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Why I defied the Whips and voted against my government’s education policy

The Lib Dem working peer and former vice-chancellor of Ulster University explains why he defied his party and the government to vote against the Higher Education reforms.
Trevor Smith
17 December 2010

The previous Labour government commissioned the Browne Report on the future funding of higher education. It was debated in the Lords on 27 October; I raised three main objections. None of these were addressed in the intervening period and on 14 November the Coalition introduced legislation to implement the Browne proposals with one or two modifications. To be consistent with my earlier objections, I felt obliged for the first time to defy a three-line Whip and vote against the legislation.

Many on openDemocracy and elsewhere have pointed to the problem of inter-generational inequality built into the Browne proposals. I won’t cover this issue here.

The other two objections I set out focus on the unintended consequences of Browne for the future structure of the higher education sector. These were inherent in his very restricted terms of reference.

First, I warned that among top-tier institutions, there would be massive rationalisation and re-structuring. Many Russell Group universities have closed loss-making departments, including chemistry, physics and foreign languages over the past decade. This trend will now continue apace. Smaller specialist areas such as palaeontology, oceanography and architecture will be excised from the curriculum. What will happen to conservatoires is still undecided. The erstwhile cross-subsidisation of disciplines, essential to the whole ‘ecology’ of a university, is being killed off, as vice-chancellors are forced to balance the books by focussing their ‘offerings’ on courses that maximise ‘returns’.

Higher Education institutions that are solely or mainly based on the social sciences or humanities may well privatise themselves: bereft of publicly-funded teaching support there is every reason for LSE, SOAS, the Courtauld Institute, the London University of the Arts and the like to declare independence from the state. Top-tier ones will seek to recruit even more foreign, particularly non-EU, students.

Second-tier higher education institutions will be decimated, leading to closures and mergers. They may benefit from more students choosing their local one and living at home but this will not prevent attrition in this sector.

To offset the full effect of being driven by market forces I proposed an Oxburgh-type review of all areas of study to promote a rational distribution of subjects nation-wide (Lord Oxburgh rationalised the provision of geology thirty-odd years ago). In addition, I called for the introduction of a three-tier tertiary system in each region of the kind Clark Kerr invented for California in the mid-20th century. This would make for a coherent system of higher education provision, offering greater participation while maintaining quality research.

These and other considerations ought ideally to be examined by a major Robbins-type inquiry. The piecemeal approach adopted by successive governments over the past three decades is highly unsatisfactory. It will distort higher education across the UK, leaving it unrecognisable.

I have never voted against my party’s three line Whip before. But in this case, I could do no other. The university system and higher education across Britain badly need change but my government’s reforms will make them worse.

Trevor Smith is the Liberal Democrat working peer, Lord Smith of Clifton; he is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster.

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