HC Deb 26 October 1984 vol 65 cc911-78

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

9.35 am
The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Sir Keith Joseph)

As the House is aware, this debate comes at a time when the Government are formulating proposals for the future development of higher education taking account of the advice they have received from the University Grants Committee and the National Advisory Body for Local Authority Higher Education. That advice was published during September. The debate today is therefore timely, and the Government have a real desire to hear the views of hon. Members on how the large scale resources currently invested in higher education are best deployed.

A number of factors influenced the Government in their decision to review the future of higher education. There was a need to examine how the decline of about one third in the number of 18 to 21-year-olds by the mid-1990s was likely to affect higher education. Institutions have already had to face difficult decisions about priorities in adjusting to reductions in funding over the past few years, but, despite restraints on funding, higher education has managed to accommodate record numbers of students. Nevertheless, the Government's continued commitment to control public spending and to pursue improved value for money in all areas means that there must be further examination of the future funding needs of higher education, including consideration of how the total money should be allocated between the various elements of higher education—for example, between institutions and student support.

There has also been a widespread desire for more discussion about what the nature and direction of higher education should be now, 20 years after the report produced by the committee of inquiry under Lord Robbins. That desire was stimulated in part by the valuable programme of study financed by the Leverhulme Foundation. The Leverhulme report's articulation of eight main aims for a strategy for higher education is both a helpful framework for thought and a challenge to any Government.

Today, I shall inevitably refer to efficiency and the effective use of public money, and I make no apology for that. Before considering the effective and optimum deployment of public money, I should like to suggest that we remind ourselves of the triple and interacting purposes of higher education—serving the individual, society and the economy, all of which interact. For the individual, higher education is intended to transmit values from generation to generation, to deepen and widen understanding and to sharpen the processes of the mind. For society, the purpose is to transmit values from generation to generation and to transmit an increased understanding of the processes and purposes of society by way of scholarship, thought and discussion. For the economy, the purpose is to transmit understanding, increase knowledge and, by research and the application of that research, to provide the essential skills for the economy, and, by way of providing them, to increase the potential of the economy for a great variety of full-time and part-time jobs.

I make no apology for returning to the basic purposes of higher education as a framework within which we can debate the differences of emphasis that may emerge from both sides of the House, and the optimum use of the large amounts of taxpayers' money involved.

Before dealing with the more organisational factors, I should make one other general point. I have the impression that there is widespread recognition that the days of relatively easy public funding are over for a long time. I shall be surprised if the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), who will no doubt respond for Her Majesty's Opposition, gives an unqualified commitment to restore every penny of every cut made by the Government and their predecessor. I may be unjustified in my assumption, but I suspect that throughout the House there is a recognition that those days are gone. With such large amounts of public money competing with other desirable uses for public money in a strained economy, there is a wide recognition of the need for the effective use of spending.

It is against that background that I can say that no one can be happy with recent imperatives. The outcome of the generation of growing Government spending must have had a damaging effect on morale in universities and must have distorted even further the age structure in universities, and even though there has been, as I shall emphasise again, a dramatic rise in the number of students in higher education, must have created uncertainties which no one welcomes.

It is against that background also that I shall emphasise the Government's conviction that under any likely future dispensation it will be wise for universities and other higher education institutions to inch—if that is still a proper English verb—towards a larger contribution to their funds from the private sector. No one has the romantic illusion—at least I have not—that there will be a sudden transformation from near total dependence upon the taxpayer to near total dependence upon the private sector.

Every step that the higher education institutions can take to increase contributions from the private sector will be a step towards the greater reality of academic freedom and real independence. If we look not a year or even a decade ahead but perhaps several decades ahead, a series of individually undramatic but useful steps towards greater contributions from the private sector can over a time transform the reality of academic freedom.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Would not the right hon. Gentleman's plea for private funding for higher education be far better if he would give: a guarantee to those who get it that it will be extra? They fear that it will give the Government the excuse to cut further their resources.

Sir Keith Joseph

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps I should have said that myself. Yes, I can give that guarantee. It has been given by Ministers before, and I repeat it.

I come now to the more mechanical subjects that we need to debate. The review that is now in hand is stimulated not only by the imperatives of demography and finance but by a deeper concern to reconsider the role and needs of higher education. The task is daunting because of the speed and scale of technological and social change, and because of the size and variety of higher education and the widely dispersed responsibility for decision taking. Our intention is not in any way to undermine responsibilities for its own direction properly dispersed throughout institutions and other bodies but rather to support those concerned by trying to articulate shared aims and common purposes.

The Green Paper, when published, will contain both statements of policy intent and a number of proposals on which we shall invite comment. The principles that should inform our policies are clear and constant, but, unlike the brave days of the 1960s, I have no illusions that those policies will allow us to lay down a blueprint for the next 20 years. What we have to try to do instead is to ensure that not only Government but all who are involved in decision making at all levels are able to respond flexibly to changing circumstances. This means more and better information about student aspirations and employers' needs, and, although much of the responsibility lies with institutions, the Government and their advisory bodies must also be able to keep track of developments if necessary change is to be sensibly facilitated.

The Government published earlier this year projections of the future demand for higher education which suggested that until 1990 a small decline in demand from qualified young people was likely to be compensated by an increase in demand from aspiring students aged 21 and over—the group that is known largely as mature students. After 1990, the sharper fall in the 18 to 20-year-old population means there is likely to be an overall reduction in the total numbers of people wishing and qualified to enter higher education even if there is an increase in demand from older candidates. These projections represent updated work on an analysis published last year, and take account of the comments and observations that a number of interested bodies made on the earlier work.

The House will understand that in what I say today I cannot anticipate the Government's proposals which I hope will be published early next year, but it may help to set the framework for the debate if I say something about our principal objectives. The Government's thinking on the future of higher education will be informed by two concerns in particular: the need to maintain and enhance the quality of higher education and of its contribution to scholarship, research and to the economy, and the need to ensure that the resources that are available are spent in the most efficient and effective manner. The keynotes, therefore, are quality and cost-effectiveness.

The Government recognise that the buttressing of quality in higher education is not a matter of getting all institutions as near as possible to the academic style and standards set by the few. There is no single ideal. Nor is the measure of quality a matter of tallying up the examination scores of those entering institutions. Quality is about whether institutions are fitted to their purpose and are achieving excellence at least in some areas of what they are trying to do; it is about whether courses are organised and taught to the highest standards, and then-content is both rigorous and tailored to the needs of students; and it is about whether those entering higher education are properly motivated and properly equipped for the courses they are to undertake.

One initiative the Government have already taken in pursuit of these ends is that earlier this year we invited Sir Norman Lindop, the highly respected director of the Hatfield polytechnic, to chair a committee of inquiry to examine the effectiveness of the present arrangements for validating academic courses in the public sector of higher education. The committee is expected to report next April. I am glad to say that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has established an inquiry into universities self-evaluation procedures. I am sorry, I had the emphasis of that sentence wrong. The Lindop inquiry interests itself with the local authority sector of higher education. The initiative of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, of course, interests itself with the university sector, and it is an inquiry chaired by the vice-chancellor of Lancaster university, Professor Philip Reynolds, into universities' self-evaluation procedures, which has already drawn up and published a statement of good practice in the appointment and use of external examiners. The Government will be taking a close interest in all aspects of the evaluation and monitoring of standards across higher education, and we intend to say more about this in the forthcoming Green Paper.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

In view of the duplication of courses on either side of the binary line, does my right hon. Friend foresee a blurring of the binary line and perhaps more co-operation between the two sectors on the courses provided?

Sir Keith Joseph

A constant series of initiatives is occurring, but I should not like, by adopting my hon. Friend's phrase "blurring of the binary line", to suggest that we are contemplating any dramatic shift in financial and management responsibilities.

The Government recognise that "more efficient" is not synonymous with "cheaper", and that there is a point where it is not possible to increase economy without lowering standards. The problem for government is how to ensure that within a desirably decentralised system the right dynamics exist to encourrage movement towards increased value for money, and that money is saved in those areas that can properly be run more efficiently, not just in those where savings can most conveniently be found or in those with the least academic muscle.

Several initiatives are already under way to promote the efficient use of resources, including in particular the efficiency studies in universities under the chairmanship of Sir Alex Jarratt, for which consultancy contracts have recently been let. The Government believe that this drive must continue, and that it is likely that there is some scope for greater selectivity and economy in the deployment of resources at all levels.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

My question involves the attitude of the Secretary of State and his officials in the Department of Education and Science to certain aspects of Scottish higher education. What is so objectionable in the concept of a Scottish university grants committee or even a Scottish sub-committee of the UGC?

Sir Keith Joseph

I do not want to dismiss any such suggestions as being inherently objectionable, but I point out that that is not the way in which the UGC is organised. I do not know of any strong arguments in favour of such an arrangement. The network of universities is based on a national scale.

Since the Conservative Government took office in 1979, the number of home students in higher education has increased from 450,000 to more than 500,000—an increase of more than 11 per cent.

Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)

What is the ratio?

Sir Keith Joseph

The ratio is up. The absolute numbers are up, and the proportion of the age cohort is up.

Mr. Radice

Has the proportion increased since 1970–71?

Sir Keith Joseph

I am not able immediately to answer that question.

Mr. Radice

It has not.

