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?'

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

SEN Teacher, Permanent Role in Ashford

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad urgently seeks a qualif...

Drama Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Liverpool: We are looking for someone who can t...

**Science Teacher Urgently Required for September**

£120 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: **Science Teacher Urgently ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice