Estelle Morris – 2001 Speech at London Guildhall University

Below is the text of the speech made by the then Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, at London Guildhall University on 22nd October 2001.

I was very sorry not to have been able to speak to you at the Universities UK conference in Southampton, and I think we all regret the circumstances that didn’t make that possible, but I am pleased to be here today.

London Guildhall is a good place to make the sort of speech that I want to make today because I want to talk about the mission for higher education, and many of the elements we see at London Guildhall – widening participation, diversity, rising to new challenges and promoting leadership – are key to what I want to say.

I know I am going to be a disappointment to at least one person today. I got a lot of messages of goodwill after the Election in June (it’s probably downwards from then on, I’ve decided). But there were lots of messages of good will, except for one which appeared in the Independent. An academic, Warden of a well known college, said, “I rather assume that all her interests will be in schools rather than universities. Politicians do not understand how universities work. It will be a period of benign neglect, and I don’t mind that.” Well, I’m setting out very deliberately today to disappoint that one gentleman but I hope not the rest of the audience.

One of the reasons I want to disappoint him is that what you do every day in your institutions, the students you teach, the work that you do, the research that you carry out, is far too important, not only to individuals in this country, but far too crucial to the whole nation’s future to be neglected benignly or otherwise. What I think is true (and maybe this is the source of those comments) is that since the Labour Government was first elected in 1997 we have been devoting enormous energy and enthusiasm and drive and resources into raising standards in our schools. And that is as important, I’d argue, to the future of higher education and what we want to achieve there as to any of the structures of our community.

I want to remind you what the position was throughout the schools system in 1997. There was massive under-performance at primary and secondary level; children reaching the age of 11 without the skills that they needed to read and write effectively and to access the secondary curriculum. And that’s why we have introduced the literacy and numeracy strategies. Before then, the gaps between those who achieve and those who don’t achieve have never really been seriously and consistently addressed. That’s why we introduced Education Action Zones and Excellence in Cities – offering targeted good quality and sustained challenge and support in some of our most challenging urban areas in the country, to see if we could narrow the unacceptable gap in performance between children from different backgrounds – something which no-one had done before – and that includes generations of educationalists, and not just Governments.

And what’s more, in this term we will want to concentrate on our schools agenda and transforming secondary education. We have set up the Learning and Skills Council to try to tackle the nation’s long-term failure to raise skills. But it is time now to put more focus on what we do in higher education, and the work we have done so far in schools and with the skills agenda will lay good foundations for us all to do that.

There has been a huge change in higher education over the last ten to twenty years – it has shifted from being an elite system to being something much wider, something much more important than that. When we look back over those decades, it almost happened without anyone necessarily thinking strategically about what we want Universities to do. I am committed to further expansion, I know and I believe with all my heart that it can be achieved without any compromise on excellence. But as we expand further we’ve got to think strategically about what the sector does and how we want it to do it. We’re here to set out today together a vision for higher education that looks forward a decade or more. That vision has got to be built around diverse institutions pursuing excellence in their different ways. There are four central goals that I want to put to you today, and I want to talk about how we can achieve them and look at the challenges that face us and how we might begin overcoming them. I think those four are:

Firstly, widening participation and unlocking the potential of the poorer sections of society. We do want to move ahead to achieve our target that half of the population will enter higher education by the time they reach the age of 30.

Secondly, to continue to produce world class research.

Thirdly, making sure that Universities work better with industry and with the wider community.

Fourthly, to support excellent teaching in our higher education institutions.

Meeting these goals won’t necessarily be easy. It will demand vision and it will demand commitment and drive from every single one of us. So I also want to raise today the issue of excellent management and leadership in the sector.

The pledge that the Government made shortly before the General Election and repeated in the Manifesto that 50 per cent of under 30s would enter higher education by 2010 is one of the highest priorities on the Government’s agenda. It is not unrealistic – it can be done – and the increase in figures for accepted applications this year suggests that we have made further progress. But I want to be clear as I can, it’s not just something that would be quite nice, it’s not just a social aspiration (although it is both those things) – it’s far more important than that. You know that way back in 1997 our Government made the decision that as a nation we wanted to compete on the world stage as a high-value-added and high skills economy. We can’t do that without investment in skills, investment in education and increasing participation in higher education. Quite simply we need more graduates and we will not be training people for whom there are no jobs. Labour market forecasts by the National Skills Taskforce show that between 1999 and 2010 there will be a growth of 1.73 million jobs in those occupations that typically recruit graduates – things like managers and associate professionals. In the past, a 50% participation rate might have been seen as socially desirable, certainly part of my political background and philosophy would have made it the right thing to do. But now it is an economic necessity.

