Parliament and Politics: Minister backs down on change to Education Bill

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MINISTERS backed down in the face of university alarm over academic freedom when the Education Bill reached the House of Lords yesterday.

Baroness Blatch had failed to reassure university vice-chancellors that the wide powers given in the Bill to the Secretary of State for Education would not mean the Government attaching strings to funding.

Faced with an amendment from senior Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers, she withdrew the Government's own amendment to Clause 1 of the Bill, promising further discussions to achieve a wording that would meet the universities' concerns. She insisted, however: 'Nothing, absolutely nothing, extends the powers of the Secretary of State over universities.'

The new Clause 1, introduced late in the Commons stages of the Bill, gives the Secretary of State sweeping powers to 'promote the education of the people of England and Wales'.

His new powers in respect of funding education bodies and powers to 'regulate the provision made in educational institutions' alarmed the universities, which fought a successful rearguard action in the Lords over what they saw as a threat to academic freedom in Kenneth Clarke's Higher and Further Education Act last year.

Lord Beloff, a Tory peer, proposed that the provisions should not apply to any institution of higher education. Dismissing - in Latin - the Department for Education's amendment, he said: 'It still leaves the universities vulnerable to interference by the Government.'

He added: 'Once again, the Government has legislated on something without discussion with the people most involved.'

Lord Beloff said Oxford and Cambridge had survived Henry VIII and Cromwell and could stand up to John Patten, but he was concerned about the position of the newly promoted polytechnics. Supported by Earl Russell (Liberal Democrat), Lord Blake and Lord Campbell of Alloway (Conservatives), he withdrew his amendment after Baroness Blatch's assurance.

Baroness Blatch made it clear yesterday that the Government opposed a General Teaching Council as a means of raising the status and professionalism of teachers. She said a teachers' council should grow out of teachers organising themselves and not be imposed by government. That would lead to trade unions being involved, she said.

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