HC Deb 29 July 1983 vol 46 cc1429-36

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

9.49 am
Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the future of Ravensbourne college of art and design. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science for attending the House for a debate at what is, in parliamentary terms, a relatively early hour.

Ravensbourne college is housed at Chislehurst in purpose-built premises constructed about eight years ago at a cost of £1.6 million. It offers CNAA BA(Hons.) degree courses in fine arts, fashion, graphic design and three-dimensional design. It is one of only 10 institutions in Britain offering those four main art and design disciplines, and one of an even smaller number which offer them on one site. The college also has an annexe, some distance away, where there has been developed a higher diploma course in communications, engineering and television broadcasting, providing training for the television industry.

The National Advisory Body for Local Authority Higher Education — the NAB — was set up by the Secretary of State to advise him on provision of local authority higher education and the consequent allocation of funds. In his letter to the college dated 30 July 1982, the secretary of the NAB wrote: The Government's expenditure plans in the 1982 Public Expenditure White Paper call for a reduction in expenditure on higher education of at least 10 per cent. in real terms between 1980–81 and 1984–85 and, further, imply that the total cash available to higher education institutions will be about the same in 1984–85 as in 1982–83. In other words, on reasonable assumptions about pay and price increases, institutions' expenditure on higher education will fall on average by about 10 per cent. in real terms between 1982–83 and 1984–85. In this situation the Board and Committee of NAB have decided that a major part of their discharge and responsibilities must be a detailed planning exercise, to be carried out between September 1982 and July 1983, and leading to advice to Government on the distribution of the AFE pool in 1984–85 and to local education authorities and institutions on future student numbers and course provision. In addition to considering the extent, size and geographical location of courses, the NAB has to assume a reduction of 10 per cent. in expenditure. The body has, therefore, asked local authorities responsible for colleges of further education to state what would be the effect of a 10 per cent. reduction in expenditure.

Some institutions may have scope for substantial reductions in expenditure by making a series of economies here and there on staff, materials, administration and so on. Indeed, I have reason to believe that there are a number of institutions of which that could be said; but Ravensbourne college is not one.

Statistics can be interpreted differently, but by most normally accepted criteria Ravensbourne is an efficient and well-run institution. Of course, that is not to say that there is no scope for further economies, but staff there were told that the maximum saving that could be obtained without placing whole courses in jeopardy was 4 per cent. That is the problem facing Ravensbourne. The only way in which it could meet the NAB's request for a reduction in costs would be by closing a department. The local education authority, the London borough of Bromley, made it clear to the NAB that that would not be acceptable, but it was told that it must offer a course to be discontinued.

The initial suggestion was that the communications and television broadcasting course, which, as I said, is on a separate site, should be discontinued. That was advocated both by the academic board of the college and by the board of governors, on the latter occasion by a vote of eight to one, with the five local authority members abstaining.

However, at the end of May, the education committee of the borough changed its mind and decided that, in the event of a 10 per cent. cut being imposed, the fine art course should be discontinued. I should make it clear to the House and to the Minister that the decision was not taken easily or lightly. The director of education wrote to the NAB: At the end of the debate the Education Committee asked me to convey to you their unanimous conviction that a 10 per cent. reduction in expenditure, or a reduction in course provision, at Ravensbourne college of art and design is neither necessary nor desirable. Members would wish me to draw your attention again to the fact that over the past decade the college has progressively become more and more cost effective. Members nevertheless felt it right that they should indicate a preference between the alternative proposals put forward should it in the event prove to be absolutely necessary to look for a reduction of the order specified in your exercise. I have been asked to point out that members found this a most difficult and agonising decision. They found the arguments about the need for the continued provision of a fine art degree course alongside the degree courses in the other three design disciplines very strong indeed and had much sympathy with those who advanced these arguments. At the same time members also recognised the importance of the course in communications engineering and the contribution which, in the future, it will make nationally as well as to the design courses at the college. In the event, the decision on the preference to be put forward to you was by no means unanimous and I have been asked to tell you that the voting was 13 to 8. On the basis of that voting, the Education Committee's decision is that they would wish to see the fine art course offered up for closure if there really does need to be a reduction of the order specified in your exercise. I think I should conclude by saying that the members here in Bromley are very strongly of the view that in effect the savings which the NAB exercise is looking to find in expenditure on advanced further education have already been identified over the past decade by this authority as far as its colleges are concerned. It should be noted that the voting on the education committee was 13 to eight, with eight abstentions. In other words, 13 supported the proposal, albeit reluctantly, and 16 did not.

