HC Deb 18 May 1976 vol 911 cc1227-37

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to end distinctions between the various types of educational institutions that cater for people over 18 years of age, and to provide for a genuinely comprehensive system of higher education under democratic control. During the last decade there has been an explosion in the provision of facilities for people wanting to take courses in higher education. Perhaps I might quote one or two figures. In 1964–65 there were 274,000 places for post-A-level ONC students in full-time courses in colleges up and down the country. By 1974–75 there were 497,000 of these places. That represents an increase of nearly 100 per cent. These places were available in a bewildering variety of institutions. I cannot go into them in detail, but at the moment there are some 43 universities, including the Open University, 30 polytechnics and 595 other institutions variously described as further education colleges, technical colleges and the like, and we now have the added complication of what we refer to as "centres for higher education".

Before I indulge in the critical part of my comments, I wish to say plainly that I support the growth in higher education which has taken place. It has brought an enormous benefit to people who otherwise would not have had any kind of facilities, as their parents had no facilities, to take advantage of higher education. What is more—this is enormously important to me and to many of my hon. Friends—it gives the lie to those who feel that there is a very strict limit to the ability and poten- tial of our people and that only a few can achieve excellent standards in educational attainment. Even when it was first suggested that the universities should be expanded, there were those who said that there was a severe limit to the number of people who could take and profit from higher education courses.

Having said that I support the growth which has taken place, I think it is reasonable now to assess whether we have the right structure in higher education, bearing in mind that the system has grown rather like Topsy, not exactly unplanned but in such a way that no one could have foreseen the structure which exists today.

My view is that it is not the right structure. It is based on a tripartite system, for want of a better expression, of different types of institutions, many of which have very feeble distinctions between them. This is bad in principle because it leads to mistakes in the allocation, I do so as one who has worked in of resources.

If I suggest that we should take stock of the present structure of higher education, I do so as one who has worked in it for much of the last decade. Looking first at the universities, in my view they are probably more uncertain than at any time in their history about what exactly they should be doing, where they should be going, what their status is vis-à-vis the polytechnics, and so on. For this reason, university lecturers are very uncertain of their status and are anxious that they should not be in competition with the polytechnics. These are issues which are debated in universities today and which were never debated before.

It might be said that in the polytechnics there is the greatest uncertainty of all, because they have been subjected to the greatest growth of all. Polytechnics think that they are different from universities, but in practical terms most of the time they ape the universities. In my view they concentrate quite wrongly almost entirely on full-time courses, to the detriment of day-release students, block-release students and part-time students. All the forces within the polytechnics are there to see that they should do this and that their staff should concentrate on the more advanced work which is often the more prestigious work, often the more highly paid work and often the kind of work which results in higher gradings and the like. Therefore, the polytechnics, too, are uncertain about their position.

To some extent the same is true of the colleges of further education and the technical colleges. They have found their position threatened and diminished in many ways during the last decade, with much of their more prestigious work being poached by neighbouring polytechnics and other higher education institutions. Perfectly good work which formerly was done in further education colleges can be done no more, for no very good reason that I can see.

I emphasise that in many ways the structure of higher education that we have is the kind of tripartite system which rightly in my view we have rejected at 11-plus. It is tripartite with the universities being, in a sense, the grammar schools, with the polytechnics being in some respects the technical schools and with the further education colleges being the secondary moderns. This is wrong in principle for reasons which I have not time to elaborate upon now. But it is very bad in terms of the allocation of resources. I commend that view to hon. Members who may not agree with my principles.

That means that in one region—I apply it to my own region, the West Midlands, and hon. Members can apply it to their own regions—we have universities and polytechnics independently and separately funded and independently pursuing their own course structures often without reference to one another, often in conflict with one another, and often, as a result, making excessive provision in certain subjects and none at all in others. That is an unacceptable state of affairs from the point of view of the rational use of resources, and it is a bad system to have in existence.

The further education colleges also find themselves threatened by the existing tipartite system, especially now that we have centres for higher education coming into existence. More and more, the further education colleges feel that they are the poor relations in terms of the allocation of funds and the provision of prestigious courses.