Sir Keith Joseph

Before the hon. Gentleman is too pleased about that, he should recognise that, with the falling number of school children, the scale of teacher training which played a much larger part in higher education has diminished. We all understand the reasons for that. If the teacher training element is discounted, one notes that the proportion of the cohort has substantially increased, even against the 1970–71 level.

The available evidence suggests that throughout the years since the Conservative Government took office in 1979 placements have been available somewhere in higher education for all those young people who were conventionally qualified and wished to enter. In this sense, therefore, the axiom that has become known as the "Robbins principle" has continued to be maintained. The UGC and the NAB have now proposed a redefinition of that principle which would seek to widen opportunities further. They have suggested that courses of higher education should be available for all those who are able to benefit from them and who wish to do so". That reformulation places particular stress on the concept of "ability to benefit" rather than "qualified"—in other words, there is a shift from a relatively objective to a relatively subjective criterion. That goes beyond assessment simply by a quantified measure of examination success.

The Government would welcome discussion of that recommendation, but I think that it would be agreed that under such a principle the student's "ability to benefit" would have to be exactingly judged by institutions, in terms of not only the aptitude but the motivation of the candidate in relation to the course that he or she wishes to follow, regardless of whether the candidate is conventionally qualified or not.

Hon. Members will recall that in one of his last interventions in the other place the much respected Lord Robbins expressed a certain amount of discontent about the fact that what he called a very small minority of higher education students did not appear to have the motivation to benefit from the courses they were receiving. It is of no benefit to the institution, to the student, to the economy or to society, and particularly to the taxpayer who has to meet the bill, if higher education institutions take in those who have no real aptitude or inclination and whose prospects of fruitful employment are unlikely to be enhanced. Only if a policy on access achieves a proper balance between quality, motivation, opportunity and cost will institutions have the resources and facilities to meet the challenge of increased demand for other types of participation such as adult and updating courses and part-time study.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

The Secretary of State referred earlier to the fact that he did not want academic institutions to add up the A-level courses so that they could feel that they were meeting standards. The right hon. Gentleman is now suggesting that the A-level results are important and that if people do not increasingly demand higher A-level standards the academic institutions will not be able to obtain resources. The right hon. Gentleman referred to people who did not make the effort. I am sure that there is no evidence to show that someone with slightly poor A-level results will not make the effort. Is it not true to say that between 15,000 and 20,000 young people who are now qualified have not been able to gain access to academic institutions? Is there not some evidence that that number is increasing each year, because people who have not been able to enter those institutions this year go on hoping that they will enter them next year? Is that not an increasing problem?

Sir Keith Joseph

I have two points to make in replying to the hon. Gentleman. Of course, A-level results are a factor; but it is the responsibility of individual institutions to judge the total potential of the young person concerned and to include such evidence from examination results that they think fit to consider. I am dismissing altogether the idea that potential can be measured precisely by A-level results. It remains true to say that A-level and O-level results are a legitimate factor for institutions to take into account.

I come to the broader question asked by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). He is forgetting that the Robbins principle has always been understood to mean that access should be available for those who are qualified and wish to have higher education but not necessarily in either the course or institution of their first choice. By that standard, I maintain that there have been openings in higher education for all those who are qualified, as far as we know, and who wish to go into higher education. The result is that some people who were qualified and eager to go into higher education but were not willing to take the course offered or enter the institution that happened to offer a place may not have followed up their opportunity.

I emphasise that I am saying merely that the Government value the contribution from the humanities and the arts as much as they value the contribution from the sciences, technologies, engineering and medicine. The fact that we are encouraging higher education institutions to move resources at the margin from the humanities and the arts towards science, engineering and technology in no way reveals a low estimation of the former group; rather it shows a recognition of the fact that the employment necessities of the future will call for a slightly larger quota of engineering, technological and scientific graduates than would be provided by present place numbers.

As the lead time for the emergence of candidates for engineering, science and the technologies is the formidably long period of nearly a decade—because children now take the crucial decisions as early as 13 or 14 years of age—the Government have thought fit to ask institutions to make the switch to which I referred.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Before my right hon. Friend leaves the important point of relating places to opportunities, will he say which Department or body has the prime job, throughout the United Kingdom, of estimating what the employment opportunities in the various disciplines will be in the six, eight, 10 or 12 years ahead? The responsibility must repose somewhere, rather than with each university or technical college.

Sir Keith Joseph

That is a very penetrating question. I am able to show, alas, that, however well intentioned the body concerned, no Government have managed to get their manpower planning right. I remember the efforts of the Royal Commission, under the then Sir Henry Willink, to calculate the number of doctors that the country would need. Those efforts were not particularly successful. We are very nervous about putting too much faith into manpower planning, even where, for example, the Government have, in regard to the public system of education, a rather direct responsibility.

The holder of my office has the responsibility, for England, of guiding the scale of teacher training places. Elsewhere it is a judgment that is left to the UGC and the NAB to make as well as they can. No one, even among those bodies, would claim that we have mastered the magic of manpower planning, so as much as possible we avoid depending upon it. That is one reason why an increase in the private funding arrangements throughout would, I believe, desirably and healthily detach the higher education system a little more from dependence upon Government decisions and finance.

Our future industrial and commercial development—and thus our prosperity as a country—depend above all on entrepreneurial drive and competitive innovation. [Interruption.] I repeat that statement in case I have not totally convinced hon. Members. The future jobs and prosperity of the country, and the scale of the social and public services, depend in the last resort upon one factor, entrepreneurial drive in forming the competitive success of Britain's trade.

Graduate skills are vital in many areas, and it is essential that higher education institutions and courses should motivate students appropriately, but higher education is not the only route for those wishing to contribute to economic and social development. I am concerned about any impression of a conveyor belt by which talented and able young people move, as it were, automatically, from school into higher education, as being either healthy for them or for society and the economy. [Interruption.] Some able young people—nothing automatic is desirable in this sense—will best develop their talents and flairs by entering work straight from school or college, by undertaking other training or gaining different experience, and possibly turning to higher education later in life.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

My right hon. Friend has rightly identified the need to encourage technology transfer and the provision of additional places in engineering and science within higher education institutions. But having regard to the considerable differential in cost for an engineering place in a university and an arts place, can he confirm that at least in some measure the transfer of places must go hand in hand with the provision of additional resources? Otherwise the transfer will simply beggar the arts beyond the point which is reasonable.

Sir Keith Joseph

I accept the validity of my hon. Friend's comment, but I think that the scale of the resource transfer—taking into account the usual flux of demand for different disciplines—is not such as to justify inherently an increase of resources, bearing in mind that the UGC proposes greater selectivity in the deployment of resources in the scientific area.

I am taking up too much time in considering the various interests in the debate. I recognise at once that there is concern about the degree to which the universities in particular are able to play their part in the essential provision of the dual funding resources on which the research councils depend. That is why I for one—no, the Government as a whole—recognise the relevance of the UGC's welcome proposal to deploy resources with more selectivity in terms of equipment, particularly in the scientific area.

I emphasise the importance that the Government attach, even to efforts that are only modestly successful, to increasing the financing of institutions from the private sector. I welcome the committee set up by the vice-chancellors and principals into resources from the private sector, and the Government take very seriously the findings that it has reached.

The country is currently investing about £3 billion a year in higher education and research. The average annual cost of a student on a first degree course at university, including maintenance, is more than £6,000. There has been some reduction in public funding for higher education since 1980 and an increase in student numbers. The Government have provided additional resources where specific needs have been identified—for example, in the "new blood" initiatives, and in preserving access to and assisting the rationalisation of local authority higher education. It has been made clear that future funding levels will assume some increased economy of operation across institutions. Firm figures for the next financial year are to be announced soon.

I am in no doubt of the need for institutions to put greater effort into raising sufficient private resources to innovate and develop further those special characteristics on which they wish to build. I repeat that even small steps can be significant over time.

The Government are seeking to maintain access to higher education while promoting efficiency and protecting standards. Through the consultation exercise mounted by the UGC and NAB, institutions and individuals have been encouraged to express their own views about the future of higher education and their place in it. I am giving the advice of the UGC and the NAB careful consideration in the formulation, with my colleagues, of Government proposals. I shall, of course, also carefully consider the points made in today's debate.

There continues to be a pressing need to plan for the effective management of higher education to meet the challenges of the rest of the century. We must use available resources in the most productive way. We must act positively to enhance opportunity while maintaining education standards.

We must take very seriously into account the surging demand that higher education should be available during life—continuing education. But to be able to do that we have to make optimum use of the very large sums of money available from the taxpayer. If higher education is to enlarge understanding and knowledge, preserve and transmit the values of a liberal society, and satisfy both employers' demands for skilled manpower and the wider needs of the community at large, we have to adopt policies aimed at institutional efficiency and responsiveness, on the one hand, and students' perceptions and motivations, on the other.

10.9 am

Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)

We welcome this debate and are glad that the Government agreed to our request for it. The good attendance for a Friday debate shows how seriously the House takes the subject.

The Secretary of State, as usual, was racked by the conflict that goes on in his soul between the damage that he admits is being done to higher education and his ideological aversion to public spending. He talked a lot in rather general terms about the quality and efficiency of higher education but said very little about the squeeze that the Government are putting on resources for higher education. I shall be saying rather more about that aspect.

