HL Deb 21 March 2001 vol 623 cc1467-98

5.34 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth

rose to call attention to the case for reducing the burden of bureaucracy on universities; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I declare an interest as an academic and, indeed, as someone in a department shortly to undergo a subject review. I have thus been able to view the problem at first hand.

By the burden of bureaucracy on universities I refer to the administration now necessary to monitor, enforce and evaluate a raft of requirements imposed on universities. And it is a burden. Over the past seven years, about 10,000 people, mostly academics, have been engaged in inspecting universities and colleges. In 1999, the President of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, as it then was, declared that we now have the most scrutinised education system in the world. The General Secretary of the Association of University Teachers said, To make good the claim that all degrees are of equal quality, all institutions equivalent, we have imposed on institutions the most leaden control apparatus possible". In a Starred Question on 20th February, my noble friend Lady Perry of Southwark—I am delighted to see her here—drew attention to the number of rules, codes of conduct and subject benchmarks that have been imposed, with more to come. These rules have been introduced ostensibly for the purpose of improving the efficiency and quality of teaching and research and for ensuring accountability. No one questions those aims. They are eminently desirable. Universities do not seek to achieve some insular existence free of evaluation by others. Any complacency on the part of universities disappeared following the cuts of 1981. Universities know that they have to be accountable; they know that they have to deliver high quality education. What I wish to question is whether the means devised to achieve those desirable goals are the best ways of achieving them. In my view they are not. indeed, for reasons that I shall develop, I believe that they are counter-productive.

The burden of bureaucracy takes two forms. One is quantitative. I referred to the fact that universities are subject to a mass of rules. Academics face a substantial, growing and unrelenting burden of paperwork. Data have to be compiled. Information has to be supplied—often the same information but in different forms. The method of reporting one year differs from that of the next. The most recent "diary exercise" undertaken by the Association of University Teachers found that 33 per cent of academics' time is spent on administration and bureaucracy.

The other form of the problem is qualitative. The sheer burden of complying with all these requirements would not matter so much if it constituted what I shall call productive administration: that is, if it could be shown to contribute directly and clearly to maintaining or enhancing the quality of teaching and research. It might even be acceptable if it could be shown that there was an indirect contribution that was other than marginal. Unfortunately, much of what academics are now required to do is predominantly unproductive and, as I shall argue, any indirect marginal contribution is far outweighed by the costs of the exercise.

Let me identify those costs. There are financial costs. Last year the Higher Education Funding Council for England Commissioned a survey by PA Consulting of current accountability arrangements in universities. In its report entitled Better Accountability for Higher Education it looked at measured costs (that is, attributed administration and academic time), administration costs (such as management support and enhanced information systems), unmeasured costs (such as unattributed staff time) and what it termed behavioural costs (such as planning uncertainties and staff stress). It was unable to quantify the behavioural costs. The measured costs it assessed as £45 million to £50 million, the administration costs £100 million, and the unmeasured costs £100 million. In short, the total cost was in the region of £250 million. That is the equivalent of 5 per cent of the budget of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. This £250 million might be a justified cost if it delivered value for money. However, it does not. I quote from the report: The overall accountability regime for English higher education emerges as a patchwork of legacy requirements from different stakeholders responding to different concerns at different times, with little overarching design, co-ordination or rationale. In consequence, the current regime represents poor value for money both for stakeholders and for institutions". The exercise is thus expensive and inefficient.

Various university departments have attempted their own assessment of the cost in terms of staff hours of subject reviews undertaken under the auspices of the Quality Assurance Agency. Those estimates have ranged from £20,000 to £200,000. The figures may be disputed, but they point to a substantial burden on what in many cases are overstretched departments. There is clearly a major financial cost.

There is another cost that has not been emphasised enough, but which has fundamental implications for the future of the education system in this country. PA Consulting defined it as the behavioural cost of the accountability arrangements. The consultants could not put a cash sum on it, yet it is probably the biggest cost of all. I refer to stress and, most importantly, morale. The cost in staff morale is horrendous. That cost has to be put in a wider context. The growing burden of bureaucracy is but one of many pressures to which academics are now subject. Universities have been forced to rationalise over the past 20 years. Initial promises of a steady state regime soon disappeared. The student body has expanded, sometimes abruptly, with resources not expanding to keep pace with the growth. Universities are being asked to do more with less. They are subject to different regulatory regimes with demands descending on them from the Government and from regulatory and funding bodies. That results in uncertainty and low morale.

Academics are now under tremendous pressure. They work hard, yet they are under-resourced, undervalued and under-paid. A post in academia ceased some years ago to be a cushy number, regarded by insurance companies as a healthy job for actuarial purposes. It is now demanding and, for many, notably stressful. That has been borne out by survey data, including that on the effects of the 1992 research assessment exercise.

The consequences are pernicious and long term. The implications for recruitment and retention in universities are obvious. We are not retaining the brightest and the best to teach our young people. In some cases they are not entering the profession; others are leaving it.

The situation is critical. Given that, any accountability regime has to deliver notable benefits to offset the costs. There is little evidence that it is delivering substantial benefits. The limited studies of subject reviews that have been undertaken do not show the exercise delivering well on its stated criteria. One study, published in the Journal of Education for Teaching, found that it did not deliver well on its financial and public information purposes. On its enhancement purpose, it helped to bring about some changes at a departmental level, but was less effective at a generic—that is institutional—level. Furthermore, as the Association of University Teachers has argued, the bureaucracy is out of proportion to the issues that it is designed to address. In the assessment exercise, few departments are found to be seriously wanting.

As long as there is a juxtaposition of greater regulation with limited resources, there is the danger that the exercise will undermine rather than enhance the quality of teaching. Only those with spare capacity have the time to cope with the burden of increased bureaucracy. Those who already have full teaching and research commitments can cope with the growing burden only at the expense of their teaching and research. One cannot impose a greater regulatory burden without providing the resources necessary to cope with it.

The conclusion to be drawn is that the costs of the present regulatory regime massively outweigh any presumed benefits. We cannot continue as we are. The Government recognise that. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, has conceded the need for a lighter touch and a reduction in the burden imposed on universities. A new regime for subject reviews is to be introduced later this year. In response to questions on 20th February, the Minister said that we needed to wait and see how well the new system worked.

The move towards a less burdensome system of subject review is very welcome, but I fear that the Minister's position does not go far enough. It is flawed in two respects. First, it confuses a lighter touch with a light touch. There is a world of difference between the two. A lighter touch may denote a shift from an extraordinarily heavy burden to a heavy burden. It is also essentially—certainly in this case—reactive. The Government recognise that there is a heavy burden and they are making some move away from it. With a light touch there is by definition an absence of a heavy load. It is also something that can be worked towards. It can constitute a clear future goal.

It is clear from the Minister's comments on 20th February that she embraces a lighter touch, but not a light one. When asked about the reduction in the burden on universities, she said that the number of individual subjects to be reviewed was to be reduced by one third and that the number of days that people spent undertaking the reviews would be reduced by about one fifth. Those constitute reductions, but it is obvious from the figures that they are not major reductions. The coverage of the QAA under the new system has been extended. I understand that Roger Brown, the former head of the Higher Education Quality Council, has described the new system as, almost certainly the most complex anywhere in the world". And for what? Trials of three subject areas in 1999 failed to establish that there had been any significant reduction in the overall burden of external scrutiny.

Secondly, the problem cannot be seen in discrete terms. It has to be put in the context of the other pressures on the education system. Those pressures are several and come from different sources. By concentrating on slimming down subject reviews, albeit modestly, there is a danger of missing the much wider and more critical picture. That wider picture needs to be addressed quickly. Instead of slimming down the existing regime, or at least slimming down one particular regime, we should be looking at alternative ways of achieving the goals that I adumbrated in my opening remarks. There is too much duplication in the quality control system. Too much of it is unproductive. We need to look for leaner, fitter and less obtrusive methods of ensuring accountability and good quality education and research. Given the competition that universities now engage in, not least in recruiting students, one has to ask whether heavy external regimes are necessary.

