HC Deb 17 December 1974 vol 883 cc1338-9
10. Mr. Rifkind

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he is satisfied with the number of universities, and the number of places for students at universities, in Great Britain.

Mr. Prentice

I am resolved never to be completely satisfied with any aspect of our educational system, but our current provision of university places is consistent with the Robbins principle.

Mr. Rifkind

Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that inflationary pressures are causing unprecedented difficulty for the universities in fulfilling their present requirements? Does he accept that there is now a strong argument for a suspension of the university expansion programme to ensure that the universities can provide proper teaching, accommodation and research facilities for the students already there?

Mr. Prentice

I acknowledge that the universities have been passing through a very difficult period of financial stringency. That was one reason why, last week, we announced an additional grant of £15 million during the current year to try to ease some of those problems. I do not believe that that leads to the conclusion that there should be a standstill in student expansion. We have fixed a rather lower student target figure for 1980 than was previously the case, but this will still involve expansion consistent with the Robbins principle.

Mr. Bryan Davies

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that not just universities but polytechnics, too, are playing a vital role in higher education and are suffering the effects of inflation? Does he also appreciate that the revised figures which he has just mentioned represent a situation in which Great Britain proposes to educate, in terms of higher education, a smaller proportion of its school leaving population than almost any other advanced country?

Mr. Prentice

On the first point, of course I recognise the truth of what my hon. Friend says. The only reason why I confined my original reply to the universities was that the Question related to the universities. I am glad to pay tribute, as I have on many occasions, to the work done by polytechnics. The 640,000 places target is related to the forward projection of existing demand as we see it at present.

Mr. Lane

In view of the prospective slow-down in the growth of quantity, is not quality all the more important? Although the announcement last week may be of some help, will the Secretary of State continue to use his powerful muscle on the Treasury so as to shield the universities from the worst effects of inflation?

Mr. Prentice

I shall certainly do my best to use my muscle on the Treasury, although I am not sure whether my muscle is powerful enough. I sometimes think that my life is divided into two parts—half of it spent fighting the Treasury and the other half, unfortunately, spent in having to imitate the Treasury.