5 Lord Krebs debates involving the Department for Education

Wed 11th Jan 2017
Higher Education and Research Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Mon 9th Jan 2017
Higher Education and Research Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tue 6th Dec 2016
Higher Education and Research Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords

International Higher Education Students

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Tuesday 21st March 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The Government absolutely agree that we need a diverse population of international students. The noble Lord mentions India and Nigeria; those were two of the countries that were specifically targeted in our International Education Strategy, and we are delighted to see how successful it has been.

Lord Morgan Portrait Lord Morgan (Lab)
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My Lords, is it not lamentable—

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, it is not just international students who are important to our universities but international research funding. In this context, does the Minister agree with the analysis that shows that, in the two oldest universities in this country, Oxford and Cambridge—I declare an interest as a retired Oxford professor—funding from the European Union has fallen from £130 million a year to £1 million a year? What is the Government’s assessment of the impact of this loss of £129 million a year, and what are the Government going to do about it?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I cannot argue with the noble Lord’s figures; I do not have them directly in front of me. Obviously, the balance in the relationship between government and universities, as autonomous institutions, is a delicate one, which both sides respect. He will be aware that we are delighted at the EU’s recent openness to working with us on the Horizon programme.

National School Breakfast Programme

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Thursday 5th September 2019

(4 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Agnew of Oulton Portrait Lord Agnew of Oulton
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My Lords, first, we very much look forward to the general election and at the moment it is the Labour Opposition who are blocking it. Let us deal with the core issues. We know without dispute that children growing up in a home where adults are working are around five times less likely to be in poverty than a child in a household where nobody works. Since 2010, 3.7 million more people are in work. There are 1 million fewer workless households. Children are benefiting from this, and I am very proud of our track record.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, according to the Food Foundation, there are 3.7 million children in this country living in households where a healthy diet is unaffordable. Does the Minister agree that that is a disgraceful situation for one of the wealthiest countries in the world? Can he tell us what the Government are doing to address this problem?

Lord Agnew of Oulton Portrait Lord Agnew of Oulton
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I come back to my answer to an earlier question. As I said, there is the top line and the micro line. Why are these families struggling? I disagree with the noble Lord opposite that it is down to austerity. I think it is down to learning more about parenting. At a meeting of a committee looking at holiday hunger, one mother said that her children go to the fridge and help themselves to food whenever they want it, whereas at school there are regular, fixed mealtimes. It is simple things such as this. We want to help parents to understand that they need to produce structure and to know how to cook healthy and affordable meals.

Higher Education and Research Bill

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Portrait Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Lab)
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My Lords, I wish briefly to reiterate a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, about primary education. As we know, universities are now taking great pains to ensure that they have relationships with senior schools to enable students to know more about going to university, giving them confidence to look at university education. As we also know, unless they have not only aspirations but good primary education, they will not be able to fulfil those aspirations in future. It is important that universities nurture relationships with primary schools so that primary school children have a vision of what they might want to aspire to in future. I know that there are some excellent organisations and charities, such as IntoUniversity, which work with primary school children to enable them to take advantage of all the opportunities that come in the future. Of course, we cannot mandate the director to do everything and he will not have the capacity, but I hope the Government are thinking about working with universities or asking the Office for Students to work with primary school children as well as those in senior schools, because that is where the flame—the aspiration—begins.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I want very briefly to endorse the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, on the role of access and engagement in postgraduate education and training, particularly in relation to taught and vocational master’s degrees, where there is virtually no funding from the Government any more and people have to rely on their own resources. However, if students from less well-off backgrounds are to benefit from their university education, for many career paths they will need to undertake a higher degree, particularly taught master’s degrees. I hope that we will hear something more about that from the Minister.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts
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Before the noble Lord sits down, of course, he and other Cross-Benchers are absolutely right about the importance of access to postgraduate education. I am sure he would not want to miss the opportunity, therefore, to welcome the extension of student loans to master’s students, so that they will be funded on a greater scale than has ever been possible before.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs
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I certainly welcome that, but it still leaves open the question of the accumulated debt.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Portrait Lord Sutherland of Houndwood (CB)
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My Lords, we are effectively talking about the criteria that will be used by the relevant offices to register, deregister and reregister universities. There is not much in the Bill that tells us what the criteria are—I have an amendment later that will bear on this question. If, for example, a university put considerable and unusual effort into access provision, or indeed did nothing at all, would that affect the need to reregister, or would it enhance the position of a new institution wanting to register as participating in the whole higher education system? This is a plea for more information. Who will provide advice to the relevant offices, whether it is the Office for Fair Access or the Office for Students, in the work they carry out? This could be a crucial way of extending access.

When I was at the University of Edinburgh, the most important access work that we did was to work with a local further education college and provide a one-year programme taught jointly by the university and the college. Marvellous students went through there, one of whom ended up, interestingly, as the chair of the Scottish Funding Council for higher education. She was someone who went through this programme, came through the university and benefited from it. I should like to think that when we are discussing the quality of the education provided, this is exactly the kind of point that might be brought out and whose significance should be made something of.

