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?'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
US comedian Bill Mahr
people
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Sport
football
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Life and Style
Models – and musicians – on the catwalk in Dior Homme for the men’s 2015/16 fashion show in Paris
fashionAt this season's Paris shows, various labels played with the city boys' favourite
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Practitioner - Faringdon

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunity for you to jo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Developer - Cirencester - £29,000

£25000 - £29000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have be...

Recruitment Genius: Primary School Sports Coach

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Calling all talented Level 2 qu...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us