HC Deb 09 November 1970 vol 806 cc129-39

8.24 p.m.

Mr. William Rodgers (Stockton-on-Tees)

Yesterday afternoon I stood in bright autumn sunshine on the edge of the Cleveland Hills with Teesside behind me, looking towards Roseberry Topping and the North Yorkshire Moors—a very fine part of England in a number of ways. I was standing on what I believe to be the site of the new University of Teesside.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science visited the site a fortnight or so ago. He is a sympathetic and discerning man, and I am glad that he is here tonight. I have no complaint to make, and I shall certainly not embarrass him by making unreasonable requests. I shall not ask him, for example, to do what he has no power to do—to announce that Teesside is designated as the site of the next new university. Nor, through him, shall I ask the University Grants Committee to do what I cannot ask it to do under our rules of order—to declare its intention of making an early recommendation to the Secretary of State that there shall be a new university on Teesside.

What I shall do is to put on record the events of the past seven years since this first became a serious proposition, and review the present situation against both the recent projection of university needs in the 1980's and wider regional development considerations. I hope that the Under-Secretary, in taking note of our endeavours and giving us his blessing, will be able to give us a little guidance about the timetable and what further he expects from us so that our expectations will be fulfilled soon.

The possibility of creating a university on Teesside had been canvassed for a number of years, but only in a desultory fashion until the early 1960's. Accordingly, we missed out on the new wave of what have since been called the glass-plate universities—Sussex, Essex, York, Canterbury and the rest. I have no complaint about that either. I am a very reasonable man this evening in that respect. Given the haphazard way in which these new universities came into being, the absence of a positive initiative on Teesside was to blame.

It was for this reason that in March, 1963, Dr. Jeremy Bray, then our colleague in the House, and I published a memorandum, of which I have a copy here, setting out the case for such a university. Our aim was to test opinion in the hope that others would adopt and promote the idea. We drew attention to the fact that Teesside was the only major industrial conurbation in the country without a university, and we saw it as the natural location within the northern region, which was well below the national average in university places, for the university expansion upon which everyone was agreed.

I should like to pay a special tribute to Jeremy Bray for the time and devotion he has given to this project. Teesside is greatly in his debt, and I am sure that everyone, irrespective of party, agrees. This is in no sense a party matter. Although he no longer sits with us for Middlesbrough, West, he is as concerned as ever that we should succeed.

Our memorandum received a widespread and enthusiastic welcome. To use the current jargon, I think that we clearly articulated the felt need. In July 1963, the then mayor of Middlesbrough called a meeting of interested bodies and individuals to consider possibilities, and an investigating committee representative of the whole community was set up. The University Grants Committee was informed, and, in December 1963, Dr. Bray and I had preliminary discussions with the then Minister, now Lord Boyle.

By April 1964, a promotion committee was at work, sites were being examined, Sir James Duff had become head of the project, and the present Prime Minister, then Secretary of State for Industry, Trade and Regional Development, had been brought into the picture. Thus, in December 1964, we were able to wait upon the U.G.C., and we delivered a full statement of our case. In January 1965, the responsible Minister, the present Under-Secretary's predecessor by several, I think, in the person of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Boyden), visited Teesside for discussion.

Then, on 24th February 1965, the Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland), made a statement in the House on the development of higher education in the light of the Robbins Report. He said that no new universities were likely to be needed for 10 years, with one exception. The Government, he said, were actively considering the possibility of creating within that period a completely new technological university institution in the North-East".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th February, 1965; Vol. 707, c. 391.] On Teesside, we rejoiced that we had kept open an otherwise closing door, and we redoubled our efforts to show that we meant business.

Alas, we were to be disappointed. In a letter to Dr. Bray in October 1965, the door was banged shut. The Secretary of State paid tribute to the "enormous amount of work" which Teesside had put into its plan and said that he had been "greatly impressed by the enthusiasm and determination" committed to it. However, he said, given current projections of student numbers, restrictions on funds to the U.G.C. meant that he was forced to rule out the possibility of launching a new university institution, that is, any university, in the years immediately ahead. Our plan had to go into cold storage.