Higher Education and Research Bill

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Lord Winston Portrait Lord Winston (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to see the Minister for Universities standing listening to our debate on this important issue. We are grateful for his attention to our comments. I will make two points from examples of my own experience; sometimes the House benefits greatly from that. I am very much aware of what the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, just said about Germany in the 1930s and the effect of government on the universities, which affected German universities for a long time after the war.

In the mid-1970s, I was a visiting professor for a year at a university in Belgium—one of the oldest universities in Europe. The department in which I worked was one of the world’s leading departments in reproductive physiology, to which came Spaniards, Italians, Brits, Americans, somebody from Australia, a large number of people from South America and some people who managed to get out of the Eastern bloc. The department worked on a major world problem—that of contraception at a time when the World Health Organization predicted that there might be as many as 100 billion people on the globe by the end of the next century. In addition, at that time in vitro fertilisation was not possible. It was a Catholic university. The head of the department, who was probably one of the most famous leading scientists and clinicians in reproductive biology in Europe, faced a considerable threat from the Church in that city. Eventually, with government support, not only was he passed over but he had to leave that environment as a result of the extreme pressure which came partly from government and partly from the Church. That kind of thing could happen again. The head of the department ended up mostly in private practice. The numerous foreign students from all over the world left that department and its huge prestige was also lost. Therefore, freedom of speech and expression in universities should be written into the Bill. I hope that the Government will look at this issue very carefully and perhaps encompass it in a definition.

The amendment refers to universities making “a contribution to society”. I work at Imperial College London and the huge contribution that has been made to society through connections with schools is extremely rewarding. As we spread our word, that has made a massive difference to the aspirations of young people, not only in the East End of London but right across the United Kingdom. More and more universities are becoming involved in developing greater connections with society. That is important for undergraduates and school students. It is vital to extend those connections. That is another reason why the wording to which I have referred, or something similar, must be included in the Bill.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, it is perhaps not surprising that those of us who are academics are concerned about definitions because one of the things we always teach our students is to define their terms. Hence, I support this amendment which seeks to define what we are talking about. At the same time, we should recognise that over the centuries universities have changed. In England, between the 12th and the 19th centuries, there were just two universities—Oxford and Cambridge—which served largely as institutions for educating people for careers in the Church or in canon law. The modern university as we understand it, an institution which combines research and teaching, was essentially invented in Germany by Alexander von Humboldt in 1810, when he founded the University of Berlin. However, in spite of the changing details of what universities do, they have certain enduring qualities and properties that we should cherish and ensure are retained during the passage of the Bill.

I offer two quotes. We have already heard one excellent quote from the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf. One of my quotes is from the then Poet Laureate, John Masefield, when he was offered an honorary degree by the University of Sheffield in 1946. He said, among other things about a university:

“It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honour thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning, and will exact standards in these things”.

That is the spirit in which, during the passage of the Bill, we should consider what a university is. My second quote reverts to perhaps the most famous treatise on universities, written by John Newman in the middle of the 19th century. I will not attempt to read the whole book to your Lordships, but just one brief quote. He says that,

“a University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life”.

These are high-flown ambitions for universities, but ones that we should uphold today, not resorting to a purely instrumental view of universities that are there for economic benefit and training in technical skills.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, I declare my interests in the Bill as a visiting professor at King’s College London, chairman of the advisory board of Times Higher Education and adviser to 2U.

We heard at Second Reading, and have already heard this afternoon, the deep concern in the House about the autonomy of our universities. I am sure that in the process of our discussions we will want to find ways of enhancing the protection of the autonomy of our universities. However, this clause is not the right way to set about it. As we have heard, this clause is the first attempt ever in British primary legislation to define what a university is. It is an ambitious project, and if I were to set up a committee to define a university, I could think of none more distinguished than the Committee in this House this afternoon. It has, however, the paradoxical effect that the first clause we are debating is a set of obligations on universities; it is formulated as a series of “musts” that universities have to do. It reflects a view of the university that is rather narrow and traditional. Of course, it is absolutely right that academic freedom is there, but it also says, for example:

“UK universities must provide an extensive range of high quality academic subjects”.

When I was Minister, I was proud to have given university status to institutions that focused on particular subjects—the Royal Agricultural College, for example, which is now a university. Are we really going to put into law a requirement that there must be an extensive range of subjects before an institution can be a university? That sets back a set of reforms not only from my time as a Minister; it goes right back to the Labour Government of 2004.

There is a long list of ways in which universities,

“must make a contribution to society”.

I do not know quite what this “must” is, but it says that they have to contribute “locally, nationally and internationally”. Does that mean that if a relationship with a local authority leader in the area breaks down, you can turn up and tell the university that it is in breach of its obligations to contribute locally? My personal view is that we should be protecting universities by putting obligations on Governments and regulators to respect their autonomy, not trying to define universities and put obligations on them.

