HC Deb 01 April 1982 vol 21 cc543-50

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

11.12 pm
Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

I am glad to have the opportunity of bringing forward a matter of vital importance to higher education in Northern Ireland and, indeed, to the rest of the United Kingdom. I am convinced that the extraordinary response of the Minister responsible for education in Ulster to the Chilver report on higher education in Northern Ireland embraces a number of concepts that are dangerous and must be exposed immediately.

The Government's response is dangerous both because of what it says and because of the underlying implications to be found in many of their comments. I accuse the Government of having arrived at a decision on the merger between the new University of Ulster and the Ulster polytechnic without proper consultation, despite the fact that the decision must have a fundamental effect on higher education in Northern Ireland and, perhaps, throughout the United Kingdom.

Of course, the proposals have been dressed up by the Northern Ireland press office in such a way as to suggest that the Ulster people ought to thank the Government for saving the new university and for creating some sort of new institution, but in truth the Government have put a gun to the head of the new university, in effect saying "Either you agree to a merger with the poly or you close down". It is an ultimatum, not a choice. The new University of Ulster has no alternative now, despite its misgivings, but to take part in the discussions, which will take place under the chairmanship of an independent chairman to discuss the proposed merger with the Ulster polytechnic.

It means, I fear, that this mean manoeuvre by the Government—for that is what it is—could have wider implications. It might be a forerunner to similar forced amalgamations in Great Britain. Already six or seven universities are seriously under-provided with funds during the next few years. I warn those universities that what is proposed in Northern Ireland may be a softening-up process to make the precarious mainland universities more amenable to subsisting on a reduced income, knowing that the alternative may be a shotgun marriage with a polytechnic, as proposed in Northern Ireland.

Why change the nature of the Ulster polytechnic? It already has an assured future in its present form, being one of the most successful of the 31 polytechnics in the United Kingdom. It is directly funded by the Department of Education, and it has achieved pre-eminence in many aspects of practical and technical education. However, its present size, the number of students and courses, and the amount of money that it receives may be significantly reduced in an amalgamation with the new University of Ulster. I fear that the proposed creation of a new institution is a device to enable the Government to place financial and other restrictions on the Ulster polytechnic. The Ulster polytechnic at present may be basking in a glow of the prospect of becoming part of a university, but it will be rudely awakened by reality, if the proposed amalgamation goes ahead.

First the Minister seems to recognise that the Government made a tactical error in encouraging the Chilver committee to produce an interim report on teacher training. The interim report gave the impression that teacher training and education are somehow outside higher education, and that it is only the lucky few potential teachers who get to a university. Worse than that, the interim report encouraged the backward-looking bigots of the Irish hierarchy to creep out from behind their false facade of non-sectarian benevolence to demand that Roman Catholic student teachers should be kept in religious servitude to guarantee the continuation of the religious apartheid in education in Northern Ireland. The hierarchy, in a hysterical campaign in which allegations were made of discrimination by the Government against the Roman Catholic Church, told everyone who would listen that the Government's prime duty was the education and training of potential teachers in a strict denominational mould, at the expense of the British taxpayer.

The clear answer to this sectarian rubbish—for rubbish it is—is that the Government of a democratic State have no such responsibility. The clear responsibility of the Government is to provide non-sectarian education institutions, and I regret that the Government have capitulated to those who wish to maintain the sectarian divide in education in Northern Ireland.

Secondly, I felt that the Minister, in reading the statement, was despairing over the two greatest and most valuable characteristics of British universities—their independence and academic autonomy. Of course, a university is not a financially independent institution. It must operate within the financial restraints imposed by Government. In Britain, the University Grants Committee has the essential role of standing between the Government, as paymaster, and the university, as beneficiary of the funds. That Committee stands in the middle and tries to ensure that the Government do not abuse their financial power and the universities do not abuse their privileges. Unfortunately, the statutory remit of that Committee does not include Northern Ireland. I have complained about that in the past.

Funds are provided directly in Northern Ireland by the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture. The advice of the University Grants Committee is taken up by the Northern Ireland Office only if it can afford it. Of course, the system is wide open to political manipulation. A wise vice-chancellor in Ulster no doubt cultivates the friendship of the political head of the Department of Education, as well as that of the chairman of the UGC.