I end by putting some questions to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, who will reply to the debate. He has taught in higher education and chaired the Further Education Funding Council. I suspect that he will have empathised with many of my points. Does he accept the comment of Howard Newby in 1999 that we have, the most scrutinised education system in the world"? Does he accept the argument of Universities UK that the £250 million spent on the accountability regime could be put to more effective use by being devoted to reversing deteriorating teaching facilities? Does he accept the need for a light touch in higher education? In each case, if not, why not? Finally and fundamentally, what are the Government doing, in conjunction with Universities UK and other bodies, to look holistically at the problems facing our universities and to find alternative ways of achieving the goals to which we all subscribe. I beg to move for Papers.

5.50 p.m.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on introducing this debate on accountability. I certainly welcome it. It is a vital issue. In my capacity as chief executive of Universities UK—I declare that interest—I know that our universities would be the first to agree that they should be accountable for the public funds that they receive. After all, public funds account for a large proportion—some 62 per cent—of their money.

However, the systems by which our universities account for that public money certainly need to be reformed. There are questions about cost-effectiveness and whether those systems are all necessary. I am sure that we all want to relieve universities of unnecessary burdens because they are time-consuming and costly and they limit innovation. Universities are finding that the burden of red tape is reducing their scope for flexibility. Flexibility is vital if universities are to develop their students to the full.

Our universities will be able to do that if they can tailor their programmes to the interests of students. That is a particular strength of UK universities. However, I fear that the burden of too much red tape might force our universities into constructing more limited programmes. I cannot emphasise enough how important flexibility is in allowing our universities to carry out the research which is so important to the economy.

The present system places a cost on universities which they can ill afford. After decades of cuts, the last thing that they need is for the much-needed extra resources, hard won from the Government, to be siphoned off into dealing with red tape.

It is worth asking how much the present systems cost. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, mentioned PA Consulting Group—the independent consultants retained by HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, to look into the burden of accountability, as we have all come to call it. PA Consulting said that the direct and indirect costs of the present systems—the noble Lord, Lord Norton, enumerated them in detail—stand at approximately £250 million each year. Not only is that equivalent to 5 per cent of the total budget of HEFCE but, according to my calculations, it is equivalent to the funding of about two universities.

The main areas of accountability which cause those costs are, as has already been mentioned, the work of the Quality Assurance Agency; the research assessment exercise; to my mind, the cost of bidding for the ever-increasing small pots of money for special initiative funding; and the inexorable increase and sheer cost of extracting more and more information about students, finances and staffing.

Therefore, I was very pleased today to read the announcement from the Department for Education and Employment about the reduction in the burden of higher education quality assessment—one area where we know that there is a substantial burden. I certainly welcome it as a significant step towards reducing that burden. I believe that it is a step towards fulfilment of the Minister's intention that the burden should be reduced, as she said in a response to the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, just a month ago.

I also welcome the further dialogue with the funding council and the Quality Assurance Agency that is intended to continue that process and to identify further measures to reduce the burden on universities. Of course—I believe that everyone will acknowledge this—at the same time, that must be consistent with the need to provide reliable public information for students and other stakeholders.

I also want to stress that the auditors and assessors of the Quality Assurance Agency do a good job. The problem rests with the system of accountability rather than with the people who carry it out. However, I agree that reform must be much more ambitious. The new "light touch" of the QAA may well save the sector money. However, the £250 million bill needs to be reduced drastically. To achieve that, a fundamental reform of the whole series of audit systems is needed. Wholesale reform might mirror more accurately, for example, the good practice, tried and tested, which is employed at present in industry and commerce. I believe that we have much to learn in that regard.

I said that PA Consulting estimates that red tape costs £250 million each year. It is important to put that figure into context. Many noble Lords will know that Universities UK's Funding Options Review Group, under the guidance of Sir William Taylor, issued its final report on university funding, New Directions for Higher Education Funding, only a few weeks ago.

That report identified a funding requirement in the university sector of at least £900 million each year which must be found by 2004–05. Universities need that extra money, among other things, to improve their deteriorating teaching facilities. Those are, of course, enormously important if universities are to provide the skills and knowledge which the economy needs. The extra money is also important in enabling universities fully to motivate their students. Without it, it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure that the UK's rate of student retention, which is almost the highest in the world, remains that way.

To my mind, if some of the resources which are now being used up in meeting the accountability burden were spent instead on improving the teaching infrastructure and other forms of student support, that would go some way to meeting the funding requirement set out in New Directions for Higher Education Funding.

Having said all that, I very much support the call by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for attention to be given to this issue. I certainly also welcome the Government's intention of ensuring that that happens.

5.57 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing this debate, and for doing so with great elegance and great perception and in such a style that, like Clive, he is entitled to stand astonished at his own moderation.

I must, of course, declare an interest. I am a serving university teacher and although I am proud to belong to a party for which I do not have to apologise when I talk to colleagues, I speak for myself and for those with whom I was sitting in a departmental meeting five hours ago.

This is not a party matter and I hope that the Minister will not reply with any party points. We are facing a programme which is strictly, in the good old 18th century sense, that of the Court and Treasury Party. So far as I can see, the change of government has made absolutely no difference whatever. The last time I expressed that view in the Chamber, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, expressed some dismay at it. I decided to check it with my head of department. I asked him whether he had seen any difference in what came from Whitehall since the change of government. He looked at me as though I were half-witted and said, "Of course not". I do not make a party point, but that illustrates that all this has been going on for some time. We are now beginning to hear the ever louder sound of turning worms—it is like the mud flats when the tide goes out.

Recently, I talked to a young colleague, who is not in my department. He is the recent author of an extremely promising first book. He said to me, "I came into this job because I hoped to exercise academic judgment and because I hoped to be able to follow standards which I believe to be right. But if I am to be turned into a sort of lance-corporal, applying standards laid down from somewhere else, then I don't see why I shouldn't go into the City and make some money instead". That remark frightened me, and it is very far from an isolated case. If that mood becomes general, I believe that our survival, on a very wide scale, will be in doubt.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, used the word "burden"; that is a literal word. In my experience, departmental secretaries are some of the most dedicated people with whom it has been my privilege to work. One expects departmental secretaries to go home at half-past five. The day before we had to submit our papers for the teaching quality assessment, the departmental secretary was still at her desk at 4 o'clock in the morning. She was already in her 60s and was not in good health. That is not the sort of burden that one should place on departmental secretaries. If we do, we do not get good service.

We receive the most extraordinary things. I have here a letter, dated 23rd February, which I received from an organisation called Teaching Personnel, the UK's largest teaching agency organising supply teachers for schools throughout every area of England and Wales. The DfEE has recently recognised that FE and HE teachers provide a credible additional resource for supply positions where qualified mainstream teachers are not available. The circular asks: Would you be interested in taking temporary supply teaching assignments on your available day? I have heard many comments on that circular. This is a polite House; I shall not repeat them.

I should like to ask the Minister—I do not expect an immediate answer but I shall put it down for a Written Answer—what was the cost of this consultation exercise? How many university teachers have come forward to take up supply teaching positions? What was the cost to public funds per university teacher who did so? I shall be interested to see the answer.

A great many of the questions are completely irrelevant to what one does, incomprehensible in relation to one's own work, and therefore unanswerable. A couple of weeks ago I had to fill in an appraisal form. The first question that it asked about my teaching was what I had done to develop teaching material. I ask people to read books—I do not supply them with teaching material—and that is getting more difficult than it used to be. I could multiply those cases over and over again.

When I once served on the research assessment exercise, I was given a large amount of paper from the number-crunchers in Whitehall. I was only able to proceed once I had been solemnly assured by my chairman that I could ignore every word because none of it told me anything that I wanted to know about the quality of the people whom I was assessing.

Accountability is obviously a key issue. The change that became effective in 1988 was the disappearance of the University Grants Committee. In retrospect, it looks even more important than it did at the time. That is because we are now seeing an attempt to make the quality judgments, on which attempts to assess accountability are based, not in the old University Grants Committee, which was competent to do it, but inside Sanctuary Buildings themselves. That attempt is literally ultra vires; it is beyond their power; they are not competent to do it. That is especially so since one observes from all these questionnaires an immense inability to recognise the differences between subjects, as in the case of the length of a PhD. A PhD in history and a PhD in chemistry are not identical operations. Any attempt to control them by a uniform set of rules must risk mangling one of them. I have not taken on a PhD candidate since these rules came into force. I regret that.

