HC Deb 23 July 1981 vol 9 cc553-78 7.25 pm
Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove and Redditch)

I wish to consider the severe reductions proposed in the grant for the university of Aston by the University Grants Committee. It is with some diffidence that I make my maiden intervention in an education debate but I am reassured by the presence on the Front Bench of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, whose robust common sense and sense of humour have endeared him to so many hon. Members. I am moved to intervene because of the disastrous effects on the university of Aston of the cuts proposed by the University Grants Committee. These have effects not only on Aston but on the West Midlands region as a whole.

The scope of the debate is confined to Aston and the effect of the cuts on the West Midlands. My purpose is not to challenge the amount of finance that the Government have determined should be made available for higher education, although I note that we do not yet seem to have grappled with the higher education sector as a whole. I may refer in closing to the position of the polytechnics. My purpose is to insist on the West Midlands dimension of this decision. This region is affected by the fastest growing rate of unemployment in the country, particularly among youths and coloured people. It is a region locked into an industrial structure that has been weakened by the regional policy pursued by successive Governments for a number of years to the extent that it now shows serious signs of being in long-term decline.

It is not clear whether the University Grants Committee has considered the West Midlands dimension. This is one of the difficulties to which my hon. Friends may be referring in their remarks. The difficulty is how to bring any political in fluence—I do not mean party political influence, but a regional influence—to bear on the University Grants Committee in such matters. If the University Grams Committee cannot, or will not, consider this dimension, my colleagues, I am certain, will join with me in insisting that the Government must take some account of the matter.

I support firmly the University Grants Committee in its adoption of the principle of selectivity when making its recommendations and its determination to reward excellence and underpin points of growth. It is against those benchmarks that I wish to argue the case for reconsideration of the grant proposed for Aston. I would like to start with the charter that established the university in the first place. It states the aims of the university as being to advance, disseminate and apply learning and knowledge by teaching and research for the benefit of industry and commerce and of the community generally and to enable students to obtain the advantage of a university education. The provisions of the charter are reflected in the composition of the student body—39 per cent. in the engineering department, 34 per cent. in the science department, 15 per cent. in the management department, and 12 per cent. in the social and human studies department. This is, indeed, the sort of university that one imagines that the Government would wish to encourage. It is certainly needed in our region.

I have referred to my hon. Friend's robust common sense. I cite in evidence his remarks in a recent broadcast that Aston is exactly the type of university that the country needs, educating graduates with industrially relevant degrees and experience. Indeed, the Government in their White Paper stated their wish to give protection to the support of basic science, an activity that underpins further development and is a particular strength of the United Kingdom.

Other hon. Members will no doubt wish to explore in more detail the extent and nature of the cuts. Here. I refer briefly to the financial implications and the student numbers. The financial implications are severe. The loss to the university budget will total £5 million over three years. This includes, in effect, the reduction of income from overseas students, loss of interest and other items. The exact financial loss of grant is a reduction from £12.02 million to £9.86 million over the period. However, passing reference must be made to overseas students. It is not reasonable to expect that Aston will be able to recruit, at the new level of fees, the previous number of overseas students.

The fees at the university of Berkeley in California, one of the leading universities in the world, are $3,500 a year, whereas the fees at Aston, at the new level, are £3,500 a year. So there is a disincentive to overseas students to take advantage of the courses available at Aston. The cut amounts to about 25 per cent. on the annual budget.

With regard to student numbers, I wish to refer only to the science and engineering departments, because these are the ones that give me the greatest cause for concern. The home student numbers, including the EEC, are to be reduced from 3,250 to 2,560. That is a cut of about 700 engineering, science and management students. That course would seem to be exactly contrary to everything that we should be trying to pursue. Indeed, it is contrary to what I have understood, from the White Paper and from my hon. Friend's own remarks, that the Government were trying to pursue.

If it is objected that the decision by the University Grants Committee reflects adversely on the excellence of the Aston academic attainment, I point out that there is evidence that of all university graduates in the country the Aston graduate is the most acceptable in industry. Aston is at the top of the league for placing its students, as shown by a table in the Financial Times in October 1980.

The excellence of Aston is further evidenced by the industrial research that has been commissioned. The income from research amounts to about £2.2 million a year, and by no means all of that is from the Science Research Council. Indeed, the University Grants Committee apparently takes into account only grants from the Science Research Council when considering supporting further work and student numbers, and ignores industrial research, which is usually more academically demanding and certainly just as valuable to the industries of our region, which are seeking to renew themselves and to change themselves into more scientifically advanced industries. I cannot, therefore, understand the basis on which the reductions in student numbers in those departments have been suggested.

The excellence of the departments is further evidenced by the fact that the number of applicants for places on their courses is now 12 for every place available, as opposed to the national average of nine applicants per place. The excellence of the departments is recognised not only by industry but, much more importantly, by students. That is a firm indication of where they see their best prospects and should surely provide a valuable pointer when considering policy.

The university has done pioneering work on sandwich courses. Nearly 60 per cent. of Aston degree students are on sandwich courses. It is the best way of providing that greater equality of opportunity that I have always understood to be the cornerstone of our policy in education. Here is a university that is providing that opportunity, that is grounded in industrial experience, and whose work is particularly applicable to the need of our region.

When discussing the needs for our region's industry to change its nature, so that it can become an area of growth, with a higher technological content, the university can be seen to have a key role to play. The vice-chancellor has strongly propounded the idea of an industrial science park. I am glad to report that the idea is now gaining ground locally. The Redditch corporation, in its attempt to win further clients for industrial land in Redditch, has recently sent teams to the United States and has found a response from high technology firms, particularly in electronics. One of the main features has been the proximity of Redditch to the University of Aston. American firms, based on their own experience, place great value on being near to centres of research and centres that produce technically qualified students.

The vice-chancellor and his team have not been sitting idle. Indeed, by April this year the vice-chancellor had already produced a document providing for a revision of the academic plan. I have a great respect for the attainments, will-power and energy of the vice-chancellor. But even in that plan, which contemplated severe cuts and introduced suggested measures to deal with them, the university, on the worst assumption, could not bring itself to believe that its loss of income would be as great as is proposed by the University Grants Committee.

We are not dealing with an academic body that is trying to defend a vested interest, that has no regard to the needs of its community, or has not taken a searching look at itself. We are dealing with a university that is producing the kind of student that industry and the region require.

The Government should take account of what the effects on the university and on the region will be if the representations which are being made to the UGC are not successful. It may be that the provision of higher education in the country as a whole needs to be reviewed, and I should have hoped that the Government would be thinking of such a review—perhaps by way of a Royal Commission—but account must be taken of the polytechnics, as I said earlier in my speech. But all that is for the future. What matters for the present is the cuts proposed in this year and the two following financial years for Aston university, which deal a severe blow to the prospect of our region. That is why I have ventured to raise the subject today.

7.39 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

The hon. Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller) has presented a formidable case to the House, and it would be an unwise Government who did not pay attention to such a powerful case put by one of their own serious Back Benchers.

As is known to your office, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I put in for a debate on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill on the situation at Aston, Bradford, Heriot-Watt, Salford and Stirling universities, but it was considered improper that a debate of that kind should be initiated by me from the Opposition Front Bench. Therefore, I am glad to follow the hon. Gentleman.

However, I shall be brief, because I have often suffered in the middle of the night or early in the morning from long speeches on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill by hon. Members who are fortunate enough to come top of the ballot. Long speeches are unfair to our colleagues who are to speak later on other subjects.