The college and the borough have been pushed into an unacceptable situation. Of course arguments can be adduced in favour of closing the fine art department, if the college is obliged to discontinue a course, and arguments can also be advanced for and against the continuation of the television course, but the choice is one which neither the college nor the authority should be forced into making because of a rigid adherence to a 10 per cent. formula.

The arguments against the council's recommendation are strong. First, the closure of the fine art department would effect not merely a 10 per cent. saving, but a saving of about 17 per cent. or more. As a cost-cutting measure, it would be excessive.

Secondly, one of the great advantages of Ravensbourne is that not only does it run the four courses to which I referred— fine art, fashion, graphic design and three-dimensional design—but there is a close relationship between the staff and the students on the four courses, and the college was deliberately designed by its architect to encourage cross-fertilisation. People can see each other at work as they move around the building. The value to students and staff of that easy interchange of ideas and the integration of the four departments into a whole cannot be exaggerated.

The closure of the fine art department would, therefore, be not only a loss in itself, but a loss to the other departments and might be likened to amputating one leg from a healthy four-legged animal. The character of the college would certainly be markedly changed and there would be bound to be a question mark over its long-term future as a college of art and design.

Thirdly, however strong may be the arguments for the retention of the television course—I am not seeking to dispute them, because I do not wish to be forced, as Bromley council has been forced, into advocating the destruction of one good course or another—there would be no point in closing the fine art department unless the television course was transferred to the Walden road site to occupy the vacated part of the premises; I understand that to be the intention.

However, the fine art department was, as I said, purpose-built and its layout and dimensions are ideally suited to its purpose. Much work, at an unspecified, but I suspect substantial, cost, would be needed to adapt the building to meet the technically demanding needs of the television department.

There is no doubt about the quality of work done in all four sections. I have visited the college several times to see exhibitions of the work. The fact that I find some examples more enjoyable and easier to understand than others may reflect more on my lack of appreciation than on the artists themselves. In any case, freedom of expression is of the essence in the art world. Without it, there would be no originality.

It can be argued that fine art is a luxury which we cannot afford, but I dispute that. Fine art has a considerable influence in commercial and industrial design. It provides an important, if intangible, element of the quality of our life, and a fine art training can be as valuable to the student and the community as training in philosophy or higher mathematics.

Nor can it be argued that there is disproportionate provision for higher education in fine art. On the NAB's own figures for November 1981, of students in higher education other than teacher training, 37 per cent. were pursuing social, administrative and business studies, 26 per cent. engineering and technology, 12 per cent. science, and 7 per cent. music, drama, art and design. As for demand, this year Ravensbourne has received 43 first-choice and 73 second-choice applications.

The students and staff in all departments at the college naturally are very concerned at the prospect of the fine art department closing, but the concern goes far wider. I have received scores of letters from ex-pupils, artists, local teachers who have benefited from the college, art critics, architects, art galleries, the principals of many colleges, the directors of the arts departments of the British Council and the Arts Council, the president of the Royal Society of British Artists and the registrar of the Royal Academy of Arts. All speak of the very high quality of the work carried out at Ravensbourne and urge that the fine art department be retained. In addition, the Minister no doubt will have seen a letter in The Times last Saturday signed by a number of distinguished people including Sir Richard Attenborough, Sir John Betjeman, Mr. Henry Moore and Miss Marghanita Laski. No doubt he will also have seen the response from the director of education which, with impeccable timig, appears in The Timestoday.

I realise that Ravensbourne is just one of a large number of colleges whose future is being considered by the NAB and in due course by the Minister and, since a final decision rests in my hon. Friend's hands, I do not expect him to give me any firm commitment today. I ask merely that he and the NAB realise that, if the fine art department at Ravensbourne closed, not only would it effect a saving far in excess of that called for but it would deprive future generations of artists of a superb training and represent a permanent loss to the artistic life not simply of my constituency but of our country.

10.3 am

Mr. John Hunt (Ravensbourne)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) on securing this Adjournment debate on a very important matter and on the cogent and persuasive way in which he presented his case. Despite its name, the Ravensbourne college of art and design is in his constituency and not mine, but I am glad briefly to support his strong plea for the retention of the fine art department at the college.

As my hon. Friend said, ever since the threat to the fine art department became known, he and I have been deluged with correspondence. The fact that the letters have come not just from Bromley or from London but from all parts of the country is eloquent testimony to the standing and the achievements of the college and its fine art department.

