HC Deb 01 August 1978 vol 955 cc530-7

3.32 a.m.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)

I am very glad to raise this subject, because it appears that the Government are either reluctant or unable to come to a decision on the matter.

Last year, on 6th July, the Secretary of State for Scotland said: In the context of the Scotland and Wales Bill, the Government announced that in the post-devolution situation they would be anxious to see established in Scotland a Council for Higher Education, in respect of which the Assembly would play its part. We are pursuing this matter even in the pre-devolution situation, because it has met with a welcome in post-school education circles in Scotland. It is something that is well merited in its own right."—[Official Report, 6th July 1977; Vol. 934, c. 1228.] After that, when nothing had happened for some months, earlier this year I introduced a Ten-Minute Bill which had all-party support to set up an inquiry into post-school education in Scotland in order to establish the basis upon which to plan a rational co-ordinated system of comprehensive tertiary education which would meet the manpower requirements of the nation and serve the interests and aspirations of those in the 16 to 19 age group.

The Government did not give my Bill their support, and the Educational Institute of Scotland, the largest teachers' union, expressed the hope that the Secretary of State would proceed with the appointment of a tertiary education council without delay and that the necessary inquiry would be set afoot as soon as the council was in being. However, on 20th January of this year, the Secretary of State wrote saying It would not be sensible in my view to combine this initiative"— of setting up a council for tertiary education— with the inquiry proposed in your Bill. I am informed that the following education institutions in Scotland support an inquiry, and I believe that virtually all of them support the setting up of a council for tertiary education: the Scottish Trade Union Council, the Educational Institute of Scotland, the Scottish Further Education Association, the Association of Principals of Colleges of Further Education, the Association of Lecturers in Colleges of Further Education, the Association of Lecturers in Scottish Central Institutions and the Committee of Principals and Directors in Central Institutions in Scotland, the Federation of Associations of College Lecturers in Scotland, the Scottish Institute of Adult Education and the National Union of Students. That is formidable and powerful backing for an inquiry, and I believe that most if not all of these institutions support the setting up of a tertiary education council. One body, the Scottish School Teachers Association, argues in favour of setting up a Royal Commission on education in Scotland.

When nothing happened after this, on 8th May I put down a Question asking the Secretary of State in view of the fact that he has asked for and has received many representations from interested bodies on the creation of a council for tertiary education and the closing date has been passed about one month ago, if he will make a statement on when he will come forward with firm proposals on the creation and powers of a council of tertiary education in Scotland. The Under-Secretary of State answered on behalf of the right hon. Member, saying that the Secretary of State was considering the comments received in response to the consultative paper issued in January, and hopes to be in a position to make an announcement soon."—[Official Report, 8th May 1978; Vol. 949, c. 391.] As it was said that the right hon. Gentleman hoped to make a statement soon, I imagined that this would be done. In order to refresh his memory, I put down a further Question on 12th June asking whether he proposed to bring forward proposals in time to allow them to be debated before the Summer Recess. I am afraid to say that I received an equivocating reply which referred me to his previous answer.

Just in case the Secretary of State might have forgotten about the matter, I asked him again on 19th July whether he could give an assurance that a statement would be made before the recess. He confirmed that the proposal to establish a council had been generally welcomed in Scotland and that he hoped to make an announcement about this matter very shortly. I hope that, if nothing else, the Minister can give an undertaking that a statement on the subject will be made before the recess. After all, it was more than a year ago, on 6th July 1977, that the Secretary of State said that this council was well merited in its own right.

What is the background to the proposal to set up this council? As I have said, the vast majority of educational institutions and organisations, including the Scottish Trade Union Council, support the setting up of this body, as do the vast majority of political parties. Most educational institutions, with the exception of the universities, have argued strongly that a council for tertiary education should be not merely consultative but advisory. The difference between consultative and advisory is that a consultative council speaks when it is spoken to, whereas an advisory council makes recommendations when it feels strongly about a matter.

It seems to most educationists that in order to be really effective, this council must have a statutory right to give unsolicited advice to the Scottish Education Department, to Ministers, to national councils, to colleges, and even to universities to the extent that their role relates to other colleges in the post-school education sector in Scotland. Obviously a tertiary education council could not usurp the functions of the University Grants Committee, but it seems that it should have a role to play with an advisory as well as a consultative function. If it is to have any real influence or exert any real pressure in major matters where the national interest might demand, it seems that it would be necessary for it to have an advisory role and not be as limited as was once suggested.

A further fundamental theme is the need for the new council to cover the whole of post-school education, including the role of the universities to the extent that they impinge on the work of other educational institutions in Scotland. To be effective, the council must have responsibility for the whole sector, including central institutions, colleges of further education, the CNAA, SCOTEC, SCOTBEC, the educational components of the Manpower Services Commission schemes, adult education and recurrent education.

The universities which have expressed reservations should not regard the setting up of the council as devolution by the back door. One of the main purposes of setting up such a council would be to gear post-school education institutions in Scotland to employment prospects, especially as there is now a golden opportunity for planning. This is particularly important in those colleges which are not universities, where there may be a duplication of effort in certain cases and a need to rationalise and co-ordinate provision of post-school education and training to make for the best possible use of available resources.

The examples of the remit which the Scottish Education Department has put forward as suitable for the new council appear most unsatisfactory. They suggest an extremely narrow remit—one that appears to be virtually limited to higher education rather than the whole of post-school education.