You know better than I do the link throughout all parts of our education system between social class and educational attainment. And no where are those statistics more startling and frightening than they are in higher education. That’s inevitable given its position after the compulsory years of schooling. About 70% of the children from higher socio-economic groups go on to higher education and that’s compared to somewhere between 13 and 14 percent from families from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

And it can be traced back to wasted talent in schools. Children from non-manual backgrounds are one-and-a-half times more likely to get five or more A* to Cs at GCSE than those from manual backgrounds, and twice as likely to get eight A* to Cs. 43% of 18 year olds from higher socio-economic backgrounds achieve two A levels – the basic requirement to go on a degree course – compared with only 18% from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

But in a strange sort of way, when I look at those statistics, terrible though they may be, they actually give me my optimism. Because like you, nobody can think that middle class children are brighter than poorer children. Nobody can think that white children should achieve at a higher level than black children. Nobody can assume that children from the inner cities shouldn’t be able to achieve at the same level as those from the suburbs. So it is possible. All we have to do is to raise the achievement of those children from the communities which have traditionally underachieved to the same level as those from the communities that have traditionally achieved. If you look at it in that way, 50% does not sound unrealistic. But it will be hard work and it will be a challenge.

I know that what most needs to be done is to raise attainment in schools and that is my responsibility not yours. That is why in our first term we put such emphasis on literacy and numeracy; and why we are putting such emphasis in the second term on building on that as we move into reform of secondary education. But it goes further than that and I do need your help as well, and we do need to work together.

I know academic attainment at 18 is essential if we are to increase the number of young people eligible to go into higher education but it is never going to be enough by itself. We have to raise aspirations, we have to raise self belief, we have to raise self esteem and ambition in some of our young people. You know as well as I do that some young people, even the brightest, grow up believing that higher education cannot be for them. They get to 18 without ever having set foot on a university campus, without ever having had a lengthy conversation with somebody who lectures in higher education. They go home to families and communities where the whole social life is with people who don’t have jobs which require degrees. It’s hardly surprising that their aspiration to go into higher education is perhaps not as great as some of their peers from other backgrounds who have had those opportunities.

Excellence Challenge has made a start. I am deeply grateful to the universities and higher education colleges that have done work on it. I know that the Government’s launch of the Excellence Challenge over the last three or four years was only based on some of the good work that higher education has already done. I know myself as a teacher in the inner cities some ten years ago that even then there were some universities who were beginning to put out feelers and beginning to talk to us about how we can do better and about ending this relationship between social class and access to higher education.

Now I think we need to go further than that, and that’s really our joint agenda. To have a school system that raises the attainment level. For higher education institutions to work with the school system and the Government to make sure you do all that you can to build on the work that you’ve done in the past. I think that what I want most of all to happen in all those universities is to put roots down into the schools so that we can see the work you are doing on access. This is not an optional extra. This is not just an occasional summer school or visit by a lecturer or student. What I want to see is that the presence of somebody from higher education almost becomes run of the mill so that you give those young people the aspiration and the ambition, and you help to persuade them that university is for people like them. That is the contribution that you can make to the widening participation agenda. I think the prospect of going to university is something that fires many young people to work harder for their A levels and achieve at a higher level. If you haven’t got that aspiration to go to university it is one of those levers that is missing. What we want you to do in secondary schools is to inject these aspirations to go to university amongst working class children so that together with the work that we will do in school, it will actually once and for all take us along the road which breaks the link that other nations don’t have between social class and educational attainment.