It seems that the governing body of the college, together with Bromley education committee, has faced an impossible choice because of the demand from the national advisory body for this quite arbitrary cut of 10 per cent. I have no doubt that in some colleges and areas cuts of this size could be achieved without undue hardship or difficulty. It could be done by reductions in costs and by changes in the staff-student ratios.

As my hon. Friend said, this is not the case in Ravensbourne. The cost-effective measures have been taken already. I draw attention to the letter in The Times this morning from the director of education in Bromley, Mr. Grainge. He writes that the college as a matter of deliberate policy has, over a period of some eight years, become progressively more cost-effective and can now claim to be as cost-effective as any comparable institution in the country. I hope that those words will be noted both by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and by his national advisory body. A further cut of 10 per cent. now would be disastrous. It could be achieved only by the closure of courses, which would be a most regrettable and retrograde step. It is my firm belief that if the fine art department at Ravensbourne college were singled out for closure it would be an act of vandalism and would destroy the character and status of the college.

In the light of this debate, I hope that the national advisory body will be more flexible in its approach and will move away from this rigid insistence upon a 10 per cent. cut across the board in every college and institution. If it does not show that sense and sensibility, I hope that my hon. Friend will not hesitate to throw out its proposals and tell it to think again. After all, it is only an advisory body. If it gives the wrong advice it should be rejected. I hope that my hon. Friend will do that.

10.7 am

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Peter Brooke)

My first pleasurable task in responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) is to thank him for raising this most important matter and to congratulate him on having secured the opportunity to open the main batting on this final day before the summer recess. It is entirely characteristic of my hon. Friend's assiduousness in support of his constituency that he should have done both so effectively. I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) for being here in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst.

I have an even wider reason for appreciating the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst. By raising a specific case relating to higher education he has enabled the House on the last day before we rise to illuminate a more general process of education planning which is going on and which will have advanced significantly before we return in the autumn.

As my hon. Friends made clear, the future of Ravensbourne college of art and design cannot be looked at in isolation. It is one of 360 or so local authority institutions which provide higher education. Between them these institutions offer more than 10,000 courses in a whole spectrum of subject areas. Developments at Ravensbourne need to be set in the context of developments across the sector as a whole.

Local authority higher education is facing a period of major readjustment and change. The main impetus for change has been the Government's drive to reduce public expenditure. Both my hon. Friends have served in the private sector of the economy and will be well aware of how times of constraint compel any organisation to examine the validity of all that it is doing and, in the process, to recognise that some of it is less relevant or less valuable than the rest. None of this applies necessarily to specific cases per se, but it is true of the total Government-inspired review.

The search for savings in the education budget focused attention on the lack of co-ordination of provision in polytechnics and local authority colleges. Courses have sprung up rapidly over the past decade to meet growing student demand. The unwelcome side effects of this fast expansion were unnecessary duplication of provision and wide disparity across the country in the costs of providing particular types of work.

The Government concluded that there was considerable scope for economies and improvements in efficiency in this area of provision and asked the local authority sector on higher education to contribute to the overall savings required in public spending by reducing its expenditure by 10 per cent. over the period from 1980–81 to 1984–85.

In imposing cuts in spending we have been concerned that the range and quality of provision should not suffer. A general squeeze, applied year after year, would have a paralysing effect on institutions, damaging standards and stifling new initiatives. It is clearly essential to be able to distribute the resources for local authority higher education selectively, rather than spreading them more and more thinly.

My right hon. Friend therefore set up the national advisory body for local authority higher education, which has come to be referred to as the NAB in education circles, with the task of advising him on the best pattern of provision in the local authority sector within the resources available. The NAB took the view that an across-the-board restructuring was needed if provision and resources were to be spread in a way that made sense in terms of national and local priorities. The NAB also felt that institutions and local education authorities should play an active part in the planning process.

The outcome was the launching of a major planning exercise to take effect in 1984–85 — an approach welcomed by my right hon. Friend. Institutions were asked to draw up academic plans, broken down by main subject area or programme, on the assumption that they would face an average reduction in spending of 10 per cent. between 1982–83 and 1984–85. This assumption is broadly in line with the Government's expenditure plans for local authority higher education over the period. Local education authorities were then asked to assess and amend their institutions' plans in the light of the wider priorities of their areas.