Before I knew that the debate on Aston was to take place, like the hon. Gentleman, I talked at length to Professor Crawford, the vice-chancellor, to friends at Aston, Drs. Coxhead, Greenshields, Rothman and Fred Steward, and also to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman) and to my friend of 20 years, my colleague on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell). I have had long conversations with my right hon. Friend on the matter, and he regrets deeply that he is not here this evening, but he has a prior engagement as Shadow Minister responsible for sport.

First, will the Minister make explicit what Aston has done wrong? If there is something wrong with Aston, Bradford, Salford and Heriot-Watt, he should tell us candidly what it is. I should make it plain that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), I attended the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts this morning and heard the vice-chancellors give their evidence for 1¼ hours, but after three minutes, when it was becoming clear that the UGC, giving its evidence second, was on very delicate ground, I thought it right to withdraw so that there should not be any misunderstanding or question of abusing the Select Committee when speaking from this Dispatch Box this evening. I make it clear that I am not privy to what Dr. Parkes may have said to the Select Committee this morning.

Are we suggesting that somehow the technological universities are to be regarded as second-rate? I am afraid that this is the consequence—it may not be the purposeful consequence—of the actions of the UGC. Aston, like Salford, focused on the needs of industry, and it was our understanding that that was precisely its remit. Is not the decision on the "technological" universities contrary to the Government's—indeed, successive Governments'—declared policies of bringing industry and the academic world closer together? I use the term "technological" in inverted commas as I realise most universities have powerful science faculties. The Minister has a case to answer here. Is this not contrary to the policy stated by successive Governments—not least by many members of his Government? It is no good saying—I do not think that he would, because he is a brave man—that it is a matter for the UGC, because one cannot pass by on the side of the road like the biblical Levite. At Question Time, the Minister was specifically asked twice by me whether he agreed with the policy of the UGC; on the second occasion I read his answer as unequivocally "Yes". Therefore, we must be clear that this is not only UGC policy but UGC policy endorsed by the Government. If there is any denial of that, we should hear it from the Minister.

Many of us feel—without being strident about it—that this is a perverse perception of the national need. This is where our bread and butter lie. The claim is not that Aston gets the most brilliant students. I believe that the league of graduate placements can be overplayed. I am, frankly, very careful about the graduate placement table. It may be argued that in universities where they teach medieval languages, philosophy and so on it is difficult to place graduates—and I do not run down those subjects. However, whether or not the university is top of the table, at the end of the day the success of Aston, Salford, Bradford and Heriot-Watt seems to be considerable by one relevant standard of measurement, among other criteria.

Who was consulted before the strategy was devised and spatchcocked together in a hurry? I am breaking no confidences, but I went to the Salford press conference at the launching o the Campus in the Institution of Electrical Engineers. In reply to a question from a journalist, Dr. John Ashworth made it clear that he had not been consulted, yet he is the Government's chief scientist. He may not occupy exactly the position as Victor Rothschild or Solly Zuckerman, but, nevertheless, he is the chief scientist in the CPRS. As vice-chancellor-designate of one of the universities most affected—Salford—he should have been consulted about the strategy. If he was not consulted, were the Government's general strategists consulted?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to debate No. 40, which deals with the Government's university expenditure programme. Anything on that debate would not be in order in this debate.

Mr. Dalyell

I return immediately to Aston. The Aston case raises the whole question of the relations between the Government and the UGC. In the past, the UGC has always dealt with questions of expansion. It may have been slowed-down or faster expansion, but it was always expansion. This for the UGC is a novel situation; contraction is completely new. No UGC has ever had to face that.

That brings us on to very delicate ground, as I know well. Is not the UGC, which has hitherto been sacrosanct, in a rather different position now? I am careful in these matters, so I put it no higher, but should not the Government consider an indication to the UGC that it must operate on more industrially relevant criteria? That is one problem that the Aston case raises.

Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden)

Is not the hon. Gentleman suggesting, by implication, that the UGC is not suitably representative of those interests that would best benefit universities such as Aston?

Mr. Dalyell

I have been careful about that. Let me declare a personal friendship with Professor Gowenlock, professor of chemistry at Heriot-Watt. In a sense, Heriot-Watt can be bracketed with Aston, Salford and Bradford. I shall not be led down the avenue of some press comments into saying that the members of the UGC are incompetent to do the job. That is not my attitude. I do not believe that they are men of malice. I suspect that it has been an enormous agony for many of them. However, can the job be done by people on a part-time basis?

Perhaps the Minister can tell us when the UGC and UGC committees last visited Aston in detail. A bitter complaint from technological and, indeed, other universities is that the UGC and UGC committees have not been near them in detail, sometimes for a whole decade. I do not doubt that the members of the UGC are hardworking people but, in reply to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills), one wonders whether momentous decisions will be made about the future of university departments and whether that will be done on the basis of little study on the ground. In that sense we must look at the whole thing in a new light.

It is not only the sciences and technology that are affected. It is outside the scope of the debate, but the linguistic department at Heriot-Watt, with excellent graduate placement which potentially forms an important export service, is also at risk. I am conscious that not only science and technology are at stake in the technological universities.

I hope that the Minister will be able to shed light on the question of tenure. We are told, not least by Brian Flowers, that in 1983–84 an enormous bill will land on the desk of the Government if we are not careful. The universities cannot possibly afford to pay that bill for breach of contract and the end of tenure. Have the Government thought about how much the bill will eventually be for the redundancies? The vice-chancellor of Aston and every other vice-chancellor must consider that. Who will pay that sort of bill in 1983–84? Will it be the universities or the Department of Education and Science? What does the Treasury say about it?

It would be useful if the Minister would expand on the subject that he has touched on before about whether pant of his strategy is to suggest that more use be made of the vacant places that we all know exist in the polytechnics. The other day I went to the polytechnic of the South Bank. I was appalled that in the department of polymer sciences, which one would have thought was relevant—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying into the general debate which should take place later on the universities. This debate is exclusively related to Aston.

Mr. Dalyell

The question of the polytechnics is part of it.

I understand that the Government are saying that whatever happens to Aston, Salford, Heriot-Watt and Bradford, we are protecting the sciences, because we have kept up the level of commitment to the Science Research Council, the Agricultural Research Council, the Medical Research Council and other research councils. That is a profound illusion because the truth is that if one has a dual support system to maintain a healthy scientific capacity, one must maintain both legs of the stool. The notion that somehow one protects science in Britain by keeping up payments to the research councils and running down the university departments is a complete, basic, dreadful and catastrophic misunderstanding because science does not work like that.

To give an example from Aston, I wonder how much detailed thought has been given to the decision about the biological sciences in Aston. I went to Eastbourne the other day to a gathering of 1,000 delegates interested in biotechnology. I understand from Professors Malcolm Lilley, Geoff Holt, Ken Murray and Brian Hartley, Michael Stoker and others working in biotechnology that they think highly of the work done at Aston. It is the learned peer opinion that matters. What sense does it make, just as Aston is about to make great progress and blossom forth—I do not refer only to Harry Rothman and his colleagues—that such a department should face execution?

If there are to be any executions, we should know more about them. The Opposition ask that there should be some stay of action until the matter is fully considered and that we do not undertake actions that we are bound to regret if we succumb to haste and hurry. Great mistakes can be made unless we consider carefully a thought-out strategy rather than trying to save money in a hurry, spasmodically and haphazardly. Without being strident, we ask the Government to think, think and think again.

7.55 pm
Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I want to comment on this strange decision by this strange body of men. I can see that there is a need for national economies and that the universities cannot stand aside from playing their part in the need to conserve national resources.