There is another rich source of talent that we need to get into higher education over the next ten years. There are one million people in their 20s who already have level three qualifications. We need to work with employers to raise skill levels even further and to see if some of those people with level three qualifications in their 20s might benefit from a period of higher education to take them further on in their career and to give their employers and their workplaces the skills that they need. And achieving that will need greater diversity – and that’s true for each of the challenges that I set out at the beginning of this speech. As my predecessor David Blunkett said, there should be emphasis on foundation degrees and getting the proper channels for those who want to study vocational qualifications right from age 14 to degree and postgraduate level. That implies innovation in teaching and learning and it certainly means making higher education as flexible and as accessible as possible. Between us I think we have a joint mission to nurture the talent that is currently being lost not only to higher education but to the nation as a whole.

Whenever I have conversations about access and about participation, many connect those issues to student finance. We want to think again about any obstacles – real or imagined – that could discourage young people from low income families from taking up higher education. All of us would like to produce a system for student support which is simpler than the present one. So we have begun to review the current system. I have said that the review has four clear aims:

– simplification of the system, especially in the area of hardship support. It’s so complex at the moment you almost need a degree to access all the different funds that are available;

– provision of more upfront support for students from less well-off backgrounds;

– ensuring that all students have access to sufficient financial support throughout their years of higher education;

– tackling the problems of debt and the perceptions of debt.

The principles of the reforms that David Blunkett announced in 1997 were absolutely right and we will stick with them. Those who benefit from higher education should contribute to its cost. It would be utterly unfair for graduates, who as a group earn 35% more than the average wage, to be completely subsidised through their entire university education by those who do not have their advantages and who can afford it far less easily.

And remember this – the “golden age” of free tuition and grants for those who need them did not work as a driver for access. The proportion of poorer students entering higher education did not rise. And despite the rhetoric around it, however much money we choose to put into student support it will not be by itself the answer to the access challenge. The problems are more complicated and more profound: they are about ethos, about the perception, and about prior attainment. So I want to satisfy myself and to be absolutely certain that there is nothing in the student support system that might act as a disincentive to those we most want to attract. But we must not see this as the only issue in the debate, and we must not let it distract us from the more fundamental and the more difficult challenges.

I wanted to say a little bit about world class research. It’s a success story. It’s one of the real strengths of British higher education. With only 1% of the world’s population, the UK carries out 4.7% of the world’s research, it has 7.6% of the world’s scientific publications, and over 9% of the citations of scientific papers. We rank first in the world in terms of the number of publications and citations generated for each pound spent on research. We’ve got a challenge here as well, and the challenge is very real. It’s how to keep our leading position.

I know that if you want to carry out good research you need to hire and back good quality researchers. That’s why the human resource strategies which universities and colleges are drawing up need to address the issues of recruitment and retention. And that is why I think successive research assessment exercises have helped improve the quality of research in universities because the results of those exercises have made universities think very carefully about where they can best invest their money. Weaker areas have declined, but developing and strong areas have grown and flourished.

Research is expensive. It needs talented researchers, but also buildings and equipment as well. The infrastructure for both science and technological research was becoming run down. We have been investing huge sums of money to put it right in partnership with the Wellcome Trust, first with the Joint Infrastructure Fund, and now with the Science Research Infrastructure Fund.

But more needs to be done. It’s that old cycle of years of under-investment followed by the Government injecting large amounts of money every so often to sort out the problems with infrastructure. I think just as we need to do in our schools and throughout the whole of our education service we need to end that dependence mentality and the idea that once we have invested in capital we think we could ignore it for a few more years. And that is one of the things that I very much hope that the cross cutting review of science which is part of our current spending review will look at.

Again there are questions to ask. We need to ask about how universities provide their share of the support for research grants from external bodies. The dual support system has served us well, but the growth in research income from charities in particular – which has outstripped other sources – must make us ask whether the dual support system can continue to work in its present form. That is another issue for the cross cutting review.

Again the challenges for both Government and the higher education sector are bigger than this. We have productive research, but we don’t spend that much on it in total. The UK ranked 16th out of the 23 OECD nations for higher education expenditure on research and development. So there are concerns about the UK slipping down the world league tables of research excellence and about UK research being unable to compete on a level playing field. Quite simply, we won’t keep our world class place if we allow that to happen. Since we have a comparative advantage, we should make sure it stays that way. So we do need more resources. But these cannot come from the Government alone. Government will never be able for instance to match the level of investment produced by the endowments of the top US universities. So there are hard questions to answer about how we maintain our position. What is the best way to lever in more support for world class research institutions in the UK, and how can the money best be distributed between institutions? How can we make sure that the brightest and the best want to use their talents here in the UK – whether they are staying on here or coming from elsewhere? And how can we help our best institutions collaborate effectively with other world leaders? How can we make sure that the benefits of the best research are shared throughout the system?