This was undoubtedly a blow. For my part—I say this frankly—I thought that local interest might be killed, or at least that the files would be closed and put away for the duration. But this was not to be. The groundwork went on. Meetings were held. Our excellent local newspapers, the Evening Gazette and the Northern Echo, continued to publish encouraging leading articles and, I may add, encouraging letters from representatives of the whole community. I think that we proved to be a typically resilient northern lot in refusing to take "No" for an answer.

Sooner than we expected, our faith was justified, for towards the end of last year we became aware that the Robbins projections for university places were being widely challenged, and from many different directions. It began to look as though new institutions would be needed much sooner than previously expected. We took it for granted—I am sure that we were right in this—that the Government of the day would seek to provide the places which ability and demand required in the 1980s. We could not see how existing institutions could be expanded far and fast enough, and this was our opportunity; we were sure that we were at the head of the queue. So, in April this year, a representative meeting gave the project a new momentum, and, with Lord Fulton now as chairman of the executive committee, we are all ready to go.

I have told that story at some length so that no one will think that this is a half-baked scheme, the project more of enthusiasm than of careful research and study. The practical work has been well done, mature choices have been made, and we are not embarking in blinkers on a prestige project. We are fully aware, and we are in earnest.

We come, then, to the present situation, indeed, the present crisis, in higher education. On 15th July last, on the initiative of Lord Robbins, there was an important debate in another place. Then, a fortnight ago, we had the Education Planning Paper No. 2 on Student Numbers. The position is simple. Despite the much fiercer admission standards we are operating, we must provide many more places than previously anticipated if we are to meet the needs of the 1980s. That is the position in a nutshell. I am sure that the Under-Secretary would not seek to challenge it.

Estimates vary, but I should be content to accept the figure in the Planning Paper of 460,000 by 1981, that is, university places, out of 835,000 in full-time higher education as a whole in England, Scotland and Wales. I should be content to accept also Lord Aberdare's judgment on behalf of the Government that about 400,000 to 430,000 of these could be accommodated by the expansion of existing institutions. This leads a short fall of 30,000 to 60,000 places, which means, at a minimum, between four and seven new universities to be started in the 1970's.

Lord Robbins made his own expert view known in the debate in the other place, saying that, whatever was done—this is important—by way of expanding and ungrading other institutions, we should still need some new universities if the proportion of the university population was not to be seriously diminished. He made another closely relevant point, saying that the recent wave of new universities had been immensely beneficial to the system of higher education as a whole. They have added to the variety and quality of higher education. I am sure that new creations can do the same. I hope that there will be a good deal more originality and experiment than in the past.

If there is a criticism to be made it is that we on Teesside were too cautious and conservative in establishing the form of the universities of the plate-glass generation. Our first proposal on Teesside was for a special institution for scientific and technological education and research, a so-called "sister" as described by the Robbins Report. There may be reason for looking at a formula rather differently now. We are undogmatic, and I know that our Chairman, Lord Fulton, has some interesting ideas with international overtones. We see a new situation from four years ago, when the door banged shut; new universities will he needed and needed soon.

There is another important point related less to educational need than to employment and environment. In our memorandum over seven years ago, we referred to a university contributing fully to the prosperity and growth of the area. We said that university education was itself a major industry, and that a university would create one new permanent job for every student enrolled, quite apart from large numbers employed on construction. That is a most important consideration. A university would provide a diversity of new jobs, which Teesside sorely needs. The figure for new jobs might build up over a period to provide as many as 10,000 by the 1980's, and this ignores the jobs in new industries that may well be attracted to Teesside by the existence of a university.

As for the quality of life, there is no doubt that a university provides a cultural spin-off for the neighbourhood. It creates new opportunities and broadens horizons. I would particularly expect this on Teesside, because we have in mind no ivory tower of gowns and mortar boards cut off from the community; we see an integrated university with close links with industry, part of our whole life, enriching it.

We are told that the new emphasis in the Government's regional policies is towards the improvement of infrastructure. So be it. I am not here to quarrel tonight. But in this case, investment in a university on Teesside is wholly consistent with the Government's declared policy and would be the biggest single contribution to our future prosperity that any Government could make. I say that with the most careful consideration. It would bring Teesside enormous benefits. I should add that it would not be a rival to our fine polytechnic or a substitute for the improvement of its facilities. On the contrary, far from its challenging what we already have, I see great scope here for a unique and fruitful relationship, as part of the experiment in devising a university of rare originality.

Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh are cities with two universities already. There may be others. Leicester, Nottingham, Coventry and Newcastle—and there may be others—are cities with a smaller population than Teesside, but with both a university and a polytechnic. As higher education expands, two or more major institutions of higher education are likely to be the rule in most conurbations.

I hope very much—and this is a specific request—that the hon. Gentleman will draw to the attention of his right hon. Friend, especially the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry who is the responsible Minister, the strong case in favour of unequivocal support for our university on regional development grounds. If they look at the matter objectively and with the best interests of Teesside and the Northern Region at heart, I cannot think that they will come to any other conclusion.

On Teesside, we have a determined local authority a fully committed local industry, energetic individuals and an enthusiastic local community. If any further initiative, any greater practical contribution or any wider demonstration of faith is needed, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell me tonight. We shall have a university on Teesside. The only question is whether it will be sooner or later.

8.40 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. William van Straubenzee)

I wish to respond firmly in the spirit in which the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. William Rodgers) has addressed the House and to thank him for his typically kindly references to me by saying that most certainly I will accede to his specific request and draw the attention of my right hon. Friend appropriately involved to the arguments that he has adduced on regional development grounds. I will do that with pleasure.

The hon. Gentleman has served in government and therefore understands that I have certain limitations in the sense that I have only certain responsibilities. Clearly, I must not stray outside them. However, within those limits, I will attempt to respond to his arguments. I will begin by saying a few words about the general question of university expansion, because it is the nub of the problem.

We are in regular informal contact with the University Grants Committee on the matter, and we expect to be receiving the Committee's formal advice in due course. Obviously university expansion is only one aspect of the wider question of future opportunities for higher education, which was the subject of a debate in another place as recently as 15th July. As we were then, we are considering now the pattern for the 1970s. In due course, we shall be making our decision.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman drew specific attention to the publication, since that debate, of Education Planning Paper No. 2. The House will recall that that paper sets out in detail the projections made by my Department of numbers and costs of students in higher education in England and Wales up to 1981. It does so on certain specific assumptions. A similar paper has been produced for Scotland by the Scottish Education Department.

It is important to emphasise that neither the Government nor any other body concerned has either accepted or rejected those projections as a basis for action.

The purpose of the two papers is simply to encourage and assist the widest possible public discussion. I have ventured to call Paper No. 2 a "half-green" paper. It happens to be printed in that way. I am very anxious that the widest possible public discussion shall now take place upon the figures which have been published, because obviously that will lead to one of the most important questions in education on which this Government will have to take decisions.

I turn next to the specific question of Teesside. Like the hon. Gentleman, I feel that it may help if I set on record one or two of the background facts.

The idea of a technological university in the North-East was first raised as long ago as 1962. No doubt it was in the minds of the members of the Robbins Committee when, in the following year, they recommended that five Special Institutions for Scientific and Technological Education and Research—a massively long title—known as SISTERS should be created and that one of these should be a completely new foundation.

In 1965 the previous Government rejected the recommendation for the five SISTERS. However, they added that the creation of a new technological university in the North-East was being urgently examined. The idea was that it would be a completely new foundation and that there would be no question of the promotion to university status of one or other of the major technical colleges in the region. This was, of course, a year before the then Government published their White Paper proposing the establishment of polytechnics as a distinctive sector of higher education complementary with the universities. I emphasise "complementary with the universities".

So far as I can judge, all this must have seemed reasonably encouraging. But after 1965 the then Government seem to have been assailed by doubts, for the prospects of any developments began to recede. In 1966 they announced that, in the light of the current financial situation, they could not approve the launching of the university in the years immediately ahead.

A year later the most that the Government could say was that the proposals for a technological institution in the North-East would be carefully considered when it became possible to contemplate the establishment of further new universities, but that this was unlikely to be for some years. Finally, in 1968, the Government said that they could not contemplate the establishment of any new universities—I underline the words "any new universities"—in the years immediately ahead.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman's purpose tonight is to show that the Teesside project is still very much alive, and he has done so with customary skill. I know, from my recent visit, that the project enjoys strong support in the North-East. I was not so lucky as to see the proposed site in the idyllic circumstances that he described so poetically, because I saw it in drizzling rain. But I want the hon. Gentleman to understand that I have taken on board the strong support for the project in the North-East, and I take note of all the points that he made. Incidentally, I am grateful for the moderate and reasonable way that they were expressed.

