources? A corollary to that is: would their elimination be detrimental to the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge? In particular I wish to refer to medical and veterinary education in the University of Cambridge. I have 15 years' experience of these subjects in an Ivy League university in North America and some 20 years in Cambridge.

As regards access to Cambridge, admissions are through the various colleges. It is a multi-portal system of entry compared with the single portal entry system of almost everywhere else that I know of. I have often been asked: how can you tolerate not being in charge of admissions to your school or department? However, it works well and certainly guards against narrow selection procedures that may be subtly introduced through the one portal system of entry. In Cambridge the ratio of independent school students to state school students in medicine is 50:50. In the veterinary course the ratio is 60:40 in favour of state school students.

However, these figures hide facts about the entry of mature students. My noble friend Lady Perry mentioned those students. Quite a number of students who apply to the graduate colleges are not part of the national assessment whether they come from the state or maintained system. Some make quite heroic efforts to gain entry to the University of Cambridge through a college and most usually show great distinction thereafter in their studies. They are provided with a second chance, having failed initially, to enter the colleges directly from school.

An overpowering influence and attribute of the multi-portal system to my mind is that the newly admitted student mixes immediately with people from many other disciplines. He mixes with philosophers, natural scientists, engineers and the like. He also mixes not only with junior members of the college but also senior members, right up to the master or the president. Such students participate in college society and activities, possibly at a level of achievement well below that demanded by the university teams or societies. The college system also enables a student to change his or her mind as regards the course that was initially undertaken. A number of people switch from natural sciences to medicine and from medicine to other subjects. That usually occurs in the first year but it also occurs in other years too. The completion rate of courses in Cambridge is high. In medicine and in veterinary medicine it is 98 per cent. People drop out usually only for medical reasons or simply because an individual has decided that a course is not for him or her.

My final comments concern the graduate colleges which were established largely after the Second World War to attend to the needs of graduate students and mature students. They cater for a substantial number of overseas graduate students, as well as home based students. They provide accommodation, study facilities, computer terminals and the rest for 52 weeks a year. They rely particularly on fees for about 50 per cent. of their income. Because they are recent foundations they have little endowment and because of the 52 weeks a year commitment to graduate students they have little opportunity to mount commercial enterprises such as conferences, as the other, older undergraduate colleges do.

I return to the question of Recommendation No. 74: are college fees a good use of resources? To my mind the answer must be unequivocally, "Yes, they are". Their abolition would do some colleges, particularly the graduate colleges, great harm. I echo the observation of my noble friend Lord Beloff that if Oxford and Cambridge have to go in the direction of increased private funding, with its obvious and well stated danger, it must be well supported by scholarship and sufficient time must be allowed to bring that about.

5.38 p.m.

Lord Gibson

My Lords, I suppose it is not strictly necessary to declare a non-pecuniary interest. I do so only because I want to acknowledge my debt to Oxford, and it gives me great pleasure to do so. I graduated at Magdalen in the 1930s. I am an honorary fellow of the college which gives me huge pleasure. I am the father of four sons who all graduated from Magdalen. Therefore noble Lords could be forgiven for thinking that I am in any way parti pris as regards the subject we are discussing today. I have no academic experience or particular qualifications to speak today. I can echo only what other noble Lords have said and give that my support. I shall do so as briefly as possible as I can introduce no new points.

Apart from the quality of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges as historic places—that historic fabric is, of course, extremely expensive to maintain—I feel (like nearly all noble Lords who have spoken so far this afternoon) that the college and tutorial experience is a unique one for undergraduates. It is certainly not the only way to educate the ablest; but it is a very good way simply because, at its best, it stretches students as perhaps no other system can. And, as was repeatedly said, college life is an education in itself.

The system is, no doubt, too expensive to be extended to all universities—even assuming that all universities would want it. Do we therefore think that what is available to only a few, most of whom are already advantaged in other ways, should be destroyed if it cannot be made available to all? Should public funds be distributed on so inequitable a basis?

As the noble Lord, Lord Beloff reminded us, France has a clear-cut reply to such a question. The noble Lord reminded us that it funds the grande école at three times the level of other schools. It does so because it believes that it needs an élite.

If the collegiate system is threatened, how much does that threaten the future of Oxford and Cambridge? Does their future depend on the collegiate and tutorial system? I suppose that, ultimately, good universities would emerge at Oxford and Cambridge after the destruction of their present mode of operation. However, for all the reasons so eloquently stated, I should regard such destruction, and the consequent change in the character of Oxbridge, as a humiliating national loss—even worse than the loss of one of our London opera houses, which now seems to be contemplated. The noble Lord, Lord Porter, said that no one questioned the need for artistic excellence. I assure the noble Lord that there are people who question it every day when it is paid for out of public funds. However, that is not the subject of our debate.

The loss of the special character of Oxbridge seems quite unnecessary. Surely we should try to find a fairer way to finance the retention of the system that has given Oxford and Cambridge their character and made them the national assets that they undoubtedly are. That can be done if all universities are allowed to determine their own fee and scholarship levels and charge in the way that Oxford and Cambridge always have. Why should the basic government subsidy not be available to all universities on the basis of that freedom? If the college and tutorial systems are essential to the function and character of Oxbridge, I have no doubt that the colleges could find the extra money that is needed to sustain them, given time and the freedom to charge.

Time is of the essence; it is crucial. If change is to come about, it must be introduced gradually. Although I realise that this view may not meet with favour in every quarter, it might be best to freeze the top-up grant at its present level and let time and inflation erode it gradually, as they have eroded the value of government grants in so many other areas. At 3 per cent. per annum, it would be gone in a generation. If that is too long for the egalitarians, let us agree a shorter period with the universities so that they can plan ahead to adapt and replace the top-up money.

If we want to ensure that what Oxford and Cambridge have to offer is available more widely to the population as a whole, surely that objective can be secured by a system of loans at inexpensive rates, as suggested by Professor Eric Ash in yesterday's Times. In short, they need time to adjust and freedom to charge extra for the extra that they offer. That is what Oxbridge needs, and what I hope it will be granted.

5.44 p.m.

Lord Winston

My Lords, we are all deeply grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, for introducing this important debate. It has been of a high standard, if, inevitably, somewhat repetitive. I attended the same school as the noble Lord, as did the noble Lord, Lord Baker. I suspect that I did not have the same history master for several reasons—one of which was undoubtedly the fact that I was in a less able stream than either the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, or the noble Lord, Lord Baker, whose maiden speech we greatly enjoyed. I must declare an interest in that I have spent 25 years in higher education or research, all of which was conducted outside Oxbridge. I come from one of those other institutions referred to—at least, I now come from one of them; namely, the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine.