The third challenge I outlined was that of embedding universities in industries and our communities. We know we live in a global economy. It’s a compulsory sentence in most speeches that politicians make these days. But it applies to universities and colleges in just the same way as it implies to individuals seeking training or education or employment. Yet the strange thing about globalisation is as much as national boundaries and national frontiers seem to break down this increases the importance of local and regional areas. And I believe that higher education is a very powerful driver of technological and other change. It is crucial to local and regional economic development. You produce the people with knowledge and skills; you generate new knowledge through research and scholarship; you exploit that knowledge through innovation in spinout companies, contract research and transferring skilled people to businesses. It is essential work. It will only work well if you get the relationship right between businesses and communities on the one hand and educational institutions on the other, and each knows each other’s needs. That is why forging links between the two is very important, and why working with regional development agencies is a crucial partnership.

Survey data of knowledge transfer for technological innovation in the UK shows that enterprises look more to the “technology base” than directly to the science base for technological innovation. This type of applied research can be very important for the regional economy but is relatively poorly done in the UK perhaps for three reasons:

– the level of business R&D in the UK is low compared to key competitors;

– we have a skills gap in UK business with a shortage in areas such as certified civil and electrical engineering;

– we don’t have as good links as we should between businesses and higher education or other publicly funded research.

All these limit the ability of UK business to absorb knowledge and innovate.

We are beginning to recognise that there is more money to be put into research and development through tax credits for small and medium enterprises, and there is a number of schemes designed to help in this area such as Science Enterprise Challenge and University Challenge.

Again there is already good work being done. Newcastle University has a business development team whose main function is to match the needs of business with expertise and capabilities already in the university. And again, at Salford University, Academic Enterprise makes a point of providing a single place of contact for those enquiring about access to business and it offers a fast track for them to relevant expertise in the university.

But we are only at the very beginning, and this is another immense challenge to the sector. Of course there are many other partners, and British industry too needs to rise to the challenge. But again there is a step change to be made in our thinking; success in this field will come when there is a commitment to the principle that this is an important and growing role of a modern university. I know that most of our universities do not deserve to be thought of as mere ivory towers. The fact that so many of them are perceived that way by people outside perhaps shows how much we need to change the culture and how much we need to talk to each other.

There is one single issue that is central to the quality of everything that happens. The quality of teaching, and the quality of the student experience in terms of learning. I know there is a long history to this debate in higher education. Not just on teaching quality assurance but on the investment that has already been made in improving the quality of teaching and learning.

We want to encourage new forms of teaching and learning. We have together already launched the e-Universities project so that we can make sure the UK is at the centre of high quality higher education over the internet. It was announced last Friday that Sun Microsystems had entered into a strategic alliance with a newly formed company UK e-Universities Worldwide, to provide the technology platform to deliver the courses worldwide.

And there are examples of good university-based teaching as well. Coventry University has developed a comprehensive system of recognising and rewarding excellent teachers through promotion criteria, teaching awards and teaching fellowships. This shows a strong commitment to teaching excellence that I would like to see spreading further. But there is a debate to be had about how we get the balance right between institutional processes and external review. We attach, as I know you do, particular importance to robust assessment and review methods – both internal and external. We shall take a keen interest in the outcomes of the current consultation on quality assurance. Let’s wait to see what that brings before that debate between us. I will be guided by my initial thoughts on quality assurance. There are three key things which need to be put in place. First, in a publicly funded system there must be accountability. We cannot spend public money without some assurance that we are spending it to good effect. Second, there must be good information for students and parents so that they can make informed and sound decisions about the courses they take. And thirdly, because of the very nature of the higher education systems and its strengths, there must be autonomy – institutions must have the freedom to look for the solutions that suit them. But we must have a system that brings these three strands together. Accountability because that is right when public money is being spent; information because any organisation needs to concentrate on those people it serves; and autonomy because that is central to the ethics and values in our higher education institutions.

