HC Deb 05 December 1980 vol 995 cc597-604

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)

I am delighted to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science with responsibility for higher education is to respond to this short debate. I know of his support and admiration for the Open University, and I at once exonerate him from any of the charges that I shall make about the broad policies that I shall attack. He will have opportunities to prove his support for the Open University today and in the future. I very much hope that he will take advantage of those opportunities.

The real villain is the Government and their financial policies, particularly their slashing of public expenditure. An irony about the way in which we conduct our affairs is that, while the Department of Education and Science is the subject of the criticism of those policies, I am reasonably certain that the prime protagonist is the Treasury, with the DES the hapless instrument of its demands.

I am concerned today about some of the victims of those policies—the Open University, its students, its staff, its future and its ability to enhance and enrich countless thousands of lives in the future. They will all be the poorer, and so will Britain.

This debate could do worse than to take as a text the definitions used by Lord Crowther-Hunt more than 10 years ago, when he explained why our university would not rest amid cloisters, which means closed, but would be open. He said: We are open as to people. We are open as to places. We are open as to methods. We are open as to ideas. The diktat of the DES in compelling the university to raise tuition fees from £67 to £98—a whopping increase of 46 per cent. in one year—strikes at the very root of the openness of the Open University. Faced now with an annual outlay of more than £200 a course, how many prospective students will decide that it is too much? Are we now to cease to measure the value of the Open University by its ability to stretch dormant talent but to open it only to those who can afford it?

I want the Minister to take this opportunity to dispel any impression that the Conservative Government are hostile or antipathetic to the continuing development of the Open University. I believe that the ethic of self-help has a certain attraction to the Conservative philosophy and that the concept of value for money and comparative cost for the same product should commend the Open University to this Minister and this Government.

When the Prime Minister told the House yesterday that even with the increase in fees the university was still good value for money, of course she was right, but that now applies only if one can afford the purchase price. The Under-Secretary, above all other Ministers, knows that the cost to the taxpayer of supporting a graduate at the Open University to degree level and beyond is much less than at a conventional university. He above all other Ministers knows that the university has been economising for some time. In order that cash limits be observed, a series of measures have been taken resulting in the curtailment of many services to the students.

Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate the implications of the tuition fee increases for the nature of the university? I was told at a lobby from the university in the House yesterday that the science and technology-based courses would suffer most. This year 5,000 students are enrolled for statistics and computer courses. It becomes cheaper to switch to social science and arts courses. Is that what the Minister really wants? Do the Government really want to starve industry of that sort of training?

I am one of the 39,000 graduates who have left the university with a qualification in the past 10 years. Currently there are 60,000 men and women of all ages and in all places studying for degrees. This year, 43,000 people applied to join a course. Only half of them are likely to get places, but I am told that this year it is proving even more difficult than in the past to fill the 21,000 places because of the high number of refusals at a late stage.

How many of the 21,000 students who are newly enrolled and who have paid a registraton fees of £92 will withdraw, not only because of the steep increase but because of the lateness of notification? Due to the generally deteriorating economic situation, there is an annual increase in the percentage of students who are offered courses but decline them. I strongly suspect that that trend will accelerate.

The Under-Secretary, above all others, knows that the basis of funding the university rests substantially on the number of students. There is a spiral: increased fees equals decreased student intake, equals increased cost per student, equals less grant from the Department. The spiral continues to go down, down and down.