First, I should make it absolutely clear that the Labour party remains strongly committed to a vigorous, dynamic and innovative higher education system. I wish also to restate the arguments for higher education in the context of the uncertain and changing world of the 1980s and 1990s, a subject to which the Secretary of State might have devoted rather more time.

The arguments are at once economic, social and cultural. I think that the Secretary of State would agree that Britain needs a sustained supply of highly skilled, highly motivated and highly adaptable men and women capable of responding to and coping with the pace of technological, economic and social change. In the years ahead, human capital will be at a premium. If we are to survive and prosper, we must invest in what the NAB and UGC statement describes as transferable intellectual and personal skills". That will mean providing extensive continuing as well as initial courses of higher education.

As a democracy, we shall also need more than ever the critical intelligence and the desire to participate which is developed and stimulated at our universities, polytechnics and colleges of higher education—what John Henry Newman described as training good members of society". Equitable access to higher education also provides the social mobility essential to the health and development of our society. In this context we welcome as being very much in line with Labour's approach the redefinition of the Robbins principle in the joint statement—that is, that courses of higher education should be available for all those who are able to benefit from them and who wish to do so. Frankly, I thought that the Secretary of State was somewhat ambivalent in his reception of that principle. It may help to clear his mind if I read the following passage from the statement: Evidence shows that school examinations such as A-levels are not always good predictors of achievement in higher education and that other qualities and experience can be important determinants of success. It is for that reason that the UGC and NAB have called for a redefinition of the Robbins principle. I hope that the Secretary of State will accept that.

We welcome the commitment in the general statement to opening up access to a wider, more diverse range of people than ever before, especially to more women students, students from working class families, students from black and Asian families and mature students who missed out at 18. If we are to take the Secretary of State seriously he should give more emphasis to that aspect. There is also the cultural argument: the commitment of higher education to the advancement of learning is important in its own right because it is knowledge and the ability to use it for one's fellow men and women that distinguishes us from barbarians.

We should also remember that, through research, higher education makes a major contribution to industry. Here the Government should heed the advice of the UGC and NAB that to curtail research would in the long run impoverish the nation materially as well as culturally". I hope that we shall be able to debate the subject of research more fully on another occasion.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

We have heard a great deal about the NAB, but the debate is about the development of a higher education provision and I believe that there are severe deficiencies in what the NAB has said. For instance, in its advice to the Secretary of State there is no reference to the place of overseas students: in education provision in this country, a subject of great concern, especially in Commonwealth countries. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must convince the Government that the role of overseas students cannot be ignored?

Mr. Radice

I entirely agree and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to develop his argument later, as he makes a very important point.

I make no apology for reaffirming the case for higher education today. We must recognise that in the past decade, especially since the Conservative Government came to power, higher education has been under attack from a number of quarters. The expansion of higher education in the 1960s and 1970s has been called into question. On the Right it has been argued that more means worse. Others have noted that the expansion did not lead to the faster economic growth that everyone expected and sociologists have pointed out that the proportion of children of working class parents entering university has not increased.

I do not believe that all those criticisms are well founded. For instance, the evidence shows that more has not meant worse, although in many cases it means a different kind of provision for a different kind of person. It was always fallacious to assume that higher education expansion alone would ensure growth. The UGC report points out that widespread higher education is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for economic growth". In the social mobility argument the evidence has been drawn almost exclusively from the universities, whereas I suspect that if students from polytechnics and institutions of higher education were taken into account the picture would be more encouraging.

Mr. Greenway

I have been following the hon. Gentleman's argument with great care and interest. If a Labour Government ever return to power will they restore all the cuts in full?

Mr. Radice

We should have to consider the situation on our return to power. The damage to the economy caused by 10 years of Conservative government might well be extremely extensive. I do not speak as shadow Chancellor and I cannot make instant commitments to restore every cut made by the Conservative Government in view of the very large number of cuts involved.

We believe that the expansion of higher education has been of benefit to the country. Between 1957 and the end of the 1970s the number of universities doubled and the number of students rose proportionately, yet British universities have maintained their well-deserved reputation for scholarship and intellectual standards.

I pay special tribute, however, to the creation of the so-called public sector—the polytechnics and colleges of higher education—which I believe has been one of our major educational achievements since the war. I refer particularly to the development of more relevant and practical courses, to the creation and protection of sub-degree courses, to the encouragement of mature and part-time students and to the general widening of access and edcucational opportunity.

Despite those successes, the Conservative Government have had no compunction in cutting back on resources for higher education, as the Secretary of Education had the grace to admit in his speech and even the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, after his initial error in The Guardian, was forced to admit that the value of the recurrent grant going to the universities had fallen by 8.75 per cent, between the fiscal years 1980–81 and 1983–84.

In its report, the UGC has underlined very clearly the damage that the cuts have done to the universities. They mean 11,000 to 12,000 well-qualified young people being turned away every year. This year the figure may even be 15,000, if newspaper reports are right. They have meant the loss of more than 2,000 academic posts, the drying up of promotion prospects and in many cases the collapse of departmental morale. They have meant that the universities are living from hand to mouth without the ability to plan ahead or the flexibility to adapt to change. They have certainly not led to greater efficiency or to the greater quality and cost-effectiveness for which the Secretary of State called in his speech.

The public sector has also suffered. Although, to their great credit, the polytechnics accepted many of the students turned away by the universities—though not all of them—they did not receive matching resources. Indeed, between 1980–81 and 1984–85 their income declined by 1.5 per cent. It is scarcely surprising that the Secretary of State's colleague, who is the chairman of the NAB, warned the Secretary of State, through the NAB report, that there is no practical scope within the public sector for a further reduction in the average level of the unit of resource. How does that square with what the Secretary of State told us this morning?

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Let the right hon. Gentleman answer that.

Mr. Radice

I suspect that the Secretary of State has no answer.

Sir Keith Joseph

Because the staff-student ratio in the local authority higher education sector was so relatively luxurious—about 8:1—there has been scope, with smaller numbers of lecturers and slightly less money, to take in very large numbers of extra students while maintaining standards. All credit to those concerned.

Mr. Radice

Does the Secretary of State agree with the advice of his ministerial colleague that there is no practical scope within the public sector for a further reduction in the average level of the unit of resource? Can the Secretary of State give us a commitment on that point?

Sir Keith Joseph

The movement has already been fairly dramatic—from 8:1 to about 11:1—and therefore there is no longer any scope for movement on the same scale. However, some modest increase in the student-staff ratio may still be possible in some institutions because the relative efficiency of institutions varies sharply.

Mr. Radice

Can the Secretary of State commit himself to retaining the overall average level of the unit of resource, as his colleague asks? He has ducked that question.

Sir Keith Joseph

There is considerable scope in many polytechnics for a further improvement in the number of students per member of staff but, on the average, the improvement would be substantially less than has already occurred.

Mr. Radice

The right hon. Gentleman is not really accepting the advice of his ministerial colleague.

At the general election, in a letter to the AUT, the Prime Minister promised that the period of contraction would soon end and that the intention was to hold funding steady in real terms. The Government have been quick to renege on the Prime Minister's commitment. At a time of increasing demand, the Government are planning to cut back the recurrent grant to the universities by 0.5 per cent, a year in real terms up to 1986–87 and to cut the income going to the public sector by 1.8 per cent, between 1984–85 and 1986–87. Most bizarre of all, a Government who claim to believe in continuing education—the Secretary of State said it again this morning—intend to cut resources for the Open University, which is not only a great success story by any standards—people come from far and wide to study it—but is Britain's largest provider of advanced continuing education.

Between 1984 and 1986 the OU says that it will have to cut out 20 per cent, of its planned expenditure. I know that the Government do not agree with that figure, but even the Secretary of State admits that he wants to cut £5.1 million from the Open University's budget. That is a lot of money. It does not square with the Secretary of State's commitment to continuing education. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) will be able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will deal more fully with the problems facing the OU and other bodies such as the Workers' Educational Association.

It is against that background of contracting resources that last year the UGC and the NAB were asked by the Secretary of State for their advice on the future of higher education. One of the first documents that I read when appointed shadow spokesman for education was the UGC's circular letter of 1 November 1983. It was profoundly distressing reading. At the Secretary of State's bidding, the UGC seriously suggested that resources per student going to higher education should be cut by 2 per cent, in each of the following five years and by 1 per cent, over the five years after that. In other words, the Government's strategy was one of contraction and closure. If carried through, it would lead to the closure of complete departments, or of one or more institutions, or both.

The Government justified such a contraction of the system in part by the Department's estimate of demographic trends. DES Report on Education 99 projected a drop in student number of between 14 per cent, and 20 percent, between 1983–84 and 1994–95. DES RoE 99 was rubbished by almost everyone who matters in the statistical world, including the members of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the AUT, the Royal Society and the Royal Statistical Society. There was general agreement that the DES had gravely underestimated a number of factors, including the impact of the changing social composition of the population, the participation rate of women and the numbers of mature students.

DES RoE 100 was published in July this year in response to the barrage of criticism. It is far more revealing about its assumption and takes far more account of the factors which were underestimated in DES RoE 99. It is true that even variant X—I do not like such strange letters, but they are used by the Department—still forecasts a dip in the number of students after 1990, but it is a dip which will be much smaller and will happen much later than is forecast in DES RoE 99. Both the UGC and the NAB share the consensus that the number of students will rise during the rest of the 1980s and will remain at a record level until 1990. The Government are planning a cutback of resources for higher education at a time when demand will be at a record level.