Some years ago I was approached by either Oxford or Cambridge to throw my hat into the ring and apply for a chair. I considered the matter and decided that the university was arcane, inbred, self-satisfied, smug and no real place for me. After some 10 minutes, I decided not to send in my CV. The truth is, I suspected I should probably not be considered for the job anyway.

But that outside impression of Oxbridge is a very false one, as the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, so eloquently testified. We are talking about truly outstanding institutions which are models of university education, not merely in this country but throughout the world. If you visit Cambridge in Massachusetts, you are struck by the fact that there has been an attempt to model it on another Cambridge, closer to home—albeit somewhat colder, at least at this time of year. On virtually every assessment, both universities have a rating that is consistently excellent. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Desai, in his criticism of the HEFCE ratings. They are not totally adequate, but they are the best that we can do. They are, after all, produced on an independent assessment, examining excellence throughout all universities. Quite how one establishes one's reputation as regards HEFCE may well vary. One can legitimately select what one wants to represent, as all institutions will have to do in order to receive their very high rating. Imperial College needs Oxford and Cambridge just so that from time to time we can say, "Look, we actually beat them and got a five-star rating in medicine".

One point that was not mentioned is that Oxford and Cambridge contribute in a very real way to higher education outside, and that is very important. They are a paradigm, a model. The method of thinking that is bred in Cambridge and Oxford is very special. We apply that model and try to achieve the same method with postgraduate students in my own institution. We attempt, in a very small way in one course that I run, to imitate the tutorial system. It is a very poor second best; nevertheless, it tries to some extent to model itself on the Oxbridge system.

Another point not previously mentioned is that academic institutions are extremely fragile and, as a result, when they are threatened, it has a very serious effect on the whole ethos—all the relationships within those institutions. In my time I have been in two institutions that were threatened and I have seen the serious effect on every aspect of the work: research, teaching and recruitment. If we are to examine the role and funding of Oxford and Cambridge, it is important to do it very carefully and with extreme caution. If there is a need for redistribution, which has yet to be proved, it has to be examined over a period of time. It should not be done suddenly.

We in this country believe implicitly in selectivity. It is the very core of our economic arguments. Our economy cannot be internationally competitive unless we continue to educate on a selective basis. Of course we want to be an equal society; of course we need to have that morality. But, in the long term, we must concern ourselves with the idea that we might damage something which, in turn, could damage our national economy.

One of the questions that must be asked is: would a greater spread of the £38 million through more institutions undoubtedly benefit the education system as a whole? That has to be proved. Until we can clearly demonstrate that, we must be very cautious about damaging those institutions—as they undoubtedly would be damaged if the status quo were to be disturbed.

I joined the Labour Party because I believe in a fair society. But a fair society does not mean that people are equal in every respect. I deprecate the rather personal remarks made to the Minister, a person whom I deeply respect and who has a most difficult job. She is trying to protect our higher education and to arrive at solutions to extremely complex problems. She is particularly able and highly intelligent—qualities which are the very essence of our education system. We select people for institutions and for other situations. Things are not entirely equal. In our efforts to be fair, we must not level down; we must find ways of levelling up in our education system. If this small sum of money is to be redistributed, we must ask ourselves whether we can demonstrate that it would serve to level up the system. Before we do that, we need to evaluate the evidence extremely carefully.

5.51 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I agree with much of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, particularly his remark about the demoralising effect on a big university like Oxford or Cambridge that such a retrenchment—even if it is only £18 million for one university and £19 million for the other—would have on the affairs and running of those universities, possibly quite out of proportion to the size of the cut.

Perhaps I may quote from a letter which I received from the president of my old college at Oxford: An internationally respected standard would be destroyed spectacularly—to the loss of our universities as a whole. Colleges which survived would have to retrench on research fellows and grants, thus removing a nursery of national and international academic talent". This is perhaps particularly the noble Lord's point: Oxford and Cambridge would be too 'overfull of self affairs' of the utmost urgency not to say too demoralised by widespread sackings, to play any part in the Secretary of State's educational strategies for our country". There is a danger that those results could flow from a decision to cut back on the share of public funding that goes to college fees.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, and my noble friend and past colleague, Lord Baker of Dorking, I too went to Magdalen College, Oxford. Rather like my noble friend Lord Beloff, my family's connection with Magdalen stretches over 80 years, from 1910 to 1990, three generations and six members of the family having gone there. One was killed in the First World War, one obtained a First and another rowed for two years in the Oxford boat.

During that time Oxford underwent the kind of change that my noble friend Lord Beloff spoke of. When my elder uncle was there before the First World War it was certainly not incumbent on him to take a degree. The president of the college at the time was one Sir Herbert Warren. The Japanese ambassador approached him to see whether the college would be a suitable home for the son of the Japanese Emperor but was rather unimpressed by the amount of attention he was given by Sir Herbert, and said: "You do realise that in Japan the Emperor's son is regarded as the son of God?" Sir Herbert Warren replied: "We are quite accustomed to having distinguished undergraduates at Magdalen".

By the time my youngest daughter went to Magdalen, she had to work hard to get there; she worked hard to get a 2:1 in languages, and when she left she was lucky enough to obtain fairly quickly a job with an international pharmaceutical company. She is now—perhaps slightly to her father's worry—working in television. I believe that shows, in a family context, the change that the college underwent in those years.

At this stage in this very interesting debate, I, like many others, face a dilemma. Those of us who went to Oxbridge want to see our colleges grow and prosper. In that context I pay enormous tribute to the present president of Magdalen, Tony Smith, for what he has done to raise money for new buildings, such as the Grove buildings in the deer park. But equally—and one feels this very strongly, listening to the debate—we want to share the privilege of the superb education that we enjoyed with as many as possible who would benefit from that kind of education. I stress the word "benefit". It would be a great mistake if Oxbridge were to lower their standards to make themselves more accessible.

Equally, we see the problems of other universities. I am sure that noble Lords will have seen the letters in The Times yesterday from the noble Lord, Lord Rix, chancellor of the University of East London, and Professor George Wedell, professor emeritus at the University of Manchester, pointing out fairly succinctly how much their universities would be helped if some of the £35 million available to Oxbridge were instead to be made available to them.

Sussex University is on my doorstep; I am on its court. Its treasurer tells me that the university has a fund to help undergraduates in great financial difficulty and that at present there are so many calls on it that the average grant is of £10.