The present tripartite system is bad in principle and wasteful of public money. I know that Opposition Members are especially concerned about this. It is wasteful in terms of the allocation of funds and, therefore, it is a system we should reject.

The short-term provisions of my Bill would have the effect of bringing the universities into the same planning system at a regional level as the polytechnics and the further education colleges for the provision of new courses and would ensure closer consultation at a regional level to ensure that funds were allocated properly.

In the longer term my Bill would provide, under the scrutiny and decision of Parliament, for the establishment of a proper regional basis for the higher education system, abolishing the distinction between the universities, polytechnics and colleges of further education and providing for a comprehensive base such as one has at primary and secondary school levels. I think that this proposal is right in principle, is good so far as economy and value for money are concerned and, above all, is desirable from the point of view of the future provision of our children and students in the generations to come.

4.11 p.m.

Mr. David Lane

(Cambridge) rose—

Mr. Speaker

Is the hon. Gentleman seeking to oppose?

Mr. Lane

Yes, Mr. Speaker.

The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Grocott) and I work together on other less controversial educational causes and I hope that we shall continue to do so, but on this occasion I must part company with him. I share much of his dissatisfaction with the present situation but I come to a different conclusion, because I fear that his Bills, as outlined, would lead to a comprehensive shambles—more confusion and less education. I hope that the House will reject the motion.

To state my objections in general terms, I feel that higher education today is in a tender state and needs a period of consolidation and sympathetic care. By contrast, the Bill would create turmoil and distract attention from the real problems.

To some extent we can draw a parallel with the situation in our schools. The most pressing problem in education today is to improve standards for the majority of our children—already about two in every three—who are being, and are likely to continue to be, educated in comprehensive schools. I am glad that this aim is at the top of my party's agenda for education. Yet the Government's insistence on forcing the pace by compelling comprehensive reorganisation will prove a serious distraction from more urgent problems. I fear that the Bill would do the same in higher education.

I fear, too, that the effect will be a lowering of academic standards in higher education. Drawing conclusions from what the hon. Gentleman said, and also from the 1973 Green Paper issued by the Labour Party, I fear that there will be a rise in the number of unmotivated students and in the wastage rate in this country, which has hitherto been one of the lowest in the world. We should stick rather to the Robbins' principle that Courses in higher education should be available for all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so. In the years since the war, as the hon. Gentleman said, there has been a vast increase in the number of students and a dramatic widening of educational opportunities, with the universities in particular open to a larger cross-section of the population than ever before.

Looking around higher education today we see the universities, the crown of our educational system, struggling to keep up their standards despite financial restrictions and the apparent hostility of this Government. It is true that the threat of "manpower planning" associated with Lord Crowther-Hunt has apparently been removed, but morale remains very low.

We see the polytechnics doing much good work but in some uncertainty about their future roôle. They have shown a tendency to drift towards becoming mini-universities and to shed some of their lower level work. Too much effort has been given to arts subjects and too little to scientific and technical. We see, as the hon. Gentleman said, many colleges of further education doing fine work in advanced courses, including one in my own constituency. Lastly, we see the colleges of education going through an awkward period of adjustment and amalgamation.

At this difficult time, I would suggest a few aims of policy which are very different from the drastic treatment urged by the hon. Gentleman. First, there should be a distinctive roôle for the different institutions, especially universities and polytechnics. Each sector needs the other, and the nation needs the diversity they offer. Secondly, nothing should be done which would dilute the quality of university work, whether in teaching or research, or cause further damage to university morale. There must be no sacrifice of the fundamental values and freedoms which are essential to university life.

Thirdly, the present wasteful duplication through too many courses being offered in too many institutions must be reduced. Fourthly, there should be a gradual growing together of the different institutions in partnership; more cross-fertilisation and a sharing of facilities: and a greater flexibility in the system, perhaps through more modular degrees and transferable credits. Fifthly, outside the universities there should be a greater emphasis on day release and part-time work.