After 1990, the picture is far less clear. The UGC sensibly wants a review in two or three years' time, while the NAB believes that, if account is taken of other factors, including the recent initiatives by the Secretary of State in education and training, the demand for public sector places will not fall at all.

What is clear is that the demographic case for a massive contraction has disappeared and the Government should be honest enough to admit it to the House this morning. Within the limits of demography and resources the demand for higher education is very much what we want to make it. The Government and the higher education community can affect it by the action that they take for example, by action on qualifications, on the range and type of courses, or on the value and coverage of student support. We should remember that the real value of student support has dropped by 10 per cent, over five years and, I think by 8 per cent, over the past three years.

It is right that the National Advisory Body should be calling for a review. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish will be returning to the subject if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I want to ask the Secretary of State one question. Has he agreed in his bilateral talks with the Chancellor to the Treasury's proposal to abolish the minimum grant? I shall gladly give way if the Sectretary of State wants to answer. He does not. Therefore, may I take it that he has agreed to the Chancellor's proposal to abolish the minimum grant?

Sir Keith Joseph

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the proceedings of Ministers one with another, and Departments one with another, are sacrosanct until they are announced as Government policy.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I hope that the Front Benches will recognise that every answer that the Secretary of State gives is at the expense of the time available for other hon. Members.

Mr. Radice

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for reminding me of that.

It is interesting that the Secretary of State has not denied that the minimum grant will be abolished. I suspect that we may hear more about that during the day.

The demand for higher education will in large part depend on one's view of it. If we decide that we want to widen access, that we need a sustained supply of skilled people, we must design a post-18 education system that reflects that need. If, on the other hand, the Government believe that we can manage with a considerably smaller higher education sector, they should be honest enough to come clean about it. The Government can no longer hide behind the figures, nor can they hide behind their advisers.

The documents of the National Advisory Body, chaired by the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for City of London and Westminster. South (Mr. Brooke), and the UGC, chaired by an official appointed by the Secretary of State, both amount to decisive rejections of the Government's contraction strategy. The UGC calls for truly level funding. The NAB calls for extra resources, including a common unit of resource with the universities for teaching purposes. What does the Under-Secretary of State think about his own advice? The question for the Secretary of State, the Chancellor and the Cabinet is how they can maintain their strategy of contraction when it has been so publicly repudiated by their advisers on higher education.

As the Labour party outlined in its evidence to the NAB and the UGC, it is putting forward an alternative policy. We propose that instead of being a period of contraction the late 1980s and 1990s should be a period of innovation and change. On the one hand the institutions of higher education will need the security of funding for which the UGC and the NAB are asking. For its part, higher education will have to adapt to changing needs. We agree with the UGC that extra resources will have to be provided for the shift to science and technology, to protect research and to expand the number of postgraduates.

We accept that money should continue to be provided for new blood schemes, but we want to see universities put into practice the "ability to benefit" principle on access. We want them to take seriously their responsibilities on continuing education and on opportunities for mature students. We want them to move closer to their communities. They are not just international and national institutions, they are local ones as well and they should remember it.

Lastly, universities should never forget that they are part of higher education as a whole. With the public sector it is more a matter of turning the aspirations of the NAB and the Under-Secretary of State into reality. We need to build on the success of the polytechnics and colleges in widening access for women, mature and part-time students, and also to provide support for continuing education, which is such an important part of the NAB's strategy. But if we want the results we shall have to provide the revenue and capital resources for which the NAB so rightly asks.

The Labour party believes that the UGC is understaffed, operates too much in secret and is not sufficiently representative. The old UGC may have been appropriate in the 1960s and 1970s, but today in the era of cuts and with the UGC making proposals about selective research and small departments, it is increasingly unacceptable. We propose a far more open body, which is better staffed and more representative. We also believe that there is a strong case for a higher education council, as the NAB proposes, which can debate the problems of higher education as a whole. The more we blur the binary line the better it will be for the country.

I hope that the debate will help to focus the Government's mind on their barbaric treatment of higher education over the past five years. I hope that they will now understand that their strategy of contraction has been decisively and publicly rejected by their advisers. I hope that they will accept that there is a better approach—one based on increased opportunity, greater accountability and security of funding. The adoption of such a policy would be far better for our economy, our democracy and our future.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. More than 40 hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye and I know that the House would wish me to make an appeal for brevity so that the maximum number of hon. Members can take part. The shorter the speeches the fewer people will be disappointed at the close of play.

10.37 am
Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

I shall respond immediately to your request, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Like the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), I warmly welcome the debate, although I am always troubled about breaking education into segments as though there were something notably different between further and higher education and the rest of the system.

The debate is also appropriate to me because over the past two weeks two of my constituents, Dr. César Milstein and Sir Richard Stone, have been awarded the Nobel prize. I cannot resist pointing out to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State how nice it is to see international recognition for a real Keynesian in the case of Sir Richard Stone. Also in the past two weeks we have lost another Nobel prize winner in the death of Sir Martin Ryle who, although not of my political persuasion, was always immensely kind to me and an inspirer of young people. Those particular examples emphasise again something which cannot be stressed too much—the practical value of the investment that we place in higher and further education.

In October 1976, when I was campaigning in Cambridge for election to the House, I went to the Cambridge science park. It consisted of an empty field and one building with fewer than 20 employees. Today, eight years later, it has 40 companies and 1,400 employees. That is one example of many of the real and practical links between scholarship and research, on the one hand, and prosperity and jobs, on the other.

Debates on education tend to be dominated, understandably, by discussion about resources and the problem of current expenditure. I understand that, being acutely aware of the problems facing higher education, but the far greater problem is that of capital expenditure. If one asks "Is this nation to remain in the forefront of science and technology?" and the Government answer "Yes", which is the necessary answer, they, and not least the Chancellor of the Exchequer, must face the realities of the sort of money that we are talking about. At Cambridge university, just the cost of replacing scientific equipment is estimated by the vice-chancellor to be £25 million over the next 10 years in 1984 terms. I feel that that is an underestimate.

When my right hon. and hon. Friends consider their response to the UGC and NAB reports, I should like them to ask themselves a question that has worried me for some time: do we finance our research properly? For once, I am talking not just about money. Having run a research institute for five years, I can assure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the problem of the short-term grant is very real. First, if one has someone on a three-year grant, in effect he is there for only two years because the final year is spent looking for either another grant or another position. Secondly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to plan a research programme to achieve continuity in such a context. I am thinking particularly of medical research, in which continuity over several years is absolutely crucial.

I have always been troubled by the role of the research councils and the manner in which they function. I should like to give one example. It is extraordinary that when an application, particularly from a scientist, is rejected, no reason is given to the applicant for that rejection—certainly no detailed reasons. I am not asking that the confidentiality of referees and commentators be broken, but I believe that particularly a scientist should be told why his peers or colleagues believe that his line of research is misdirected. That is the minimum that the research councils should go.

Although I strongly support the shift in the balance away from the arts and humanities to the natural sciences, technology and engineering—I would have been more radical in that direction than the UGC was in 1981—we must always remember the crucial importance of balance and having departments within a universty that are not only extremely relevant to the world of today but are places where the love of learning for its own sake is believed in and revered. We are not simply in the process of trying to produce more technicians. It is much more complicated and profound than that.

I appreciate why at this stage, before the Green Paper, my right hon. Friend cannot go further than he has, but I should like to emphasise the crucial role of research not only in the universities but in the polytechnics, and its link with prosperity and jobs. I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to look with particular care not just at the problems of current expenditure but at the scale of the investments, which I believe we must now contemplate, over the next five to 10 years, so that we may pass to subsequent generations the opportunities that we had and that the Nobel prize winners of the past had. That is our objective and our purpose.

10.45 am
Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)

I agreed with much of what was said by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James). He referred to the link between scholarship, research and the development of technology in industry. That is very well illustrated by an institution that lies in the borough that I come from and where my constituency lies—Thames polytechnic. It is one of many institutions of which that is true. It has developed relationships with local industry, and the scholarship and research in that institution are again and again found to be relevant to the redevelopment of an industrial area where there has been a grave collapse over the past decade or more.

I am proud, although most of it is not in my constituency, that Goldsmiths' college lies on my doorstep. That institution perhaps illustrates better than any other the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) about the need to attempt to tap the well of ability and aptitude for higher education that is not tapped at the moment. Through such things as part-time education, Goldsmiths' is perhaps the forerunner of most if not all institutions in that respect. It is even able to discover abilities in people who had no academic training before. It encourages those people—that is often what is needed more than anything else—to take an interest in the possibilities of higher education one day.

I am glad that my hon. Friend also mentioned the Open University. All of us in the House must have had repeated representations from constituents whose opportunities are being heightened and horizons broadened as a consequence of courses run by it. It is incredible that the Government, even with their priorities, should attack the Open University in the way that they do. Presumably, from what the Secretary of State said, cost-effectiveness is one of his priorities. The record of the Open University is good in that respect.

