HC Deb 01 March 1965 vol 707 cc1093-104

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. Harriet Slater.]

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

The Blackburn College of Technology was recently rebuilt for the sum of £1 million and another £120,000 is to be spent on extensions to it in the near future. It was opened with a great flourish of trumpets by Lord Robens a year or 18 months ago, and it was magnificently equipped. It has great support from surrounding industry and all political parties in the locality. It is seen as something of a symbol of the revival of Blackburn and the surrounding industrial area, Blackburn being the capital of a region of more than 500,000 people and somewhat jealous of the Governmental favours shown to other parts of the North-West, particularly to the Preston—Chorley—Leyland area in the flat part of the country which is now the favoured growth area of the Department of Economic Affairs.

Blackburn is the centre of a giant industrial complex of great standing in time and comprising such towns as Accrington, Burnley, Darwen, Clitheroe, Oswaldwistle, Great Harwood, and many other old-established industrial towns with a long tradition of craftsmanship and good quality work. As I say, this magnificent new technical college was regarded as a symbol of the revival of one of the areas which has been somewhat blighted by neglect since the Industrial Revolution. When the college was opened, everyone thought that it would become the natural centre for the advanced courses in technology which are so much in demand by the new and old industries which have come to this part of the world as a result, not so much of Government persuasion or direction, as of the high quality of workmanship and the traditional skill of the people of north-east Lancs.

It is widely believed that this college has been starved by the Department of Education of the opportunities which it naturally provides in favour of other areas in the neighbourhood. I have mentioned Preston and others such as that which are favoured by central and regional planning as growth areas but which are too far away for many young people to take advantage of them. There has been a good deal of disappointment.

The standard of courses now provided at this college is far below the standard of the building and the equipment, and much of the very expensive equipment now stands idle. This is not because there is a lack of teaching skill or a lack of demand, but because the Department of Education does not allow sufficient full-time advanced courses, of which there is now only one in operation. Only 9 per cent. of the students at the college take advanced courses, which is a tragic figure for an area college.

I should like to give two examples. There is a great demand in the area for an H.N.D. course in building and there are the facilities to do it. The pupils have to go as far afield as Sheffield and Liverpool to take such courses. There is no reason whatever why they should not be given in Blackburn at the College of Technology. To quote another example, the Blackburn College of Technology wishes to give a full-time advanced course for a diploma in industrial spectroscopy. The expensive equipment is there but is largely idle; there is demand for a course and there is 'he possibility of a course; hut, again, the Minister's Department does not allow such a course. Why not?

The feeling gets about from the repeated applications in this regard that Blackburn is being kept back while other places are being pushed forward, perhaps in conformity with a national plan—I do not know. All I beg is that if people in the area wish to have such a course, and have the equipment to provide such a course and the teaching facilities for it, they should be allowed to do it and that it is a negation of the technological age to prevent it.

The crucial test in this matter is the recent request to the Ministry to be allowed to buy a computer for the purpose of teaching the coming and future programmers in the computer world. The refusal has caused distress and bitterness in Blackburn. We heard today from the Minister of Technology of an immense new plan for encouragement of the computer industry and for teaching people how to work computers and for the encouragement of industry to buy them. For some time, the Blackburn College of Technology has wished to purchase a computer for the purpose of teaching programmers. There is an immense demand in industry locally for this.

I have with me a copy of a letter sent to the Minister of State's former Secretary of State on 14th January from a great number of directors and high executives from important local industry. They state: We, the undersigned, Directors of the largest industrial undertakings in the Blackburn area"— a not inconsiderable area— wish to support most strongly the effort of the Blackburn College to obtain a suitable computer, similar to those already available at the Constantine, Rutherford and other colleges of technology. We feel that the college could then perform a most useful role in furthering the application of automatic devices in the area and training personnel we so urgently need. They need these personnel. They need the programmers. These are large and medium-size industries and they are anxious to take advantage of the wise words that the Minister of Technology gave us after Question Time today.

The signatures are those of the directors of such well-known firms as British Northrop, Ltd., who make the Northrop loom, and Mullard's, who make electronic devices, television valves, and so on. Then there are paper mills such as Star Paper Mill; there are Messrs. Singer-Cobbal, who make machines for carpet production; Walpamur, the Wallpaper Manufacturers' Association, who are great employers and, indeed, have their heartland in my constituency; Scapa Dryers, who make felts for such a lot of paper manufacturing here and abroad; Messrs. William Birtwistle's, the well-known textile people; Ellison Tufting Machinery Ltd.; Foster Yates and Thom Ltd.; and many others. They want their programmers trained for their computers.

If there is this local demand for having their programmers and other technicians trained at Blackburn College of Technology it seems to me amazing that they are forbidden, and one wonders why this should be. Blackburn College of Technology has applied for advanced courses which would follow from computers, and it feels that it is not the cost which is holding it back. I must make it crystal clear that the feeling it that there is some prejudice against Blackburn College because, for reasons of a regional or national plan, it is wanted to divert the higher advanced course elsewhere, and, therefore, it is not allowed to buy a computer, because if it did buy a computer that would raise the whole standard and level of the college very considerably. Thereafter there could be no refusal of advanced full-time courses. It would follow, if once it had a computer, that it would be allowed, inevitably, to provide H.N.D. courses in computer technology, and also a degree level for mathematics in business, both full-time advanced courses.

The whole level of the college would then he lifted away from the present level, which is unworthy of the building and equipment, where there is at present only one full-time advanced course in operation, and where far too much of this magnificent building is taken up with such important, but nevertheless, far less important, things such as bakery, hair dressing, and what one may call craft courses of that sort. It wants to raise itself to advanced courses in computers, and I must suggest that it is not cost which is the obstacle to this; it is the fact that somewhere in the hierarchy of the hon. Gentleman's administration there is a desire to give preference in these matters elsewhere.

Mr. L. M. Lever (Manchester, Ardwick)

May I ask what the hon. and learned Gentleman means by "elsewhere"? He has been using the word in a nebulous manner. Could we know what it means, or what the hon. and learned Gentleman has in mind?

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

No. We cannot know, because I do not know. All I am saying is that I can find no other explanation for this refusal to give Blackburn what it wants, unless it be that it is thought that the resources of the country, which, of course, are limited, would be put into the wrong place if they were put in Blackburn rather than concentrated somewhere else. I can see no other reason for this refusal.

The refusal was indicated to the Corporation of Blackburn and to me in the Answer to a Question which I put on 1st February, when I asked whether the Blackburn College of Technology would be allowed to purchase an industrial-type computer, and I was told by the Secretary of State that the application had been refused because the courses at present offered by the college would not justify the provision of a computer". This is the chicken and the egg argument. Until one has a computer, one cannot have courses to offer. He added: …there are other colleges in the regions"— whatever that may mean— which have computers with capacity to spare."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st February, 1965, Vol. 705. c. 229.] My comment on that is that, as far as I know, the nearest college which has a computer is Salford, which is a College of Advanced Technology, which is 25 miles away from Blackburn. If it has a computer with capacity to spare, all I can say is that this is something of a reflection on the college. I am assured by the Director of the Blackburn Technical College that if he were allowed a computer, it would be working 12 hours a day, six days a week. He does not understand this suggestion that a college of technology, whether advanced or not, is not able to use its computer to the limit.

I go back to the question of cost. The suggestion which was put up was that there should be a computer which nominally costs £81,000, but which, because of educational rebates, Blackburn could get for £37,000—a very considerable rebate. It would, I understand, involve an undertaking that the computer would not be hired out for a fee, otherwise it could not be obtained with that enormous rebate.

The college is prepared to give this undertaking, because it feels that it can get round this obligation in the sense that it could allow industrial undertakings to use it in the evenings and during spare time, in return, not for a fee, but for the general patronage in the form of the granting of new equipment and other general benevolence, which the surrounding industry undoubtedly wishes to give it.

When these opportunities are there, when the demand such as I have read out is certainly there, in the centre of a very large network, the expenditure of £37,000 would be money extremely well spent for the training of these programmers and others which local industry demands and needs. However, that has been rejected, and I find it difficult to understand why.

But new developments have occurred since its rejection. There is the statement of the Minister of Technology today. And there is the fact that the Director of the College, who is determined to get a computer to teach the young people of the neighbourhood, whom he draws from a great many areas around Blackburn, can buy one from Oxford for £7,000. It was bought 4 years ago by Oxford for £140,000, but it is now not fast enough for them—such is the development in these things—for research purposes.

It is good enough for industrial training, although its life would not be nearly as long as the original proposition. It is good enough for some years, but it is not as good as the one which would cost £37,000. It will not last as long, but it is good enough for the purpose of training programmers.

It is not good enough for Oxford—goodness knows why—because it is not as fast and modern as one can get, but if this is the most that we are allowed in Blackburn—£7,000—let us settle for that. I implore the Minister to look at this matter again and to take it up with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology, and not to allow any schematic objections on behalf of his regional advisers on the ground that Blackburn is in some way not to be preferred to other places in the neighbour-hood.

This is a demand from a very important centre of industry, as I can show from the letters I have, and it is not enough to make our young people in and around Blackburn go for seven, 14, or 21 miles—

Mr. L. M. Lever:


Mr. Fletcher- Cooke

Exactly—elsewhere. In Blackburn, there is the demand for it. There is the capability for it. There is the building for it, and the enthusiasm for it. Why cannot Blackburn have it? This is symbolic of the whole question of allowing the Blackburn College of Technology to be something more than a craft college. It is a question of allowing it to be a proper area college. If it does not fit in with the plan that the hon. Member's Ministry may have at the centre, all I can say is that the plan should be altered.