Had the bureaucracy of the United Kingdom been cut as I thought that it would be cut, many of the sacrifices now being made in a necessary part of education might not have been necessary. But the University Grants Committee said that reductions to universities had not been applied evenly. Aston would agree with that. The UGC said that it would make greater reductions to some universities and smaller reductions to others. One or two reasons were given for that in areas that the UGC thought were important. It thought that a change in the distribution of students away from the arts and towards science and engineering was important. So do I and so does Aston, yet Aston university is suffering.

The UGC thought that an increase in student numbers in engineering and technology, despite an overall decrease in numbers, was important. So do I and so does Aston, yet Aston is still being cut. There should be an increase in the numbers reading mathematics and physical sciences. I am sure that we all think that those subjects are important. Aston does, yet Aston university is being cut. There should be support for important new advances in biological sciences, which is precisely what Aston university suggested when it went to the Royal Show. It was inundated with inquiries about the new developments and, without being asked, over 300 people signed a petition against the nonsensical decision that the UGC has made about Aston. There should be an increase in the numbers reading business studies, and Aston university agrees about that. How strange it is that Aston, which complies with the criteria of this learned body of men, should, along with Salford, be the university that suffers most.

I am not as generous as others. I believe that one out of 20 of the academics on the UGC coming from technological universities is the wrong balance. However, I agree that no Government can set up a quango, continue that quango and wash their hands of the result and the follies that such people perpetrate. People on a quango look on themselves in a rather different light from those who have to be elected, as we do to this House.

There is no doubt that the seed corn area of Britain is in the Midlands and in Birmingham. There are two great universities in that area—the university of Birmingham and the university of Aston. In my view, if this country is to get going again, the graduates from those universities will get industry moving forward on the proper lines. That is why 90 per cent. of graduates in technical subjects from those universities are snapped up by industry. That is why there is such a clamour for places. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller) pointed out that there are 12 applicants for every place.

Of course there is duplication of effort in education and in our universities. However, it is far easier to get a course in Finnish, Serbo-Croat, Russian, medieval history or social studies than to get a place at Aston. You can bet your bottom dollar—or bottom pound in this case—that such courses are duplicated ad nauseam. Surely, in an age when the United States, Japan and Germany are expanding in technology—I heard today that one Japanese company spends more on micro-engineering than is spent in the whole of this country—universities such as Aston need to be encouraged. We cannot afford to allow our most important technological university to be treated in such a way.

We need the sort of education provided by the universities at Aston, Birmingham, Salford and Bradford. The best courses in engineering are surely the sandwich courses which do so much to bring together the realities of industry and the theories of academics, so that graduates can play a useful part in industry as soon as they leave university. My brother-in-law did a course in Aston and was immediately useful to GEC. That is what we need.

Aston provides the best courses for engineering students. That is why industry backs the university and why I have had 154 letters protesting at the Government's decision—not all from academics bleating their own case, but many from people who use the university's services. Of the university's 130 PhDs, 112 are in science and technology. That is good for the country.

Of the 5,500 students at Aston, only 600 are studying social sciences and the humanities, yet the UGC decided that Cambridge and Oxford should be cut by only 3 per cent. Good grief! Apparently, if medieval history is not taught to the full, the country will crumble. Is that what the country needs? I am interested in medieval history, but I am much more interested in our industry being able to survive and thrive. If that happens, we can afford all the medieval history, Serbo-Croat and other courses that undergraduates want to read.

The learned gentlemen of the UGC should realise that if this country is to go forward, to be industrially sound and to expand, it needs the graduates that universities such as Aston, Birmingham, Salford and Bradford turn out. We shall never go forward while we have the stupid attitude that the only good undergraduates are those who study esoteric subjects. We must learn to honour those who study engineering and science more than we honour the theorists. The engineers and scientists will build the future and make the money on which the spirits of others can grow. Whatever the UGC quango wants to do, this or any Government who turn back and take the view that the Astons of this world must be penalised while the theorists go marching on will be doing this country a disservice.

Like most hon. Members, I have the greatest respect for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, hope that, even if he cannot do something for this year, he will ensure that the universities at Aston, Salford and Bradford can look forward hopefully to next year and that he will ensure that by 1983–84 the folly of the 20 unwise men on the UGC will be put right and engineering can again be placed, where it should be—in the forefront in this country.

8.5 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) and I do not agree on many things, but there is a coincidence of interest on this issue. As one who graduated in a subject that, if not esoteric, may not qualify for the hon. Gentleman's sympathy—political studies—I must voice a protest on behalf of social scientists and arts students, because they also play a part in our economy and society. However, that is a minor dissent from the hon. Gentleman's analysis and I wholeheartedly agree with the rest of it.

I am not a Birmingham Member. My constituency lies adjacent to the city. About 200 years ago Birmingham was described as a little hamlet near Walsall. Unfortunately, things have changed, but I worked in Birmingham polytechnic which was situated next to Aston university. It was a testimony to the failure of the binary system that a polytechnic should be sited next door to, indeed joined physically with, a technological university. I speak with some experience of Aston, having attended many meetings with staff and students from the university.

I have received many letters from former students and existing staff. The fact that complaints are made by the staff of an institution should not devalue their worth. I believe that the UGC has made the wrong decision. It may be said that what is happening to Aston is trivial when set against the wrongs of the Government in virtually every other area of education and policy, but one can extrapolate from the Aston case that the Government have done the wrong thing at the wrong time. Our future depends on the quality of our education system, and not just the education of the under-fives or of children between 5 and 11 years. Most important for our future are the quality and numbers of highly qualified graduates that we can produce.

At the time of the Robbins report about 20 years ago, higher education was elitist and almost the prerogative of the wealthy and the middle classes. We realised that we were losing from higher education enormous numbers of ordinary people and their children. The decision on Aston university could contribute to a return to the era of elitism.

I am pleased that about 15 hon. Members are here to fight for the future of Aston university. If Oxford or Cambridge had been involved, we would have had to be here two hours ago to get a seat, the Strangers' Gallery would have been full and the civil servants' box would certainly have been full. I do not think that any hon.

Member in the Chamber is a graduate from Aston, but we all know the important role played by such institutions, not only in the education system but in society generally.

I defend the role of arts graduates, but we must recognise that Aston is not an ivory-towered institution churning out graduates with irrelevant degrees. We realised some time ago that we were behind almost everyone else in higher education and that we needed to upgrade the colleges of advanced technology into technological universities and the colleges of commerce and technical colleges into polytechnics.

We realised that British degrees were much too academically oriented and that we needed not only to turn out more graduates with a vocationally oriented degree but to accept that we could not develop learning only within academic institutions. We accepted the need to develop sandwich courses and to send students into industry, commerce and national and local public administration.

That is the rationale of the polytechnics and institutions like Aston university which have a good record in training students for the sort of degrees that we require, including administration, management science and technology. Within a short period, the university has rightly come to be held in high esteem. All sorts of subjects at Aston and other universities will be undermined. There will be less money for fewer students. The cutback will certainly affect women badly, because more of them now go to university than ever before. No doubt women's organisations will rightly lament that fact.

The Minister said recently that he would not drop the issue because there would be fewer 18-year-olds anyway. That view was challenged by the general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, who said that the Government had been hoodwinking the public. In the 1980s there will be 25 per cent. more 18-year-olds than the 1970s. The Government have got it wrong, as they have got other things wrong. The timing was wrong. The scale was wrong. The whole decision was wrong.

The hon. Member for Selly Oak was unfair to the UGC', which is really doing the Government's dirty work for them. It was put in an unenviable situation, but the blame must lie largely with the Government. I deplore the overall decision regarding cutbacks, and I deplore the particular decision about Aston. It comes at a time when the 18-year-old generation is approaching its peak. It is a battered generation. The unqualified cannot find jobs, and a perverse egalitarianism is working on behalf of the Government, because now they have turned their attention to the most able of the rising generation, whose chances are being squeezed just like the chances of their less qualified brethren. They, too, are more likely to face a future without jobs.