Therefore, universities in Northern Ireland are not as politically independent of Government as they are elsewhere in the United Kingdom. However, Northern Ireland universities are as academically autonomous as their counterparts in Great Britain. Their functions, privileges and responsibilities are defined by Royal charter. The senate and faculties are free to decide the syllabus for every course that the university decides to provide. There is no Council for National Academic Awards, Business Education Council or Technical Education Council able to become involved in these decisions, as happens with polytechnics. No outside body has the right to tell a university how it should design its courses, although some professional bodies are occasionally and naturally invited by the University Senate to consult them.

Every member of academic staff is free to teach his subject in whatever manner he considers best, provided that it is within the syllabus and curriculum. Every member of the academic staff is expected to carry out personal research. That is important and, of course, does not apply to a polytechnic.

These matters are important because the Government are proposing an amalgamation between a polytechnic, which is 40 miles from the university. It is not possible to achieve that amalgamation. The third problem I thought the Minister was contending against was the practical difficulty of a merger. British universities—and the two universities in Ulster are no different—possess the unparalleled responsibility and privilege of being able to accept or reject students at their own discretion. That makes it possible to keep the number of students and facilities in a reasonable balance. Polytechnics do not have that privilege and power. If the proposed new institution is to be a university, there will be no automatic right of qualified students to enter it. The automatic right of entry into a polytechnic is correct and proper for the senior technician student doing a business or technical education level course or a Council for National Academic Award degree or diploma course.

Whatever one may think about a student's reason for choice, the academically qualified students will go to a university in preference to a polytechnic. The existence of the Council for National Academic Awards has diminished the difference between universities and other institutions, but some important and valuable distinctions still remain. The status of a university degree, which a university can award, gives the university an academic reputation which the polytechnic can emulate but cannot surpass.

The distinctive features of the two sorts of institutions are paramount in the minds of students, staff, employers or potential employers. Any merger between them could only be to the grave disadvantage of the university and curtail the innovatory spirit of the polytechnic. A university must be basically a centre for learning and culture. It should not be expected to respond to short-term social and economic needs. That is the function of a polytechnic that deals with the here and now whereas a university should concern itself with the forever.

I should like now to turn to the comments made by the Minister in the statement that he issued at the time of the publication of the Chilver report. Paragraph 4.1(B) says that the deep-rooted traditions and attitudes of Queen's University could not lend themselves to its developing into a split-site institution. One wonders if the Minister has ever heard of the collegiate system or of the American system of university integration. The campuses at Berkeley and Sacramento are both parts of the University of California. I hope that the Minister is treating the matter seriously. I intend, like others, to return to it.

This is very different from a split-site campus. The new University of Ulster has struggled for years with the problem of Magee College. With the best will in the world, no solution was found. The additional cost to the new University of Ulster was, I think, about £500,000 each year to maintain Magee College but with no additional financial assistance from the Government to meet that responsibility. As a separate institution integrated with the Londonderry College of Technology, Magee College would have a better prospect. It should be remembered that the technical college has always trained a number of teachers of commercial subjects. Like many technical colleges in Great Britain, there is always the prospect of developing CNAA degree and diploma courses in a combined Magee and technical college institution.

On the one hand, the Minister seems to deplore the fact that 60 per cent. of students at the Ulster Polytechnic are doing degree-level work. On the other, he uses this fact as an argument for merger with the new university. He cannot deploy his arguments in both directions. The question that seems to have concerned the Government is whether it is educationally sound sense for the Ulster Polytechnic to have degree level work that attracts 60 per cent. of its students.

This state of affairs happened for two reasons. First, the existence of the Council for National Academic Awards encouraged the polytechnics to devise degree courses. Secondly, the Ulster College Act that created the Ulster Polytechnic provided no means by which the Department of Education could curtail the development of degree courses. We had the situation that within 10 miles of Queen's University a new institution was created which could develop the same range of degree courses. There is a heavy concentration of higher education institutions in the Belfast area to the detriment of the west of Ulster. That is why the new University of Ulster is so essential for the west of Ulster. Sadly, the Government propose to demean it by making it an instrument through which they seem to intend to control the Ulster Polytechnic.

The new university is criticised in the Chilver report because its range of courses lacks vocational and professional studies. What hope had the university, tied as it was to the University Grants Committee critria, against the generously financed polytechnic close to Belfast which took over existing higher national certificate and diploma courses from the Belfast College of Technology? The House can well imagine the outcry that would have come from the polytechnic governors and others had the new university encroached on what they regard as their preserve—that is, the vocational technician type course that is just below degree level.

