Higher Education and Research Bill: Bishop of Birmingham on cathedrals group of universities

birmingham-211016cOn 11th January 2017 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Higher Education and Research Bill in Committee. The Bishop of Birmingham, Rt Revd David Urquhart, introduced an amendment in the name of the Bishop of Portsmouth, on the need “to have a variety of institution types with distinctive characteristics.” The amendment was withdrawn after the debate, following assurances from the Minister that the issue would be looked at afresh. Below is his speech in full, and a section of the Minister’s reply:

The Lord the Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, I regret that my friend the Bishop of Portsmouth is not in his place tonight, having been exhausted, I suppose, by leading the debate on the Armed Forces covenant on Monday. He has asked me to bring before your Lordships Amendment 58 which relates to the general duties of the Office for Students. This is in the context of warmly welcoming the Bill’s commitment to greater diversity and improved choices for students, both in the wider choice of the number of institutions and in course and subject. However, we believe it is vital also to have a variety of institution types with distinctive characteristics.

There are many universities with a particularly distinctive character: for example, the cathedrals group of universities, and others such as Goldsmiths, which has a focus on creative studies. It is this fact that the amendment seeks to recognise and pay heed to.

Your Lordships may know that there are more than 100,000 students enrolled across the 16 cathedrals group institutions. Collectively, undergraduates, post- graduates and research students are making the cathedrals group about the same size as the university sector in Wales. We do not for a moment wish to press this amendment to a Division, but we hope that the Minister and his officials will be willing to look afresh at the inclusion of and provision for universities with a distinctive character.

Lord Adonis (Non-Afl) [extract]:…In terms of the things that the OfS should have regard to, in its regulatory role it will play quite a big role in seeking to encourage a market in alternative providers that is geographically diverse, and maintaining and enhancing the existing diversity of our institutions is hugely important. That leads me to what the right reverend Prelate said about the role of denomination providers. One of the great virtues of the Church of England is that it is a national institution that regards itself as having a mission in all communities. As we have this ever-greater suction towards London and the south-east, that aspect is important. Allying institutions with a powerful social mission—such as the religious communities, which are located community-by-community across the country and are not simply regionally based—to the great cause of opportunity and higher education is hugely important. They will have a big and perhaps increasingly important role in introducing and enhancing the quality of higher education to communities that are not advantaged and which are distant from London.

Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con, Minister) [extract]: The Government recognise that one of the real strengths of our higher education system is the ability of institutions to determine their own missions as either multidisciplinary institutions or as institutions specialising in particular courses such as the performing arts or theology, as highlighted in the amendment tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth but spoken to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham. I thank him for his contribution. He spoke about the inclusion of, and the provision of, universities with specific characters. Without going into further detail, I would be delighted to offer him a meeting with officials to hear more about our plans in that respect. In order to protect this type of specialist provision, we made an amendment in the other place to make it clear that the Secretary of State cannot give guidance to, or impose terms and conditions or directions on, the OfS which would require it to make providers offer, or stop offering, particular courses.