Opposition to the proposals comes from many sources. I hope that the universities which have been hit less hard will not shirk from supporting Aston and Salford, perhaps by saying "We escaped. If we fight too hard, it may be unfortunate for us."

The budgets of Aston and Salford will be cut by 25 per cent. Aston will have to withdraw the offers that it has made to many students. Apparently, it will have to shed 1,000 of its 4,670 students. I understand that it has already made 2,000 offers to students. So some of the offers will have to be withdrawn, because the places simply will not exist.

Applied psychology will continue at the present level, and, according to the New Scientist, the physical sciences will probably slightly expand. However, that is the only good news for Aston university. The rest of the news is dire. There are to be a decrease in the mathematical sciences and reductions in pharmacy, architecture and biological sciences are to be discontinued, and engineering is to be reduced in an area such as the West Midlands. Imagine Aston university having to reduce the number of engineering students, and having to consider merging engineering perhaps with Birmingham university. That is almost mind-boggling. London university, the School of Business Studies, will apparently receive more money. That may be an award for its support for monetarism.

Letters that I have received from Aston university show the dire problems that are facing universities such as Aston and Salford. It is tragic that the technological universities are suffering most. The hon. Member was perhaps right when he said that they are under-represented on the UGC. If an analysis were made of the number of Oxford and Cambridge graduates, that could be a factor.

One question should be asked: how rational was the process of cuts? I suspect that it was done very irrationally. I have received a letter from the vice-chancellor of Aston university, in which he said: The universities are now in the Alice-in-Wonderland situation of 'sentence first, verdict afterwards'. A reasonable progression would have been: first, a thoughtful report on the state of Higher Education in Britain, providing a blue-print for further development, and perhaps leading to a 'verdict' that the university system merited the 'sentence' of a significant reduction in recurrent grant support. Instead, the economic sentence was imposed first. Only then was the University Grants Committee asked to review the entire university system, in just a few months, and to 'rationalise' the cuts by modifying the system very significantly. It has done so with no blue-print for Higher Education at hand that we are aware of, and with no public discussion of its criteria for evaluation and change, and how they might be applied. That is the kind of situation that has emerged. Perhaps the arts bashers will be happy that English, history, and sociology will get the chop. However, one should bear in mind what else is to happen. It should be remembered that to the UGC the social studies include business management, economics, geography, accountancy, law and psychology as well as sociology. The UGC letter envisaged a small increase in the number of students reading business studies. It should be an enormous increase.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Is the hon. Gentleman relating his speech entirely to Aston, because that is the only subject of this debate? Item No. 40 deals with the general position of universities.

Mr. George

I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that I was leaning over backwards to concentrate on Aston.

At present in Aston there are studies in economics, accountancy, law and psychology, as well as sociology, and undoubtedly those studies will be affected. Science at Aston university and other universities will increase insignificantly, and there will be reductions in engineering, technology and architecture. The letter from the UGC says that there will be "significant reductions" in architecture and town planning. That is a very good department at Aston university. Perhaps the Government think that there is some justice in that, because they have done little to encourage building. Perhaps fewer architects will be required.

Subjects allied to medicine will suffer, too. The whole range of vocationally oriented subjects at Aston university and other technological universities will be clobbered.

I wish to ask a number of questions. How will the redundant staff be paid off? What will happen to research in universities such as Aston—not research on trivial and insignificant subjects, but research in engineering, technology, and matters which are vital for the regeneration of British industry? How was the UGC decision arrived at, and what criteria were used?

I deplore the cuts, and I deplore the fact that universities such as Aston are already suffering as a result of the reduction of overseas students, who themselves—the ones who have been able to come—are subject to a great rip-off. I hope that the Government will realise that the future of our society depends on a large number of highly qualified students. We are already among those with the lowest proportion of students going on to universities. We have one of the lowest percentages of university graduates in the Western world. I hardly think that this decision by the Government will enhance the quality of education.

Therefore, on behalf of Aston university, Salford university and many other universities which are affected and may be affected in the future, I ask the Government to reconsider. There may be justice in universities suffering cuts, the same as anyone else, but for universities such as Aston this blow could be devastating. It is located in the heartland of what was an industrial area, the West Midlands, and I believe that this is a further ignominious blow to this region that I am proud to represent, I hope that, as a result of representations from both sides of the House, the Government will reconsider.

8.19 pm
Mr. Jocelyn Cadbury (Birmingham, Northfield)

I wish to add to the important points that have been made by hon. Members on both sides in defence of Aston university. First, however, I want to make two confessions. One is to the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). I was a graduate of Cambridge, and I should undoubtedly have been among those packing the Benches in defence of that university, had it been threatened. My second confession is to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark). I was one of those who read an esoteric subject at university. I was a social anthropologist. I confess that the subject has no immediate practical use. However, I can say in its defence that there is an automatic check on the numbers of anthropologists. If an anthropologist does field work in New Guinea, there is a sanction. If the natives fall out with him, they eat him.

The proposed drastic reductions in grant for Aston university must be examined in the context of the erosion of Britain's industrial base since the war. More specifically, we must view the proposals in the light of the shortage of high calibre engineers in British industry. To underline the seriousness of the shortage, I shall quote from the Finniston report. Referring to the views of employers, it states: Concern was repeatedly expressed to us from all sides (i) that there were two few high-calibre engineers and hence intense competition for them; (ii) that the remaining body of graduate engineers lacked the qualities of practical application and understanding of industry associated with those who came through the old part-time route". Finniston was saying that not only was there a shortage of engineers but that many engineering graduates lacked an understanding of the practical needs of industry. That means that companies have to spend valuable time giving further training before the graduates can make a useful contribution.

The irony of the proposed cuts for Aston university is that Aston is the very university that has responded directly to national needs. It has taken the lead. Aston is a technological university par excellence. Out of 4,400 home students, 1,600 are reading engineering. Aston has pioneered the idea of the sandwich course. That gets at the root of the problem of giving students studying engineering a practical grounding in industry. Aston was ahead in that field.

Aston's response to industry's needs is not confined to engineering. About 700 students are taking degrees in managerial and administrative studies. Fewer than 600 undergraduates are studying the social sciences and the humanities. The balance at Aston is in the right direction for a technological university.

The result of the lead that Aston has taken in producing the qualified people industry wants is that Aston graduates have the highest success rate in the country for obtaining employment. They are at the top of the employment league. In the period 1975 to 1979 only 4.9 per cent. of Aston graduates failed to find a full-time job within a year of graduating. That compares with the university of East Anglia, where 25 per cent. of graduates failed to obtain jobs in the same period. The figure for Sussex university is 21 per cent., for Warwick 20 per cent., and Kent 19 per cent. The difference is that Aston is producing the graduates that industry wants and that the country desperately needs. That is why in 1980 Aston received 12 applications for each place, compared with the average of nine.

Not only is Aston producing graduates that industry wants but it has an excellent reputation in the Midlands for co-operating wit h industry. I have a long list of companies with which Aston has undertaken joint projects. It includes companies such as Fisons, GEC Power Engineering, British Leyland, Conoco, ICI and corporations such as the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and the Post Office.

Under the enlightened leadership of the present vice-chancellor of Aston, Professor Crawford, who comes from Stanford in California, where they understand the need for universities to co-operate with industry, Aston is pursuing the idea of a science park, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller) has already referred. Surely that is one of the keys to bridging the gap between industry and the academic world that has so bedevilled our country in recent years. The science park around Stanford in California was the beginning of "Chip Valley". All the companies that now dominate the would of electronics started from the science park there.