At paragraph 3.12 we are told that the chairman of the University Grants Committee shares the Government's view that more radical measures are necessary in order to give a worthwhile and cost effective role for a major education provision outside the Belfast area." The implication of that sentence is that the University Grants Committee chairman has approved the proposal to merge the university with the polytechnic. I see no evidence in the Government's statement that the University Grants Committee was involved in discussions about the future of the New University after the publication of the Chilver report, if indeed it was involved before its publication.

I see no evidence that the Association of Commonwealth Universities was involved at any stage. Of course, that association has seen the amalgamation of several groups of universities and could have been of great assistance in providing information on this subject.

For over 60 years the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has represented the collective views of the universities to the Government and to Parliament. Perhaps the Minister can tell the House why that committee was not consulted before publication of the Government paper. I should have thought that such consultation was particularly important when a Government are contemplating a proposal either to close a university or to force its amalgamation with a non-university institution.

I urge the Minister to withdraw his proposal which will hurt the West of Ulster. There is a great deal at stake here which is more important than public expenditure cuts. There is a grave danger that the reputation of the New University of Ulster will suffer and that its degrees will be devalued as a result of a merger. This will not only have an effect on future recruitment but it will adversely affect the students already there. To all intents and purposes it will have ceased to be a traditional university.

The new University has had to contend with tremendous difficulties since its creation. The exodus of 18-year-old boys and girls from Northern Ireland, prompted by 13 years of terrorism and rising unemployment, was the main cause of the slow development of the New University. That exodus is a drain which could change the social and political face of Northern Ireland in less than a generation. If the Government are truly concerned, they ought to provide a special additional grant to encourage young people to stay in Ulster and attend the two local universities.

The New University is financially and academically viable in UGC terms. There are almost 2,000 full-time students there. The Stormont White Paper issued in 1976 envisaged a target between 2,000 and 3,000 students. There are part-time students at the New University as well. If more students are required, the three sectarian teacher training colleges should have been closed, as I have demanded for years, especially as the cost of running them is exorbitantly high for the number of students involved, and the students placed in an enlarged teacher training unit at the New University.

What about the 407 students from Eire who are at higher education colleges in Great Britain at the cost of £1 million per year to the British taxpayer? They could be directed to the New University which provides university education for 2,000 students at a cost of approximately £7 million. Thus the Government would effect a considerable saving.

The Government's proposed merger of the New University with the Ulster Polytechnic is a polite way of scourging the university—no matter what the Government may say—of controlling the cost of the polytechnic and of letting the Minister off the hook with regard to the future of the sectarian teacher training colleges. To achieve a framework which will satisfy the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Minister proposes to downgrade the New University of Ulster which has in most difficult times earned a reputation which does honour to Ulster and its people.

It is a sad day for Ulster when liberal institutions of learning are being sacrificed to appease the bigots and those who seek further public expenditure cuts in an area which has suffered considerably from economic paralysis. I urge the Minister to drop these proposals or at least to reconsider them. A new Stormont assembly is about to be created. The Government seem to have great faith in it. I would have thought that this was a matter about which the Government should make no decision but leave it to that assembly.

11.34 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the future of higher education in Northern Ireland and I congratulate the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) on his good fortune in being able to raise the subject on the Adjournment. There will be other opportunities to debate the matter in the Northern Ireland Committee later in the year. I hope that those discussions will take place on a basis of greater reality than we have been treated to by the hon. Gentleman for the past 20 minutes.

Talk of dangerous policies, guns to the head and so on is very far removed from the broad, if guarded, welcome that the Government's proposals have received in educational circles in Northern Ireland. Indeed, I welcome the constructive approach that those involved in education in Northern Ireland have taken to a difficult situation which, I believe, can be turned to the substantial advantage of all those involved in higher education in the Province in the future.

The suggestion that the decision has been rushed, when the Chilver committee was set up three and a half years ago, took a great deal of evidence and engaged in all kinds of discussions before producing its proposals, is also very wide of the mark.

As I have said, there will be opportunities for the Northern Ireland Committee to discuss the implementation of the Government's decision, but informal discussions with those involved in implementing the decision will begin immediately.

I reject wholeheartedly the pessimistic approach of the hon. Member for Down, North. There is no question of damaging education in the west of the Province or demeaning the status of the new institution.