I should like to devote the bulk of my speech to a subject that has not arisen except in one intervention during the debate. I believe that it is in order and relevant to the debate to refer to students from overseas coming to study in our polytechnics and universities. That matter should be mentioned because in May this year the third report of the Commonwealth Standing Committee on student mobility was published. It called for a coherent and consistent policy which will balance national interests with the needs of overseas countries and the students themselves". The report draws attention to the fact that the demand for higher education opportunities will continue to grow, and at a rate that cannot be matched in the foreseeable future by an expansion of institutional capacity. Thus, it is suggested that the planning for future development of national systems of post-secondary and higher education should include specific provision for the reception of overseas students in sufficient numbers. There should be no doubt in anybody's mind about the value of the contribution that can be made by the wealthier coutries.

In August this year, I was privileged to visit Zimbabwe on a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation. There was almost daily evidence of the crucial contribution that Britain has made, largely as a result of the far-sighted initiative taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Dame J. Hart) when she was Minister of Overseas Development, to enable some hundreds of then Rhodesian students to pursue their studies in Britain. Zimbabwe could hardly have grappled with her serious problems with the success that it has had, against enormous odds, had it not been for that initiative. As the Minister knows, Zimbabwe's Minister of Education, Dr. Mutumbuka, recently visited this country. He told me that schools in Zimbabwe are now turning out about 6,000 students a year who are qualified for higher education. Zimbabwe has places for 2,000 and the shortfall must be made up by sending students abroad. Where are those students to go? Many still come here, though I am told that there has been a drop of 62 per cent, on the numbers at the time of UDI. Many others go to places about which the Government would have doubts, including Russia and other places behind the iron curtain. Others go to Europe and the United States.

I understand that on a visit to this country Dr. Mutumbuka expressed dismay and disappointment to the Secretary of State about the way in which his country and others like it have been treated by the Government. The number of Commonwealth students in this country has fallen by 37 per cent, since the Government came to power. The number from developing countries, where the need for qualified people is much greater, has fallen by 39 per cent. There are more Commonwealth students studying in Canadian universities than in British universities.

The House knows that the principal cause of that fall in numbers was the introduction of full-cost fees. That has excluded from British universities all those who are qualified and wish to come here, but who fail to gain a scholarship or bursary and who cannot afford to pay for themselves or whose Governments cannot afford to pay for them.

Despite the fact that the Prime Minister accepted the words of the Melbourne heads of Government com-muniqué about the value of student mobility and educational interchange within the Commonwealth, and despite her commitment at the Delhi Heads of Government meeting to a policy of consultation on intra-Commonwealth fee levels, hardly anything has been done.

The so-called Pym package went mostly to Cyprus, Malaysia and Hong Kong and amounted to only about one tenth of the subsidy that was withdrawn when full fees were introduced. That money has now been gobbled up.

I have always believed that there was a special value for the Commonwealth and ourselves in our welcoming those from the Commonwealth to study alongside home-based students at our polytechnics and universities. My interest in Africa dates from a friendship made at Oxford 30 years ago with a student from what was then called the Gold Coast. That sort of experience has been repeated time and again.

Even more important is the friendship and understanding that we in Britain enjoy with statesmen, diplomats, politicians, civil servants, and those in the academic world, the professions, business and trade throughout the world, though principally in the Commonwealth, as a consequence of the fact that so many of those people in high positions have studied here.

That relationship arises from the fact that those people gained their first chance in life at British universities or polytechnics. Yet how is that asset currently regarded? I listened carefully to the Secretary of State and noted that he did not mention it once. We know from the Government's actions how that asset is regarded and, unfortunately, the Government's attitude is spreading.

There is disturbing evidence about the attitudes that an; beginning to develop in the academic world. We have two strategy documents before us. The document from the National Advisory Body makes no reference to overseas students as an element in educational planning. The UGC document "A Strategy for Higher Education in the 1990s" says: In section 9 we discuss the importance of overseas students to our higher education institutions and the universities' prospects of taking more of them. We rush to section 9 to see what splendid things are said there and under the heading, "Alternative Sources of Funding", we find: Overseas student fees are now an important source of income for many institutions. However,"— it goes on ruefully— the supply of students from particular countries may suddenly dry up. That is the end of the UGC's comments.

There is increasing evidence in the policy of the Government, the UGC and higher education institutions that overseas students are being treated merely as a financial resource and less and less as an integral part of the British higher education system on educational, internationalist and Commonwealth grounds. As the document on student mobility says: There is a … danger that the academic priorities of institutions can become distorted when at the margin additional fee revenue from an overseas student is a high multiple of additional revenue from a home student. How apposite and true that is of our present situation.

I will not delay the House by rehearsing the well-known benefits that accrue to us from the ready acceptance of students from Commonwealth countries. We can provide for many young people from poor homes and underdeveloped countries the chance to play a key part in the development of their nations. A few weeks ago, I was privileged to listen to the lecture given by Sir Anthony Parsons to celebrate 50 years of the work of the British Council. I can do no better than to quote his words: Across the world, the generations which grew up in a condition of intimacy with Britain, are dying out, and new generations are coming to power and influence with no preconceived affinities. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we cannot afford, in order to save immediate but microscopic sums of money, to damage our ability to influence the people of the future".

10.56 am
Mr. W. Benyon (Milton Keynes)

Bearing in mind your request, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall confine my remarks to the Open University, which is situated in my constituency. I have watched the progress of the university with considerable interest and admiration over the years. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for having agreed before the summer recess to receive a delegation to discuss the problems of the Open University.

The Open University is the envy of the world and when I travel abroad I find that the OU is of more interest to other people than anything else in our education system. I have been a member of the council of a conventional university for a number of years, so I find it possible to compare the two types of institution.

I am worried that the special problems of the OU will be overlooked in the general desire to control expenditure. The OU cannot be treated in the same way as a conventional university. Hon. Members have already pointed out that it is almost twice as cost-effective as a conventional university in the cost per graduate—and that takes no account of the fact that many students are taxpayers themselves.

That cost-effectiveness has been achieved by economies of scale after considerable investments. Those investments mean that the OU has much higher fixed costs than a conventional university. Therefore, if those costs are cut beyond a certain point, the economies of scale, which are the secret of the cost-effectiveness of the OU will be reduced.

On the other hand, if the OU puts up its fees, which it has raised from £67 to £133 per credit—students need six credits for a degree—since 1980, student applications will fall. Indeed, that has already happened. In December last, year, the 1984 grant was allocated and provisional allocations were made for 1985 and 1986. This is where the pipeline effect comes into operation. If economies are to be made in 1986, a start has to be made now by curtailing certain courses. Yet a number of them have already been approved and are under way. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) nodding; and I know, of course, that he is on the Open University's board. I do not want to weary hon. Members with statistics, but, nevertheless, the 1986 allocation represents a 9 per cent, cut in real terms compared with 1983. That is further exacerbated by the so-called PICKUP programme—the loans that have been granted to the Open University, which have to be repaid both in capital and interest. That further damages the Open University's financial position.

Much has already been said about one important factor, the shift to the sciences. In the Open University course structure there are now 50 per cent, plus in the sciences. There is much more in the offing, and it has already started a considerable number of management courses as well. All that is desperately needed in our country today. It is a false economy to inflict such a damaging and crippling blow for the sake of £5 million at a time when we need those skills.

I must emphasise that the Open University is very definite in that it is not trying to challenge the main thrust of Government policy over public spending. But it is essential that I should make clear to everyone concerned exactly what will happen if the figures are rigidly adhered to. I do so to prevent the whole matter being submerged in one general policy. First, the range of courses in 1986 will have to be significantly reduced. Secondly, the student support services will be affected, and it is estimated that 70 out of 260 study centres will have to go. The television programmes, which have already been substantially cut for 1985, will have to be further reduced. Staff levels, which are already cut to the bone, will have to be further reduced. Expenditure on student kits—one of the principal success stories of the Open University—will again, suffer.

I know that the visiting committee, set up by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, is looking into all these factors and that the university has set up an efficiency study in response to the request made by my hon. Friend. But I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will assure me that the Government will carefully consider what both of these reports say, and agree that the matter has not been finally decided. That is the important point. There are 60,000 enrolled students on courses at the moment, with 40,000 doing separate courses as well. There are also 60,000 graduates of the Open University, and the Government owe it to them, and to the nation, to see that this great enterprise, which is the envy of so many other countries, is not, irreparably damaged by these proposals.

11.2 am

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

In the nature of the subject, this will be a wide-ranging debate, but in response to your appeal for brevity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I intend to confine my remarks to four short points to do with Scotland.

Much of the recent debate instituted by the UGC on higher education into the 1990s has been barely relevant to Scotland. Much of it completely ignored the separate Scottish traditions, in education such as the four-year honours degree and the higher proportion of university students among the total number of those going in for higher education. It has also neglected to take account of one of the main underlying problems affecting Scottish higher education—a lack of overall planning.

In England, co-ordination is achieved through the Department of Education and Science, which plans and controls the education system from pre-school to university level, and which oversees the UGC. In Scotland, however, the situation is one of confusion and piecemeal planning. The Secretary of State for Scotland and the Scottish Education Department are in control of the school system and the "central institutions" such as colleges of technology. The regional councils control the colleges of further education. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Scotland controls certain colleges. Finally, the Department of Education and Science and the UGC control the Scottish universities.

That totally unco-ordinated system has proved to be extremely debilitating for Scottish education and helps to explain such strange and annoying anomalies as the fact that many courses in Scottish universities have been geared to English A-levels—to the great disadvantage of our own students.