What is the reward for Aston's extraordinary success? Under the UGC's proposal, Aston is to suffer the second largest reduction in students. Salford, another centre of technology, leads and Aston comes second. Which faculties are to be affected? It is also incredible that out of 1,000 places which Aston is to lose, 690 will be in science and engineering. Engineering is bound to suffer at Aston because it makes up such a large proportion of the total number of students.

The proposed cuts threaten the viability of Aston. If they are allowed, they will deal a body blow to its prestige that has been so carefully built up by previous vice-chancellors and is now being further enhanced under the dynamic leadership of Professor Crawford. We are in danger of reducing technological universities to second-rate status. That is extremely dangerous.

Mr. Dalyell

Even if the UGC did not mean to do it, does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is the net effect of what it has done? People will deduce that the university is second-rate. The deduction in the public mind will matter.

Mr. Cadbury

I agree. The cuts are bound to have that effect on people at school planning to go to universities. They will make deductions from what has happened and fill in the forms accordingly. They will downgrade Aston as a result of the cuts.

It might be unfair to single out universities that have not been as successful as Aston in terms of the employability of graduates. However, one cannot help noting that some universities with the lowest success rates in terms of their graduates being employed are experiencing the least damaging cuts. For example, East Anglia university, which produces the least marketable graduates, is to suffer a reduction in students of only 3.2 per cent. in the period 1980 to 1984 and only a 9 per cent. cut in grant.

York university has no faculty of engineering but it is to lose only 0.3 per cent. of its undergraduate places. It seems that universities with no engineering faculties have come off extraordinarily lightly. That is not what the nation needs.

We have all heard hair-raising stories about the bizarre subjects that can be studied in our universities. I have a relative who was at Kent university and took a degree in drama and the cinema. I know that the cinema is an important aspect of our cultural life, but I am not convinced that taxpayers' money should be used to send youngsters to universities to watch movies. I am sure that there are many examples of subjects at which we should take a hard look because of the wastage of taxpayers' money.

I accept that we must be aware of the concept of academic freedom. We must also remember that Britain is facing an economic and industrial crisis. We know that one of the causes of the erosion of our industrial base is the shortage of high calibre engineers. We need them to design the products to sell in the world markets. I cannot help but ask whether the members of the UGC appreciate that fact. Is that body accountable to no one? If the Government, leaders of industry and trade union leaders see clearly that university education appears to be heading in the wrong direction, at what stage can the UGC's policies be called into question? I appreciate the Minister's dilemma, but I hope that he will attempt to answer those questions when he replies.

I wish to raise a final point about the totality of higher education. I accept that I must: tread carefully to stay in order. Why do other sectors of higher education appear largely to have escaped the cuts that are concentrated on universities? Polytechnics have already been mentioned. I cite the example of so-called colleges of higher education—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

When polytechnics were mentioned earlier, the Chair ruled that as there is a later debate, the universities programme, it was out of order to discuss them in this debate on Aston university.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It may be unusual for me to come to the aid of a Conservative Member, but some of us see the Aston problem as linked clearly with the polytechnic problem.

Mr. Cadbury

I agree with the hon. Gentleman but stand corrected. Those other areas should have been considered. However, I shall leave the matter there.

No one can deny the vital contribution that Aston university is making to the national need for high-quality engineers. We have only to talk to Midlands industrialists to verify that. The remarkable success of Aston graduates, which puts them at the top of the employment league, speaks for itself. If the proposed reductions in grant are carried out, they will represent one more major step towards the deindustrialisation of Britain.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will do what he can to ensure that reductions in grants are spread more fairly across the whole area of higher education. I hope that the UGC will listen with an open mind to what has been said in the debate and reconsider its proposals. The university of Aston must be spared, in the interest of the regeneration of British industry.

8.33 pm
Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Stechford)

I agree entirely with what has been said by other hon. Members from Birmingham and the West Midlands about the disastrous effects of the UGC's proposals for Aston university. I do not agree with everything that was said by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Cadbury). In particular, I do not follow him in his criticism of courses dealing with drama and the cinema. It is possible for such courses to make a valuable contribution to the cultural life of Britain and to industry, by helping the ailing film industry which is an exporter, and therefore to benefit the country's economy.

Both sides of the House agree about the effects of the UGC's proposals on industry, especially in the West Midlands. Several hon. Members have already said that Aston university has been top of the league in finding jobs for its graduates. That has not been a flash in the pan. Aston has been top of the league for at least three years in succession. It is a consistent record of achievement that we should beware of damaging.

In the West Midlands we are very conscious of the decline in our industry, especially the engineering industry. It is natural that hon. Members on both sides of the House should be anxious about the effect of the proposals on industry in both the West Midlands and Britain as a whole. It is important to remember that universities serve not only the regions but the whole of Britain.

It is not insignificant that fewer than 600 students out of a total of 5,500 at Aston are studying social sciences and humanities. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) that I am not pouring scorn on the graduates who have studied arts and humanities. I am sure that they make a tremendous contribution to Britain's industry. However, I believe that we need more engineers and more technically qualified graduates if we are to solve the industrial problems of Britain.

Everyone who has participated in the debate has referred to the effect on industry and to the effect on Aston's provision of graduates for industry. Industry does not depend on the universities only for qualified people. It also depends on universities for the research to provide the products of the future, and I want to draw the attention of the House to the effect of these proposals on research at Aston.

The letter that was sent by the UGC to Aston university called for the discontinuation of activities in biological sciences. In fact, two letters were sent to the university. The first letter described the proposed cuts. The second letter, which may be described as a standard letter, called for new developments in biological sciences and referred specifically to developments with a high potential value for the economy.

I am told by those at Aston university that their department of biological sciences has concentrated particularly in its research programme on the sort of project that has value for the economy. I have obtained a list of projects that are closely concerned with industry. For example, there is the only biodeterioration centre in the United Kingdom. "Biodeterioration" is a technical word. It means research into damage to products, premises, processes and systems of all sorts caused by living organisms including bacteria, fungi, yeasts, insects, animals, birds and plants.

There is also a positive side to the research at the biodeterioration centre. There is what is called biodegradation, which is the upgrading of wastes by living organisms and hence the improved control of environmental pollution. There has been research into the contamination of fuels and metalworking fluids by fungi and bacteria, into the fouling of stone and paintwork by algae, into insect and fungal attack on stored grain, into rodent damage in factory premises and into damage to buildings and roadways by plant growth. I could list many other projects, and most are of direct benefit to industry.

Mr. Dalyell

About a year ago I was asked by a technical journal of the chemistry industry to review a book of Harry Rothman's on biotechnology that covered some of the subjects mentioned by my hon. Friend. Harry Rothman is a member of Aston university. I asked a number of qualified people at other universities to give me their opinion on the quality of work undertaken at Aston. The work was highly regarded. In the view of those who are competent to give an opinion, the standard at Aston is very high. I substantiate what my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Davis

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. The biological sciences department at Aston is one of only two university departments in the United Kingdom that has a unit engaged in research that will specifically support the fish farming industry. That is an industry of the future.

There is a mycology section which is leading development and research in the mushroom industry and into industrial fermentation.

For the past 20 years there has been research into the biology of water pollution and effluent treatment. These are projects that have value to industry as well as value to the British people in improving their standard of living. I am told that all these projects are at risk as a result of the UGC's proposals.

There are some other projects as well. In the biological sciences department at the university of Aston research is being done into health matters. As I take a special interest in health, I should like to describe three of the most valuable research projects. Again, I am told that they are at risk as a result of the UGC proposals.