There must, of course, be accountability. Whitehall is entitled to know that we spend money on the items for which we are granted it. But the body to which universities are properly accountable for judgment of quality, a body that is able to assess it, is the global higher education market. That is something real. Judging by the number of people coming in from places such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, we are not doing that badly. However, it does not really seem to impinge on Whitehall because of the obsession with irrelevant quantitative indicators.

The other point to be mentioned in this respect is that we have moved away from the semi-autonomy of the University Grants Committee towards a relationship very similar to that which exists between Whitehall and the boards of the private utilities, in which a technical private ownership is combined with a very detailed contract, enabling Whitehall to demand changes in practically everything from what Railtrack does with its rails to what sort of books we use for teaching. In neither case is Whitehall competent to take those decisions. So what we have is detailed control without responsibility. We know what sort of a prerogative power without responsibility is: and it is what this system provides us with. It is not doing us any good.

It causes the more anxiety because of the fact that all these measures came into force together with a passionate attempt from inside Whitehall to reduce unit costs. There is a suspicion, by no means unknown among my colleagues, that the whole atmosphere of quality control is a back-door attempt to reduce unit costs—a deliberate Whitehall attempt to reduce quality and then to blame the universities for the result. "Never" is a short time in politics. But in the case of Oxford's reaction to the case of Laura Spence and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, "never" will be not quite as short a time as usual. It causes a very deep measure of anger, and that should not be ignored.

In terms of unit costs, matters have been getting worse ever since 1976. The mere mention of 1976 compels me to a recognition that some change in that direction had to happen. But a pendulum that goes on swinging in one direction for 24 years should be due to swing back again. I do not see much sign of it. That is from where we get the sense of turning worms among my colleagues; the sense of their being deliberately set up to fail and blamed when they do so. It is not confined to my own profession. Dr Bogle of the BMA has recently expressed very much the same sense. Any lawyers listening to the Home Secretary's criticisms a couple of weeks ago may well have made similar comments that I have not been privileged to hear. I guess that they have not been put into printable form! So there is a very strong feeling that unless this downward pressure on unit costs can be brought to a halt, and the whole attempt to make academic judgments inside Whitehall brought to a halt with it, if it were to end in there being no more universities in this country, it would not cause me nearly as much grief as I would wish.

6.08 p.m.

Lord Parekh

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing this extremely important debate.

Since the noble Lord, Lord Norton, the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, have spoken about the larger issues raised by the current bureaucratic regime that impinges on the universities, I should like to concentrate on one particular aspect—the Quality Assurance Agency and its operations. Universities are publicly funded and must obviously be accountable to the wider society. However, it is worth remembering that, since these days they are less dependent on public resources, they cannot have the degree and depth of accountability they used to.

Since universities compete for students at home and abroad, and since the country has a vital stake in their professional reputation, it is crucial that their quality of teaching and standard of degrees should enjoy public confidence here and abroad. Although academics are men of honour and commitment, they are fallible human beings, and some are inevitably tempted from time to time to cut corners. For those and other related reasons, there can be and should be no objection to some form of national quality assurance.

The current system, however, leaves much to be desired. That becomes strikingly evident when we consider three recent findings. First, we were told that the politics departments of Salford and De Montfort Universities are superior to that at the LSE in the quality of teaching and standard of exams. Salford and De Montfort are obviously good universities and I respect them, but I do not think that one would want to argue that they are in the same international league as the LSE, as the differences in their RAE results and international reputation clearly show. An exercise that finds those departments superior to that at the LSE is prima facie suspect.

Secondly, several departments have secured 24 out of the maximum of 24 points. That is odd as it implies that those departments are perfect and need no further improvement whatever. It is even odder that hardly any department seems to have secured less than 22 out of 24 points and that a score of 22 out of 24 is widely regarded as a sign of failure. There is certainly something worrying about a system which encourages such grade inflation and clusters almost all university departments around an extremely narrow band.

Thirdly, almost all university departments that have gone through the quality assurance exercise have been highly critical of it, including those which have obtained the highest number of points, such as the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick whose senior professors wrote a scathing piece in the Guardian only a few weeks ago.

What then is wrong with the current system? First, it is crude. It judges university subjects and departments on the basis of six criteria which are not all of equal importance. The quality of teaching is at the heart of the pedagogical exercise and cannot be treated on a par with the supply of teaching materials, library resources, student support or even curriculum design.

Secondly, the Quality Assurance Agency largely concentrates on what I might call the externalities of teaching and cannot even remotely be said to assess the quality of teaching which it claims to assess. It looks at a department's paperwork and minutes of various committees. It talks to past and present students from the department, whom the department itself has chosen for the purpose. That is obviously an inadequate basis on which to pronounce judgment on the commitment, inspirational qualities, extra-curricula contacts with students and the scholarship of the teachers involved.

Thirdly, since so much importance is given to paperwork, departments are forced to spend huge amounts of time getting it right. In my own department, for example, two colleagues spent nearly four months of their precious time getting together the nearly 150 ring-binders required for the exercise. Other colleagues devoted only slightly less time to it. All that detracts from the time needed for research and teaching and brings the whole department to a virtual standstill for weeks on end.

Fourthly, the whole exercise, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, seems to produce little benefit. The departments may learn to be a bit more efficient in their paperwork or in ensuring that recommended books are available in their libraries, but there is very little improvement in the substance and quality of teaching. An outsider sitting in on odd lecture or tutorial is hardly in a position to proffer sensible advice to the teacher concerned or to the students involved.

Fifthly, thanks to the way that the Quality Assurance Agency has operated, academic morale has suffered enormously. Academics feel that they are not trusted to do their jobs and that they are judged by matters which are external and incidental to the exercise of teaching for which they entered the academic profession in the first instance. Indeed, every student now appears to them not as a mind to be trained but as a symbol of so much paperwork—a burden to be avoided to the extent that one could and one would do so if only the student did not bring some money.

As several friends in the Academy of the Learned Societies of Social Sciences have pointed out to me, they would prefer to resign and be re-employed on a part-time basis to avoid the mindless paperwork and bureaucratic inspection to which they are subject.

I have argued so far that some external quality assurance is necessary. But I have argued also that the existing regime is deeply flawed. What then is the alternative? In the short time available to me, I shall end by making four suggestions.

First, universities, by and large, consist of committed people who have enough professional integrity to take their pedagogical responsibilities seriously. Our universities also have, unlike their European and American counterparts, a fairly effective system of external examiners who not only ensure high standards of marking but also high standards of curriculum design and so on.

Since universities depend on students, they all have a vested interest in ensuring that they enjoy an excellent reputation. Therefore, I suggest that we should approach universities in a spirit of trust rather than suspicion and appeal to and modernise their professional integrity rather than their fears and vulnerabilities. We should rely on encouraging them to do yet better, rather than shaming and hounding them.

Secondly, we should urge, or perhaps even require, universities to devise their own mechanisms for inspecting and improving their quality of teaching and standard of degrees. Young lecturers benefit far more if their senior colleagues attend lectures, advise them on curriculum design and so on rather than having outsiders making negative comments on the basis of a two or three day visit to the university.

Thirdly, external quality assurance should be a device of last resort rather than a regular regime of inspection. Only when students complain or when the Quality Assurance Agency has reason to believe that the university department is failing in its duty should it send in an inspection team. Such inspections should not be routine but activated only when universities fail to be self-regulatory. And its concern should be to help to improve the quality of teaching, rather than to concentrate merely on what I have called the externalities of the pedagogical exercise.

Such inspection is likely to be beneficial only if it is led by senior scholars in the field whose judgment and impartiality are widely respected, rather than by those with no research record, no strong reputation as teachers or who have become disillusioned with academic life themselves.

Finally, we need to remember that different disciplines and subjects cannot all be judged in the same way. English literature is not statistics and both again are very different from history and economics. We need to appreciate those differences and evolve appropriate criteria of assessment.