12.1 a.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. R. E. Prentice)

The hon. and learned Member has raised a question with which—as he will expect—our Department has been familiar for some time. He has raised it with a persistence and local patriotism to which I pay tribute. We have been getting this kind of request for some time from the County Borough of Blackburn, which has pursued it with a good deal of vigour, and the House will not be surprised to learn that my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) —the Minister of Overseas Development—has herself been very persistent with our Department.

If the reply that I give is not entirely satisfactory I can assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that it is not due to any lack of sympathy with Blackburn, or to any bias against Blackburn in comparison with other parts of Lancashire. As between parts of Lancashire I am entirely neutral. But I do not think that the hon. and learned Member ought to equate regional planning with prejudice. He ought to recognise that what the country needs at the moment is a tremendous advance in technical education and further education in the whole spectrum of this subject, and that the matter of advanced courses and the provision of expensive equipment has to be determined on a regional basis and with a sense of priorities which cannot satisfy the demands of each college and each locality that wants to go ahead at the expense of others.

I was not aware—until the hon. and learned Member mentioned the fact just now—of the possibility of a computer from Oxford, costing £7,000. I will certainly look into the matter and write to the hon. and learned Member about it. The proposal that we have had hitherto has been for a full industrial computer—a new installation—which the hon. and learned Member said would cost £37,000. My own figure is £34,000, but it is of the same order. This is very expensive. It is the kind of installation of which we need more in technical colleges, but they must be located on a regional basis. In the North-West Region there is a large one at the Royal College of Advanced Technology at Salford, which is in operation at the moment, and two more have already been approved, one at the Liverpool College of Technology and one at the John Dalton College of Technology at Manchester.

Until all three of those are in constant and regular use, it is unlikely that we would be able to approve, in that region, another computer, certainly of the cost originally involved in this case. I appreciate the hon. and learned Member's point that people in Blackburn feel that this is a kind of vicious circle; that their case for the computer is not as strong as it might be because they do not have enough advanced courses, and that the lack of advanced courses has something to do with the lack of equipment.

The hon. Member will be aware that the authority has asked the regional advisory council for permission to proceed with 12 new advanced courses and is awaiting an answer on this point, which it will get on or about 31st March, when there is, throughout the country, an allocation of these courses as between the technical colleges in each region. These, again, have to be discussed regionally because of the availability of buildings, staff, equipment, and so on, but they are not just laid down by our Department. There is a regional advisory council on which all local education authorities in the region are represented.

The advisory council considers the bids put in by the technical colleges in the region. It makes the regional decisions about priorities, it considers the needs of each college, and how the work can best be distributed. That means that every college does not always get what it wants, and that some students have to travel to colleges away from their own home town because everything cannot be provided in every place at once. In this matter, the decision of the regional advisory council is not the conclusive one. Its advice is very fully considered by my right hon. Friend, but he is also advised by the regional staff inspector. A conference of regional staff inspectors is to be held during March, when the whole subject will be considered in a national framework.

Having studied the correspondence and the reports in this case, I refute absolutely any suggestion that within our Department there is any particular bias against Blackburn. In so far as the aspirations of Blackburn are being limited, it is because they have to be considered within the framework of regional priorities. The policy is to push on with the development of technical education within a region as quickly as possible, but I return to the point that expansion of technical education means an expansion across the whole spectrum of technical education.

The hon. and learned Member referred to the work being done for craftsmen in the Blackburn college. This work is, as I hope he will agree, of tremendous value to the boys and girls concerned with industry in Blackburn. There are over 3,000 day-release students at the moment attending the Blackburn College of Technology, and there are all kinds of trades and occupations in the borough. While I would sympathise with the desire of any college and any local authority to see more advanced courses in the local college, I cannot have any sympathy with the attitude that sometimes creeps into this situation, in which people, in order to do more advanced work, are inclined to want to put aside some of the less advanced work. We are in some danger in technical education of having a race for status symbols, in which every college wants to go up the prestige ladder and is not sufficiently interested in the work it is doing for apprentices and other workers on day release or part-time evening courses in a whole range of subjects of great value to the community.

I must insist that in relation to Blackburn, or anywhere else, this is important work, and work that must expand on an enormous scale in the coming years, as well as the more advanced work in which everyone is interested. Therefore, I repeat that the answer on the advanced courses will be given during April, and I cannot anticipate that answer. I will look at the computer situation in relation to the new information which the hon. and learned Member has given this evening, and will write to him about it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Twelve o'clock.