Sixthly, there should be—I am with the hon. Gentleman up to a point here—a review of the system of allocating resources. In particular, the present pooling arrangements for advanced further education and higher education, mean that there is no direct line of responsibility between the local authorities which provide the money and the institutions which receive it. I believe that we should consider seriously, as one possible solution, the creation of a Further Education Grants Committee for non-university institutions. This could co-ordinate the use of resources at national level and on a longer time-scale than hitherto, and it could help to reduce the duplication of courses, which we all want. It could work closely and share some common services with the University Grants Committee. But any such arrangements must not supplant the local connections and possibly also the regional connections which are so valuable for institutions of higher and further education.

It is along lines such as these that I believe we should seek solutions to the problems in higher education today. The Bill, in my judgment, would not provide solutions but would create new problems.

In particular it would be a recipe for more waste and duplication. For all these reasons, I ask the house to refuse leave for such an unwise piece of legislation.

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I would ask you, when you are considering this debate, whether you could have the annunciators examined. My hon. Friend has been speaking admirably for about 10 minutes, yet the annunciator still records the name of the previous speaker.

Division No. 142] AYES [4.19 p.m.
Abse, Leo Grant, George (Morpeth) Phipps, Dr Colin
Archer, Peter Grimond, Rt Hon J. Radice, Giles
Atkinson, Norman Grocott, Bruce Reid, George
Bagler, Gordon A. T. Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Richardson, Miss Jo
Bain, Mrs Margaret Harper, Joseph Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Bates, Alf Hatton, Frank Roderick, Caerwyn
Bean, R. E. Hayman, Mrs Helene Rooker, J. W.
Beith, A. J. Heffer, Eric S. Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
Bidwell, Sydney Henderson, Douglas Rowlands, Ted
Blenkinsop, Arthur Hooley, Frank Sedgemore, Brian
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Hooson, Emlyn Selby, Harry
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey) Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Bradley, Tom Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Bray, Dr Jeremy Hughes, Roy (Newport) Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)
Brown, Hugh D (Provan) Hunter, Adam Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
Brown, Ronald (Hackney S) Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill) Silverman, Julius
Buchan, Norman Janner, Greville Skinner, Dennis
Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green) Jay, Rt Hon Douglas Small, William
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE) Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Spearing, Nigel
Canavan, Dennis Johnson, James (Hull West) Spriggs, Leslie
Cant, R. B. Jones, Dan (Burnley) Stallard, A. W.
Cartwright, John Kaufman, Gerald Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Kelley, Richard Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)
Cohen, Stanley Kilroy-Silk, Robert Stewart, Pt Hon M. (Fulham)
Coleman, Donald Lamond, James Stoddart, David
Colquhoun, Ms Maureen Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Stott, Roger
Concannon, J. D. Leadbitter, Ted Taylor, Mrs. Ann (Bolton W)
Corbett, Robin Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Lipton. Marcus Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill) Litterick, Tom Thompson, George
Crawford, Douglas Loyden, Eddie Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Cryer, Bob Mabon, Dr J. Dickson Tierney, Sydney
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) McCartney, Hugh Torney, Tom
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Urwin, T. W.
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) McNamara, Kevin Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Dempsey, James Madden, Max Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Edge, Geoff Maynard, Miss Joan Watkins, David
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Mikardo, Ian Weitzman, David
English, Michael Millan, Bruce Welsh, Andrew
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N) White, Frank R. (Bury)
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen) Mitchell, R. C. (Solon, Itchen) Whitlock, William
Evans, loan (Aberdare) Moonman, Eric Wigley, Dafydd
Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray) Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Faulds, Andrew Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Williams, Alan (Swansea W)
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Newens, Stanley Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Flannery, Martin Noble, Mike Williams, Sir Thomas
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Ogden, Eric Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Orbach, Maurice Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Wise, Mrs Audrey
Freeson, Reginald Ovenden, John Woodall, Alec
Garrett, John (Norwich S) Pardoe, John Wrigglesworth, Ian
Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Park, George Young, David (Bolton E)
George, Bruce Parry. Robert
Ginsburg David Pavitt, Laurie TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Golding, John Penhaligon, David Mr. George Rodgers and
Graham, Ted Perry, Ernest Mr. Ivor Clemitson.
Adley, Robert Amery, Rt Hon Julian Awdry, Daniel
Aitken, Jonathan Arnold, Tom Baker, Kenneth
Alison, Michael Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne) Banks, Robert

That must mean that anyone outside who wished to listen to this debate has been misled.