Higher education, seen through the restricted and blinkered eyes of the Department of Education and Science and the UGC, does not fit our Scottish view of the universality of education and the right of all qualified entrants to enjoy it. That is why the Scottish National Party gave its own detailed response to the recent UGC letter on the development of a strategy for higher education into the 1990s. I shall not take up the time of the House by going into details of that response, but until such time as we have a Scottish Parliament controlling Scottish affairs there is, at the very least, a need for a Scottish UGC on which all Scottish universities are represented. Indeed, I think that the point was made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). The value of such a body would extend beyond the universities themselves, because such an organisation could easily co-operate with the representatives of other sectors within Scottish higher education. Such co-operation would give us the first step towards constructing a coherent system of educational planning in Scotland. At present, we have an uncoordinated and confusing mess, and the Scottish Office must bear the blame for that.

I should like to refer to what appears to be a very dangerous development for Scottish universities. Hitherto they have operated as international centres of learning. Now, the UGC is trying to justify the closure of the pharmacy department at Heriot Watt university on the basis that, even without the Heriot Watt department, Scotland would still have a higher proportion of the United Kingdom's places in the pharmacy than its share of the population justifies. If that philosophy of proportionality of university places to population is applied more generally, one of Scotland's university principals would be out of a job. The fact is that Scotland's universities contain about 14 per cent, of all United Kingdom undergraduates although Scotland has under 10 per cent, of the United Kingdom's population. The dangers for Scotland's universities are clear. They are in danger of being rationalised by the UGC when they really need to be nationalised by being taken under the wing of a Scottish Parliament with Scottish interests at heart.

Without covering the same ground, I should like to refer briefly to the Open University. Demand in Scotland for Open University courses has been rising steadily since 1977. This year, there were about 6,000 applicants in Scotland for only about 1,800 places. The Open University fulfils a demand which would not otherwise be met. It caters for students who are housebound or disabled, and is particularly helpful to those who live in remote constituencies such as mine, and who have other means of obtaining higher education. It also makes it possible for those in full-time work or with domestic commitments to study for a degree.

It is hard to understand why the Government, who are so keen on individual self-help and enterprise, are also so determined to pull the rug from under the Open University. Of course, saying that presupposes that they have any real interest in education. Their attitude to the Open University and to education in general is barbaric.

Finally, we in Scotland have always been proud of our education system. We used to take pride in boasting that at one time Aberdeenshire alone had three universities as against two in England. It is. my firm belief that a first-class Scottish system of higher and further education needs a Scottish Government to nurture it and develop its potential.

11.10 am
Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I declare an interest. I am a member of the court of Brunel university which is situated in the heart of my constituency. Brunei is named after one of the country's greatest and most famous engineers. It is a small technological university with about 2,500 students. It is a sandwich course university, and many of its students are working at the frontiers of science and technology.

I stress the need for more engineering places and the academic staff necessary to train them, but I also agree with the University Grants Committee that it is neither desirable nor feasible to find them at the expense of the arts.

I draw hon. Members' attention to a report in The Times on 12 October which indicates that employment opportunities are increasing for people with higher education in either the arts or the sciences. Jobs in banking, finance, computers, health services and other spheres where women are more likely to find jobs than men expanded according to data based on the 1981 census.

It is important to note that the numbers employed in professional jobs such as those of doctors, solicitors, teachers and engineers has risen, reflecting the growth of higher education and the demand for services and technical specialists in a society moving into an era of high technology. This is happening at a time when there is a decrease in the demand for unskilled labour. Both arts and science degrees are needed if young people are to obtain jobs in what The Times calls "high-tech Britain".

Today's debate is the culmination of many months' discussion inside and outside the universities that was triggered by my right hon. Friend's letter of 14 July 1982 when he asked the UGC for advice on the development of higher education into the 1990s, how it is to be financed and what size it should be. In response, my right hon. Friend has received excelled and balanced advice on the way ahead. The UGC report and the Government's reaction to it could be a turning point for the future of higher education in this century.

What then should be the Government's priorities? First, I shall deal with funding. The UGC asks for level funding. This view is supported by the Association of University Teachers and others. All hon. Members know that, desirable though level funding might be, it is difficult to provide at a time of restraint in public expenditure. The Secretary of State said earlier that restraint is likely to continue.

What then are the alternatives? It seems possible that it could mean either some institutional closures or differential funding between the institutions, or perhaps both. If institutional closures are in my right hon. Friend's mind—I hope that they are not—I urge strongly that amongst criteria for determining closure should be the relevance of the disciplines in the institution to the national need, the employment of graduates and the relationship at teaching and research levels between industry and commerce and the institution.

The fear of institutional closures is causing great uncertainty and is undermining morale at some universities. The uncertainty must be ended so that those concerned can settle down to an assured future and get on with the job of producing first-class graduates.

In addition, universities with a successful record of producing employable graduates should be encouraged to expand. The success, for example, of Brunei graduates in obtaining jobs is outstanding. It leads the country. The hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) has good reason to know that to be true.

As it will take a number of years before the schools produce more science and technology students, some incentive must be given to speed the process. One suggestion is larger grants for science and technology students. Another, which I find more attractive, is that industry should be encouraged to sponsor such students and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should amend the law to give positive encouragement to that process. I am glad to note that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agrees with me.

Urgently needed is a change in the tax laws, not simply to make sponsorship of a student a tax-deductible expense but to encourage sponsorship of a university or department on a tax-deductibe basis.

Another incentive which should be considered is Government funding for a student or a university on a pound-for-pound basis up to an agreed ceiling. Thus, if a company were to sponsor a student through a university for £2,000 a year, for example, the Government should consider matching it. The university, industry and the taxpayer would benefit. The country would get the science and technology graduates that it needed and industry would be encouraged to take a direct interest and to second personnel to the universities to help provide necessary academic staff.

Sandwich courses are ideally suited to such an innovation. Industrialists reckon that sandwich graduates from universities are at least two years ahead of their non-sandwich equivalents. It takes at least two years to train a non-sandwich graduate and to instil in him or her the industrial work ethic with which the sandwich graduate arrives.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that universities such as Bradford and Salford which pioneered sandwich courses have been hammered by his Government in the last four years?

Mr. Shersby

I am aware of the difficulties. That is why I want to participate in the debate and make some positive suggestions about how they can be overcome.

The House will be interested to know that at Brunei many of the UGC injunctions have already been met. The current value of research grant and contract work exceeds £7 million—more than twice what it was four years ago. Smaller departments have been reshaped and merged and its governmental and management structures have been revised to make them more efficient. The hon. Member for Durham, North talked about the difficulties involved in achieving greater efficiency. I am sure that he will agree that Brunei is a flag carrier for greater efficiency. I go so far as to suggest that Brunei is a model which my right hon. Friend could use when looking for greater efficiency in the universities.

My right hon. Friend has asked for the UGC's advice on how universities can contribute to a further shift towards technological, scientific and engineering courses and to other vocationally relevant forms of study. He has asked the UGC whether a large movement might be practical or desirable. In section 3 of its report the UGC makes it clear that a further expansion in places in departments such as computer sciences and engineering can be achieved only if additional staff are recruited. I say that they can and should be recruited from industry, particularly if there is a tax incentive.

Another vitally important point made by the UGC is the need to encourage girls to consider taking science A-levels. The UGC points out: Forces within the schools tend to work against the sciences, particularly for girls. I agree with it when it says: If more girls could be persuaded to develop an interest in mathematics and physical sciences, the situation could be transformed. Only if that happens is the supply of good students likely to increase. There are many good women engineering students at Brunel.

Of course, the resources will have to be made available. It is a question of priorities. I should not ask for extra resources without suggesting ways in which they might be found.

I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee. We reported that in the last year the black economy resulted in a tax loss of £4 billion—more than the Government's total expenditure on higher education. Surely the Government should be doing something to tighten up on the black economy because that £4 billion could go a long way towards providing the necessary resources. The Public Accounts Committee, in a recent report that the House has yet to debate, said that £175 million was lost to the Revenue by tax evasion on vehicle excise licences. I make those two points as an example of where money can be found for higher education.

I ask my right hon. Friend to give a clear lead to the universities on the level of funding during the next decade and beyond to end the uncertainty on institutional closures—and if they are necessary, to spell out the criteria for that—and to say whether he is considering differential grants. Will he press the Chancellor of the Exchequer to change the tax laws to encourage industrial funding and secondment?

11.21 am
Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

Yesterday I asked the Secretary of State whether his Department had made a study of the potential effects on students in higher education of the introduction of VAT at the current rate and at 5 per cent, on school and university libraries. He said The Department has made no such study."—[Official Report, 25 October 1984; Vol. 65, c. 661.] I find that reply either naive or deceitful. I do not know which it is sadder to believe—that the Treasury can consider imposing policies upon the Department without its participation or knowledge, or that this Department, charged with the vital responsibility of literacy, should fail not only to put forward arguments but even to look at the questions.

I am sorry that the debate is taking place on a Friday—though it gives a true indication of the importance that the Government attach to higher education. The Liberal assembly was the only 1984 assembly to discuss higher education, and it did so in prime time.

I endorse the points about finance for higher education that have already been made by other hon. Members. Finance alone cannot determine the success of a higher education policy, but it can determine its failure. It is important for the Government to get that aspect right, but, sadly, they have so far proved unwilling or unable to do so. Not only have they made it clear that there is no real education policy, only an economic policy; they have managed to choose an economic approach that has been a tried and tested feature in Latin America, then tried and tested in Britain and shown to fail here also.

