HL Deb 27 January 2005 vol 668 cc1392-5

11.22 a.m.

Baroness Morris of Bolton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the reported decision of Oxford University to reduce the number of United Kingdom students over the next five years in favour of overseas students.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, as an independent university, it is for Oxford to decide its own academic strategy. I understand that it proposes an overall growth rate in student numbers of 1.5 per cent a year, within which there will be a significant expansion of opportunity for United Kingdom students at graduate level, which in its view should more than compensate for the modest reduction in undergraduate numbers.

Baroness Morris of Bolton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but given the fact that Oxford loses out badly to its US competitors, building bigger endowments for our universities must surely be a priority. Does the Minister accept that the Government's recent announcement of £7.5 million a year to boost endowments, not only pales into insignificance, compared to the Conservatives' pledge of £500 million a year, but will make no difference whatever in helping our best universities and our brightest students?

Lord Triesman

No, my Lords, I do not accept the premises that the noble Baroness puts to me. The traditions of endowments in the United States are very different, due to the background of charitable giving. When you look at the endowments system, for example, at Harvard University—I believe that some 14 billion dollars is invested to provide those endowments—and the money raised even by universities which do not have prestige of Harvard in the United States or in the world system, you can see how difficult it would be for the UK to mirror that. However, big efforts are being made, both by the Government and by universities. There has been a significant improvement at Oxford, Cambridge and many other universities. They should be congratulated on that.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that all but one of our universities have announced that they will charge the maximum £3,000 fees? If the Office for Fair Access, with its part-time director, who is a university vice-chancellor, cannot ensure that there is a range of fees available to our students, what on earth is the point of it? Does the Minister agree with that?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, throughout the debate on this matter, we made it clear—and I thought that there was pretty wide support for this—that universities are independent institutions and they would come to their own decisions. The legislation around universities is designed to enshrine their independence—and those are the decisions to which they have come. Whether Sir Martin Harris is part time or not, I can hardly think of anyone with a more robust sense of what is needed to defend the United Kingdom system.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

My Lords, I declare an interest as chief executive of Universities UK. Does my noble friend acknowledge that Oxford University's announcement shows the importance of overseas students, both culturally and financially, to the higher education sector? Does he agree that all government departments should support the recruitment of overseas students and that the Home Office's current proposals to increase visa extension charges could damage the efforts both of the sector and of his own department?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, the announcement by Oxford, which mirrors in some important respects the developments in other great institutions—for example, the London School of Economics—was about changing the environment and increasing the number of overseas students. The vice-chancellor of Oxford University, Dr John Hood, said on BBCl's lunchtime news that the steps were being taken because, we want our students to work as students in a diverse milieu, with people from many nations and cultures, which will better mirror the sort of world they will graduate into when they leave Oxford". I do not believe that there are impediments, even of the kind that my noble friend has mentioned. The reality is that overseas students are flooding into the United Kingdom and I am delighted that that is the case.

Lord Baker of Dorking

My Lords, does the Minister not appreciate that if his government do not let Oxford charge the level of fees that it wishes to, and then tell it how it should select its students, then this decision to accept more overseas students was predictable, inevitable and entirely the responsibility of the Government? The Government should stop trying to put pressure on the universities by lecturing and bullying them—and should respect their independence.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, you can have no greater respect for the independence of Oxford or any other university than to say that it is taking academic decisions about the quality of its academic life and the milieu that it wants to create. Some universities advocate that fees should become a free-for-all. Well, that will not happen. Moving the balance towards slightly more postgraduates—we are reaching nowhere near the ratio of postgraduates to graduates that Harvard, for example, has—is a decision about the quality of the research environment, and Oxford is perfectly competent to take such decisions.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the chances of Oxford and Cambridge retaining their status as world-class universities will be enhanced as a result of their ability to charge the variable fees that the Government have introduced, but retaining that status would almost be impossible if the proposals of the party opposite to scrap those fees were to come into effect?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I agree. The purpose of variable fees was to increase the income that universities required to retain their status. Universities also need to raise money by other routes. In the case of Oxford University, I understand that it will be selling land valued at some £80 million over the next two years. It has an income of some £20 million to £21 million from Oxford University Press. All such factors will help. Variable fees are unquestionably a mechanism for all universities, especially those that do not have those land resources or a charitable company ploughing money into them.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, returning to the question of overseas students, has any assessment been made of the indirect, as well as the direct, value to the economy made by overseas students who go on to hold influential positions in their own countries?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I will check whether that has been modelled. I think that it was the University of Strathclyde that participated in research some years ago on such figures. I will check to see if there are contemporary figures. The newspaper coverage in other countries of the fact that Oxford University would potentially be encouraging more postgraduates from those countries, showed that that was met with widespread celebration. Not all of us read the newspapers from Kerala of a morning, but it was thought there to be a splendid world achievement.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, the Minister said a few moments ago that international students were flooding into this country. There has been a decline in our market share, as six years ago some 16 per cent of international students came to this country, and we were second only to the United States. Now, the figure is down to 11 or 12 per cent, and we are equal with Germany in the share of international students. Are the Government doing anything to encourage international students to come here to boost our universities?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, a great deal of effort is going into attracting students, both from the Government and individual universities that run bilateral arrangements with other countries and do a huge amount of their recruitment in other countries. The set of figures that has just been presented could be misleading. The reality is that there is much greater movement of students around the world. Overall, the percentage that each country has varies over time, but the numbers reflected—which is the critical thing for a UK university—show that there is a great attraction of students from all over the world to United Kingdom institutions.