Having said that, I shall go on to deal with some of the detailed issues involved.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry)


Mr. Scott

I shall give way, but as I have been left only about seven minutes in which to reply to the debate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's intervention will be brief.

Mr. Ross

The Minister speaks of the implementation of the Government's view. Is he therefore saying that the Government have made up their mind and that what we have already heard is now firm Government policy for the new New University and the polytechnic?

Mr. Scott

That is precisely the position. The Government have made up their mind on the fundamental principle, but we shall of course consult all those involved about the implementation of it.

On teacher training, I am bound to say that I resented the hysterical attack by the hon. Member for Down, Noll h on the attitude of the hierarchy in Northern Ireland. We have a problem which the partners in education and teacher training in Northern Ireland will have to solve, in that there is room for twice as many teachers in training as are needed or likely to be needed in the foreseeable future. There is a great need for closer co-operation between the providers. The suggestions of Sir Henry Chilver's interim group, which I still believe would be a sensible way forward, were nevertheless not an end, but a means to an end, in achieving that co-operation and to achieve a continuing high standard of teacher training in Northern Ireland.

We cannot go on with a staff-student ratio in Northern Ireland roughly twice as favourable as that which pertains on the mainland. The economies of the situation will certainly not allow us to sustain that position much longer and the discussions that I have been having with all the suppliers of teacher training in Northern Ireland must soon be brought to a close. In that context, I certainly believe that here, as in the wider sphere of higher education, prolonged uncertainty would be highly damaging.

I think that the background to the Chilver report is widely understood by those hon. Members present. When Sir Henry Chilver's group presented its report to me in January, I was very conscious of the fact that, since I was given responsibility for education some six months ago, all the institutions of higher education in Northern Ireland had been pressing me to realise how damaging it would be for continued uncertainty to prevail. Therefore, particularly as we are approaching the second half of the academic year and institutions are making plans for the future, I am sure that it was important and right that we should move to an early decision.

In Great Britain, each university has been given detailed guidelines by the University Grants Committee as to its future role and development. While we were awaiting the publication of the Chilver report it was not possible for Northern Ireland universities to be given such guidelines, although the same financial constraints and the same demographic trends were apparent in Northern Ireland as elsewhere. Simply to have allowed uncertainty to continue for a longer period would have been very damaging.

After examining Sir Henry Chilver's proposals, I did not believe that to have allowed the New University of Ulster to go on as suggested in that report, with a total enrolment of 1,000 to 1,500 students, as a totally new type of university, would have given it the guaranteed viability for the future that is necessary if we are to have a strong second university in Northern Ireland. That university would have been about half the size of the smallest universities in Great Britain and it would have been vulnerable to every sort of academic or economic storm that blew up. Now we have a chance to have a second university in Northern Ireland that can give security and stability for the future.

The new institution will be a university. I believe that it can combine the strengths of the NUU, which are substantial. In making this proposal we are not criticising the NUU, which has developed some strong aspects to its work. It had the grave misfortune of trying to develop its work at a time when there were troubles in the Province, and when nothing like the number of students from Great Britain or elsewhere were being attracted to higher education in Northern Ireland, for reasons that had nothing to do with academic standards, but everything to do with the political and security climate. Those who have been working at the NUU since its foundation deserve our tributes and our compliments.

The new institution can combine those strengths as well as the innovative strengths that the polytechnic has brought. One matter that occurred to us as soon as we examined the Chilver report was why, in a small province the size of Northern Ireland, with 1.5 million inhabitants, we needed to duplicate the binary system that exists here, as all the institutions of higher education in Northern Ireland are directly financed by the Department of Education.

One matter with which I am anxious to deal before the debate ends is the provision of academic continuity and the right of progression for students embarking on courses at the two institutions that are to be merged. The Government's statement made it clear that steps must be taken to ensure that students who have embarked on courses will not be at a disadvantage because of the changes. No matter what arrangements are made and what consultations take place, it is essential that there is a commitment to the students who are or will be in the system before the merger becomes effective. There can be no question of any students being left high and dry. I am glad to give that undertaking this evening.

There is also the separate but related matter of staff redundancies. It is difficult at this stage to estimate the staffing implications until the details of courses and the structure of new institutions are resolved, but, bearing in mind the financial constraints to which higher education is subject and the demographic trends of the 18 and 19-year age group with which we are confronted, any additional constraints on staffing as a result of the merger are likely to be very undramatic.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at seventeen minutes to Twelve o'clock.