I have one final thought. I am fairly confident that some of the greatest past teachers of our country— Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper or Michael Oakeshott— would most certainly have failed to pass many of the bureaucratic tests set by the QAA. A system with such results most certainly needs a radical second look.

6.18 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I hope that the expert speakers and the great contemporary experts who have spoken already will forgive a Rip Van Winkle offering a few memories and reflections.

I had the honour to open the first ever debate held on universities in this House 45 or 46 years ago. I opened the first debate on polytechnics some years later. So my mind goes back a long way and I ask myself what has been the result of the initiatives taken on those occasions, not only by me, of course, because I was just a minor figure.

There was a nationwide demand among well-informed people that there should be a great expansion of university places; and that has duly taken place. There was an almost equal demand that polytechnics should receive university status; and that also has been achieved.

What has been the result? We have the debate today. Those complaints were never made in the old days because there were not the same difficulties. But now, with this vast number of students, the tendency to introduce bureaucracy is obviously overwhelming and so we have this debate.

I defer to the academic credentials of many Members of this House. When I last counted, some little while ago, there were some 15 professors. Now, I think there are a good many more, including four who are speaking today. The Minister, who will reply, is versed in higher education, as are other speakers. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, is head of a college. Other noble Lords have been heads of colleges. We have here every kind of expertise. There are two Fellows of All Souls, neither of whom is in his place: the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham—we do not hear from him often enough these days—and the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, who we warmly welcome.

I speak merely as a college tutor at Oxford in the 1930s and for a short while in the 1950s. My first pupil later became owner of the Telegraph group of newspapers. My last pupil later became Chancellor of the Exchequer. So, I have had experience of academic life. All my seven surviving children graduated. Sixteen of my grandchildren have graduated, with others to come. I have, therefore, had contact with universities. I taught for the Workers' Educational Association and at the London School of Economics. I have my own credentials, even if they do not compare with some of those here.

My message can be delivered briefly. Everybody has, in their own mind, those special features of university life which mean most to them. Some think of the social life; which is not by any means to be despised. Some think of the wonderful, unforgettable lectures they have heard, and some think of the opportunities for research, which are much more pronounced than in my day. I think of the tutorial system. I shall ask the Minister whether the tutorial ideal is still preserved. It was carried much further in the old universities. The circumstances were much more favourable than throughout the polytechnics, for example. Nevertheless, is the tutorial system, carried out on a one-to-one-basis—occasionally two people have a tutorial at the same time—to be preserved as an ideal, or, under the new developments is it completely overlooked?

Much is said today about pressure. Does that interfere with the tutorial system and make it less likely that a tutor will have time to give to a pupil what tutors gave me in my time; namely, an hour a week throughout his time at university? Is that still possible or has that been rejected?

The tutorial system had its disadvantages. Some tutors frightened their pupils. Even the great and mighty Dick Crossman, later to become a famous Cabinet Minister, was somewhat intimidated by the philosopher HWB Joseph who kept asking his pupils, "What do you mean by that word?" The only man to defeat him was Professor Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell. He retaliated on one occasion in a seminar by asking, "What do you mean by the word 'mean'?" That left Joseph temporarily speechless.

Pupils did not always get on well with their tutors. I know of a gifted young woman who asked to be given a different tutor. A tutor had to be fetched from London to Cambridge to look after her. I owe everything to a tutor, an economic Scotsman, who was a rather awkward type. I said to him on one occasion, "I suppose I shall get a first?" He said, "I've no reason to think so". That made me settle down to work for the first time in my life. One can owe a lot to a tutor. Perhaps I may simply press the point to the Minister: is the tutorial system still any kind of ideal or will the new developments destroy it?

6.24 p.m.

Lord Morgan

My Lords, I hope that it is in order to speak. I spoke in the previous debate and hope that I am not taxing the tolerance of the House too much. The debates on English regional government and this debate on universities raise exactly the same themes. They both concern the impact of centralisation on the regions and, in this case, on free and supposedly autonomous institutions.

I listened with enormous interest to the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, a fellow member of the professoriate, and, indeed, a member of perhaps a smaller sub-group; namely, a former vice-chancellor. His speech and those of other speakers brought back many memories, many rather miserable. To hear some of those observations was rather like having a lunch appointment with Banquo's ghost.

We have heard much about the mechanics of the present situation. As an historian I am interested in origins. These matters did not originate with the government of Mr Blair but with the policies of the Conservative Party in the 1980s. I do not mean to be narrowly partisan, or at all, but as a matter of historical accuracy, the present situation began with a process of trying to change the direction of institutions and of using governments so to do.

In many ways, that process was necessary; I do not dispute that. Universities needed reform at that period. In some ways I found, as a vice-chancellor, that the impact could be liberating and by no means depressing. However, it was part of a process in which trying to roll back the force of state control led to more control. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, is a distinguished professor of politics. He will be familiar with the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the outstanding example of forcing men to be free, as Rousseau said. So it was with universities; with local government forced to be free of the "loony Left", and with hospitals and many other institutions at that time.

The process built on an even earlier tradition. In my opinion, the universities began to lose their esteem and their right to freedom, as popularly perceived, in the student troubles of the late 1960s, immediately after the Robbins report. The student rebellions of the 1960s had many positive features. They improved the governance of universities, and the way in which young people were dealt with in matters of discipline, and so forth.

However, the rebellions left a disastrous impression on the public mind: the view that universities were incapable of running themselves. Without intention, the student rebellions led to a feeling that universities were incompetent and had to be taken over. That chimed in with a later feeling, the so-called "taxpayers' revolts"; the feeling that students who behave in that way should not in any way be supported or funded by the taxpayer. That led to the interventionist reforms under the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, which were taken up by John Major and, I am sorry to say, have been continued without any great fundamental change by the present administration.

Many of the features of which we have heard chime in exactly with my own recollection as a vice-chancellor between 1989 and 1995. In some ways I believe that the procedures have got worse. We have heard a great deal about the funding document concerning administrative matters and regulation, which was Commissioned by HEFCE, the funding council for England. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, explained, it went through the whole range of impacts, both direct and indirect, institutional and personal, and the enormous costs involved. All that was alarming. It related to England, but my information is that the process in Wales is by no means an improvement. Although I believe in devolution, I felt that the devolution procedures in higher education were not a great advertisement for that principle.

The worst of the problems has been alluded to. I refer to the quality assessment subject reviews which are enormously time consuming. A number of figures were quoted. Those in the hefty document related to the University of Leeds, which I know at first hand. That medium-sized university reckons that it costs £70,000 a year, much of it unnecessary in terms of duplication and excess of details. As has rightly been said, there is considerable pressure on university staff. We see in the public service the kind of demoralisation that we see among teachers and people in the NHS. That is part of a diminution of the esteem of the public service, despite the Government's best efforts. The situation is not improving and is perhaps worsening.

Perhaps less overwhelmingly expensive and complicated are the institutional audits of which I have had great experience. They are enormously detailed. It seems to me that the same unnecessary degree of pedantic detail is sought in all aspects of a university's operation and there is no "lightness of touch" in that direction.

The research assessment exercise has in some ways shown an improvement in terms of its impact on universities but in some ways it has become worse. One twist that has been imposed is that the documentation which cannot be discovered by assessors in their own institutions, libraries and so forth must be found by the university under review. In other words, it is forced to carry the administrative costs which should properly be borne by those administering the system and by the funding council. Time and again we hear that this is a listening administration. We often hear of governments listening but sometimes I have my doubts because the listening process is not too evident.

Bids for new academic developments are needlessly complicated and heavy in their detail. In my experience as a vice-chancellor, it is easier to obtain resources and funding for new developments from Europe. For example, in Wales there was a simple procedure for obtaining funding for a new lecturer from the committee dealing with minority languages.

Finally, I turn to audits. Like all public institutions, universities need to be audited. In my experience, they were audited several times a year. It was perhaps a peculiarly Welsh experience because we had the disastrous case of the university in Cardiff, which my noble friend Lord Morris will know better than I. I in Aberystwyth felt that we were all tarred with the same brush and therefore audited to death because we could not be trusted with public money—could we?