To try to solve the problems by removing the £35 million which the Government pays for university fees is like trying to move a mountain by moving a mouse. Dearing points out that the higher education budget will be underfunded by £350 million next year and possibly by £565 million the following year. Getting at Oxbridge in the way that has been suggested would not solve that problem.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, I suggest that other routes could be looked at. First, in the noble Lord's words, the colleges should have the freedom to charge extra. It would be wholly ridiculous if they were not given permission to top up fees.

Secondly, Oxbridge students are clearly very employable. Perhaps additional loan facilities could be made available to them at low interest rates which could be made possible by a guarantee from the university.

Thirdly, colleges could look at their methods. This is indeed a non-academic walking where angels fear to tread. Perhaps it is not necessary for every college to have quite so many tutors for every subject as they do at present.

Finally, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, that we need to look at the tax rules and make it more effective and easier for those who have a lot of money to give it to the university or college of their choice. We must all be struck by the ability of American universities, orchestras and theatres to raise substantial sums of money from the private sector. As Minister for the Arts, I was always conscious of how tremendously difficult our tax system was in that respect. I hope that the Government will look at that situation and improve it.

I very much want to see the best of both worlds for Oxford and Cambridge. I do not think we shall achieve that by removing the support for fees.

5.58 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I too must declare an interest, not as an academic but as a graduate of Cambridge and an honorary fellow of Newnham College, one of the three remaining single-sex colleges, Lucy Cavendish, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, spoke, being another. I am therefore particularly interested in the situation of women at the university, which has changed dramatically during the past 25 years. There are now 7,087 women students at Cambridge—44 per cent. of the student population. In 1972–73 there were 1,823–16.2 per cent. of the total. That is a remarkable statistic and a remarkable improvement. It was then that the men's colleges, led by King's College, began to take in women students.

I should like to comment on the vital issue of access to Cambridge. The Government are absolutely right to argue that everyone who has the talent to succeed at our best universities should have access to them, irrespective of their parents' financial means. That is not just the Government's position, it is the fundamental proposition underlying the admissions policies of the colleges in Cambridge. But the Cambridge colleges understand that they face a considerable problem given the high proportion of Cambridge students who were educated at independent schools. It is a myth that Cambridge students are all public school students. Forty-eight per cent. are from the state sector, 44 per cent. from the independent sector, the remaining 8 per cent. comprising overseas students and a few others. Oxford is much the same.

I want to ask my noble friend a question: would she confirm that the university with the highest proportion of British students who have been educated at independent schools is not Oxford, is not Cambridge, but the London School of Economics? I would be grateful if she would confirm that in her reply. I should make clear that this is not to criticise the LSE. The point is that the LSE is a totally meritocratic organisation admitting students on the basis of their A-level performance, and the best private schools are very good indeed at producing good A-level performance. But the LSE has limited resources to devote to interviewing students, to seek out those who have been less well prepared but have the ability, the potential, to compete for a place. That is probably why the proportion of privately educated students is higher than that of Cambridge, which interviews all students.

It is important to remember that independent schools have changed considerably in the past 20 years. Many offer academic scholarships to the most able students in the state schools, and the assisted places scheme, now mercifully being phased out, has meant that many more of the brightest students from the maintained sector have moved to independent schools. Remember, too, that 20 per cent. of sixth-formers in the whole country are at those independent schools. They start with a great advantage.

As my noble friend is, I am sure, aware, the major problem in ensuring access to Cambridge is persuading children from poorer backgrounds to apply. That is why the Cambridge colleges make strenuous efforts to encourage applicants from schools which have never sent pupils to Cambridge before, particularly by means of the Target Schools Scheme. I know that my own college, Newnham, organises visits not only by the staff, but by students, to schools. The students can explain better to sixth-formers what it is like to be at Cambridge and reassure them about the reception they would have and the help they would get. The college has open days when pupils can come to the college so that they can see the set-up, meet staff and students and learn about what the work and the life would be like. Teachers are invited to the college, sometimes for an evening, often for several days. The difficulty is often to persuade girls from families where no member of the family has ever gone to university before. Their confidence needs to be built up.

The principal of Newnham told me of a visit she made to a school in Clacton quite recently where the head of the lower-sixth told her how glad he was that she had come because the head of the school particularly discouraged girls from applying.

The fear of accumulating debt has to be dispelled. Girls are often uncertain and worried about their ability to repay. This is the case particularly if they may be involved in the longer courses—medicine or architecture, for instance—and this applies to women more than to men as their jobs are often less well paid and their careers may be interrupted by bringing up children.

In 1990 the Group To Encourage Ethnic Minorities, GEEMA, was established by a group of admission tutors and the black caucus students. It has been successful. In 1995 GEEMA received a gold award for innovation from the British Diversity Awards.

In the light of all these efforts, will the Minister accept that Cambridge University is open to everyone who has the talent to secure a place? The problem is to ensure that everyone who has the talent applies to Cambridge in the first place.

6.4 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, it is a pleasure, as always, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady David. I entirely agree with her points about what I would call student loans and the difficulty of repaying once one has completed one's graduation.

We owe the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, a great debt. I owe him a personal debt. I was an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford in 1968, at a time of student unrest. I was the holder of the university cadetship which at that time meant that the Ministry of Defence paid my tuition fees, my accommodation fees, and of course one had to serve eight years in Her Majesty's Armed Forces after graduation. That was fair.

During those years of student unrest the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, was the Gladstone Professor of Government. Lord Beloff, and his colleague, Professor Sir Michael Howard, held a seminar in All Souls College for graduates. He allowed any interested undergraduate to come and listen to the guest speakers discussing matters of international affairs and strategic studies. That, I suggest, is a very good example beyond the tutorial system where Oxford excelled. Ten years later it was necessary for me to take the staff college exam. I retained the notes that I took at the two professors' seminars and I owe them a debt as I passed the exam.

As I have said, I declare an interest in that I am a history graduate of Oxford University, but before I go further, I should like also to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely on his excellent maiden speech. He is a walking example of an Oxford graduate going to another university and then coming back and teaching in Oxford or elsewhere. There is an enormous interchange between all the universities. They cross-fertilise each other, and although I believe it was necessary to have this debate, please let us not isolate Oxford and Cambridge, excellent as they may be; all other universities have much to contribute.

I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, went on to become the first vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the Open University, from 1968 to 1970 where people from all walks of life, adult students, were able to obtain degrees. I recall, I think it was in Mr. Ben Pimlott's biography of the late Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, that towards the end of his life Lord Wilson said that his greatest achievement was founding the Open University. It would be a remarkable irony if Lord Wilson's successor in another place, the right honourable Member for Sedgefield, was responsible—and his government were responsible—for lowering the standards of university education which his predecessor, Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, did so much to raise.