I remind the Minister of his welcome words on the role of the university at the Bath summer school in August. He said: At a time of rapid social and technological change there was a growing need for retraining to enable people to learn new skills. Here the Open University has an important part to play. During its development period the institution had faced novel problems, for which existing universities could offer little guide. The Open University is now in a position to build on its experience in first degree courses, in distance teaching techniques and post experience course work. It is against that background of professed public support that the recent actions by the Minister came as such a shock, not least because it was as recently as 15 August that the acting vice-chancellor wrote to the Minister in the following terms: We continue to be concerned that the costs of study within the Open University are excluding a significant number of students and potential students. Very few students receive financial support of any kind with their course tuition fees, and we therefore urge Government to keep any future increases in fees to the absolute minimum. To increase these costs by assuming a fee in 1981 higher in real terms than 1980's will certainly deter new applicants from joining—and encourage continuing students to become dormant, to drop out or to drop down from, say, two half credit courses to one. The reply from the Minister, which was read to the last meeting of the council—I have the privilege to serve on that council—was received with dismay. As a consequence of that decision, the acting vice-chancellor wrote to every student in the Open University in the following terms: On 7 November I was informed by the DES that our grant for 1981 was to be cut by what would amount to £1.36 milion, and that our students should be asked to make an increased contribution to the cost of study by an increase in fees to compensate for this cut in Government grant. I wrote immediately objecting to what was proposed in the strongest possible terms, expressing my great dismay on behalf of students and asking that the decision be reconsidered. The reply was that there was no possibility of that decision being reconsidered—but reffirming the importance which the Government attaches to the university. Let us look at the history of the increased fees for a one-year credit course. In 1977 they were £45; in 1978, £52; in 1979, £55; in 1980, £67; and in 1981 they will be £98. That amounts to an increase in the past two years of 68 per cent., and an increase over four years of 101 per cent. Those are steep and unjustifiable increases. The cost to a student of obtaining a BA in 1979 was £868. In 1981 it will be £1,322—an increase of 52 per cent. in two years.

Few students at the Open University receive any assistance towards tuition fees, but many enjoy some assistance with the cost of the summer schools. In 1978 79 per cent. of summer school students received some a assistance. By 1979 the number had declined to 68 per cent., by 1980 to 53 per cent., and by 1981 it could be down to 30 per cent.

Pressure from the Government has resulted in local authorities re-examining their budgets for adult education. Does the Minister really believe that the mandatory increase in fees will lead to an increase in income or an increase in students? The, pro-vice-chancellor of the Open University, in the journal "Sesame", stated: It could be the law of diminishing returns. The Open University is deeply concerned about the effect of such steep increases on individual students. I also worry that in the long term fees of this order will shift our student population towards the affluent South-East and away from the North. There are already trends in that direction. Helen Turnbull, president of the Open University students' association, was even more blunt. She said: It is clear this Government regard part-time students as second-class citizens. Will the Minister put his mind to other ways of helping the Open University? Can he help by reviewing the methods of financing the Open University? That would help without putting an additional burden on the Government. Can more working capital be provided to fund the preparation, development, printing and warehousing of courses? More effective use of Open University resources would be achieved if it were told about its grant much earlier than the March after the January when its financial year begins. Can consideration be given to the inhibition on the Open University to carry forward funds? That restricts the Open University in taking a reasonably long-term view of its financial resources.

In practice, the university's grant-in-aid is a cash limit. However, the Open University financial-academic year does not match the Government's year. As a result, the Open University is subject to two cash limits. Can that be examined?

Within the Open University there is still a deep sense of gratitude that, miraculously for so many thousands of people, the gift of access to learning is possible as a result of support from Governments of both political persuasions. I stress how, in my knowledge, the present Minister defends the university and its place in higher education. The action of the DES in arbitrarily increasing fees without consultation has caused dismay, resentment and unease about future intentions. I want the Minister to assure us that that will not happen in a similar way again.

The Minister will be familiar with the practice of issuing reports on good conduct and progress at the end of a school term. The Open University, and particularly its students, would want me to say that, at the end of a gruelling term, this Minister has disappointed. He could do much better if he tried harder. He is prone to making sympathetic noises only to blot his copy in the examination room. He must learn to stand his ground and fight off the bullies from the Treasury. He may be uncertain about where his friends are. We believe that he will respond to encouragement from outside the Westminster classrooms. He will continue to enjoy our support in the belief that his commitment to education will triumph over his flirtation with monetaristic dogma.

2.44 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

I pay tribute to the speech of the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham). His courtesy, clear thinking and quotation of my words—which I am always delighted to hear again—demonstrate his great taste and discretion. The hon. Gentleman was one of the vintage entry to this House of 1974, when I, too, had the privilege of becoming a Member. We made our maiden speeches at roughly the same time. We have since moved to different sides of the House, but our friendship has not deteriorated. The change of side was not through boredom but because of the views of the electorate.