I felt that all the audits were not so much auditing us as auditing each other. If one audit suggested 92 technical improvements, the next, as a matter of honour and pride, suggested 110. And so it would go on. The famous phrase, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" comes to mind—who guards the guardians? Who, I wondered, audited the auditors? It was not transparent to me.

As the hefty document makes clear, the right balance is not being struck between public assurance about universities and their private governance. This is harmful to their resources and to their role as precious centres of intellectual life. I say that with some sorrow because I believe that the Government have done many splendid things for education, including higher education. We have a new level of funding of more than £1 billion over the next three years. The unit of resource is going up rather than down. We have new money to improve staff retention and recruitment, although I agree with those who have said that staff stipends are at an extremely poor level.

The sheer pressure of costs and time seem to be working against those objectives and getting in the way of the universities' immediate role of research and teaching, and contributing more widely to the moral and knowledge economy of this country. That is seen most obviously in the operations, narrowly educational; but a new level has been alluded to; namely, the intervention of the Treasury. There is a new phenomenon which is interesting to historians and perhaps even more so to political scientists: the Treasury is concerned not only with controlling and vetting the expenditure of departments for their policies but also with laying down what those policies should be. That seemed an indicative feature of the melancholy story of Laura Spence with, it appeared, an attempt to dictate on, sadly, wrong information, what the admissions policy of an Oxford faculty should be.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Parekh that trust should be placed in universities. They have a high international reputation and a high and proven level of efficiency on all the indicative tests which are applied to a business. The costs imposed on universities are too frequently artificial regulatory burdens which could well be diminished. We have heard the kind of savings that could be made.

Labour governments have an honourable tradition in education. The Wilson and Callaghan governments took forward the great expansion following the Robbins report. The present Government are committed to the noble ideal of raising participation massively to more than 50 per cent in higher education and to the strategies of lifelong learning. Universities can, and should, be trusted to carry that policy through.

Finally, to misquote Rousseau again, universities were conceived as free but too often they are in chains. Even if the chains are paper chains, they ought to be removed.

6.37 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing an extremely important debate. We have touched on the subject in this House from time to time but never concentrated on the issue of bureaucracy in universities. I must declare an interest. For much of my life I have been an academic and remain attached to the University of Sussex on a part-time basis.

One must put the development of bureaucracy in universities within the context of the growth of mass higher education in this country. When I went to university in 1957, I was one of 7 per cent of the age cohort then going through to university. In the 1960s, under the Robbins expansion that 7 per cent increased to about 10 per cent. By the end of the 1970s we were taking in 14 per cent of the 18-year olds. The figure remained static at 14 per cent until about 1987. Then there was a big expansion. By 1993 the number had risen to 28 per cent and we are now touching 35 per cent. The aim is to have 50 per cent of the 18 year- olds going on to higher education.

When I went to Sussex in 1980, I took tutorial groups usually of four. It was the Sussex tradition to have tutorials rather than classes. It was not quite the Oxbridge tradition of two but it was a semi-Oxbridge tradition. It was good because although I had a relatively small room I could fit four students in it and take them for a tutorial. When I left in 1998 the tutorial group was typically 17 or 18 students.

That illustrates the fact that it is necessary to have different teaching techniques. One gets to know four students personally very quickly. One knows their foibles and can cope very easily with four written pieces of work each week. One sets the written work and it comes back. If one has 18 students it is much more difficult. One does not like to go round a class and check the names, or pass round a piece of paper, but one must keep a note of the students who come in. However, to teach 18 students is a different matter.

When 7 to 10 per cent of the age cohort went into higher education, a student could be handed an essay and literally a few books that might be relevant. The student had to search out the information for himself or herself and learnt enormously as a result. One can use those methods only with the top decile, or perhaps a little more, of the intelligence quotient. When one has many more students one cannot rely on those methods.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness a question. Does the noble Baroness agree that in the case she mentioned the tutorial system has been abandoned?

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, it has not been completely abandoned. From time to time, as an academic, one gives tutorials to students who come to one's room and say they cannot understand. In Oxbridge the tutorial system continues, and that is one of the advantages of that sector. However, it also costs a lot more.

It was natural to look much more closely at teaching methods. Those changes took place simultaneously with other changes in the 1980s. It was a time when public expenditure was being squeezed enormously and the public and government demanded value for money. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and others explained, from that climate derived the two big exercises in accountability: teaching quality assessment and research assessment.

Other bureaucratic exercises have now crept in, many of which have come from this Government rather than the previous one. There is an increasing tendency to ring-fence money and ask for separate bids. That means that somebody must put together the bid. That can take a great deal of administrative and academic time. That is all extra time taken out. The question is whether all of these exercises are really necessary. Have they become unnecessarily bureaucratic?

Because I work in a research unit at the University of Sussex my experience has related largely to RAE which is slightly less bureaucratic than the teaching quality assessment exercises. At the end of the day, probably the unit puts in slightly more than a year's worth of top time to hone the RAE application. It is a five-year exercise. At the start, one has 30 researchers who publish research. One looks at what research is going on, tries to identify the researchers who are likely to produce good work and get them to submit articles to the premier journals to ensure that they publish their work early, and so on. One talks to them about the timetable. To some extent, one plots it and gradually builds it up. It is probable that half a dozen of the top people in the unit are involved in putting it together. Over the five years we spend a year's time putting the RAE together. That also has knock-on effects.

The other side of the bureaucracy, to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, also referred, is the spillover: the effects on morale and so on. My impression is that TQA has a much worse record. I have not been involved in the detail. Based on the single lecture course in which I was involved—10 lectures and 10 classes which went with it—I was surprised by the amount of paper. I ended up producing about 200 pages of paper to justify what I did and everything that went with it. It took me about a week to put together. If one assumes that one department has about 120 courses like that, one begins to understand how the Warwick economists came to the conclusion that it would cost £120,000 for one subject review. I have checked with the University of Sussex and discovered that in the past year it has undertaken five reviews. Therefore, the expenditure on these subject reviews by a university is between £½ to £¾ million each year. PA Consulting found that it amounted to a great deal of money.

As the Warwick economists pointed out in their splendid article in the education section of the Guardian, one is batting against a flexible objective which changes all the time. One of the bad factors is the degree to which the rules change all the way along so one never quite knows at what one is looking. It does not give an objective standard of teaching quality or a good measure of changing quality over time. Therefore, it is not necessarily a good diagnostic tool to the department. There are always knock-on effects as one sits down to appraise oneself. Good things come out of it. One realises that there are shortcomings and that it is possible to do some things better, but overall the cost is great and the benefits, which could probably be secured by other much less costly means, relatively marginal.

The reason why these have become such demons within the university sector is that they come on top of what was already a very stressed situation. As various noble Lords have pointed out, during the 1980s the real increase in the resources of universities was not very great, and resources have not kept pace with the demands in terms of student numbers. We know that in 1988 the unit of resource was £7,000 plus; it is now £4,500 plus.

In most departments the average contact time for a teaching fellow is probably between 10 and 14 hours a week. On top of that, one has preparation and marking time. Because classes have become so much larger, marking takes more time. My daughter is currently downstairs with the University of Bradford group showing off what is being done in the environmental sciences department of that university. Just before I came into the Chamber for the debate, I gave tea to my daughter and some of her fellow lecturers. They were very interested in the debate and were sorry that they could not listen to it. I spoke to them about teaching loads. They said that, typically, the load was about 14 hours a week but it took three times as long to mark the work. On top of every essay was an assessment sheet. One of them said that it took almost half an hour to fill out the sheet.

I was a detailed marker of essays and I estimated that it took me half an hour to mark one. If I had 16 to do it took eight hours to mark them decently. The time taken to mark nowadays is very great. One has 14 hours of teaching and probably at least the same amount of time for preparation and marking, with five hours spent in committees. That takes up one's 35 hours a week and all one's research. Promotion conies from research. In view of the impact of the RAE the pressures on research are enormous. All of this must be done in the evenings and at weekends. The average working week of academics is now between 50 and 60 hours, and for the more senior staff it is often between 60 to 70 hours. Often 70 per cent of a department suffers stress.

