On 9th April 2014 the Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Rev Christopher Foster, gave his maiden speech in a House of Lords debate to take note of Higher Education in the UK.
Bishop Christopher focused his remarks on his diocese, the important role of Portsmouth University, access for international students and on local economic disadvantage. His speech in full is below:
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth (Maiden Speech): My Lords, it is with astonishment that I find myself here today, rising to speak for the first time, keeping such company and sharing with you responsibility for the health and stability of our nation. In my heart of hearts, I am still a jobbing priest, and certainly with no desire to be an amateur politician. If I attempted that, then I would indeed be amateur. I delight to see people flourish, especially, to be parochial for just a moment, in Portsmouth diocese, serving south-east Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, whether they are lay or ordained churchgoers, British or foreign nationals residing in our midst, island schoolchildren who have never travelled far enough to see the beaches of their own island, those residents or visitors enjoying the vibrant waterside city life of Portsmouth—the second most densely populated city in the land—or globetrotting commuters and businesspeople who circle the world several times over.
I am more than aware that my distinguished predecessor, Kenneth Stevenson, who I know was much respected in this House, had education very much at his heart and led the church’s board of education. So it feels right and good that my maiden speech is in a debate that has at its heart a concern for human flourishing in education. Universities are anchor institutions in local communities, and Portsmouth University is no exception. It anchors the city and area financially, directly employing some 2,500 staff and indirectly supporting many more employers in and around the city. It anchors businesses, ensuring a regular supply of appropriately trained graduates to take on key roles and as a motor for the growth of small and medium-sized business enterprises; it funds multimillion-pound building projects as it continually updates its facilities; and it anchors the city morally, too, by providing a multicultural forum in which the issues of our day can be debated and the best insights can be lived.
As I know first hand from periods as a student, economics lecturer, chaplain and finance committee chair at the University of Hertfordshire, the higher education sector contributes extensively to the flourishing of our nation and our world. Now, as bishop and as a governor—an interest noted in the register—I see at first hand how Portsmouth University, along with universities all around the country, anchors and focuses financial, practical and moral flourishing, not just for students but in terms of enriching partnerships across the whole region, including, as you will expect me to note, my own cathedral’s innovation centre, where space and both voluntary and expert support provide opportunities for new businesses to take root and to grow, even in challenging economic times.
I use the word anchor in relation to Portsmouth advisedly. You will of course be aware of the losses that Portsmouth has recently sustained in the shipbuilding industry. In the wake of those losses, higher education has gained even more importance. The university has a pivotal role to play in providing good-calibre, creative students who can help to diversify employment and business opportunities in the city and in developing the local and regional economy. This is true for homegrown students, but the reality is that for Portsmouth —or any university—to flourish, it also needs international students. I am aware that my friends the right reverend prelates the Bishop of Chester and the Bishop of St Albans have previously argued in this House for the importance of considering higher education immigration separately from other forms, as have other noble Lords in this debate. Indeed, as we have heard, the House’s Select Committee on Soft Power has described the present policy as “destructive” and “disingenuous”.
In Portsmouth, we currently have 2,941 international students, out of almost 22,000 in total, from approximately 140 countries. That reduced number, confirmed recently across the whole national HE sector, costs us all as we turn away the world’s talent and ideas. That presence is vital both in monetary and in human and educational terms. They enliven and enrich the whole community; their flourishing matters to us all, and needs to be safeguarded in our legislation.
I say this mindful of the huge vulnerability of the majority of students in the present day—the intellectual vulnerability that we all embrace as we embark on a new learning experience, and the financial vulnerability of students facing increased fees and debt. As someone who today feels vulnerable in the face of a new learning opportunity, I find myself freshly in solidarity with such students, and, indeed, with businesses learning and relearning how to make the best of opportunities in a fast-changing local and national economic landscape. I am committed to their welfare and will be glad to engage further with you as to how best to serve their needs.
I will be particularly glad also to learn how I can best help improve the lot of people who are suffering the effects of economic injustice. A local parish priest recently estimated that up to 20% of people living in her parish were in receipt of doorstep loans, and countless food banks and other informal food outlets have sprung up in the past year or so. There is huge poverty in Portsmouth diocese, not just among those who are on benefits but also among those who are working full-time but still cannot afford to live. It is surely a matter of the greatest concern that a job no longer always pays a living wage. This is an issue very close to my heart, to which I will be glad to devote time and energy in this House.
As I join you in this House, I thank your Lordships for your most generous welcomes, and the officers and staff who serve us here, and for your patience with me as I continue to get lost in the labyrinth of the corridors and figure out how best to engage with the issues at stake—to your good, the good of the communities and people of Portsmouth diocese and the good of the nation.
Extracts from speeches by Peers who spoke after the Bishop:
Baroness Greenfield (CB): I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his inspiring and insightful speech. I warmly welcome him to your Lordships’ House and look forward to his continuing contributions on a wide range of issues, including economics, social welfare and the Navy….
Lord Young of Norwood Green (Lab): …I, too, pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth—not bad for a jobbing priest is all I can say. However, he is a lot more than that, as we have heard. It was a fascinating contribution, and I thank him for the only reference to the living wage in this debate. The church played a significant role in instigating that concept…
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con):…In paying tribute to all noble Lords, it would be entirely apt for me to pay particular tribute to the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth. In his remarks, he said that he was not sure about how his opening contribution would be taken by the House. It was an excellent one, and I am sure that he will play a significant role not just in representing the people in Portsmouth and wider Hampshire but indeed the country as a whole, albeit that at times he may cause a degree of discomfort to those of us on the Front Bench with the questions that he may ask. We look forward to his future contributions and welcome him to the House.