No one is better qualified than the hon. Gentleman to speak about the Open University. He became a distinguished graduate of that institution in 1975. It is praiseworthy that, despite the pressures of the House, he managed to obtain a degree. I know the hon. Gentleman's interest in education. We both served on the Education Bill Committee, when we spent about 130 hours facing each other across a gangway narrower than the present one. In my private office I have a graduate of the Open University.

The Wembley Observer must be read over the length and breadth of the country. On the front page today it mentioned the man who started the talking newspaper in Brent. The mayor has initiated an appeal this year for cassettes to help the scheme. The man who started the scheme has been blind since the age of 35. He was a humanities graduate of the Open University, who unfortunately died last year.

As the hon. Gentleman said, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred yesterday to the respect for the Open University on both sides of the House. When the Open University started, I was dubious about it. I do not suggest that the hon. Gentleman should read the article, but at that time I wrote regularly for the Spectator. In an article in that publication I pointed out all the handicaps. I hope that I have an open mind and sometimes a closed mouth, although I am never reluctant to speak. I have totally changed my mind about the Open University, and I am not the only Conservative Member to do so. Its standards are good and it offers a second opportunity for people to retrain in middle life. It has helped to develop learning techniques. It is one of the most interesting developments in our education system over the past 20 years.

I have visited the Open University twice. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has also visited it. I have seen the students in summer school. Only three weeks ago I participated in a transcontinental broadcast concerning the Open University and similar institutions in America. I was in Sweden this week and in America three or four months ago. Wherever I go, tribute is paid to the innovatory techniques of the Open University.

The amount of money that the Government can spend is at present limited. The hon. Gentleman is a straightforward individual. He will accept that if his party was in power it would be restraining public expenditure. We must pay our way and order our priorities. I remind the hon. Gentleman, cheerfully and in no way unpleasantly, that between 1976–77 and 1977–78 public expenditure on education was cut by £350 million, when his Government were attempting to balance their budget. In 1975 and 1976 they were unable to provide funds to meet all the aspirations of the Open University. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will disagree with that.

A limited amount of money is coming out of the tap and there is considerable demand for many cups to be filled. There may be some disagreement on where priorities should lie, but there is no doubt that the limitation of resources means that we have to restrict the areas to which the available money goes if our resources are to be used successfully.

We are having to look for cuts in many areas. However, last year expenditure in real terms for the Open University was £45.6 million. Spending in real terms this year will be £45.4 million. That is basically level funding. Certain sums have been put in by the transference of broadcasting from one year to another. We have tried to establish level funding with that of last year.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that more students are paying more of their own fees.

Mr. Graham

In the past there have been discussions when there have been financial problems. A Minister or the Government could have said to the Open University "We require you to make economies. Please make them where you will." The council was especially distressed because without consultation—I used the word "arbitrary", which may have been the right or the wrong word—the Department came to a decision. It used the phrase "We therefore assume". That referred to a fee of £98. I accept that for presentational purposes it is better that the fee should be less than £100. However, instead of increasing the fee from £67 to £80 to take account of the rate of inflation, the Department decided to increase it to £98. It is not what the Government have done but the way in which they have done it that has caused the most offence.

Dr. Boyson

I shall deal with that issue, which is extremely important. There has been a cut in real terms of £1.36 million—about 2 per cent.—at a time when we are looking for cuts in Government expenditure in many areas far in excess of that percentage. The money that we have made available this year will allow new course production towards the Open University's target of about 87 full credit courses.

Secondly, money is available for the maintenance and remaking of existing courses. I appreciate that they must be brought up to date. A lecturer can change his notes—I know that myself from lecturing at universities—and that can be done each year. However, the Open University makes printed notes available and remaking has to take place.

Thirdly, the money that we have made available will allow an increase in the number of students from 61,000 to 62,700 next year. That means that next year the Open University will be able to admit 21,000 new students.