This system of bureaucracy has been labelled by one of my academic colleagues at Leeds, Hugo Radice. as equivalent to the soviet system. I should like to quote briefly his words: The institutions we work in resemble more and more closely the Soviet form of enterprise. Our activities take place within a rigid hierarchy that runs up through the head of department to the school, faculty, the university as a whole, and thence to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the functional equivalent of Gosplan, the high command of the Soviet planning system. Our task is not to generate high quality of learning and teaching but to satisfy the current demands of the quality inspection system, which means producing a Potemkin village, paint scarcely dry on the walls, for the week of inspection by the Quality Assurance Agency". The system resembles closely the system of Soviet bureaucracy. Many noble Lords have drawn attention to the effect that this regime has upon recruitment and retention of staff and the difficulty of continuing to attract the best and brightest brains into the profession. What they have not pointed out are the insidious effects that this command economy has created within the collegiate system of our universities. Instead of professionalism, there is increasing cynicism and emphasis on how best to get around the rules; in effect, to cheat against the rules and to be economical with the truth.

We all know how the Soviet system collapsed under the weight of its own inefficiencies. British universities have a long and very distinguished record of scholarship and invention, borne from a liberal regime of independence and autonomy. Noble Lords have not quarrelled with the need for accountability, but it is dangerous that we may let our universities fall under the weight of their own bureaucracy.

Earl Russell

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I may assist her argument by pointing out to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that I last practised the tutorial system as recently as yesterday afternoon. If it is dead, I am a ghost and I have not noticed.

6.52 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Norton for the opportunity to have the debate and for his excellent speech. The noble Lord's theme was that universities are under-resourced, undervalued and underpaid.

The Government, on coming into office, set about, in their own words, "a modernising agenda". Indeed, in that respect, hardly any of our institutions has escaped the Whitehall tentacles. They set about this work with gusto. In just four years their most significant achievement has been to turn professional staff in our schools, further and higher education in colleges and universities into ciphers, paper pushers and collators of endless information demanded by the Government, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and the research assessment exercise.

The staff are enslaved by overburdensome bureaucracy and no value has been added to the quality of higher education by this additional work. One can add to that concerns about levels of central government interference through the various and unco-ordinated funding initiatives and of course concerns about the much discussed, but as yet unresolved, levels of pay for university lecturers which are affecting recruitment and retention. The level of bureaucracy is having a considerably adverse effect on the work of universities.

Accountability is important. However, the system of quality assurance has invalidated the aims of accountability by debilitating the energies of teachers and lecturers and by absorbing excessive costs.

The original "mission"—to use another government buzzword—for the QAA was, to promote public confidence that quality of provision of standards of awards in higher education are being safeguarded and enhanced". I am afraid that rings very hollow. An industry of bureaucracy and time-consuming unnecessary work is having an impact on standards.

My noble friend Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, who cannot be with us today, commented on, the bureaucracy which now strangles the unfortunate teachers in the University sector … There are mountains of paperwork … The Government are creating a new profession—bureaucratic administration … The dead hand of bureaucracy is falling upon British Universities".—[Official Report, 14/6/00; cols. 1676–77.] What is depressing is that the Government now accept that there is a problem. They have spent four years creating the burden of bureaucracy, only to focus now on reversing that problem. Earlier this year the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said: But I accept also that the burden, particularly for teaching quality assessment, has become rather bureaucratic. It is for those reasons that a new system is being introduced in the autumn. We need to wait and see how well that works".—[Official Report, 20/2/01; col. 595.] That is a tardy response to a problem identified back in 1998 and which has been the subject of regular comment by noble Lords from all Benches in this House. The late Lord Annan was right when he said: The more the bureaucrats in the department are fed, the hungrier they become".—[Official Report. 8/12/99; col. 1334.] The PA report Commissioned by HEFCE was damning. The authors of the report found that higher education institutions incurred significant costs, both direct and indirect, which are generally not measured nor planned. The table on page 6 of the report calculated costs of £250 million, which does not include the cost to the quality of teaching in universities arising from—I quote— bidding 'game-playing", and the planning uncertainties and staff stress. Those are points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick.

On page 7 of the report they also found that the overall accountability regime for English higher education emerges as a patchwork of legacy requirements from different stakeholders responding to different concerns at different times, with little overarching design, co-ordination or rationale. In consequence, the current regime represents poor value for money for both stakeholders and institutions.

The report goes on to say that there is a lack of defined relationships between stakeholders and higher education institutions and different agencies; there are inconsistencies between the key agencies and the accountability requirements; and information requirements are uncoordinated, duplicated and, in many cases, redundant. To wait until the autumn of this year before these issues are properly addressed suggests an indifference over the past four years to the concerns of our universities, all of which were predicted when the QAA system was put in place.

The issue of university lecturers' pay cannot be divorced from this issue. I shall not pretend today— nor did I in our debate last week on student poverty— that concerns about pay and conditions in universities and their funding started in May 1997. We are all culpable. But I must emphasise again that the Dearing report was established by the Conservative Government precisely to deal with these issues, including increased access for students. That report was Commissioned with the support of the Labour Party.

Recommendation 50 of the Dearing report advocated that an independent committee should be appointed by the employers to consider a framework for determining pay and conditions of service. As we all know, an independent report by the Bett committee published in June 1999 acknowledged the need to raise the salaries of university lecturers. The Bett report called for an extra £350 million from the Government. However, the Government have consistently avoided a direct response to the Bett report, arguing that it was Commissioned for the sole benefit of the university employers. The Guardian on 13th July 1999 reported that David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, had been credited with dismissing the Bett proposals as, all in cloud cuckoo land". Certainly, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, has consistently argued that this is a matter for the employers and not for government.

In July 1999, in a debate on that report, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said that, the Dearing Committee recommended that there should be an independent review [of lecturers' pay]. That independent review has now taken place. It was clear that the Dearing Committee intended that it should be a review set up by and reporting to the employers. That is exactly what has happened. There is no case for the Government to interfere in and to respond to the Bett Committee at this point in time".—[Official Report, 12/7/99; co1.10.] However, Recommendation 50 of the Dearing committee does not actually specify that the review committee should answer to the employers alone. Although the report recommends that higher education employers appoint the committee, it makes no mention of the intended recipients. The fact that the Government are allotted the task of choosing the chairman indicates that the Dearing committee envisaged government participation in the review. It implies that the Government would be expected to respond upon publication of the review committee's findings.

If Recommendation 50 is considered in context, it appears even more likely that a government response to the prospective review committee was anticipated. Paragraph 72, which precedes Recommendation 50, states: Whatever view may be taken of the various options, the issue of remuneration [of higher education employees]should not be looked at in isolation. Significant changes will be needed as higher education responds to changing needs and opportunities. To the extent that higher levels of remuneration may be justified, there is the question of how institutions can meet the cost". This "question" is one that can be answered only by the Government, so the reply in the debate of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, would appear not to be absolutely accurate.

However, the noble Baroness has since slightly modified the Government's position, as the following exchange on 31st January 2000 demonstrates. I said: My Lords, in the past the Minister has been careful to say that the Bett report is not a matter for Government, but for higher education. Do the Government not realise that the key to the universities' ability to consider freely their response to the Bett report has a great deal to do with the way in which the Government fund higher education?". The Minister replied: My Lords, I readily accept what the noble Baroness has just said; that university pay—not only of academics but of all staff in universities—is a large part of universities' expenditure and, of course, the overall level of university funding will have some impact on what is paid to staff. However, as I have already said, the Government have substantially increased the funding available to higher education institutions. They will be looking in the next spending review' at public expenditure in that area, as in many others. The Bett committee will be a factor in that spending review, but of course I cannot anticipate the outcome".—[Official Report, 31/1/00: cols. 3–4.] The spending review has come and gone and pay remains unresolved in the higher education sector.

Furthermore, the noble Baroness's assertion that, the Government have substantially increased the funding available to higher education institutions", is not factually accurate if the Government's own preferred measure of spending as a proportion of GDP is used. The DfEE figures show that the Government would need to spend an extra £5.9 billion during the current Parliament simply to maintain the level of funding, as a percentage of GDP, set by the previous government.