This is not a debate about economic policy, so I shall simply reiterate that the Government's public expenditure policies are damaging higher education. There are alternatives to those policies and, in future, economic and social policies should be worked out in tandem rather than the former leading the latter by the nose, as would appear to be the case with VAT.

The dreadful testimony to the damage being done by the Government's cuts is impressive, encompassing the UGC, and NAB, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics. Those of us who met the vice-chancellors and principals two days ago were told by those decent, hard-working, respected men that if we used the criterion of the UGC and the NAB that higher education should be available to those who would benefit from it 20,000 more places would be needed at this moment. Its advice to the Government, following a massive questionnaire, is that the university sector needs at least level funding in future if yet more serious damage to the educational structure of the nation is to be avoided. With a trenchancy hardly associated with the UGC—more often than not in the past a body accused of selling out universities' interests—it states that if resources continue to decline at 1.5 per cent, per annum, the figure assumed in the Government spending plans, substantial damage to the system would be unavoidable. It even went so far as to argue that closing an entire university would be the most acceptable response to that.

That, then, is what the body charged with advising the Government on the distribution of funds in the university sector is saying. It is a sad reflection on a Government who have pledged themselves since their 1979 manifesto to uphold the standards of British higher education.

I know that Opposition parties are always accused of opposing for the sake of opposing, but we are not doing that now; we are simply reminding the Government of their election promises. The truth is there for all to see: they are not being kept.

The UGC is not alone in its view. It has been strongly supported by that other body of dangerous subversives, the vice-chancellors and principals, which wrote: The advice is a vindication of all the arguments against the Government's adherence to the shortsighted view that the future needs of our society can be met by reducing the opportunities for higher education and by eroding the quality of it. The universities regretted that they were forced to deny places to well-qualified young people. The NAB, in a similar vein, argues: There is no practical scope within the public sector higher education for a further reduction in the average level of the unit of resource. It made a persuasive argument that, in fact, it needs to be increased.

The CDP agreed with that view, and wrote: The Committee is particularly pleased with the NAB's conclusion that there is no scope for a further reduction in the average unit of resource in public sector higher education and that equal funding for teaching purposes should underly future planning in both sectors of higher education. I do not want to labour the point—the official Opposition have already spoken eloquently, and may continue to do so. I want to appeal to the Secretary of State's academic and intellectual leanings and make two points. First, will he reject the logical mistake that many Tory Back Benchers make—and upon which the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boy son), raised himself in his meteoric career—when they pass from the true fact that more money does not necessarily improve the education system to the nonsense that less money necessarily will do so.

Secondly, many intelligent and responsible people are making the same argument. Surely the right hon. Gentleman must listen to what they are saying, otherwise he will be in the same position as the soldier who argues that the whole platoon is out of step except him. Higher education needs a commitment to at least level funding, and it needs it now, otherwise uncertainty and financial stringency will damage the system still further.

Time is pressing, so I shall not deal in detail with my other points. On overseas students, the Government's appalling full-cost scheme is mean, misguided and harmful and must be reversed. I am not alone in that belief—most Commonwealth education Ministers have backed that call.

On the subject of grants, my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mx. Beith) will make our position clear on Monday during the debate on a prayer. However, there is no doubt that the travel costs schemes takes the grant yet another step away from being a maintenance award. We support the concept of maintenance awards and will strongly oppose the new scheme. Let me stress that whatever eloquence we hear from Ministers about the future is meaningless and rather unkind if the financial policies deprive entry to all but those who are already privileged.

My right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal party, who is the rector of the university of Edinburgh, has given me a number of letters that will be sent to the Minister to show the hardship being caused and the further hardship that will be caused if the minimum grant is withdrawn. If that happens, will the Minister look compassionately at university distress funds because there will be real hardship and among those who suffer, will be people who would traditionally vote Conservative?

The main focus of my speech is what is too often seen as the Cinderella of the higher education system, the public sector. We must all become increasingly overtly proud of it. It has as many students as the university sector. It pioneered ways to broaden access, which universities shunned, and yet it is still treated as the poor relation and the black sheep of the family. That must be reversed as a matter of priority. Parity of esteem for both sides of the binary divide is a crucial prerequisite for the health of the entire system. Without it, the whole binary policy will founder. I therefore appeal to the Secretary of State and his Department not only to make perfunctory statements about the value of the public sector, but to spend more time and energy in and to have more pride when discussing and promoting that sector.

It is now a commonplace that the Government owe the fact that their policies have not led to a greater decline in student numbers to the public sector being able to take up the slack of the universities. However, that cannot continue without the necessary funding. The Government must face up to their responsibilities.

The public sector has contributed to the broadening of access by taking on more students, taking on six times as many part-time students as the university sector, stressing sandwich courses, and running courses such as the DipHE, which bypass the traditional entrance requirements and allow a path into higher education for those who have been ill served by the school system but who could benefit from higher education. It is sad that even for DipHE courses students must have one A-level. A-levels are a fairly inaccurate way of measuring suitability for university. In short, the Government should encourage the public sector and strive to give it the esteem it needs to complete its task rather than largely ignore it and underfund it.

We must also tackle the issue of the binary divide. The UGC's business-as-usual approach is inadequate. It is almost as inadequate as that of those who wish to merge the two systems overnight. That is not practicable. It would be practicable to provide a greater degree of coordination between the UGC and NAB, which is what our Liberal proposal for Higher Education Council would achieve.

The success of polytechnics, with their part-time provision, highlights a key fact, which is the demand for education outside the traditional 18-plus entry mode. There is tremendous untapped demand for it among mature students, working-class students, women and ethnic minorities. The tragedy is that it has been allowed to remain latent.

Instead of engaging in a combination of crystal ball-gazing and figure-cooking—that characterises the Department's attempts to predict student numbers—the Government should use the decline of the 18-year-old population to broaden access to higher education. All the Secretary of State's attempts to improve standards in schools should increase demand. I am surprised that that was not referred to in the Department's calculations.

There are many more channels which could and should be investigated, such as non-standard patterns of entry and bridging courses to help bring people up to standard. Such ideas could give us a healthy and diverse education system and the Government's present approach can lead only to a moribund elitism.

Higher education is too important to be left to the tender mercies of Tory backwoodsmen and their prejudices. I appeal to the Secretary of State to listen to those in higher education when they say that enough is enough and that they can take no more cuts. I appeal to him to bend his fertile mind to finding ways of making the system more open and responsive to needs rather than to looking for more and more damaging cuts.

I totally agree with the hon. Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon) about the Open University. It was founded as a university of the second chance. For many it is now the university of the only chance. Any cut in funding or small saving achieved by giving less money to the Open University has a disproportionately evil effect on the student number and quality. I should like the Secretary of State to reconsider that matter.

I should also like the Secretary of State to reconsider the case of overseas students. Finally, on my own doorstep, the course of illustration at the Cambridgeshire college of arts and technology is about to be cut. Next Monday and Minister will sit on the board that will decide its future. I remind him that the college trained not only Edward Bawden and Ronald Searle on the course of illustration, but the visualiser and the assistant art director of Saatchi and Saatchi. I hope that that will persuade him of the wide merits of that course.

11.36 am
Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

The hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) mentioned student numbers and likely future demand for places. I wish to talk about other matters which will put pressure on places in higher and further education.

First is the Government's drive for better teachers and higher standards in the classroom, their plans to stretch the ablest pupils, to introduce a new system of exams and a new teacher salary system, which will result in better teaching of specialist subjects, and the growth of the assisted-places scheme. If one adds to that the consequences of people coming off the youth training scheme who want to go back into education, the TVEI, and the fact that more girls are attaining higher qualifications, one recognises that today's debate comes at a time when there is rising pressure for more higher and further education. It is therefore important that the best advice is given to those who are seeking such education.

I note two points from this year's HMI report—the Government have the courage to publish it each year. It states: It is particularly noteworthy that only about half the LEAs has any full-time careers advisers for further education and that 58 of the total of 109 such advisers were employed by just three LEAs. It continues: There was evidence that at least one-eighth of all LEAs had insufficient knowledge of their FHE system. A large increase in expenditure would not be needed to put those matters right. If those matters were put right, it would provide much better advice for the many young people who seek further and higher education.

I appreciate the pressure from the UGC and NAB in their reports for level funding and no further decline in student numbers. However the Government have every right to insist that every pound spent on higher and further education is spent in a beneficial and cost-conscious way. That is much better understood by those who work in higher education than it used to be.

There are two further points in the HMI report which require action. First, it states: In nearly one-quarter of the institutions visited, some lecturers were judged to lack relevant and up-to-date commercial and industrial experience". It continues: There was also a need for increased support for the release of lecturers into industry and commerce to bring their technical knowledge up-to-date. By putting those things right, one is moving more quickly towards achieving better value for money in higher education.

I welcome the fact that both the UGC and NAB have called for greater trans-binary line co-operation. I pay tribute to the speed and efficiency with which the NAB has established itself and to the role that it has played in the development of higher education. Of the many things with which they both agree in their two reports, one is the need for a major re-equipment programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) called for a change in the tax system so that more industrial finance would go into higher education.