This brings me back to Ravensbourne college of art and design. My hon. Friend set out the background. The London borough of Bromley, which maintains the college, has submitted to the NAB its view of what provision the college could and should make in 1984–85 if it were to receive the average reduction in funding. I understand that in making its submission the Bromley local education authority made it clear that it was its education committee's unanimous conviction that a 10 per cent. reduction in expenditure, or a reduction in course provision, at Ravensbourne college was neither necessary nor desirable, and pointed to the cost-effectiveness of the institution. Given the requirement that it should express a preference between the alternative proposals put forward should it be necessary to look for a reduction of the order specified, it came to what was for it the very difficult decision that it would propose the fine art course for closure, while preserving the college's special diploma course in communications engineering for the television industry.

I am aware of the letter in The Times today from the director of education in the London borough of Bromley setting out the background in response to a letter in The Times last Saturday from a number of distinguished signatories.

I stress that the proposals which Bromley has made are entirely its own affair. There were no fixed rules for the completion of returns to the NAB. It was for each authority to determine, in the light of its priorities and knowledge, the plans which it put forward. It would be quite wrong for me—or anyone—to intervene in what Bromley has proposed. However, this is, of course, not the end of the story.

The plans which Bromley local education authority has submitted are now being considered by the NAB alongside the plans of all the other authorities involved in local authority higher education. The NAB is assessing authorities' submissions in the light of regional and national needs for particular subjects, their relevance to industry and commerce, the quality of provision made by individual institutions and those institutions' relative cost-effectiveness. The NAB has been guided in its consideration by my right hon. Friend, who has made it clear that he attaches special priority to scientific and technological subjects which are relevant to the country's future economic development.

In assessing institutions' and authorities' plans for art and design the NAB will be assisted by one of the first of its working groups to be established. The working group on art and design was established in March 1982 under the chairmanship of Mr. Patrick Nuttgens, the director of Leeds polytechnic, and with a membership drawn widely from industry and the education sector.

It is worth remarking that causes which prompted the early setting up of that study group were the high costs of art and design and perhaps higher costs nationally than are justified, the employment opportunities of those emerging and the relative fragmentation of the education provision. Another working group—the industrial professional and commercial liaison group under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Chilver, the vice-chancellor of Cranfield — will advise on the needs of employers.

The NAB will be producing provisional institutional plans at the end of August and will be consulting institutions and authorities where there are radical changes to be made. Following the consultative process the NAB will be giving further detailed consideration to the plans before advising the Secretary of State later in the year on the patterns of provision at each institution and the allocation of resources which should go with it.

As to resources, the NAB is in the process of reviewing the funding mechanism. The most important change is likely to be that allocations from the quantum will be based for 1984–85 on student target numbers for that year, and not as hitherto on historic student data. Methods are being examined of refining the allowance made for courses in the more expensive areas of provision, including those for art and design.

One of the considerations in the longer term will be the regional spread of provision. There is, of course, a large concentration of art and design provision in the south-east and in the Greater London area. There are 38 BA in fine arts programmes in the public sector overall, 19 in polytechnics and the same number in mainly monotechnic colleges. Provision is afforded by four polytechnics and 11 colleges in London and the south-east, of which 10 institutions are in Greater London. My hon. Friends can see the heavy weighting in this part of the country.

Hon. Members will be aware that the ILEA is in the process of conducting a major review of the whole of its higher education provision, including its art colleges. The outcome of that will be a factor in the consideration of overall provision in the region.

In drawing up plans for Ravensbourne the NAB is fully aware of the representations which have been made about the future of both the fine art department and the communications engineering course. The thrust of my right hon. Friend's guidance to the NAB on priority subject areas is in the same direction as Bromley's proposal—that is, towards provision which is of direct relevance to employers and away from more generalist work. However, there is still a place for the latter—albeit in reduced quantity—and it is open to the NAB to recommend preservation of the fine art department at Ravensbourne at the expense of similar courses elsewhere.

I would not, however, want to pre-empt the NAB's recommendations in any way. It is important that the NAB should be able to work in an open and independent way. The NAB would certainly be receptive to the views of the relevant interests as to what the best pattern of provision should be, but its impartiality should not be prejudiced simply by the pressures of special pleading. If this were to be the case, the confidence of the sector in the NAB's ability to plan fairly and sensibly would be undermined to the detriment of provision as a whole.

Nevertheless, as I have said, the NAB is conscious of the representations which have been made about the future of the college, and I shall bring to its attention the views expressed today. The NAB and my Department have received representations on behalf of the communications engineering television course. I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend is apprised of these views when he comes to consider the NAB's recommendations on provision and funding.

I thank my hon. Friend for initiating this debate at this appropriate time.