HC Deb 18 May 1976 vol 911 cc1379-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Harper.]

11.12 p.m.

Mr. McCusker (Armagh)

I am at a loss to know to whom I should address my remarks, as the Minister I thought was responsible for answering this debate does not appear to be on the Government Front Bench. I see, however, that another Minister is present.

A few weeks ago the second graduation ceremony for students of the Open University in Northern Ireland took place in Belfast. Of the 192 graduates, 18 were honours graduates, three were first-class graduates and 12 had upper second-class honours. That represents a higher success rate than in many other parts of the United Kingdom, but it is partially explained by the fact that about 50 per cent. of the graduates were teachers—a significant number.

At virtually the same time as that graduation ceremony the education authorities in Northern Ireland were making a decision which caused Mr. Rex O'Hare, the National Secretary of the Open University Students' Association, to state: If they press on with this policy it will amount to a near amputation of Northern Ireland from the Open University. If they are not persuaded to change their minds, it will amount to a serious act of educational discrimination. Mr. O'Hare is not a Northern Ireland politician with a vested interest in making such a comment. He used colourful and emotive language because he was concerned with the decision. Less dramatic but just as effective was Mr. D. E. McIntyre, the Regional Director of the Open University in Northern Ireland, who said: Over 800 students in the province are currently taking courses which include a summer school commitment. The effects on students in Northern Ireland could obviously be very serious. The decision, which precipitated those comments and which caused great dismay to Open University students in Northern Ireland, was taken by the Northern Ireland Area Education and Library Boards. In effect, it means that assistance for travel expenses to summer schools is withdrawn, sponsorship to summer schools is restricted to one, and that no assistance will be given to any new student who has already received financial assistance from public funds for a post A-level course.

This refers back to my comment about the number of graduates being teachers. Obviously, the person who suffers most by that ruling will be the Northern Ireland teacher who is already in receipt of assistance from public funds for his teacher-training course and will receive no assistance if this policy is implemented.

Before this decision, sponsorship from Northern Ireland was on a par with the average for the rest of the United Kingdom. It took the form of discretionary grants, and it was agreed by the area boards that they would pay the costs of travel and the summer school fees. In most cases this would have ranged between £50 and £100, depending on individual circumstances, and probably would have amounted to half the total cost of the course, the student bearing the remaining expenditure on the actual course fees, the set books and other miscellaneous travel and stationery expenses. That could have been described as a fairly equitable arrangement, a 50–50 split of the cost of the course.

The reason given by the five area boards for their decision is obviously that the economic situation necessitates that they make expenditure cuts. By this miserly and potentially damaging decision they hope to save about £25,000—£5,000 per board—so small an amount that it was not even necessary, apparently, to refer it to a meeting of board members. I find it particularly ironic that in the week we are debating this issue we should have before us an Education and Library Boards (Payment to Board Members) Regulation which introduces for the first time a financial loss allowance for board members engaged on certain duties.

As the Minister knows as well as I do, we are told that the members of these boards are public-spirited citizens. They do not have to face the rigours of election to office. I cannot help thinking that if they want to encourage others to make expenditure cuts, they should take a dose of their own medicine. If they were to cut back on their own expenses and the expenses associated with conferences and other activities in which they engage, they would probably save substantially more than the £25,000 they hope to save by this decision.

Open University students have already this year accepted a 60 per cent. increase in their course fees. A student taking a single credit course is faced with a charge of £70 compared with the 1975 charge of £25. These figures are based on the rather unambitious student who has decided to take only one credit per year. I am led to believe that most of the students in Northern Ireland take more than one credit per year, so one should perhaps double those figures. A teacher registering for the first time in 1976 can expect to pay a minimum of £119. If he decides to take two credits he could face paying about £250.

We know that every Open University student gives up 15 to 20 hours of his leisure time each week to study. He uses his annual holidays for attendance at summer school. He relinquishes essential time with his family and friends, and he may forgo the opportunity for overtime earnings. On top of that, the Northern Ireland student has to cope with the day-to-day problems and frustrations of living in the Province. These should not be under-estimated.

The education boards should not be seeking further to isolate and disadvantage Northern Ireland students compared with those on the mainland. They should be offering positive encouragement. After all, if 50 per cent. of the graduates are teachers, the boards are receiving free in-course training for their staff. We should be keen to send students to summer schools from Northern Ireland, if only to show the other face of the Province to associates in the Open University.

I know that the Minister and his colleagues are tired of answering allegations about withdrawal from Northern Ireland, whether those allegations are of military, economic or industrial withdrawal. Here is an opportunity to nail that lie. The threat of educational isolation springs from ill-considered acts of the Northern Ireland people themselves, and the Minister now has an opportunity to put them back on the rails.

I know that these grants are discretionary, and not a Ministry decision, but some co-ordination is necessary among the five boards. Can the Minister tell us whether this decision had the approval or sanction of Ministry officials? I know that a nod is as good as a wink, and if the Minister declared himself tonight, his voice would be listened to.

The sum of £25,000 is paltry to area educational and library boards, and this is a hollow gesture at cutting expenditure. But it represents a heavy burden on individual students who are struggling in a difficult economic situation.

The introduction to the Open University says: the Open University is open to all. If these decisions of the area boards are carried through, that could be changed to read "open to all who can afford it", as far as Northern Ireland is concerned.

11.22 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Roland Moyle)

The hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker), in raising this matter for debate tonight, has chosen a subject which has aroused considerable interest in Northern Ireland. I congratulate him on raising a matter which is not part of the security situation, thus indicating that there is a life in the Province which is not part of that situation. I welcome the opportunity to clarify the position.

