Richard Lambert has defended his views on tuition fees in a round-table discussion with students.
Lambert, Warwick University’s Chancellor and the Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), came under fire last term for calling for a rise in tuition fees. This call was part of a report for the CBI that was co-authored by Lambert. Students at Warwick launched a “No to Fees, No to Lambert” campaign in response to the report, and the Students’ Union voted to condemn the report’s position on fees.
A round-table discussion held at the University on 8 December between Lambert, University Registrar Jon Baldwin, Students’ Union President Andrew Bradley, and a group of undergraduate students, discussed the CBI report, the role of the Chancellor, and the future of higher education funding in the UK.
Lambert claimed that, as Chancellor, his role is to be an “ambassador and advocate” for the University, “not a representative” and that there was therefore no conflict between his positions at the CBI and at the University. He also clarified his role in writing the CBI report, which he said was not a representation of his personal views but rather was published on behalf of businesses. When asked if he felt he had a “duty of care” towards students at Warwick, Lambert declined to answer, saying only that he had a strong interest in the well-being of the University and its students.
Lambert said the section of the report that discussed tuition fees was not the its main focus. The goal of the report was to discuss the relationship between business and education, but as their research progressed it “became clear” that the issue of funding was unavoidable. Lambert said the committee was “reluctant to discuss it” and that it is “not an easy subject”. He said the CBI would not discuss tuition fees in the future, as the issue has little relevance to the business sector.
Lambert said he had expected the report to cause controversy, but that he was “surprised” that he, personally, had become the main target of criticism. “I didn’t think I would become the face of it,” he said. He also said he was “concerned that his remarks have caused offence” to students.
Despite the controversy over the report, Lambert insisted that he believes the “state has to be the foundation of funding”, rather than industry, noting that universities not only contribute to the needs of business but are also a public good and make a contribution to society. However, he said that we are “now at a crunch point, and difficult choices have to be made”. He claimed that the only viable solution to the problem is to have those who are able to pay more do so, but that it is “critically important that any increase in private funding has to be used to support people from poorer backgrounds”.
Bradley said that the idea that a tuition fees rise was “inevitable” was “unimaginative”, and said that there were numerous viable alternatives, such as a graduate tax, a proposal set out by the National Union of Students.
Lambert countered, saying that while the NUS’ plan was “courageous” and “interesting”, “the problem is the cash flow – there’s a crisis now” and funds from a graduate tax would take years to “feed into the system”.
“I don’t think the arrangements we’re proposing are ideal – we’re between a rock and a hard place,” he said.
The discussion also covered other issues raised in the CBI report, notably the relationship between business and higher education. One student called the idea of business setting the agenda for higher education “terrifying”.
However, Lambert argued that it was right for business to have some input, as employers need graduates to have relevant skills.
The meeting concluded with a plan to hold a wider debate on tuition fees at Warwick this spring.