However—and this is the nub of the problem—for reasons that I have explained, we have not yet reached the point of taking decisions on university expansion as such. Before doing so, we shall look to the University Grants Committee to advise us whether any new foundations at all should form part of the expansion of the universities in the 1970's and, if so, where they should be. Clearly I cannot predict what that advice will be, but I am sure that the Committee will examine fairly and impartially the claims of Teesside for a new university along with any others which may have been submitted from any part of the country.

It is right to mention that in the past other locations in the North-East have been suggested in addition to Teesside. Therefore, what I have said, and what I am about to say, would apply equally to them if they were put forward again.

In the hope that I may be helpful to the hon. Gentleman and to all those whom he represents I propose to select and comment briefly upon four general considerations which will be very relevant when the time for decision-making arrives. The Government will have strong regard to them, and, though I obviously cannot speak for the U.G.C., it is reasonable to assume that the Committee will have regard to them before tendering its advice.

The first of these is the growth of existing universities. I imagine that nobody would think it sensible if existing universities were prevented from developing into institutions which were not only strong academically but were also of an economic size purely so that resources should be diverted into entirely new foundations. There are already 45 institutions on the U.G.C.'s grant list, and in 1969–70 as many as 16 of them had fewer than 2,500 students. Of the 16, six are former colleges of advanced technology and they, as we know, are heavily biased towards pure and applied science.

The second consideration is a financial one. It will be obvious from the education planning paper to which both the hon. Gentleman and I have referred that, whatever the precise extent of the expansion of higher education in the 'seventies, it will cost the country a great deal of money. Clearly we must use this money as wisely as we can. The establishment of entirely new universities is likely to be more expensive than providing the same number of places at existing ones, because clearly a new university has to start from scratch.

It is therefore highly relevant that the Vice-Chancellors' Committee has already estimated—though it should be said clearly that this is only an estimate—that existing universities could be expanded to take a total of about 400,000 students on their present sites. I understand that the U.G.C. is carrying out a detailed survey to establish the maximum potential capacity of the sites which the universities already have or expect to have by 1980. It will be very interesting to see what the total arising out of a detailed survey will be, but a capacity of 400,000 is nearly 175,000 above the number of students in the universities today.

The third consideration is the establishment of the polytechnics since the technological university was first proposed. In the North-Eastern Region there are three polytechnics, formed from technical colleges with national reputations, which have now been designated, at Newcastle, Sunderland and on Teesside itself. As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, I have recently had the privilege of visiting those at Sunderland and at Teesside and, as all visitors must be, I was enormously impressed with the progress being made at both. Between them they had 4,600 full-time and sandwich course students taking advanced courses in 1969–70. The Teesside polytechnic, with fewer than 1,000 such students, is the smallest of the three, and is at present one of the smallest polytechnics in the country. Plans for a substantial expansion which would greatly strengthen it are now being considered.

Two questions which must therefore be faced are whether the growth of the polytechnic ought to be limited to make way for a university, or whether it would make sense to build up an existing small institution of higher education and to establish an entirely new one in the same county borough at one and the same time. In this connection let me say how grateful I was for the assurance of the hon. Gentleman, speaking with great knowledge of those who are of the same view as himself, that nothing in their proposals would be designed to be harmful in any way to the building up of the polytechnics. I know that he has the same interest as I have in the success of that great institution on Teesside.

The fourth consideration is the likely future requirement for university places in pure and applied sciences. I think that it is generally accepted that, following the building up of science departments in universities, including those of the former colleges of advanced technology, it is easier nowadays to obtain a place for a science course than for an arts course. Therefore, in considering the possibility of a new university exclusively devoted to science, as was originally proposed, or one which would have a science bias, the Government would have to look for evidence that additional science places were required over and above any provided to build up existing universities, and particularly those whose work is concentrated on science and technology.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I have made these four points in the hope that they will be helpful to him as illustrations of some of the major considerations which must be borne in mind in establishing the principle before one moved on to establishing the case for a location. But we are not yet ready to take a decision on this expansion. I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman, with his experience, would have expected a decision of this kind to be announced in answer to an Adjournment debate. We shall make a decision on the expansion of the universities as a whole at the right time, bearing in mind some of the criteria which I have placed before the House.