HC Deb 12 May 1981 vol 4 cc606-7
8. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the effects of the proposed cuts in education expenditure on Scottish universities and other forms of higher education.

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

The allocation of the Government's grant to individual universities, including those in Scotland, is a matter for the University Grants Committee. Higher education in Scotland, other than universities, is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr. Hamilton

Does the Minister realise that the proposed cut in university expenditure of one-eighth over two years is causing profound concern? Is he aware that it was described by Sir Alec Merrison, chairman of the vice-principals committee, as a profoundly stupid policy? That is an understatement, since the cuts will result in thousands of young people being deprived of higher education. Is it not a callous and stupid policy, which is bound to have a long-term effect on industrial development in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

Dr. Boyson

The suggested cut is between 8 and 8½ per cent. over three years. There will be a fall in student numbers because of the reduction in the number of overseas students, although many universities, such as the London School of Economics, have recruited even more overseas students this year. In our university system there are already fewer pupils per member of staff than anywhere else in the world. The figure is half the average for Yale and Harvard, which are recognised universities. If it transpired that in three years' time there was one pupil more per member of staff than now, that would suffice to cover all the cuts.

Mr. Ancram

Is my hon. Friend aware that it is not so much the cuts as the speed with which they are made that is causing the concern? Does he agree that if the cuts are made in too great haste the very disciplines that he would like to encourage and preserve might be first hit?

Dr. Boyson

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. The important consideration is to ensure that the cuts are made over the three-year period without touching the fabric of the system. That is why we are having discussions with the University Grants Committee, and why the committee is having discussions with the universities to ensure that the minimum damage is done.

Mr. Dalyell

Is it honourable for the Government simply to pass by on the other side and say that this is a matter for the UGC? What advice do the Government have for the University of Glasgow which finds the greatest difficulty in obtaining money for essential repairs? Its buildings are deteriorating. That is hardly wise management.

Dr. Boyson

At times of expansion the UGC has been defended for having stopped direct Government interference. The same defence must apply now. The academics must be left to make the major decisions. They—and Labour Members—would be the first to complain if we gave the committee directions from the centre.

Glasgow university's grant for 1981–82 has not yet been decided. When it has been, the university will have to decide its priorities.

Mr. John MacKay

Will my hon. Friend ensure that the Government participate in discussions with the UGC and the universities in order to try to concentrate the minority departments in one or two universities in Scotland instead of having them in every university? That is extremely wasteful and will become increasingly so as the number of students declines when the decline in school rolls hits the university population.

Dr. Boyson

Next year will see a peak in the number of 18-year-olds going up to university. There will be a drop thereafter of up to 30 per cent. however. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having reminded me of that fact. Rationalisation should happen not only in universities in order to give economic numbers of students for courses, but across the binary line. Colleges of further education and polytechnics in the same area should not compete for students but should complement one another's provision of courses.

Mr. Robert Hughes

By cutting the money available to the UGC, the Minister is giving central direction. Is he aware that, within the universities, from governing body level through staff to students, there is deep concern and great anger at what is happening? The sort of facility that is suffering is in libraries where services are not available and up-to-date books cannot be provided. How can the Government be proud of running a university system like that?

Dr. Boyson

We all realise that there is concern. There has been continued expansion for 35 years. When that expansion ends and reassessment has to be made, the university system is in a new ball game. The hon. Gentleman asked about equipment. We are spending the same on it this year in real terms as last year, and when we came to power we increased the amount spent by the Labour Government.