Higher Education and Research Bill

Lord Krebs Excerpts
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, at academic conferences this is known as the graveyard slot and I thank you all for sticking with it. I particularly thank the noble Viscount the Minister as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and Jo Johnson for making time to meet with me to discuss the Bill. Sir John Kingman, the chairman of UKRI, has also been very helpful.

I shall spend my few minutes talking about Part 3 of the Bill on the architecture of research funding. This is an area in which I have a particular interest having spent a large part of my life leading a large research group at Oxford University and having served as the chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council.

As others have already reminded us, the UK performs extraordinarily well in scientific research. We publish 16% of the world’s most highly cited papers with about 4% of the world’s scientists. That is in spite of the fact that our publicly funded research is relatively poorly funded, accounting for about 0.5% of GDP compared with 0.77% for the G8 and 0.67% for the EU as a whole. To put it in context, our total R&D spend, public and private, per capita is just below that of Slovenia. The Autumn Statement announcement of an extra £2 billion per year is welcome as a small step towards catching up with our competitors.

However, this success leads me to ask two questions: first, why are we so successful; and secondly, in what ways will the Bill make us even better? No one really understands why we are such a successful scientific nation. The fact that English is the international language of science gives us an advantage—think what it would be like if we all had to publish our papers in Mandarin— but also we have been traditionally non-hierarchical in our universities and research institutes, open and welcoming to talent from all over the world, and we have heard much about the autonomy of the research councils—the Haldane principle—that has allowed peers, the scientists themselves, to determine the priorities in individual grants. Also, unlike some other countries in Europe, we have fostered teaching and research together in our great universities, feeding off each other.

As an aside, I remind noble Lords that when we talk about our Nobel prize winners we should remember that many of them, including my father, were immigrants from other countries. It is also worth noting that three of the last five presidents of the Royal Society have come to this country from overseas. Whether or not current attitudes towards people from overseas will prevent us luring global talent in the future remains an open question.

Secondly, given that we are successful, what is the problem that the Bill is trying to fix? It is not as though science is like the English football team: awash with money and pathetic in performance. Why does the funding landscape need a radical overhaul? We have already heard that, in part, the answer to this is Sir Paul Nurse’s review. In spite of all we know about our outstanding performance, he identified what he saw as a number of deficiencies, including, as we have heard from other noble Lords, the absence of a sufficiently strong voice for science at the highest level in Whitehall and the difficulty of getting research councils to work together—the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has already referred to this and I can vouch for it from my time as chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council. It has also been said that we are traditionally relatively weak in commercialising the products of scientific discovery, although I think that this has changed dramatically in the past few decades. For example, in my own department at Oxford, two spin-out companies, NaturalMotion and Oxitec, have between them been sold for around $700 million in the last three or four years.

Will UKRI help to put right such deficiencies as there are in the research funding system in the United Kingdom? I believe that there is no right or wrong answer to this question. One can argue for seven, or another number, of independent research councils, and one can argue for a single overarching body such as the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in Germany or the national funding agencies of Switzerland and the Netherlands, both outstanding scientific nations. However, having listened to the arguments, in conversations outside this debating Chamber and during this excellent debate, I think there is a case for giving UKRI a chance, but—and this is an important “but”—a lot of the devil will be in the detail.

We have already heard comments about the importance of providing clarification in the Bill, and I do not wish to repeat those arguments. However, a lot of this is to do with the wording. The Haldane principle must be clarified to protect autonomy; any changes in the architecture of the research councils must be subject to proper consultation; and balanced funding, as alluded to in the Bill, must be fully explained. The Bill must also be sensitive about the links between teaching and research. It is, after all, often the same people who are doing the teaching and the research, and we need to think carefully about the realities of their lives when we introduce new schemes such as the teaching excellence framework.

I end by echoing something that the noble Lords, Lord Winston and Lord Hunt of Chesterton, said about the fact that the benefits of scientific discoveries often occur in most unexpected and unforeseen ways. Rather than reiterate examples that have already been given, I want to quote Sir Andre Geim, who won a Nobel prize for the discovery of graphene at Manchester —note, a foreigner winning one of “our” Nobel prizes. He said this:

“The silicon revolution would have been impossible without quantum physics. Abstract maths allows internet security and computers not to crash every second. Einstein’s theory of relativity might seem irrelevant but your satellite navigation system would not work without it. The chain from discoveries to consumer products is long, obscure and slow, but destroy the basics and the whole chain will collapse. This logic dictates that we invest in blue-sky research to gain new knowledge. Without new knowledge only derivative technologies are possible”.

I end on this note to remind us that, whatever the architecture of research funding is in the future—and I think there is no single perfect model—we must, I repeat must, protect the funding for blue skies research and not be lured into the trap of thinking that more funding for the application of research will necessarily bring long-term benefits.