What should we do at Oxford and Cambridge? I should like to pay tribute to two chancellors: one here today and one, alas, now dead. Between 1960 and today the two Chancellors of Oxford University have travelled round the world, long past the years of retirement, begging for money. That is a noble cause; but how sad that it has been necessary. I do not know exactly how many funds they have raised from the rest of the world but that money spent in Oxford, if it had not been raised from the rest of the world, would have been a charge on Her Majesty's Government, I suggest. Perhaps the noble Baroness will recall that former Governments and the Government today have had a let-off, and £35 million is a small sum compared with what has been raised abroad.

There is, I fear, a lot of in Oxford. On Armistice Sunday I went to a church in Balliol College. Afterwards there was a Christian fellowship meeting. There were 50 to 70 undergraduates there. They came from all over Britain and from abroad. I asked them what effect the reduction of the £35 million grant might have on them as individuals. The third year undergraduates said, "We are sorry because it will affect the second and first year undergraduates". The second year undergraduates said, "If it comes into effect, some of us will have to forsake our studies". The first year undergraduates, who had worked so hard to get there, said that many of them would probably have to give up their studies.

My noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead has a predecessor, who was a Member of this House for 43 years. I shall offer advice to the noble Baroness which he always gave. I am of course referring to the Duke of Wellington, who never went to university. He said, "If I want to know what is going on on the other side of the hill, I get on my horse and I go and see". I do not suggest that the noble Baroness should mount a horse and charge off to Oxford or Cambridge, but perhaps she might board her ministerial car and go and talk not only to the dons but also to those undergraduates who will be affected by her legislation.

6.11 p.m.

Lord Cooke of Thorndon

My Lords, it is 47 years since I went up to Cambridge from New Zealand as a research student in law and began an association which has held me in thrall ever afterwards, although my home has been in New Zealand. Most happily the association has extended to Oxford also, and, although perhaps historically more "Camford" than "Oxbridge", my loyalties would be well satisfied if every boat race were tied.

Spontaneously, and quite unsolicited, I am impelled to express a fear to your Lordships. If government funding of college fees for home students goes, the effect on college revenues will carry a serious knock-on risk for overseas students. Beyond question, the college system is the main attraction of Oxbridge for them. Take it away and most of the more gifted overseas postgraduate students will think first of North American universities.

No doubt overseas students from more affluent homes can afford the £15,000 a year which Oxbridge may cost. But academic promise and wealth do not go hand in hand. Lord Rutherford, often called the greatest experimental scientist of the century, was born to modest circumstances in rural New Zealand, one of a family of 12 children. When the news came of a scholarship that would take him to Cambridge, he was digging potatoes. "I shall never dig another", he said.

College scholarships or bursary assistance are often a necessity and always a draw card for overseas students. In the last academic year the Vinerian Prize at Oxford for the top BCL graduate was won by a young woman from the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The top graduate in the corresponding Cambridge course, the LL.M, was a young woman from the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Long may the link flourish.

I respectfully entreat the Government not to do anything that, by sapping the finances of Oxbridge colleges, will imperil the Rutherford factor.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I have not been encouraged by what I have heard in the debate from those who have advocated the merits of Oxbridge but who have not at any stage indicated the extent to which change is necessarily in the air with regard to higher education and how Oxbridge ought to play its part. This debate, after all, has been triggered off by one recommendation out of 93 in the major inquiry into higher education represented by the Dearing Report, and a sentence of some 100 words out of a report of many thousands of words about the state of our higher education system and how it will meet the challenges of the future.

The Minister and the Government have the responsibility of seeing that higher education responds to the needs of our wider society and they are already involved in a process, one which was established by the previous Administration, of significant radical change. That is what our society has demanded. We have doubled the percentage of people in higher education in the past decade. The present Government intend, quite rightly, to raise the cap on present student numbers in order to encourage more to attend our higher education institutions. They are doing so because we all know that our society can only survive, our economy can only prosper and the goods for our communities can only be provided—these are social, cultural and economic factors—if we are able to compete in the wider world. Highly trained, highly skilled and highly educated men and women will be needed. That is the challenge, and the different sectors of higher education have had to respond to it.

There has been a massive increase in the number of part-time students participating in higher education and a 40 per cent. reduction in the unit of resource. That is what other institutions are having to respond to in order to sustain their commitment to the necessary expansion of higher education opportunities.

The Government are proposing to introduce tuition fees for higher education students. Everyone in the Chamber will recognise that, all things being equal, if higher education could be afforded in any other way, the Government would not pursue that proposal. If all those sacrifices are being demanded by our society of all those who are going to participate in higher education, how is it suggested today that Oxford and Cambridge should make no contribution whatever? What contribution is being asked? I shall tell the House what Dearing actually suggested:

We recommend to the Government that variations in the levels of public funding for teaching outside modest margins should occur only where there is an approved difference in the provision or where society, through the Secretary of State or his or her agents, concludes after examining an exceptionally high level of funding that, in relation to other funding needs in HE, it represents a good use of resources". That is exactly the point. What is being defended today is an exceptionally high level of resource allocation—40 per cent. for each and every student. In circumstances where many noble Lords speaking today have said that they are not casting aspersions on others in higher education and that they are aware of the excellent teaching going on elsewhere in the system, let us state that the excellent teaching in so many institutions is being provided under a unit of resource substantially below that which is available at Oxford and Cambridge.

Of course it is right that the Government should ask these questions and that HEFCE should be empowered to make some examination of the comparative advantages of such an allocation of resource. That is what has to be defended today. All of us would recognise that increment of advantage that may accrue from one-to-one tuition whether one speaks about primary school children, secondary education, further or higher education. Who would not see the value of one-to-one education or one-to-one teaching? But it cannot be afforded across all the other sectors of education. However, it is surely right at this stage that we ask the questions and look at the objective basis on which this allocation occurs.

It will not do just to talk in terms of past history and how these issues have developed. We now have a modern world which is making demands on our ageing institutions. They are not just demands. There is a wider community which has such a stake in the opportunities that have to be developed in higher education. Of course that community is going to make demands on any government that takes office. I emphasise that it is necessary for the evaluation to take place.

I also emphasise that if the wider community is to give any advantage to Oxford and Cambridge and their teaching—perhaps persuaded by some of the arguments that have been put today, but not to the extent that they have been put through special pleading in my view—and that society is to sustain the commitment, the universities have to demonstrate greater equity in the opportunities of access to them.

