HC Deb 17 December 1974 vol 883 cc1333-5
6. Winterton

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what are the trends in the numbers of undergraduates entering universities in Great Britain.

Mr. Prentice

The number of undergraduates entering universities in Great Britain increased from 52,000 in 1965–66 to 65,000 in 1971–72, and has since risen to a provisional total of 71,000 in the current academic year 1974–75. The average annual rates of increase represented by these figures are 3.4 per cent. over the whole period and 2.8 per cent. for the last three years. In the latest year the increase is 52 per cent., due partly to demographic reasons and partly to an increase in overseas students.

Mr. Winterton

What information has come to the Department's notice about the lowering in standards of entry to universities? Will the Secretary of State comment on the relevance of the Rob-bins principle, and also on the NUS proposal that the hard-pressed taxpayers and ratepayers should meet subscriptions to that union to the extent of 100 per cent.?

Mr. Prentice

I do not accept that there has been a lowering in standards of entry. There have been some false reports on this topic in respect of certain universities—reports which have been denied. The figures which I have given are broadly consistent with the Robbins principle. I believe that we are following this through in practice. As for the NUS and the point mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, my initial reaction is sceptical but I should like to hear more details.

Dr. Hampson

I hope that the Secretary of State will admit that the targets set by the Conservative Government were also within the Robbins principle, although, so far, the Labour Party have denied this. Will he confirm that there is a declining number of applications for entry into university, and that this is particularly acute in the sciences? Will he also confirm that there are 20,000 vacant places in the science departments of our universities and that science lecturers are concerned that they may have to take students of lower standard than used to be the case? Will he set up an inquiry to examine what is happening and report on why expectations in the 1960s are not being met and to determine what Government action is needed to ensure that we have more scientific and engineering graduates to meet the needs of industry?

Mr. Prentice

I think that both the previous Government and this Government have had the duty of looking at the projected figures to fulfil the Robbins principle. This is a complex matter. It is difficult to know precisely the likely real demand, in Robbins terms, in 1980. On present evidence, 640,000 places is the best available estimate that we can make. I agree that failure to take up available science places, particularly applied science places, is very disturbing. I am not sure that we need an inquiry into that matter, because we know a great deal about it already. We must do all we can to encourage good applicants for those places.