We must value teaching quality as part of our vision for higher education. When I first looked at the higher education system it became increasingly evident that there were no financial incentives for excellent teaching, and I do wonder if in some way we could incentivise excellence in teaching in the same way as we do in research. This too raises some important questions: how should you identify what is excellent teaching in higher education? Should we put incentives in place which would let institutions specialise in this? If we are to do that, what does that mean for the relationship between teaching and research? Do the restrictions on student numbers stifle incentives to teach well? And is there a cultural obstacle to overcome? I sometimes get the feeling that teaching is still a bit of a side show compared to research. We need to have excellent research; we need excellent teaching; we need to expand higher education to all those groups that have not had access in all those ways that we need to achieve that. We have to accept that we need excellence and initiative and to allow people to specialise in teaching excellently.

It’s a huge agenda that lies before us all – widening participation, the challenge of delivering diversity and opportunity, fostering teaching and research excellence, and linking universities to industry and the community. Any agenda like that will demand first class management and world class leadership. We already have some, much of it in this room, but we do not have enough. Too often as in any phase of education there is not enough effective management at the key levels of middle management as well as at senior management. No one can defend the number of women at senior levels of management in higher education. We must also think about succession planning and the development of people in general, to make sure that as each generation of effective managers and leaders moves on, there are more ready to take their place, and to accept that in the fast changing sector that higher education has become the challenges will always evolve.

I much welcome the initiatives which are already underway from the top management programme to the use of HEFCE’s fund for the development of good management practice. But there is still more to be done. The scale of the pressures on institutions is formidable and we need a renewed effort to make a difference and look at management and leadership in its own right.

We already have an enormously strong sector. And an increasingly varied sector too. We have the beginnings of new links and alliances. There is a climate of change. I know that London Guildhall University and the University of North London have ambitious plans to come together, as I recognised at the very beginning of this speech, and I wish you both well in that endeavour. But it strikes me that all of this, all these changes, all this new agenda perhaps needs to be part of a bigger picture and we perhaps need an active debate about how far it should be part of a bigger design. We must foster proud and autonomous institutions, confident in their differing missions and meeting the needs of their students. But at the same time we have to ensure that the full range of opportunities – including those relevant to the new students we will be recruiting – are available right across the country.

I know that there has already been a great deal of debate on these very issues, but it feels as though the time is now right to come up with a more strategic approach. I am convinced that we need to look at the rich complexity of our higher education mission and to make sure that we are fostering all the things we want higher education to do.

There are some big decisions ahead. We have already embarked on the next spending review, and I have no doubt that you will make your representations in due course to help put more pressure on the Chancellor. I think the time is also right to go beyond the timescale of the spending review and to think more widely and strategically about higher education in Britain. Therefore I have asked my Department to carry out a wide ranging and fundamental review covering all these key areas:

– widening participation

– world class research

– linking universities with industry and communities

– teaching excellence

– management and leadership

I want to look at how we incentivise and resource these missions because at the moment all the incentives seem to me to be skewed towards one end of the big picture. I invite you, the Vice Chancellors, and the rest of the sector to join us in that review as soon as we can get together to begin to map some of the way forward to some of the changes which I have outlined today.

I am very conscious that I have come to you with a lot of questions and not the answers, but that is the way I want it at the moment. Most of all I want three things:

True recognition of the work already done and the standing you have and the importance of the contribution you make. My thanks go to you for all that has happened.

A real agenda to grow between us, not that I think we will always agree, but what I want is to have a sharing of what the key challenges are and what the key issues are that need to be addressed;

I would like very much over the coming months to try as much as possible, in a diverse sector, to begin to agree the way forward. If we can do that we have actually done a service not only to higher education but a service to the economy, to the nation and to the rest of the community. We would have taken another step along the road of moving universities from their old mission of being elite and giving opportunities for the few, to being in the heart of our communities, the key to individual life chances, and in that sense the heart of our country as well.

I am most grateful to London Guildhall University for giving me the chance to outline some of these challenges today, and I very much look forward to working with you towards these solutions in the months to come.