The Government claim to have increased real terms funding to higher education by 11 per cent over the four years up to 2001–02. I take issue with that. Indeed, I believe that in another place the Liberal Democrats have done so too. Using the Government's preferred measurement of spending on higher education, including the science budget, as a proportion of GDP, and referring in particular to a parliamentary Written Answer, spending as a proportion of GDP between 1992 and 1997 was up 1.27 per cent. whereas between 1997 and 2000 it was up only 1.14 per cent. Furthermore, what modest increases there have been have been more than absorbed by the widening of access. So there is not much scope left for addressing the problems of university pay and conditions.

In a debate on 14th June 2000, my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking quoted Robert Stevens, then the Master of Pembroke College, Oxford. My noble friend went on to say that, the Government have received three reports. The latest is the one Commissioned earlier this year by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the Higher Education Funding Council and the SCP. They all say the same thing; that the quality of education in our universities is declining because of their inability to recruit and retain staff. They say that the infrastructure of our research base is deteriorating. They say that more than one-third of academics in this country are over the age of 50. Young graduates are not being attracted into the profession in the numbers that are required".—[Official Report, 14/6/00; col. 1641.] Low morale, poor recruitment and retention policies, excessive bureaucracy and too much interference by Ministers need to be addressed. I was impressed, as I always am, by the noble Lord, Lord Morgan. He was right to say that there are lessons to be learnt from history. In a confessional mode I would agree that members of the previous government as well as of the present Government need to learn those lessons. There is a way forward that would enhance academic freedom. Whatever criticisms are made of Conservative policies for universities, the truth is that the universities would welcome being set free— from control and interference, free from bureaucracy and free to manage their own affairs.

Endowment is a way forward and our plans for student finance together with the way in which tax relief will work mean that many students will pay less over time and they will not be obliged to start repayments until earnings are at £20,000 at current prices.

My noble friend Lord Norton should be congratulated. He is of the higher education sector and brings great experience and expertise to bear on our debates about higher education. I want to thank him most warmly for the opportunity to debate this important subject today.

I end with this comment. Academically free institutions will restore professionalism and morale. That is a very real challenge, but one worth the pursuit.

7.6 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in expressing thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for initiating this important debate. He identified the issues in a characteristically precise way and stayed very much within the framework of the subject, concentrating on the issue of the burden of bureaucracy on universities.

The noble Lord also asked some quite specific questions. I am not sure that I am entirely equipped to answer them, except to say, first, that I recognise the quote from the chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, who said that our system is the most scrutinised in the advanced world. I would not worry about that epithet if scrutiny was reflected in terms of us also having a higher education system that produced best value for our people and was of a high standard as a whole.

I maintain that, despite some aspects of jeremiad identified in the debate, we have much to be proud of in our universities. We are still attracting students in very large numbers—from abroad, with their clear element of choice, and students from this country— and our position with regard to research is second only to the United States, with its vastly greater resources. Therefore, in a debate such as this, we must be careful not to produce a false perspective of just what is achieved in universities.

The noble Lord asked—it became slightly metaphysical as far as I was concerned—about when light would become lighter in terms of the touch of bureaucracy. During the course of my speech I hope to be able to identify to the noble Lord developments in the process whereby control over quality in higher education is to be exercised from now on. That will certainly be lighter—perhaps to the extent of 40 per cent in relation to the bureaucratic burdens in the assessment of teaching quality. I shall seek to identify the reforms that are being proposed to reach that objective. Whether that will be light enough for the noble Lord, I very much doubt as I recognise the position that he adopts. Nevertheless, I hope to indicate substantial progress and a recognition that one of the concerns of higher education has certainly been about the over-bureaucratic nature of the accountability exercise.

There has not been a speaker in the debate who has not recognised the importance of our higher education system being fully accountable to our people. But how do we achieve that in the best and most economic way? The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, welcomed aspects of the lighter touch that have been announced by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. He has today identified how that lighter touch is to be employed. I shall go into that in some detail in a moment. However, I want to reassure her that it is certainly the case that we do not expect the hard-won additional resources advanced for higher education to be lost in red tape. Perhaps I may say, first, that those hard-won resources are real, despite the rather disparaging comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, about the resources presently available. I hope that she will recognise and not contend the fact that sufficient resources have been identified. Indeed, for the first time in over a decade, the real unit of resource will be increased in higher education, irrespective of the number of students on roll. That reverses a process which previous administrations had set in train—indeed, had almost set in stone—over a substantial period of time. Indeed, for year after year, that was the case. For the first time, we shall see that position reversed.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Does he agree that I was referring to this Parliament? Resources will not be increased during the lifetime of this Parliament.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the first tranche will come into effect in the autumn of this year. I do not know whether that will take place in this Parliament or the next. I merely testify to the fact that all resources are hard won from the Treasury—my noble friend attested to that—but, nevertheless, they are now in place.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, raised a number of points, not least the fact that remuneration levels for teachers in higher education are such that it is possible that schools might raid higher education institutions for their qualified staff. I do not think that the noble Earl quoted from a government agency with regard to recruitment, but rather from a private agency. Of course we would not condone a situation in which schools raided universities if they were short of qualified staff. Nevertheless, we all recognise that a free market obtains. If a private organisation thinks that it can entice people away from the delights of higher education into the different delights of the school classroom, then that is for individuals to judge.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that the starting pay of a teacher in a primary school, after studying for a three-year degree and gaining postgraduate experience, is now higher than that of someone starting as a young, temporary lecturer in a university? Starting pay at the age of 26 or 27 is around £18,000 a year.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I do not think that I should enter a debate on relative levels of pay when we are debating the question of bureaucracy as it affects higher education. However, perhaps I may say that I would not in any way condemn the enhanced position of primary school teachers. I believe that that development is long overdue. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned, if we are going to discuss this matter in terms of the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his emphasis on education, then we should recall how my right honourable friend the Prime Minister stressed: "Education, education, education". I take that to mean that education is to be emphasised at the primary level, at secondary level and in further and higher education.

Of course we recognise that there is a problem in higher education pay. That is why specific resources have been identified to address the matter. However, that does not meet the contention put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch; namely, that the Government should in some way suspend the negotiating position of employers in higher education and implement £380 million in one year, a demand which I believe many would regard as, if not unrealistic, at least far beyond the bounds of the imagination of the previous administration. Our steps towards enhancing pay in higher education are admittedly limited, but they have identified specific sums of money—hard won from the Treasury, as I have said—in the public spending round, to be directed towards tackling this important issue.

However, that is not the issue primarily addressed in our debate. We are discussing the burden of bureaucracy in higher education. The Government are alive to the concerns over unnecessary bureaucracy being imposed on our universities. Following the publication of a report on the accountability burden in higher education by the English Funding Council in August 2000, a forum has been established to see how we can achieve a reduction in that bureaucracy. The forum's membership includes representatives of the relevant government departments, HE institutions, the Quality Assurance Agency, the funding councils and the research councils.

A number of practical methods and tools have been identified, such as enhanced arrangements for collecting and sharing student information, leading to an integrated student information system for the whole sector. The English Funding Council has already altered and streamlined its own bidding processes, using conditional grants. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, identified the issue of wasteful bidding. That point has been taken. The method of using conditional grants means that HE institutions will know where they stand as regards their funding and thus avoid bureaucratic and wasteful bidding arrangements. Those have been wasteful of both time and resources, as well as introducing a measure of unpredictability. Good practice guidance for all parties is being sponsored by the funding council with encouragement from the Treasury and from the National Audit Office, along with the support of the Better Regulation Unit in the Cabinet Office.

But the greatest concerns expressed in our debate have turned on the burden on universities and colleges of the reviews to be carried out by the Quality Assurance Agency on the standards of teaching. I understand the comments made by my noble friend Lord Longford as regards the value of the tutorial system. We know of its glories in the older universities. However, perhaps I may say to my noble friend that, while I would not begin to try to calculate when he attended one of the older universities, let me hazard the proposition that it is quite possible that we are now educating some 10 times the number of students at the higher education level in comparison with the time when he was a student.