On the question of a Royal Commission or an inquiry into post-school education in Scotland, which is obviously closely related to the establishment of a tertiary education council, I feel sure that the Scottish Education Department will be well aware of the criticism put forward by many organisations of the narrowness of view taken by the Government document "Higher Education into the 1990s". Organisations such as the STUC, the EIS and SCOTBEC have told the Department in strong terms that they regard it as a disastrous mistake to consider higher education into the 1990s in a narrow sense instead of the whole field of post-school education into the 1990s. It seems very important that the whole field should he taken fully into account.

Finally, as the Manpower Services Commission has more massive funds available than the Departments of Education, it is likely that Commission schemes will continue to grow, even when higher education, further education and adult education are having stringent limits put on expenditure. This means that it is all the more necessary that there should be full co-ordination between post-school education in Scotland and education elements of MSC schemes. At present the MSC is supposed to consult fully the Scottish Education Department and other national education bodies in Scotland before finalising its plans. This it does, but, even with the best will in the world and the excellent intentions of the MSC staff, consultation is not always carried out in advance and it is not always early enough. It seems that in the interests of young people and employers, or future employers, it is essential that the education work sponsored by the MSC in Scotland should fall within the remit of the council for tertiary education and any inquiry into post-school education.

Perhaps the Minister can tell the House and the education institutions in Scotland, which will be weighing his words with great care, when a decision will be made. I believe that they consider that if the Secretary of State does not come to a decision on this subject soon it may well become the responsibility of another Government. I sincerely hope that the Minister will respond to my request and at the very least promise a detailed statement before the recess.

3.44 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Frank McElhone)

The interest of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) in this subject is well known to me and many other hon. Members, and I commend him for it. Like him, I am anxious to make progress in this matter, but the hon. Gentleman must not underestimate the difficulties.

Everyone wants a council to be set up, but everyone has his own ideas what its terms of reference should be, and almost everyone in education seems to want to sit on it. We have to reconcile many conflicting claims if we are to please the hon. Gentleman and the many people to whom he referred. The hon. Gentleman will recall that the major question on which my right hon. Friend was seeking views was whether the council should have a wide remit—extending to all post-school education—or whether it could more usefully concentrate on higher education proper—in universities and other institutions of similar standing. The advantages of the wider remit are, I think, well understood. Such a council would bring together individuals from all sectors, which are in many ways interrelated. It would enable an overall view to be taken of the education being provided for those who have left school. It would be able to consider how the education service can best provide for the needs of commerce and industry, for trained and educated manpower at all levels. Moreover, many education authority colleges now provide advanced courses alongside non-advanced courses, often with arrangements for progression from one course to another, and with shared facilities. A council restricted to higher education alone would touch on only one part of the work of these colleges. All this will, I am sure, be readily agreed.

On the other hand, we do not want the council's deliberations to become too diffuse. We have to consider whether it is realistic to expect one and the same body to function as an effective forum for the making of policy, and not as a mere talking shop, over the whole diverse area of tertiary education. The needs and problems of the 16 to 19 age group, in which the hon. Gentleman takes such a laudable interest—as indeed do the Government, as he well knows—are a world away from the high-level academic activities of the universities. Both are important. Both can be drawn under the umbrella of "tertiary education". They are not entirely unrelated. We are dealing with a system in which every element reacts with every other.

There is another factor we have had to take into account. It was fundamental to our concept of a council that the universities should be involved. Indeed, the idea had its origin in the need for a forum where university development could be looked at in the perspective of the whole education system after devolution when universities remain reserved but other sectors are devolved.

The point that I want to emphasise is that the Government already have a very good adviser on university affairs—I mean the University Grants Committee. It would do no good, and probably a lot of harm, if we were to set up another advisory body covering the same ground. Thus we have had to consider with some care how the new council might be given an interest in university affairs, as it must have, without at the same time conflicting with the excellent work of the grants committee.

Then we have had to consider the longer term, in which it might prove desirable to set up some kind of executive body. Hon. Members may be aware of developments south of the border, where there are proposals under consideration to bring the maintained sector of higher education under a national body. This is not the place for me to comment on that. But we have had to consider whether the ideas under consideration could be translated, or ought to be translated, into Scottish terms. These will be matters for the Scottish Executive, in due course. Meantime, we have had to ask ourselves whether the new council ought to be given the remit of examining these issues, and we have had to consider what might be its own relation to a future executive body.

At the same time, we have been invited by the hon. Gentleman and others to consider setting up an ad hoc inquiry into one corner, as it were, of this large sector of education. As he knows, my right hon. Friend has not, and nor have I, ever considered that that was the right way forward. Its only significant effect would have been to delay the action we have been taking. We do not need an inquiry. We know the facts and the problems. What is needed is action, and that is what we have concerned ourselves with. I say all this so that hon. Members will not be misled into thinking that it has been a simple matter to devise a proper framework for this council.

We want a durable framework that will prove itself through the constitutional change that is ahead of us, and for many years afterward. We do not want a framework hastily cobbled together to meet what happen to be the pressing needs of one moment but which might very quickly come to seem irrelevant. That is why we have quite deliberately taken time to get this right, to draft the right terms of reference and the right structure.

Hon. Members will be glad to know that we are very near a conclusion. My right hon. Friend intends to announce terms of reference very shortly, before the recess—and if the hon. Gentleman looks towards the end of this week he does not have to be much of a mathematician to realise that that will not be long. My right hon. Friend wants to give the council the broadest remit that he can within reason. Hon. Members will not expect me to anticipate his statement, but I hope that it will give them some satisfaction to know that they need be patient only a little longer.