Firstly, some research is being done into diabetes, which is one of the fastest growing diseases in the Western world. It has been estimated that 3 per cent. of the population of this country have suffered or will suffer from diabetes, and that this proportion will double in the next 20 years. At Aston, research is being done into both the cause and the treatment of diabetes. That research is supported by the Medical Research Council, the Science Research Council and pharmaceutical organisations, with the result that half the money for that research comes from sources other than the UGC. The fact remains that the UGC is responsible for funding the other half of that research. If half the money is removed, will the research continue? I doubt it.

Secondly, research is being done into cancer. Scientists are investigating the mechanisms which control cell division. Their research is directed to the prevention of cancer. That research is supported by the Cancer Research Campaign, the Royal Society, the Welcome Foundation and several other organisations. One-third of the money comes from bodies other than the UGC. That means that two-thirds of the money comes from the UGC. Thirdly, research is being done into immunology. That is funded to the extent of three-quarters by the UGC. I am told by the scientists working at the university of Aston that all these projects are at risk as a result of the proposals.

It is not only the department of biological sciences at Aston which is affected. That department has been told that it must close. A cutback is also suggested at the department of pharmacy. I know that some people think that pharmacy is about training people to work in chemists' shops. However, we know in the House that pharmacy is even more important than that. The department of pharmacy at the university of Aston has recently been awarded £1.6 million by the Cancer Research Campaign after a careful survey of the whole country to identify the institution that was best qualified to conduct the research with that money. This research is intended to find a drug that will kill cancer cells. Work has just started on the project, and the scientists at the university of Aston are extremely concerned that their research will stop as a direct result of the proposals by the UGC.

There have been several references to the UGC. Only a few days after the proposals were made public, a member of the UGC Was quoted in The Birmingham Post as saying: We could have cut the universities equally and had uniform misery for all. But we have tried to preserve the best in the system and put the burden on less satisfactory. That is inconsistent. Look at that quotation from a member of the UGC and then look at his action in apparently supporting the UGC proposals.

Mr. Dalyell

Name him.

Mr. Philip Whitehead (Derby, North)

Name him.

Mr. Davis

As I am asked to identify the gentleman who was quoted in The Birmingham Post, it was Mr. Ferguson. I do not know how long he has been a member of the UGC.

There is not only an inconsistency between what members of the UGC say to the newspapers and their actions but there is also an inconsistency between the UGC's proposals and what the Minister says.

The Under-Secretary himself made a speech less than 24 hours after the announcement of the UGC proposals for the university of Aston. He was quoted in the press as saying that he had warned of the gap between research in universities and the workshop floor. He called for a partnership of academic life and business. If ever there was an example of partnership between academic life and business, it is in the university of Aston.

8.45 pm
Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

As no other hon. Member has already done so, let me make it clear that there is perfect understanding of the need to make cuts. We know perfectly well that for many years we have been living beyond our means and that the only way to proceed is either to borrow money, which must be paid back at an expensive rate of interest, or to print more money, which only leads us further down the road to inflation.

I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, for whose expertise I have tremendous respect, will accept that those of us who object to the actions of the University Grants Committee in relation to Aston do not do so because we imagine that there is some bottomless coffer of money which can be tapped and poured endlessly on Britain. We understand the need to make cuts extremely well.

Mr. Whitehead

The hon. Lady will, I am sure, agree that, apart from her legitimate constituency interest, the cuts that have been made extend to universities other than the university of Aston.

Mrs. Knight

On three or four occasions, Mr. Deputy Speaker has drawn the attention of hon. Members to the fact that we are debating Aston. It is therefore to Aston that I direct my attention.

Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby)

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the number of students taking engineering, mathematics, physics and hard technological courses will increase. I am equally sure that she is aware that the number of students will reduce to about the same number as existed in 1977–78 at the time of the Labour Government.

Mrs. Knight

I shall not follow that line of argument.

I am particularly troubled that the future prosperity of Britain depends utterly on the success of industry. We who represent the West Midlands do not hesitate to say that the West Midlands is the industrial heart of Britain. Our success in the future, and the only way in which we shall be able to overcome the difficulties that we now face, depends on the ability of the West Midlands, of all areas in Britain, to be prosperous.

Success will not come from Brighton, Basildon, Bridlington or Bristol. It lies utterly within the West Midlands, and unless we can promote and encourage the prosperity of industry in the West Midlands the future will be bleak.

Industry throughout that great area is strengthened, sustained and vastly aided by the expertise of those who have acquired technical skills at Aston university. That being so, it is difficult for some hon. Members to understand the proposals of the UGC. To many of us, it is obvious that, to recover from the current economic recession, British industry must improve its performance in innovation, design, production and management. That will require well-trained scientists, engineers and managers from relevant industrial courses.

We shall also desperately need new ideas for products and processes from applied research and development. There can be no argument about that. Bearing all those points in mind, some of us find it incomprehensible that the Government's policy, applied by the Department of Education and Science through the UGC, has been to cut back most severely of all on the technological universities, such as Aston, while leaving the traditional universities relatively unscathed.

We have already heard that there is an aura of the untouchable about academic subjects. With all the respect in the world towards those subjects, however, they do not provide the skills which will pull the country back to prosperity. There is no doubt that Aston has an internationally high reputation for science, engineering and management training. All over the world one can meet graduates and people who respect what Aston has given.

Aston has closely maintained industrial links. That is perhaps the basis of its success. Indeed, many of the staff came to the university from industry, having first had a basic training in industry. We have heard that many students are on sandwich courses, so there is a tremendous balance between learning and industry. Much training at Aston involves industrial projects, and a great deal of research has arisen from industrial collaboration.

Aston has a top position in the United Kingdom for graduate employment. Although this has been mentioned before, it should be stressed because that reputation has continued for many years. Unit costs are also low. Aston cannot be faulted as being other than extremely economical in its working, because there is a very high student-staff ratio.

I am therefore led to ask the Minister how the plan for university grants will provide the technologists that British industry so badly needs when the technological universities are to suffer the severest cuts in funding.

I wish to make only one further point, as I do not wish to repeat what has already been expertly put, although I support almost all of it. It seems incredible that the University Grants Committee members have apparently never visited Aston at all. Do they sit in some ivory tower reading down rows of lists and deciding that this shall be the outcome of their deliberations? Do they ever talk to industry? Do they ever try to find out exactly what Aston has done? If they do, how can they possibly justify their suggestions? I understand that the imposed cut of 22 per cent. in home-based students must be implemented by 1983. This is extremely important. In effect, it means that those students cannot be admitted after October, because they will still be in the university in the 1983–84 session. The cuts are therefore not graded, as we have been told elsewhere, but are immediate.

I take the view of many of my hon. Friends and many Opposition Members that the cuts proposed by the University Grants Committee are arbitrary and inconsistent with any logical reasoning or Government policy. A glaring example is that the university of Warwick—one of the least successful universities, according to the Financial Times list—has been advised to increase the number of engineering students. How can it make sense to have good students, unable to enter Aston with its admirable history and performance, go to a university from which their chances of employment are far less favourable judging by its track record?

For all those reasons, and supporting my hon. Friends, I beg the Minister to think again.

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

I have been thinking for well over one and a half hours while listening to hon. Members speak on this subject, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller). There can be no doubt about the feelings of those in the area involved. To remain within the bounds of order, I must not stray too wide of the subject before us. The best course to adopt is to take up several of the points made and to return later to the main theme. I shall touch on the position of the University Grants Committee and answer, as frankly and clearly as possible, the questions asked by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), which were also asked about two weeks ago at Question Time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch referred to employment prospects and to the table that appeared in the Financial Times. I commend any institution that turns out graduates who can find employment. The percentage of sandwich courses and students on them is a factor in this matter. However, I do not wish to go through a pecking order of subjects. This morning, Dr. Parkes attended the Select Committee. I was not there and the hon. Member for West Lothian left after a short time for honourable reasons. One consideration is the amount of research engendered in the university. It is a question not only of university grant research but of all types of research, including industrial research.