What is the basis on which, still at this stage, nearly 50 per cent. of students at the two older universities come from the private sector? What is being measured there? Is it not conceivable that people from deprived backgrounds who get three A-levels, with limited resources at their disposal and with teachers who have never been anywhere near Oxbridge and may not be overwhelmingly well qualified, may have achieved more than those students who have three A-levels from some of the most privileged and private institutions in the country with the vast resources that they command? On what basis should we seek further additional opportunity and public resources to be vouchsafed to those who have had all the privileges in the past? That is against the obvious background that people talk where their money goes. We know why people are prepared to spend £12,000 a year on private education. It is significantly because it increases the opportunities for their children.

If we are to evaluate the position clearly and effectively we must recognise that there is an obligation on Oxford and Cambridge to respond to the necessary evaluation, in common with all other ageing institutions, of the effectiveness of their teaching. It is a question of whether that mark-up is justified. The Minister should be encouraged in pursuing that route and in addition the older universities should recognise that if they are to sustain public confidence in their roles they need to broaden their access and to see that equity obtains there also.

6.23 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, has spoken very eloquently. He is right to say that the question should be asked and it is also right that the answer should be listened to. In the limited time at my disposal I shall endeavour to give replies at any rate to some of the questions. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely and the noble Lord, Lord Baker, on two outstanding maiden speeches.

I must obviously begin by declaring a very strong interest as Chancellor of Oxford. From that fact there arises a thought which may not be familiar to your Lordships. Sometimes—and it happened quite often this afternoon—Oxford is portrayed as a citadel of privileged exclusivity. I suppose that the Chancellorship is the greatest honour that the university can bestow. It is certainly the greatest honour that I have ever received. It is granted rather democratically. Ten thousand graduates voted in the election in 1987. There were three candidates and it so happens that of those three not a single one came from a really privileged school. Sir Edward Heath and I came from the most humble schools and the noble Lord, Lord Blake, came from an historic city grammar school. We were all products of the Oxford of the 1930s, let alone the Oxford of the post-war era. If Oxford is guilty of élitism—I do not know how one can have academic excellence without some form of élitism—it is a very open élitism.

We have heard a certain amount this afternoon of the phrase "world-class university", which I fear is becoming a little hackneyed. I wish that we could think of a better phrase. Also, it is not totally precise. Few would lay down with absolute certainty what was in and what was out. But few in the academic communities across the world would dispute that the total number, on the strictest criteria, is not more than eight or 10. In addition, few would dispute that in this double handful there is included Oxford and Cambridge and probably all the rest are in the United States. It would be a substantial pity for this country and for the world balance if every world-class university were to be in a single country, the United States of America.

Any university on the European continent would find it very hard to qualify for a number of reasons. First, in Germany the most serious research is done in special institutes. Secondly, in France the grandes ecoles cream off the brightest students. The other reason why they would find it difficult to qualify and perhaps the most important—and it was certainly touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, to whom we are grateful for this debate—is the vast, impersonal size of many of the European big city universities. That means a minimum contact between students and academic staff, one direct consequence of which is that there is a high, and in many cases a frighteningly high, drop-out rate. If the main scholastic activity is to sit at the back of a large lecture hall and take notes, it is only too likely to occur to some that no one will much notice if one is no longer there. The essence of the Oxbridge pattern is the tutorial and collegiate system which is a very good prophylactic against that.

As a result, our drop-out rate is not much more than one quarter of even the UK average let alone the general European average. Furthermore, the emphasis of the tutorial collegiate system on talking, arguing and writing rather than on just listening and taking notes interspersed with some reading, is also good at producing finished products with initiative and interest in general ideas. Even at the most utilitarian level that shows itself in the Oxford graduate unemployment rate which, as has also been mentioned, is no more than one-third of the national university average.

For a university to possess world status I suggest that there are three tests that must be passed. The first test is whether its undergraduate teaching produces large numbers of alumni who make significant contributions to the life of the nation and in our case at least, to the life and the governing of a great many other nations as well. The second test is whether it has good graduate schools and the third, but certainly not the least, concerns the quality of its research. To be a full university it must also cover the waterfront.

The institution, Imperial College, which educated the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is, within its field, an example of excellence. The LSE is also a remarkable institution, too. But they do not cover the waterfront. Therefore they cannot stand equal to the greatest American universities. Oxford and Cambridge do. I obviously know more about Oxford than Cambridge. They are equally good by all these criteria. For instance, Oxford is a first-rate undergraduate university and better in many ways in that field than Harvard. However, it is not nearly as major, and perhaps not as good, with regard to graduate studies. It scores very highly in research, having in the past 50 years greatly widened its scope so that it is now, in contrast to the 100 years up to 1940, just as strong a scientific university as Cambridge—and possibly even stronger medically, but I would not want to get into an argument about that.

The quality of the physical surroundings also contributes to drawing power—another element in world status. Oxford is obviously well blessed in this respect, which means that many renowned scholars come, or return, to us at salaries much lower than those they have achieved or could achieve elsewhere. However, the enticement of such surroundings has its dangers as well as its advantages. Apart from the cost of keeping up the ambience—it would be a national disgrace if it were not maintained—there is the danger that Oxford's buildings could become intellectually empty shells, falling behind the more modern universities in the same country. Indeed, that may have happened to Salamanca in Spain and to Coimbra in Portugal. Oxford's architectural splendour would then become a faded mockery.

If I have a worst case nightmare for Oxford, it is to see it as a run-of-the-mill university, as just one of a "south Midlands group" of England's universities, rattling around in surroundings that are too grand for it, and which happens to have old and inconvenient buildings whose useful life might be thought to be running out. I fear Cambridge being in an equivalent position in East Anglia. I cannot believe that anyone who has spoken in this debate would wish to see that happen to those two great national institutions. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, whose style today I found slightly less generous than normal, perhaps came the nearest to saying that. The nightmare that I have described is emphatically not the style today. Those who doubt that should ask the other world-class universities which recognise Oxford and Cambridge as their co-equals.

Perhaps at this stage I may point out what we are up against financially when maintaining ourselves in that league even without any further financial cuts. Harvard—Yale, Stanford and Princeton, and many others, are not all that far behind—has an endowment of 9 billion US dollars and raises an additional 1 billion dollars each year. In Oxford, where we blazed a cisatlantic trail in the raising of private money, we raised £360 million—or half a billion US dollars—over six years by a great effort. Incidentally, when we set out on that course we were given absolute assurances by the previous government—I think that this Government should continue to give those undertakings—that money so raised would not count against us.

Britain, as a medium-sized country without too many recent successes to its credit, is peculiarly lucky to possess one-quarter of the small number of outstanding world universities. Deliberately—or even inadvertently—to throw away that asset would be a perverse act of national self-immolation. It would be regarded as on the borders of national sanity by countries which, as I discovered in China last winter, long to have a world-class university but do not know how to create one and hope that Oxford may be able to advise them in that direction.