I pay a tribute to the Open University. In conversations that have taken place between officials of my Department and those of the Open University and between myself and the Open University, it has been made clear that Open University officials are attempting to continue advancement in difficult circumstances. There has been little grumbling from them. They realise the position in which the Government find themselves, or in which any Government would find themselves, and they are attempting to get the most value from the money that is being put in. There has been not a word of criticism of them in that respect.

I have only one word of criticism. The only delegation which has failed to arrive on time has been that of tutors from the Open University yesterday. As I could not come to the House, I changed the time in my diary in order to give them half an hour to come and see me. I allocated a half hour between 5 pm and 5.30 pm. Unfortunately, they did not arrive until 5.35 pm. Delegations of students always arrive a quarter of an hour early, sometimes, I think, because they fear that I shall get out before they arrive. The delegation of tutors has been the only delegation that has been late. They said that they could not find the Department, so perhaps a new credit in geography should be contemplated. I make that suggestion in all pleasantness as an afterthought.

We have arranged with the acting vice-chancellor, whom I meet fairly regularly, means whereby the Open University will be given greater flexibility over the use of its money. It will also be given more discretion as to how it should be used. At one stage, the Government decided how many students there could be and what courses should be followed. Those arrangements have been changed considerably this year. The lump sum will be given to the Open University for it to use and control. It will be able to decide how many courses there should be. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased that such discretion has been given to the Open University.

The one thing on which they gave a specific indication was on the question of a fee, about which the hon. Gentleman has already talked to me. This is an important question. At present 90 per cent of the cost of the Open University is carried by the Government, and only 10 per cent. is covered by the fee. In all other institutions of higher education, 20 per cent. of the cost is carried by the fee. Indeed, the Select Committee on Education, Science and the Arts, which is chaired by a Labour Member, recommended that the fee should go up to 30 per cent.

Mr. Graham

Does not the Minister realise that fees in respect of conventional universities are invariably paid by another source—the local authority—and that they are mandatory, whereas fees in respect of the Open University invariably come out of the pocket of the student?

Dr. Boyson

There is no doubt that the hon. Gentleman and I think along the same lines, because that was the next point that I was coming to. The hon. Gentleman has given roe guidance which I am rarely given whenever I speak from the Dispatch Box, which shows how much we both respect not only the Open University but also the present lines of approach.

We attempted to relate the fees of the Open University to the way in which other fees are charged throughout the higher education system, bearing in mind that in further and higher education in this country fees account for more than 10 per cent. of the cost.

I turn to the question of mandatory fees, and I appreciate its importance. I know that there is a sense of deep grievance among many Open University students. It is something that I fully understand. If someone gets two E grades at A level and goes on to read some obscure subject at university, there is a mandatory Brant, irrespective of the view of the local authority about the usefulness of such a course, but when Open University students decide to continue working and to study in their free time in order to lessen demand upon the public exchequer there is no mandatory grant.

I believe that there will have to be some form of reassessment of higher and further education in this country in order to decide where the limited sum of money available should be spent. The hon. Gentleman will probably disagree with me on the question of loans, but many Socialists, including a Socialist professor with whom I ate last night, agree about some form of loan so that the money can be spread wider. We must assess how much money is available for further and higher education and decide where it should be spent. As part of that reassessment, we shall have to ask whether it is a priority to give mandatory grants to speech therapists, forestry workers, chiropodists and Open University students or whether the money should be spread wider.

I hope that we can proceed to a wider debate on this matter, but I should make it clear that the Government are not indulging in a vendetta against the Open University, any more than the previous Government did.

My time is running out, but there is no doubt that if our dialogue could continue all the problems of higher education in this country could be solved by 4 o'clock today. What a loss to the country that such a solution will not be achieved on this occasion.

Like the Opposition, we respect the work that is done by the Open University. It is doing a splendid job. It will have our support. We shall have to look at the way in which we finance higher education as well as the way in which we finance both mandatory and discretionary grants. In doing so, we shall bear in mind the needs of the Open University.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.