I shall try to meet the specific points that have been made. I am informed that all types of research—and not just Government-sponsored research—are involved. I shall take into consideration the points mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Davis) and others. The hon. Member for West Lothian and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) referred to the visits made by the UGC. During the past two years we have not known whether the funding would be level, plus 2 per cent., minus 2 per cent. or minus 5 per cent. Soon after we came to office, the UGC began an analysis of each institution and the courses being offered. Most of the conversations were held in London. In the past two years, considerable analysis has been made of the universities and the courses being offered.

In the past five years, visits have been made by the UGC to the following departments at Aston university: physical sciences, social studies, the arts, technology and business management. I take the point that has been made about redundancies. Obviously, people are concerned about them. The earlier UGC letter said that it wanted the returns on the possibilities involved by January 1982. Therefore, I cannot comment further now. Nevertheless, it is a matter of considerable concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) spoke with great gusto and fire and kept us well awake. The balance has been considerably altered from the arts to the sciences. It may not have been altered as much as some would have liked, but, on the other hand, it may have been altered more than others would like. I have all the figures, but I shall mention only a few. In two years the figure for physical sciences will be increased by 7 per cent. The figure for engineering and technology will be increased by 2 per cent. The figure for business studies will he increased by 3 per cent. I could give similar figures for mathematics and medicine.

Mr. Dalyell

I heard the Minister say that redundancies were a matter of great concern. So they must be to everyone. Many of those who would have taken voluntary retirement, envisaging redundancy, are withdrawing their applications for voluntary retirement. That is only one aspect. The particular aspect on which I should like an answer is the size of the bill and who will pay it. Following all these legal test cases on tenure, there will be a massive bill of £250 million or more.

Dr. Boyson

The simple answer is that no one knows. I am not a prophet. Aneurin Bevan once said: Why look at the crystal ball when you can read the book". At some stage, if some form of direct redundancy is required, we shall know the answer. At present we do not know. There are no figures that can be given. I may be pressed, but that is the only answer.

Mr. Whitehead

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it has been said that if there were 3,000 redundancies there would be £250 million to be found? Does he not agree that such a figure would bankrupt some universities if they had to find it without a supplementary grant?

Dr. Boyson

I realise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that question is no: related to Aston. I would not want the hon. Gentleman to lead me into spending more time discussing redundancies about which we can do nothing. I have seen all kinds of estimates. It depends which newspaper one reads. There are no hard facts. I prefer dealing with hard facts.

Mr. Terry Davis


Dr. Boyson

I shall give way a third time on redundancies but not after that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. The debate is becoming a little general. I suggest that hon. Members concentrate on Aston university.

Mr. Davis

Will the Minister say how many redundancies will take place at Aston as a result of these proposals?

Dr. Boyson

I follow your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and take this matter no further. The answer is that no one knows.

I pass to the general issue and particularly the university of Aston. Many hard things have been said about the University Grants Committee. I wish to deal with its credibility. Its chairman is an ex-vice-chancellor of City university, a technological university. Dr. Parkes was its distinguished vice-chancellor. Many of the technological universities are so recent that members of the UGC would not have been able to attend them unless they were still under 40. They would have had to attend them in a previous incarnation.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) is worried about the percentage of working-class students going to university . I am worried also that the figure has been falling while the number of university places has been increasing. The percentage has been falling. I should like the House at some time to discuss the issue. It should be a matter of concern to hon. Members on both sides. I am not saying this in any spirit of antagonism towards the hon. Gentleman. This is a non-party issue that must at some stage be debated. We have not succeeded. The percentage of intake from the working-class in the 1970s has dropped, despite university numbers increasing.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree to that debate on the basis of the reply to the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts report on higher education, which indicated a possible solution?

Dr. Boyson

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman raises this matter on business questions. It is a matter for the Leader of the House. I am interested to see how this debate has widened and how influential the hon. Member thinks all those hon. Members present are. There is one odd thing about Aston—and I am endeavouring to be neutral in the facts and figures I present. I am informed that last year there was a drop of 10 per cent. in the intake at Aston. I should like to know why the intake dropped last year, irrespective of the decisions made this year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Cadbury) raised the question of the science park. I know the one at Stanford university, where I spent a lot of time last year, and its connection with Silicone Valley. The link between universities and business and the future of the country must be strengthened.

I want to try to put the debate into perspective arid to show where we stand in relation to Aston. I must keep clear of the general debate on universities but the overall sum that we can allocate to higher education is a Government decision, and always has been. It is the direct responsibility of the Government in power. Then it is a matter of division across the binary line.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to the difficulties that arise from the polytechnics being cheek by jowl in many cases with the universities and to the difficulty of bridging between the two. Before many days have passed, a Green Paper will be issued by the Government on this question. We should not look at one side of the binary line without looking at the other side as well. I agree that there is an urgent need for a procedure of rationalisation, as there is often competition between the institutions in an area. Some kind of body is needed on the maintained side which can be in dialogue with the UGC on the university side.

Once the overall sum has been fixed, it goes to the UGC. Ever since 1919, when the UGC was established, the Secretary of State has accepted the advice of the UGC, just as he did three or four weeks ago. It might help to concentrate our minds if we were to consider what would be the alternative to the UGC. If the UGC is not to do the division, who is to do it? The UGC has been used as a dartboard recently. Is the division to be done by this House? I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak who referred to a quango. I know that he does not like quangos. Are we to have another quango here? We have not the skill or knowledge in this House to decide how to divide the money between universities or between faculties. Are we to act in parallel with the UGC?

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

The Minister appears to be saying that he and his officials are a quango. I thought that Ministers were appointed in order to perform a task.

Dr. Boyson

I must take this further, because my hon. Friend has raised an important point. There are 45 universities. In the maintained sector, there are 396 institutions at which students can get degrees. Knowing the degree to which hon. Members rightly seek to look after their constituency interests, if we had to decide in this House the money that is to go to every university and to every faculty, it would take the whole of the summer to do it. It is just not possible for us to do it in this House. Somebody has to make the decision, and I can see no alternative to the UGC.

Mr. Cadbury

Would it not be possible to have on the UGC people representing industry and perhaps the trade unions in order to give it a better balance than it has at present? Is not that an alternative?

Dr. Boyson

My understanding is that such people are already represented on the UGC. That is my impression when I meet the UGC. With the general agreement of this House, the UGC was set up in such a way as to have the right balance. The present complement of the UGC was not decided by the present Government or by the Conservative Party. It was done by general agreement. Practically all the members of the UGC, including the chairman, were appointed by the Labour Government.

I warn the House that unless we can find a better way of dividing up the sum of money than we have at present, we had better stick to the UGC. If we abandon the UGC without having a proper alternative, we shall have major chaos in the organisation of education throughout the country.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument, and there is much in what he says, but will he issue a warning to the UGC that its credibility is getting less and less, especially when it proposes to spend more than £15 million in building the scheme for Barts, London Hospital and Queen Mary college when it is not necessary? What is at stake tonight is the UGC's credibility.

Dr. Boyson

The hon. Member has already been in contact with me, and I believe that he spoke recently in the House on this important matter. I have received letters from Government and Opposition Members about it and I had a conversation with others about it yesterday. Since it is basically a matter between the senate of London university and the UGC, I should prefer not to comment further.