The net cost to the Exchequer of Oxford colleges is £19 million. It is strongly my view—not only as Chancellor of Oxford, but also as a former stony-hearted Chancellor of the Exchequer who nevertheless financed the beginning of the Open University which is not wholly dedicated to élitism—that this is a worthwhile and wholly justifiable national investment.

It is not my purpose to suggest that everything is perfect in our ancient universities. We need to improve the organisation of our graduate studies. There could be greater financial transparency—although we have gone quite a long way in that direction recently. Above all, we need and want to improve access from state schools. One can exaggerate the extent to which people from non-state schools do too well at Oxford and Cambridge as opposed to anywhere else. There are more old Etonians at Edinburgh than at Oxford at present. I am not sure whether there are not more at Bristol also, but I am not quite sure of that fact. There are certainly a great number. Nevertheless, we want to improve access—not by discriminating against individuals of equal quality and promise, but by encouraging state schools and by improving our liaison with them, as the noble Baroness, Lady David, put it so clearly, so that we get rid of the inhibitions which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, mentioned, prevent many people who could greatly benefit from Oxford from applying.

All that can and will be done but, for God's sake, do not let the advent of this Government, dedicated as they say to education, be marked by inflicting grave damage on two of the institutions which have given Britain a great part of its educational fame and respect throughout the world.

6.36 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Beloff for giving the House the opportunity to discuss this important and well focused Motion. I congratulate my noble friend also on the way in which he opened the debate. I join other noble Lords in congratulating most warmly the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely, my diocese, and my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking on their two outstanding maiden speeches.

It will not be possible for me to improve on the speeches that have preceded me today, particularly that from the present Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead—

Noble Lords


Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am sorry; the Chancellor.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, the Vice-Chancellor is much more important.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the expertise, enthusiasm, knowledge and experience contained in this great Chamber is unrivalled. However, in this debate my suspicions were roused by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham. There is emerging a theme running through the policies proposed by this Government, amounting to an attack on what is perceived by the Government as elitist and which, in the interests of all, should be destroyed. Old Labour, under the guise of New Labour, is alive and well. The philosophy of egalitarianism and the politics of envy are still in place. The dictum is, "If it is not possible for all to benefit, then no one shall benefit". In just a few short months so much has been threatened: grammar schools; selection; grant-maintained schools; Church schools; and now two great universities, Oxford and Cambridge and their colleges, which are truly world renowned.

We are, however, witnessing an interesting tension between No. 10 Downing Street and education Ministers. The Prime Minister has already intervened in respect of aided Church schools. We also understand from a number of representations that have already been made to the Prime Minister that he is likely to be sympathetic to the very strong case being put today for the retention of college fees for Oxford and Cambridge.

As the Prime Minister experiences at first hand the remarkable success of grant-maintained schools and the reasonable but sensible forms of selection at the schools being considered suitable, quite rightly, for his daughter, I believe that the case for intervention in policy will prove even greater for him. For what is indisputable is that allowing the best to flourish provides encouragement and incentives to raise standards throughout the educational system. Simply put, a policy of levelling up, not levelling down, is the key to raising standards for all.

There is no argument between us that additional resources need to be found for higher education. Indeed, the Dearing Report was commissioned with that in mind. It is deeply unfortunate therefore that the Government have moved away from Dearing's recommendation on tuition fees in favour of a proposal that will do so much to deter bright young people from poorer homes from entering higher education. That policy together with the loss of college fees at Oxbridge colleges will adversely affect the quality of provision for the very brightest of such young people. If that were not enough to exacerbate the issue of higher education funding, the Government have remained dogged in their determination not to give an undertaking that moneys raised from tuition fees and saved from maintenance grants will be dedicated to higher education.

The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge are not complacent about access. So much has been and continues to be done by Oxbridge colleges without compromising standards to improve access for students of ability from all backgrounds. In response to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, college admissions tutors are very energetic and proactive in their efforts to widen access and seek out potential applicants, including among other things visiting and liaising with schools where there has not been a tradition of applying to Oxford and Cambridge, the running of summer schools, the holding of open days and the provision of additional funds to support needy students, scholarships and hardship funds.

My Lords, make no mistake: the loss of college fees will create serious problems for colleges. For some colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge those problems will be insuperable. The fees are not top-up fees as such; they replace in part the income once generated by charging at these independent free-standing institutions with their own Royal Charter. Any return to charging would benefit the wealthy and, in turn, affect access by able young people from poorer homes. As the noble Lord, Lord Plant, has said, Oxbridge would become more exclusive. Redundancies would be inevitable, as the collegiate tutorial system, which is key to the success of an Oxbridge education, would be very badly affected.

It may well be that the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and Sir Christopher Ball—who, incidentally, made an outrageous accusation which is recorded in today's Guardian—believe that the loss of college fees of approximately £35 million can be easily borne by Oxford and Cambridge. If so, the noble Baroness must explain how that can be done. I believe that, given that the fees represent between 30 per cent. and 50 per cent. of income to some colleges and over 50 per cent. to others, this loss would be irrecoverable. Any suggestion that income from endowments or investments by the two universities and colleges could produce annual revenue income on this scale year on year is fanciful. A redistribution scheme to support the poorer colleges already exists within both universities. However the idea that there is capacity to generate additional millions over and above the amounts already raised by the colleges is, as I have said, fanciful.

One cannot over-estimate what is at stake here: two universities which are among the best, if not the best, in the world, with an excellent reputation for the quality of their teaching and research and an extremely low drop-out rate, all underpinned by an unrivalled collegiate tutorial system. Any attempt to damage this would be myopic in the extreme. Whatever the Government decide eventually, any proposal that undermines the Oxford and Cambridge tutorial system which has proved so successful will not receive my support nor, I suspect, the support of this House.

What is being argued today is simply that there is a powerful case for continuing the long-established policy to support the unique and highly successful collegiate tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge and that, should the Government argue that moneys are needed elsewhere in the higher education sector, to destroy what has proved to be a world class provision by removing college fees to be dispersed elsewhere in the system is perverse, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. I do not believe that any noble Lord who has supported my noble friend Lord Beloff today wishes to detract in any way from the needs of other universities and colleges. The thrust of the case that is put today is that to remove college fees and destroy something that works well is no way to resolve another problem elsewhere in the sector.

It is a much talked about prediction—it is even hinted at by the noble Baroness herself—that the noble Baroness may become the next chairman of the Arts Council. Should that come about perhaps I may in anticipation offer my warmest congratulations. Further, I implore the noble Baroness as a possible valedictory act to abandon any notion of removing the college fees from Oxford and Cambridge and to make a commitment, if possible today, that monies generated from tuition fees and saved from the abolition of the maintenance grant will be dedicated to the higher education sector. It is mean-spirited politics to see excellence as a form of unacceptable elitism. We should not only celebrate excellence but encourage and nurture it.