Mr. Speaker

I shall have inquiries made.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring i0n Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 170. Noes 182.

Benyon, W. Holland, Philip Page, John (Harrow West)
Berry, Hon Anthony Hordern, Peter Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)
Blaker, Peter Howell, David (Gulldford) Parkinson, Cecil
Boscawen, Hon Robert Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Percival, Ian
Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown) Hunt, David (Wirral) Peyton, Rt Hon John
Boyson, Dr Rhodes(Brent) Hurd, Douglas Pink, R. Bonner
Brains, Sir Bernard Irving, Charles (Cheltenham) Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch
Brittan, Leon Jenkin, Rt Hn P. (Wanst'd & W'df'd) Price, David (Eastleigh)
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Jessel, Toby Pym, Rt Hon Francis
Buchanan-Smith, Alick Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead) Raison, Timothy
Budgen, Nick Jones, Arthur (Daventry) Rathbone, Tim
Burden, F. A. Jopling, Michael Rees-Davies, W. R.
Butler, Adam (Bosworth) King, Tom (Bridgwater) Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)
Channon, Paul Knox, David Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Churchill, W. S. Lamont, Norman Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Lane, David Ridsdale, Julian
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Langford-Holt, Sir John Rifkind, Malcolm
Clegg, Walter Latham, Michael (Melton) Roberts, Michael (Cardiff, NW)
Cockcroft, John Lawrence, Ivan Ross, William (Londonderry)
Cooke, Robert (Bristol W) Lawson, Nigel Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Cope, John Le Marchant, Spencer Sainsbury, Tim
Cormack, Patrick Lester, Jim (Beeston) St. John-Stevas, Norman
Carrie, John Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Scott, Nicholas
Costain, A. P. Lloyd, Ian Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Davies, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford) Luce, Richard Shepherd, Colin
Dean, Paul (N Somerset) McAdden, Sir Stephen Shersby, Michael
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James MacCormick, Iain Silvester, Fred
Drayson, Burnaby McCrindle, Robert Sinclair, Sir George
Dunlop, John McCusker, H. Smith, Dudley (Warwick)
Durant, Tony Macfarlane, Neil Speed, Keith
Eden, Rt Hon Sir John MacGregor, John Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) McNair-Wilson. M. (Newbury) Stanbrook, Ivor
Elliott, Sir William Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Emery, Peter Marten, Neil Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Fyre Reginald Mates, Michael Stokes, John
Fairbairn, Nicholas Mather, Carol Stradling Thomas, J
Finsberg, Geoffrey Maude, Angus Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
Fisher, Sir Nigel Maudling, Rt Hon Reginald Thomas, Rt Hon P. (Hendon S)
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Mawby, Ray Townsend, Cyril D.
Fookes, Miss Janet Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Tugendhat, Christopher
Forman, Nigel Mayhew, Patrick van Straubenzee, W. R.
Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd) Meyer, Sir Anthony Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Fraser, Fit Hon H. (Stafford & St) Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove) Wakeham, John
Fry, Peter Mills, Peter Welder, David (Clitheroe)
Gilmour, Rt Hon Ian (Chesham) Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Walker, Rt Hon P. (Worcester)
Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) Moate, Roger Wall, Patrick
Goodhart, Philip Molyneaux, James Walters, Dennis
Goodhew, Victor Monro, Hector Weatherill, Bernard
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) More, Jasper (Ludlow) Wells, John
Gray, Hamish Morgan, Geraint Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Grist, Ian Morris, Michael (Northampton S) Wiggin, Jerry
Hall, Sir John Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Winterton, Nicholas
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) Wood, Rt Hon Richard
Hampson, Dr Keith Neave, Airey Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Harvie Anderson, Rt Hon Miss Nelson, Anthony Younger, Hon George
Hawkins, Paul Newton, Tony
Hayhoe, Barney Nott, John FELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Hicks, Robert Onslow, Cranley Mr. Marcus Kimball and
Higgins, Terence L. Osborn, John
Question accordingly negatived.