Mr. Dalyell

The Minister will agree that I was extremely careful not to attack the UGC or its members. My impression is that they are overworked, in agony and harassed by the situation in which they find themselves. But is this not partly because they have had to do the job in such a hurry? Does it not lead to the conclusion that the problem should be put in cold storage, at least for a while? Why the haste for all these decisions? For goodness sake, give us more time. That raises another question: is it reasonable to expect a body, most of whose members are part-time, to do such a job in a totally new contracting, not expanding, situation?

Dr. Boyson

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. He was very careful in what he said, and I was well aware of it. I cannot comment on whether there should be more full-time members. If I were to do so, I am sure that I would be attacked by at least one of my hon. Friends.

The question of timing and the birth rate was referred to by the hon. Member for Walsall, South. As I understand it, the peak of the 18-year-olds will occur next year—1982–83. Over the next 10 years there will be a 30 per cent. decline. If there is not, they must be hidden somewhere in the bullrushes, like Moses. These figures are accepted. They have not been invented by the Government along the way. At some stage there would have to be a degree of rationalisation, but the need for curtailing expenditure has speeded that up. The hon. Gentleman thought that it would have been much easier to do over a longer period, and I do not disagree with him.

Mr. Hal Miller

I should like to pick up my hon. Friend on the age distribution. I have with me a chart of estimated legitimate live births by social class of husband for the years that would yield 18-year-olds over the period to which my hon. Friend referred. Far from showing a decline, the chart shows an increase in classes I and II—professional managerial—from which, regrettably, the bulk of university applicants still come. I hasten to add that the chart was produced by Aston university. It does not seem to me that there is such a decline in applicants to be expected for Aston university as my hon. Friend so confidently predicts.

Dr. Boyson

I am not a great expert on legitimate and illegitimate births. We know that various estimates were drawn up well before this year. My hon. Friend has briefed himself very well for this debate, but throughout the 1970s there were estimates that presumed that many more children would go up to higher education than did. We have always been wrong. I could never be a Socialist, because Governments are nearly always wrong. Even Labour Members think that Governments are wrong. Every estimate of the number of 18-year-olds who wanted to go to university or take advantage of higher education was always wrong.

Every three or four years each Government, of whatever colour, cut back the intended increase because the numbers were not increasing. In the 1970s, there was a drop in the participation rate of 18-year-olds going on to higher education from 14 per cent. to 12.4 per cent., despite vacancies in the institutions. Therefore, although I recognise what my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch says, I am doubtful about long-term trends.

I come back to the crucial issue of who is to decide how to spend the sums that the Government allocate. If the Government interfered in the UGC's decision by saying "We accept everything but A", there would be a problem not only with Aston, Salford or Keele—there would be a Pandora's box in every faculty. The Government would have to decide each aspect in detail.

I have not heard any vice-chancellor publicly state that he wishes to replace the UGC by another body. The vice-chancellors merely argue about particular decisions which may be against their interests.

The technological aspect is particularly important, so I point out that 30 universities have increased their technical numbers, five are being held constant and seven are decreasing.

The UGC takes a national view—although I appreciate that Aston has a national significance. Four universities draw largely only from their own areas historically—Strathclyde and Glasgow in Scotland and Bangor and Aberystwyth, because of their teaching of Welsh—and so need faculties in most subjects, apart from the very obscure. All the others take students from throughout the country who go to stay there. Of course, one could argue that living away costs a tremendous amount in our university budget, and savings may be made by having another system. However, I do not make that case.

The UGC has tried to ensure that faculties are available with the necessary highly expensive equipment and libraries—and librarians and translators if we are to keep up with Japan and the rest of the world—so that we have a sufficient number of good faculties throughout the country.

Mr. Whitehead

If one follows that to its logical conclusion—the policy of looking at courses and faculties and not at institutions—may not some of the institutions die? Are we not near that point with the technological universities?

Dr. Boyson

I do not believe that we are near that point. In some cases there may be heavy pruning, but the confidence in the various departments within universities, such as Aston, is such that I do not believe that they will die, although that is only my personal view. They have the support that we have seen tonight, and I cannot see them dying.

We accepted the UGC's advice. We may not have gone through it with a magnifying glass or microscope and considered each recommendation for every faculty—I do not believe that any Government would do that—but the Government accepted the package. We are not defending or attacking any particular faculty. The UGC spent a lot of time on the matter. The hon. Member for West Lothian believes that there should be more full-timers. However, the UGC has made what it believes to be the right judgment nationally, and that has been accepted by the Government. When I said that that was what it meant, it did not mean that we had investigated every course but that we accepted the overall recommendations of the UGC.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Surely it is the job of the Government to lay down the general principles on which the UGC should work. It is up to the UGC to decide, whether we like it or not, what it does in individual cases. In deciding that, the Government interfere with every decision that the UGC makes.

Dr. Boyson

I welcome the support that my hon. Friend has hastened to give me. He is quite correct. That throws light on the problem. It is the job of the Government to make money available. Obviously we need more technology and engineering, and such matters come within the UGC's remit. I quote from The Times of 7 July about the new vice-chancellor who has been appointed to London university, Professor Quirk, a great language scholar. In the interview with Philip Howard, he congratulates the University Grants Committee for the way they have managed their virtually impossible task:

They have taken extraordinary care within their abilities and the financial restraints, to ensure that the best remains the best, and possibly even improves; that universities continue to serve the wide range of studies; and that modest increases are made in such necessary fields as technology. They have let thecuts come where they will do the least damage.

Of course the cuts will be painful, but the increase by 100 per cent. in the sixties was painful also. If we can arrange them with the same care as the UGC in our individual universities, they can be healthy rather than damaging. The loss of 10 per cent. from the body academic, if carried out with care and deliberation, can be as beneficial as the loss of 10 per cent. weight from the body Howard'. My last quote of the evening is the one that I promised the House. [Interruption.] I heard not an intervention but some loud thinking from my hon. Friends the Members for Bromsgrove and Redditch and for Edgbaston.

Mrs. Knight

I hope that my hon. Friend will address himself to the important point that many of us made. Industrial success is vital to the country, but the success of industry depends on the quality of the students going to Aston university. Will my hon. Friend deal with that important matter?

Dr. Boyson

My hon. Friend, as always, has asked a straightforward question. The Government feel that we must depend on the efficiency of the education system not only in science and technology—that point has been made by many hon. Members—but in the widespread subjects in the university system. We are not saying that such work should be carried out in one area of the country rather than another as people travel from one place to another. We asked the UGC to carry out such work nationally and it has done so. I realise that tonight's debate has related to Aston university, and we may talk about other areas such as Manchester as the debate continues. We are concerned about the link between industry and the universities. The importance of that link has been underlined. The UGC has made its decisions nationally. It has made what it believes are correct decisions and I do not think that any other body could have done better.

Mr. Dalyell

I agree that no other body could do this work as well as the UGC, but it is equally true that the UGC might do a better job if it were given more time. If anything has come from the debate, it is, for heaven's sake, to allow time before the irrevocable decisions are taken. Time is of the essence.

Dr. Boyson

The decision would have been easier if there had been more time, but only rarely in life do we have time in which to make decisions. Most are forced on us by circumstances. When the birth rate fell, decisions had to be made about rationalisation. The economic climate meant that they had to be taken quickly. The UGC was pressed for time, but it did the best that it could in the time available.

Professor Laurence Martin, vice-chancellor of Newcastle university, in the week before 17 July, said: The UGC is more perfect than the DES"— how about that; perhaps I should not use such quotations— and much, much more perfect than the House of Commons Select Committee. Despite the hard feelings about certain universities, I believe that the UGC made the best decisions for the country in the national light. The Government must support those decisions.