Higher Education: Rotten to the student core: Stephen Pritchard finds Labour and Conservative peers alike are critical of a restrictive clause in the latest Education Bill

Conservative Secretaries of State are no strangers to hostility to their Education Bills. The present Bill, the 15th since 1979, is no exception. Its clauses on student union reform in particular have met with united opposition from academics, students and former government ministers, including Robert Jackson, one-time Minister of State for Higher Education. But it is on the red benches of the House of Lords that John Patten will face his toughest battle, when the committee stage of the Bill begins.

Opposition to the Bill is focusing on clause 20, which allows student unions to receive public funds only for so-called 'core' activities - such as sport, welfare and catering - permitted in regulations made by the Secretary of State. Peers have expressed concern that any attempt to divide student activities into core and non-core areas may be unworkable in practice.

Mr Patten has also been criticised for choosing to tackle such an important part of the Bill through regulations, and especially regulations that have yet to be put before the House. These reservations have been echoed by the influential Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee in the Lords, which criticised clause 20 with the words: 'The House may regard as inappropriate the delegation of legislation to deal with the freedom of association of students.'

This has strengthened calls for clause 20 to be dropped from the Bill. Indeed, several Tory peers, including Lord Renfrew and Baroness Perry, have urged Mr Patten to withdraw the clause in order to protect the remaining proposals, including the requirement for campus unions to abide by a code of practice (clause 21 of the Bill). Conservative peers feel that deleting clause 20 would free the Government from the accusation that the Bill will be an administrative nightmare for student unions and their parent

institutions.

Peers from all parties have pointed to the costs involved in monitoring expenditure on core and non-core activities. They are also concerned about the seemingly rather arbitrary nature of the division: football, for instance, is core, chess is not. Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, a Conservative peer and Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, explains his objections: 'The way that the regulations were going to come out, at least in the consultation document, meant that academic clubs (such as law or history societies) don't fall within the core area. Nor do orchestras or Student Community Action. These are all central to the student existence.'

Lord Renfrew acknowledges that there have been problems with political bias on some campuses, but does not feel that the current Bill is an appropriate solution. 'The problem used to be that visiting speakers were not given a proper platform, but that has been solved. What is irritating is when a minority faction has been able to get its own way at a meeting. But that could be tightened up by other suggestions, including the code of practice.'

Lord Renfrew maintains that students should have their own voice. 'This Bill contains a bit of the nanny state. There is too much regulation; students should have the freedom to pursue their own objectives. It's a great pity that this is being covered by legislation.'

His views are echoed by Lord Redesdale, a Liberal Democrat peer, who graduated from Newcastle University in 1989. 'I would not defend the position of student unions totally,' he says. 'The objection I have is that by making this into legislation, it is making it far more rigid than it need be. By making student unions charities you can regulate their activities, and it's a pity that the Government will not try that route first. They're creating a massive bureaucracy for very little gain or improvement.'

Baroness David, who wound up for Labour in the Bill's second reading, questions the whole purpose of the proposals. 'It is totally unnecessary and rather spiteful. They could have dealt with political activity through ultra vires. And student unions are rather unpolitical at the moment. It addresses a situation that is out of date.'

Baroness White, a Labour peer and a member of the governing body of the University of Wales, Cardiff, says: 'The bureaucracy is ridiculous. The whole concept of core and non-core is idiotic. Students should get as much experience as possible. Depriving them of that experience is a very serious misdemeanour. They must be supervised, but not told that they can't do this or that. What's the point in being a student unless you are allowed to make mistakes? That's the way you learn.

'I can understand if people do not want to see their monies used for party politics. But that does not mean you can't discuss politics.'

Baroness Cox, Conservative peer and chancellor of Bournemouth University, believes the Bill does address some important issues, especially protecting freedom of speech on campus. But she is concentrating her support on the code of practice provisions of the Bill.

'First and foremost, we're not to tar all student unions with the same brush,' she warns. 'I appreciate good student unions, for example, at Bournemouth. My feeling is that the kernel regarding student union reform is the code of practice. I would like to see that accepted, adopted and respected on all campuses. The principles I would always wish to see are freedom of speech, prohibition of censorship and the non-abuse of public money. These can be provided through the code of practice.'

But some peers are concerned that the restrictions on student politics may have a damaging effect on public life and democracy itself. As Labour's front bench spokesman Lord Judd explains: 'We live in a free, open, democratic state. Both at school and at university people should have the opportunity to develop political skills. You can't run a democracy by accident. The Government does not want people used to evaluating and debating. They're fighting a Sixties battle. It's like law and order: these are sops to throw to the Tory tribes at conference.'

Lord Redesdale agrees: 'Politics should be an active part of student life . . . Although the Government talks about democracy, by making student unions non-political, they're doing the country a disservice. How many cabinet members got their experience as students?'

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