6.46 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, I begin by congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely and the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, on their splendid maiden speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, gave me some advice. I am sure that he will give me more advice in future debates. We have been sparring partners for many years. I shall enjoy his advice but I must tell him that I shall not always take it.

I welcome this opportunity to debate an issue that is attracting a great deal of interest, which has been reflected in the many contributions made by noble Lords in the House this afternoon. I have listened carefully to what Members of your Lordships' House have said today, and I should like to thank all those who have participated in today's debate.

This is an area where angels, let alone mere mortals like me, fear to tread. But I hope today that I shall be able to reassure noble Lords of the Government's determination to safeguard the future of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge which are held in high esteem both in this country and internationally. Noble Lords will recall that when asked about priorities for the new Government the response of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was "Education, education, education". The third and very important element of that trinity is higher education. I can assure this House that the Government are committed to a world-class higher education system based on high quality learning and teaching.

The new Government have already taken decisive action to address the serious funding problems for higher education left by the previous government, to which the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, and my noble friend Lord Desai referred. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced on 23rd September a package of measures which will allow an extra £165 million to be spent on higher education in 1998-99. Universities and colleges will have an extra £125 million for that year to maintain and improve quality and standards and to make a start on the backlog of maintenance and equipment replacement left by the previous government. Four million pounds will be available for a limited start on growth, mainly through sub-degree courses, and £36 million will be available to improve access, including measures to help part-time and disabled students. That is about the same amount of money that is currently spent on fees at Oxford and Cambridge. That is not a paltry sum, as some speakers in today's debate have claimed. The Government's total package ensures that universities do not face cut-backs at the level planned by the previous government.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, suggested that the Government had made no commitment about using the extra funding to be gained from the new system of student support for higher education. Perhaps I may correct her. The Government have, on more than one occasion—and in this House, and in another place—said that the additional funding will be used for further and higher education.

The noble Baroness suggested that the new system of charging a tuition fee, with changes to the maintenance system, would be unfair on many students and deter them from entering higher education. I would remind her that her right honourable friend Mr. Steven Dorrell said in another place on the 23rd July that he was passionately against tuition fees. She has now told us that she is in favour of tuition fees. Moreover, her right honourable friend, only a week ago, seems to have changed his mind. He now wants fees without the means-testing that the Government are introducing in order to help young people who come from low income families. The Opposition seem to be a little confused and are chopping and changing their minds about this.

We value excellence in all areas of our education system and we wish to encourage those universities which are renowned centres of excellence for their teaching or internationally known for the quality of their research. A number of noble Lords have referred to the outstanding quality of research conducted at Oxford and Cambridge and the need to safeguard that excellence. Oxford and Cambridge do indeed have an enviable international reputation for research across a wide range of disciplines, and we do not intend to jeopardise that.

Unlike many other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, I have no personal interest to declare. I am one of the small minority who have spoken today who is not a graduate of either Oxford or Cambridge, nor have I been directly employed in teaching or research at either university, although over the years I have collaborated with a number of people in both universities and members of my family have attended them. My external examiner for my doctorate, whom I have always held in very high esteem and who has been an important influence on me, was from Oxbridge. Of course, I have many close friends in both universities, including past and present heads of houses.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that it is always dangerous to listen to common-room gossip—perhaps even more dangerous than listening to gossip in the bars of the Palace of Westminster. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that I have no intention of becoming the chairman of the Arts Council. She, too, should not read gossip which is sometimes found in the columns of our newspapers. I am very much enjoying my present job and I intend to continue with it and deliver a higher education system of which this country can be proud rather than the sort of system left behind by the previous government.

My noble friend Lord Plant, the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said that we should not forget that Oxford and Cambridge are not the only centres of excellence in the country. Indeed, it is disparaging of other universities who are doing work of the highest quality, which also have an international reputation, to suggest that there are only two excellent universities in this country. At least six other multi-faculty institutions, and a host of specialist institutions, have half or more of their research-active staff in departments rated five or five starred at the last research assessment exercise.

Take University College of London, for example, with 33 out of 47 departments rated five or five starred. Or Imperial College London, with 18 out of 24 departments rated five or five starred. Neither of them—or other institutions with very high research assessments, such as the LSE or Bath or Sussex or UMIST or Warwick or Lancaster—would take kindly to the notion that there are only two centres of excellence in this country.

Let me now set out the factual position on college fees. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge—like other universities—receive support from public funds in the form of grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and tuition fees paid at present through mandatory awards. The Oxbridge colleges, constitutionally independent of the universities, are not funded by the Funding Council. Their only source of income from public funds is the college fee, which has been paid on behalf of students by local authorities under the Mandatory Awards Regulations since 1962. I hope this clarifies matters for my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris and the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, both of whom seemed to slightly misunderstand the present system.

College fees for Oxbridge undergraduates currently range from £2,500 to £3,400. Incidentally, perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, that we are talking about undergraduates today, not postgraduate students.

The college fee represents the provision of a wide variety of services—tuition, libraries and other facilities—which in Oxford and Cambridge are provided in addition to services provided by the central university. It also reflects the Oxbridge individual tutorial approach. In order to avoid double funding, the funding council adjusts the teaching grant to the two parent universities, effectively clawing back some 40 per cent. of college fee income. Once allowance has been made for the 40 per cent. abatement of HEFCE grant to the parent universities to take account of the college fees, the net extra cost to the taxpayer is, as many noble Lords have said, some £35m. Once the adjustment has been made to avoid double funding, the level of funding per student is an average of £5,800 compared with average funding of £4,000 in other universities. As my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham has said, this represents a 45 per cent. premium for Oxford and Cambridge.

Under the previous government, annual adjustments to the level of college fee were calculated according to a formula. I would explain to my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris that the negotiations were conducted by the funding council, but the final decision rested with the Secretary of State.

As your Lordships know, the report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, chaired by Sir Ron Dearing, was published on 23rd July. The national committee was set up by the previous government with cross-party support. The terms of reference asked it to take into account a number of principles, including that students should be able to choose between a diverse range of courses and institutions, and that value for money and cost effectiveness should be obtained in the use of resources.

The committee endorsed two further principles, one of which was that the various beneficiaries of higher education should share its costs, and public subsidies should he distributed equitably so that individuals are not denied access to higher education through lack of financial means". Against the background of this latter principle the committee recommended that there should be no variations in the level of public funding for teaching—outside modest margins—without very good reasons.