In the course of her remarks, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, identified another matter in this regard, one that has occasioned significant change in the nature of the process of higher education. It is a fact that it would be extraordinarily short-sighted of us not to see the potential advantages of new technology in enhancing university education. Technology is already employed in a whole range of subjects because it offers opportunities to achieve more effective teaching. By that I do not intend to imply that I am concerned solely with the economics of teaching, but rather that resources saved in certain areas of teaching can then be made available to reinforce those areas which are perhaps more deserving of staff time.

I shall return to the matter of the Quality Assurance Agency. There is no doubt that the system in place during most of the 1990s was excessively bureaucratic. I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, was generous enough to indicate that the system was not created in May 1997, but that it was inherited by the present administration. On taking office, we said that systems should be put in place to ensure a good standard of education for students, but with the minimum of bureaucracy. Over the past few years, the Quality Assurance Agency has consulted widely on a new, streamlined, single system of academic review. The system would rely heavily on self-evaluations by institutions and would draw on the documentation already in use by institutions for their own internal quality assurance processes. It would take account of the previous track record to determine the intensity of review activity, thus ensuring that intervention will be in inverse proportion to success. That is a principle to which I believe we should all subscribe.

The Quality Assurance Agency is determined to schedule reviews to coincide with the needs and preferences of institutions and of all the professional bodies which will be accrediting courses in universities. This has involved a substantial degree of consultation across the sector, a point to which my noble friend Lady Warwick referred.

The new method of assessment is in place; it began in Scotland last autumn. My noble friend the Minister of State made clear on a number of occasions that we would be watching closely how the new system developed in Scotland to ensure that the twin objectives that I mentioned earlier—robust assessment along with streamlined processes—come about.

There are already encouraging signs that the changes will reap the desired benefits. Much less information is required for the QAA reviewers to pore over. The use of e-mail and electronic documents is being encouraged and, because the time spent in institutions by reviewers is much less, the much parodied "base room", which has come in for so much criticism, is no longer needed. Perhaps that reflects the concept of the lighter touch to which the noble Lord referred.

We were aware, however, that there continued to be a major debate in the sector as to whether the burden, albeit lighter, was still too much. In the responses that we have had it has been quite clear that university departments—particularly those institutions which did not always have the highest status in the sector— may want the opportunity to demonstrate their excellence. Therefore, although the lighter touch enables departments which have reached the required standard not to be subject to the process, we are still leaving open the possibility that a new head—who perhaps wants to establish the worth of his department—may, if he or she so wishes, submit to the process.

Otherwise, we are reducing significantly the weight of work on individual departments. In other words, the Government have concluded that the arguments for a reduction in bureaucracy are compelling. That is why the Secretary of State invited the English Funding Council to discuss with the Quality Assurance Agency and the representative bodies of the universities ways of reducing the load still further. He has paid tribute to the work that has been done by the Quality Assurance Agency and he has ensured that change will take place.

The Government are setting out to make sure that in the future we can look forward to the average length of reviews being reduced by both the funding council and the QAA. The aim is to secure a reduction of 40 per cent or even more in the volume of review activity compared with existing arrangements. This was part of the announcement made today.

We believe that the new arrangements will ensure that high quality provision continues to be identified and that improvements are made while, at the same time, freeing departments of established high quality from the burden of assessment. This is not an elitist approach or one that will work only in the interests of certain universities. High quality departments exist throughout our diverse higher education system. They will all have the opportunity to benefit from the lighter touch where quality is already clearly identified and can be guaranteed.

We are confident that the invitation to the funding council, Universities UK and SCOP to pursue their discussions, coupled with the changes already in the pipeline, will result in significantly reducing the bureaucratic burden.

Lord Morgan

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. He has described very clearly the reduction in bureaucracy within individual reviews. Surely a greater reduction would come from fewer reviews. Another problem is that not only are there lots and lots of reviews but that the system is rather like ripping up a road for water, electricity and gas repairs at different times. Could the reviews not be synchronised.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, that is the purpose of the extended consultation between the bodies. There would be many merits in obtaining greater co-ordination in that respect. I take on board the point made by my noble friend.

My noble friend Lord Parekh asked whether departments which scored 24 out of 24 were displaying angelic qualities not likely to be found in higher education. I merely point out that the top mark is a product of six different elements of calculation. What we are really seeing is more the component concepts which lead up to an evaluation. It is similar to the situation of a student obtaining a degree. No one suggests that every "first" is of exactly the same quality, but it is a clear mark of excellence at a high level. In that sense, 24 out of 24 is not an indication of absolute perfection; it is more an indication of the excellence of the department concerned.

Comment has also been made today about the burden of the research assessment exercise. We are hoping to reduce the burden on institutions through a range of measures, including the enhanced use of IT for the making of returns, greater use of peer review panels, and greater consistency in the approach to assessment.

In conclusion, the Government believe strongly in ensuring that the quality of higher education, both in teaching and in research, is universally high. Of course we must always strive to get better; of course we all recognise the pressures upon the system from the wider population. The number of students coming forward into our universities is increasing and therefore we should expect increased pressure from outside. After all, universities play an increasingly significant role in relation to our economy and to the social life of our nation, and none of us should shy away from demands for proper accountability.

We want to see poor quality identified and addressed. We owe that to the students we seek to educate. That requires a robust system which focuses the greatest attention where there is the greatest need and the greatest failing. It also means removing unnecessary bureaucracy and burden which would distract hard-working academics and administrative staff from their main jobs.

However, I say to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that we should not pray in aid those particular demands upon both academic and administrative staff at the point when the scrutiny is taking place. There is not a sector of our education system which cannot bear testimony to the inevitable strains placed upon already hard-working staff at the point when the inspection team is about to arrive. That is natural in the circumstances.

We have encouraged streamlined approaches which rely on sound internal quality assurance processes and a light touch wherever possible. The plans that we have announced this week will reduce further the burden of bureaucracy on universities while maintaining a robust and firm control over poor quality teaching and research. I may not have entirely convinced the noble Lord of the degree of the light touch. I am sure that he will recognise, however, that it is a substantial step forward.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to those who have taken part in the debate. I am conscious that, technically, it could go on for another half hour but I shall confine my comments to a few brief points. A very clear message has come across in the debate. There has been agreement among speakers on all sides of the House and I am grateful for their contributions.

I am grateful to the Minister for responding to the debate. I heard what he said. He has outlined the way in which the burden will be reduced and has stressed the lighter touch. I welcome that. However, I would make two brief points in response. Saying that a burden will be smaller does not stop it being a burden. That is especially a problem when the burden itself derives from a system which may be inherently flawed. One should be looking at alternative systems rather than simply seeking to slim down an existing one. My second point relates to that. The Minister did not quite answer my final, fundamental question of what are the Government doing to look holistically at the problems facing our universities and at alternative ways of achieving the goals to which we subscribe.

Throughout the debate it was clear that there was agreement as to the nature of the problem. The existing regime is burdensome; it is not cost effective; it is counter-productive. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, is right. We have a great deal to be proud of in higher education in this country. My fear is that we are jeopardising that by imposing too much on our universities.

As I said in my opening comments, the busier one is with teaching and research, the greater the burden that is imposed by the present regime. I speak with feeling as someone who teaches several courses. I have taught for 25 years in higher education, and I like to think that during that time my teaching has improved. I am still looking at ways to improve it, including through e-technology, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Davies. But if it has got better, it is despite, not because of, the present accountability regime. The regime is burdensome. Most importantly, it is dispiriting; and it is taking a serious toll in the university world. We need to look at the regime in a different way, not simply slim it down.

The best judges of teaching quality are those who are being taught. The best judges of research are those who choose to read the books and the articles, not those who are told that they must do so. There are far more efficient ways of ensuring quality. We need to bring a fresh and novel approach to the subject. The present situation is not sustainable.

My Motion—of necessity—calls for Papers. It will be clear from what I have said that the last thing I want is more papers. This is not the first debate I have initiated in which I have said that. I was conscious when I tabled the Motion that I was calling for papers when the whole thrust of my intention was to get rid of a whole raft of them. I was also hoping that the Minister might throw away his papers and say what he actually thinks. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.