As my constituency includes three universities – Cardiff University, Cardiff Metropolitan University and the University of South Wales – I am very passionate about holding the government to account and securing a good future for research and learning in higher education.
This afternoon and evening Parliament debated the government’s Higher Education and Research Bill. The Bill, according to the Government, is aiming to make University education attainable for a wide range of people, increase access and maintain high teaching standards.
My Labour colleagues and I are deeply concerned that this is not what will be achieved by the Bill. Some elements of the proposed legislation change universities’ independent governance, risk academic freedom and link a new teaching framework to charging increased tuition fees.
I challenged the new Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, asking her what she considered to be an acceptable level of debt for a graduate.
The Secretary of State was unable to give an answer and would not acknowledge the impact of graduate debt on the choices and opportunities of potential students.
I also raised the impact of Brexit on Cardiff’s three universities and the UK government’s lack of reassurance to the university sector so far, that the significant EU funding that currently comes into Welsh universities and attracts world-leading academics to Wales, will be replaced when Britain exits the EU.
Finally I asked the Tory Chair of the Education Select Committee to square his concern that every person with the talent and ability to go to university should be able to do so, with his party’s decision to axe NHS bursaries in England that enabled people to access and undertake nursing degrees.
In this Higher Education Bill, we are seeing a rush to mess about with our highly successful universities’ independence and a proposal to pile yet more debt on students and graduates through allowing individual universities to charge higher tuition fees.
To do this at a time when the whole of the UK university sector is trying to plan for its future outside of the EU is unnecessary and reckless. In Cardiff alone, thousands of people are employed in our higher education institutions and tens of thousands of students live and study here playing a major part in the local economy. The UK government should be providing reassurance and stability to this vital sector, not fuelling the uncertainty.