It suggested that such good reasons might be that, first, there is an approved difference of provision and, secondly, society, through the Secretary of State or his or her agent, has concluded after examining an exceptionally high level of funding, that in relation to other funding needs in higher education it represents a good use of resources.

The committee recognised that college fees at Oxford and Cambridge represent a substantial addition to standard funding and proposed that the Government should review them. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, for accepting that it was right for the Government to respond to the Dearing Committee and ask for a review and for advice.

In August, we wrote to the funding council asking for its advice. We asked it to have regard to the points raised in the report of the Dearing Inquiry, and to its new funding method for teaching. which will be based on the principle of a standard price for each of four broad subject groups.

The funding council has been consulting the two universities and their colleges. We expect its advice later this month. There have been reports in the press of what the funding council is likely to say but I must stress that it has not yet submitted its advice to the department and I am not going to make presumptions about what that advice is likely to contain.

When we receive the funding council's advice we shall consider it carefully along with the arguments which have been advanced today, and in the wider more public debate that has been taking place. We recognise the need to maintain the very high quality of education offered at Oxford and Cambridge and to seek to ensure that, in any change, those colleges that do not have historic funds or legacies on which to draw are not disadvantaged seriously. I hope that that reassures my noble friend Lady David and the noble Baroness, Lady Park.

Mention has been made today of the scale of Oxbridge college assets. The colleges are private, autonomous institutions and my department does not have access to information about their net assets. though articles on the subject appear in the press from time to time. But we fully take the point that there is a considerable disparity in the wealth of individual institutions, depending on the age and nature of their endowments.

I am also fully seized of the need to respect the constitutional relationship between the universities and the colleges. That is clearly a complex area and I do not underestimate the difficulties that there would be in implementing any change.

Let me stress that the Government and the funding council are clear about the need, in the words of the Motion for today's debate, to safeguard the future of both universities. The funding council's commitment is already more than evident by the scale of funding which the two universities receive—some £110 million a year each, taking account of income from college fees. Each of them will receive some £50 million this academic year in research funding from the funding council alone. Together they will receive some £100 million out of a total £700 million: that means around 15 per cent. of all HEFCE research funds go to those two universities alone. If we ignore staff paid for from specific funds, each research active member of staff at those two universities is funded to the tune of some 80 per cent. above the average for other universities. I stress that that has nothing to do with college fees. A different sum is provided for research excellence, and it can be fully justified in terms of research excellence. It is already a great deal more than other universities receive.

It is clearly in no one's interest to undermine the reputation of Oxford and Cambridge, but we and the council must have proper concern about value for money. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will accept that that is the job of government. We must always consider that matter. As I have already said, and as other noble Lords have pointed out, other universities of course achieve excellent ratings in teaching and research assessments. Some, as the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords have pointed out, have tutorial groups, even though they do not have the benefit of the substantial premium from college fees.

There is a proper balance to be struck and the funding council will, I am sure, take due account of the special features of Oxbridge in putting forward its advice. We for our part will bear those special features in mind in considering that advice.

Various points have been made by noble Lords today about particular aspects of expenditure by the colleges. Mention was made by my noble friend Lord Desai of duplication of administrative functions and the scope for rationalisation of college administration. Those are all points which we would expect the funding council to cover in its advice.

My noble friends Lord Morris of Castle Morris and Lord Davies of Oldham commented about the high proportion of Oxford entrants who come from private schools. Other noble Lords have pointed to the commendable steps—and they are commendable—some colleges are taking to widen access to admit more students educated at state schools. Some of them are clearly able to do that. I hope that more will be able to in future.

Oxford and Cambridge are, like all higher education institutions, responsible for their own admissions procedures and the Government have no locus in that area. So I cannot confirm the claim of my noble friend Lady David about the LSE. The review of college fees is not about admissions.

Let me take the opportunity to reaffirm this Government's passionate commitment to widening access, and our determination to increase participation by those groups which are currently under represented in higher education. Let me stress the importance that we attach to the principle that access to particular institutions should be based on academic merit rather than ability to pay for private schools. Some noble Lords have urged that universities and colleges should have the power to charge top-up fees and let the market rule. As I have already said, we believe that access to particular institutions and courses should be based on academic merit rather than the ability to pay.

Choice of institution should not be distorted by the level of the fee charged. We agree with the Dearing Committee, that no able student should be denied access to an institution of his or her choice through lack of funds. We have already made it clear that top-up fees play no part in the Government's proposals for future funding arrangements for higher education. In answer to my noble friend Lord Plant, the Government are still considering whether they should take a reserve power to prevent universities or colleges charging a top-up fee for full-time undergraduates, charged up front, over and above the fee that is to be set by the Government.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, that that does not mean that individual institutions cannot raise some of their own revenue. Universities, not just Oxford and Cambridge, raise their own revenue in a variety of respects. They have appeals. They raise money for particular research projects and funding from outside the public funding through the HEFCE. They raise money from letting their facilities during the vacation. There is no reason why any of that should not go on. The Government's concern is merely about charging a top-up fee over and above what is to be charged under the new system, which we think would deter students from going to the universities that decide to introduce them.

In conclusion, having listened carefully to what has been said in the debate on both sides of the argument—and of course there have been two sides—I can assure the House that we shall consider carefully the funding council's advice in deciding the way forward. We shall do so, first, with a view to value for money, in a context where the university sector was left in a serious financial crisis by the previous Government; and, secondly, the preservation of high quality teaching and research at Oxford and Cambridge.

7.10 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, we have had a very interesting four hours and have heard many speeches. I thank all noble Lords, although not all necessarily by name. One always wonders what will emerge in Hansard. I hasten to say that there will be one total inaccuracy. The noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, was mistaken in his belief that I had anything whatever to do with the foundation of the Open University. No doubt the new biography of its true founder, written by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, will give him the correct answer.

I learnt that the noble Lord, Lord Desai, is not a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge or any analogous British institution. I can only say how much I regret that. I believe that if he had been subjected to the discipline of an Oxford tutorial his eloquence would not have been marred by an indifference to the facts that he was discussing.

Much was made about access, and rightly so. I have always wondered how one would broaden it. It is probably the greatest problem facing the major universities, not only Oxford and Cambridge. But when one looks at Oxford, at any rate, it is remarkable that, wherever undergraduates come from, in the end they form a community and do much the same things. Perhaps I may give two examples. One student comes from a grammar school, works very hard, becomes President of the Union and gains a first-class degree. The second student comes from a public school, plays a guitar in a pop group and gains a second-class degree. Yet there they are at the other end of the Palace, almost interchangeable! I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.