Before dealing with the main issue he has raised, I shall take the opportunity to speak in general terms about the Open University and the tremendous success it has had in evoking interest in Northern Ireland. The participation rate—if one estimates that Northern Ireland has 3 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom—measured in terms of students who have graduated from the Open University, forms about 4 per cent. of the total in each of the last four years. That is quite a significant advance on Northern Ireland's just numerical proportion.

The Department of Education for Northern Ireland contributes, through the Department of Education and Science, to the recurrent costs of the Open University to the extent of £445,000 a year. That was the figure for the 1975–76 financial year, which has just ended, and there are no plans to change that sort of support. The Open University is recognised in Northern Ireland as a very valuable element in the Province's further and higher educational system. It is against this background of a consciousness of provincial pride that I wish to reply to the points the hon. Member has made.

I should explain that awards in respect of the Open University courses are not made by my Department. They are made by the Education and Library Boards which were established under the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 These boards are responsible for the local administration of education in Northern Ireland. The authority for education boards to make awards is given by the Students Awards Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1975. Although the boards make the awards, the value of the awards is subject to the approval of the Department of Education and this is granted under the terms of the regulations which I have mentioned.

The general practice in Northern Ireland hitherto is for the Open University courses to cover the cost of a summer school fee, plus travelling costs to and from the summer school. Four of the five boards confined the award to the cost of one summer school. The fifth was more generous and did not impose that limitation. No regard was had to the students' means in granting the award.

The education and library boards in Northern Ireland, in common with education authorities in the rest of the United Kingdom, have been affected by the restraint necessary in public expenditure in response to the national economic situation. In these circumstances, many desirable educational activities have had to be curtailed, and clearly priority in expenditure has had to be given to compulsory schooling. This is, after all, the basic education service and it must be protected.

Discretionary awards and awards to Open University students fall within this category and are one of the areas where the boards have had to look for savings in the current situation. Against that background the executive committee of the Association of Area Boards, following the report of the working party of its scholarship officers, recommended the following arrangements to apply this summer: first, the fees for only one summer school should be paid, confirming the practice of the majority of the boards; secondly, travelling costs should not be included thirdly, awards should not be given to students at the Open University who had already been in receipt of awards from public funds.

This third category is known as "second awards", and the intention was to bring Open University awards into line with general practice on postgraduate awards in Northern Ireland. Second awards already approved would be allowed to continue, but at the revised value and no new ones would be granted. Some of the area boards took action on these recommendations. I have reason to believe that this action was at officer level and it was not necessarily the considered decision of the members of the board meeting to debate the recommendation and approve it by resolution.

But those area boards which took this action overlooked the fact that the awards were subject to the approval of the Department of Education, and they did not obtain that approval. I should like to thank the Open University Students' Association and others for drawing my attention to this matter.

As a result of this situation, officers of my Department last week met the chief education officers of the area education library boards to consider the position and they readily agreed that the whole question of awards for the Open University should be reviewed for the longer term in the light of the prevailing financial circumstances. The decisions taken by the education authorities in England and Wales are under similar financial constraints.

However, something further was necessary for the coming summer and the Department has determined that the value of the award required to be approved under the regulations shall be for one summer school together with the travelling expenses. This is the status quo of the majority of the boards, so we are holding the position throughout the coming summer.

The second award is a matter for each board—not for me or the Department—to decide under the powers given in the relevant regulations for discretionary awards. I am confident, however, that the boards will have regard to the views that have been publicly expressed and to the Adjournment debate tonight, and I shall draw their attention to it.

There is one major exception to the fact that my Department has no influence over second awards, and that is in the case of teachers. In a variety of ways they are encouraged to increase and add to their academic qualifications. That is the special position of teachers in relation to the Open University courses as at present being examined by Northern Ireland Teachers In-service Training Committee, which contains representatives from the profession, the Training institutions, the area boards and the Department. In advance of its conclusions, the Department has decided that it will, for this summer, make in-service training awards to teachers who are enrolled in Open University courses and who are not in receipt of awards from the area boards. That is action for this coming summer, again pending the availbility of the ultimate review. The amount of the award will be on the same basis as that made by the boards. The Department is consulting the Open University about the detailed arrangements to be made.

May I say, generally, that it is extremely difficult, in circumstances where the discretion exercised by local education authorities in England and Wales has led to considerable variations in practice, to make a direct comparison between the position in Northern Ireland and that in England and Wales, but I should like to assure the hon. Member and the House that in exercising its approval function in relation to the level of aware—this is where the Department comes into the exercise—the Department of Education in Northern Ireland will continue to have regard to the general practice in England and Wales, with a view as nearly as possible to bringing it into line with the generally accepted best practice.

I hope that these remarks of mine will clarify the position, and that the action taken by the Department has restored it to the satisfaction of the hon. Member. I hope particularly that I have allayed fears about radical changes in the level of support to Northern Ireland students for the current session of the Open University.

I have referred to the discussions that are to take place between the Department of Education and the education and library boards. Discussion of this kind are now an integral part of the administration of the education service in Northern Ireland and they indicate a very close relationship between my Department and the boards which has evolved in the two and a half years in which the boards have been in operation.

I have had personal experience of these discussions, since I have periodic meetings with the chairman and chief education officers of the boards where I take the chair, and one of the major advantages of the scale which exists in Northern Ireland is that we can have these meetings. I do not think that many other parts of the United Kingdom have quite the same facilities in this regard.

We all welcome the chance to consider on the Floor of the House local issues in Northern Ireland which are not related to violence and disruption. The spirit of our discussion tonight is the spirit in which we all like to operate. and I hope it will be regarded as a most worthwhile exchange.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.