I believe that the change in the tax law that would act much more quickly would be to allow equipment donations from industry, which could be offset against tax. The Americans changed their tax law on this in 1981 and that has benefited American industry and higher education. We in this country, as recipients of much multinational investment, must make ourselves tax-efficient and tax-attractive in that way. If we did, we could have multinational companies helping with equipment donations as they have in the United States.

I shall add one further thing about trans-binary line cooperation. Computing facilities, because of their high cost, must be used effectively throughout higher education. Universities and polytechnics have access to the national and regional networks involving the computer board and research councils. There is, of course, a considerable degree of collaboration in the use of the smaller installations, but the speed with which the technology is developing will require a still higher degree of collaboration between neighbouring institutions and those further afield.

I wish to make a further point about the polytechnics. At present there is a growing programme of short courses involving some 100,000 students, which result from close collaboration between polytechnics, industry and the professions. In my view, the young people who are leaving the training schemes and many adults who are desperate to get off the dole queues, will look to these short courses for help and an opportunity for retraining for a job. There is no doubt that a strengthened and well-supported polytechnic sector will benefit industry and do much to lessen the fear of the unemployed that there is nowhere for them to go for higher education.

I appreciate the anxiety felt by those in higher and further education that there has been insufficient recognition of their problems. I pick out two matters in conclusion which I hope they will find encouraging. The first is the Green Paper on public spending into the 1990s. Paragraph 41 states: Technological advance in industry should result, in the national interest, in extra demand for relatively expensive courses in science and technology within further and higher education". That is a clear recognition by the Government that resources will have to be shifted in that direction.

Secondly, an economic fact worrying for this country but challenging for higher education is that half of the present trade deficit is made up of electronics products, which just five years ago produced a trade surplus. In other words, the manufacturing part of the economy is not responsive enough to fast-growing markets. What the UGC and the NAB have said in their reports, and in my view there are plenty of constructive plans and suggestions in them to help the country, can overcome that type of problem in trade and help the; country meet the challenge of providing more useful, cost-conscious and beneficial higher education for many more people.

11.43 am
Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I rise to intervene briefly to discuss the planning exercise of the NAB in relation to free-standing art colleges. There are, of course, no art colleges in Hackney. Some local residents wre disturbed a few years ago when the Royal College of Art decided, eventually, not to move its premises into our borough. I do not believe that we need worry. We have thousands of registered artists, a great many art lecturers and hundreds of art students. I believe we are culturally secure. We can sympathise with the cultural insecurity of the Minister for the Arts, the noble Lord Gowrie. Think how awful it must be for him as he gazes around the Cabinet room at the blank, incomprehending Philistine faces in front of him. I am told that the Prime Minister, for example, cannot distinguish a drawing by Matisse from a Rupert the bear cartoon.

I wish to concentrate on the threat posed to various freestanding art colleges including the Maidstone college of art, the Canterbury college of art and the Falmouth school of art. I hope that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to develop the theme.

On 26 October 1983, NAB wrote ambiguously to Maidstone and Canterbury colleges of arts calling for a rationalisation of the two colleges. Although no one quite knew what that meant, the recommendation was rejected emphatically by Kent county council and by the two colleges.

After a year's silence, on 25 September this year NAB accepted a recommendation of the art and design working group of NAB that the degree courses of the two colleges should be merged and that one of the colleges should close. That decision is being considered on Monday by the committee of the NAB of which the Under-Secretary who is replying to the debate is the chairman.

The chairman of the art and design working group of NAB is Professor Tom Bromley, who has handed the poisoned chalice to Kent. He is a man who, I am told, photographed graffiti on the walls of New York, who believes that, uniquely, he can walk on egg shells without cracking them and who has transferred his allegiance from art to administration and from creativity to the exercise of cold power. He therefore comes up with these absurd suggestions.

It has been said to me that Professor Bromley and NAB have, in effect, dealt with Maidstone and Canterbury with something called insouciant disdain. I am not sure what that is, but it understates the case because in a letter dated 11 October to the Under-Secretary of State art historian Julian Steyn, who lives in Hackney and lectured at Maidstone, wrote that what had happened would only be described as consultation by someone who intended to insult and wound. An angry Dr. Harry Crag, chairman of the further education committee of Kent county council, has said that this proposal can only destabilise the two colleges. Almost every professor of art in this country has begun to write in, protesting against what has been proposed. Even the most reactionary art critic in Britain, John Sperling, who writes for the New Statesman has described it in a letter as cultural vandalism.

Yesterday I went to the Department of Education and Science with students from Maidstone and Canterbury led by Karl Glover and Nick Hinge to present a petition to the Under-Secretary signed by 8,000 people. If he reads the petition he will see that it is not signed by Socialists and radicals but by landowners, farmers, country gentlemen, doctors, solicitors and bankers. What is happening is that the authentic voice of Conservative Britain is rebelling against NAB's proposals. He may be able to treat Labour Members with indifference but he cannot treat the authentic voice of Conservative Britain with the same indifference. Those people are saying that they are not prepared to see the colleges disrupted and one of them closed. They are not prepared to see central Government trampling over local democracy.

When the proposal was first mooted a year ago, Maidstone college of art called a conference of all freestanding art colleges. The shadow spokesman for arts, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), who is not in his place, and I attended that meeting. An action committee was set up. I took it to see John Bevan the secretary of NAB to discuss the many problems that have arisen in relation to free-standing art colleges regarding consultation, access, academic isolation and criteria for excellence. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) and myself will see the Undersecretary on Tuesday next to discuss some of those important matters further. The gravamen of the complaint, and it is justified, by the action committee representing all those art colleges all over Great Britain is that the NAB consultation process in relation to art colleges is bogus.

I have asked the art and design working group of NAB whether it has spoken or written to Kent county council and Canterbury and Maidstone colleges of art during the past year. The incredible answer is no. I have asked the same question of the National Advisory Board, and the answer is still no. I have asked the same question of the committee which the Under-Secretary of State chairs and the answer is still no. What kind of consultation is that? I have asked the art and design working group if it has given Kent, Maidstone or Canterbury one administrative, education or art reason why those two colleges should be closed. The answer is no. The answer from NAB and the committee of NAB is no.

What kind of astonishing picture are we building up? Not one document, paragraph, sentence or line in existence sets out one reason for the closure of those colleges, and yet they are being put on trial for their lives. I defy the Under-Secretary of State when he replies to this debate to tell me that that is a satisfactory form of consultation. In his letter to me, the hon. Gentleman said that NAB is open, but the truth is that the consultation process is neither open, nor responsible or even accountable in any legitimate governmental sense. It is basically a secret process.

The argument can be taken a stage further. Has the art and design working group of NAB visited the colleges it wishes to close, whether at Maidstone, Canterbury or Falmouth? The answer is no. Have members of NAB and members of the committee visited the colleges? The answer is no.

One of the points raised yesterday when we saw the Under-Secretary of State was that, before any decisions are taken on Monday—those decisions cannot rationally be taken then—he should visit the two colleges. I am bound to say—I do not usually try to fill in and help out the Minister, and it is not my job to help out NAB in its negligence—that this year I have been to Maidstone a number of times to look at the work of the college and to talk to the students and staff. By any standard, Maidstone is a centre of excellence. One would expect that from a purpose-built building opened by Lord Clark, the man who, I am told, recently redefined civilisation. I am informed also—I am sure that the hon. Member for Canterbury will confirm this—that Canterbury is equally a centre of excellence. Why, therefore, does NAB seek to shut those two centres of excellence? I hope that we are not witnessing some form of Philistinism, That NAB is not preparing for cuts in student numbers and that we are not seeing some kind of ugly cultural development in our society.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

Before the hon. Gentleman entirely buries the chances of the two colleges, I make the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) and those other hon. Members representing Kent who, like me, have an interest in the two colleges, have made considerable representations to the Minister. He has courteously undertaken to consider them before reaching any decision.

Mr. Sedgemore

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. If he reads Hansard, he will see that in answers to questions tabled by me, rather than by the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), the Minister has said that he received 300 representations. The Minister has received representations from five hon. Members. We are glad to have his support in this case. I hope that he gives that support loudly and clearly and that if matters start to go wrong he will carry on the fight. On hearing the Minister yesterday, I felt that he thought that there was a serious problem and that he would give it serious consideration.

The main function of politics, and certainly one of the functions of education and of art, is to enable us to mediate between the world as we perceive it and the world as we would like it to be. In the economic and cultural desert created by the Government, one of the problems is that that mediation is no longer possible. Instead, there are Nietzsche's images of nihilism profoundly expressed in a terrifying metaphor by that catholic theologian Hans Kung, when he said: The sea drunk up (a blank emptiness). The horizon wiped away (a living space without prospects). The earth unchained from its sun (a blank nothingness). At one level they are Nietzsche's images of nihilism, but at another and more immediate level they are Thatcher's images of despair. If one wants to know about despair and art, go to the Tate gallery and look at some of the paintings by the American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. Those paintings are poignant windows on the world. Many of the tragedies that lie unseen behind those windows have been created by the Thatcher Government and other Governments of the Western world. There came a time when Mark Rothko had nowhere else to go, so he ended up on his studio floor with his wrists slashed by his own hands and drowned in his own blood. One may say that that story is dramatic, but the tragedy was real and we cannot ignore it.

Many people in our society feel that they have nowhere to go. Millions of them are unemployed. Many of them are youngsters and a fair number are students. I do not know what to advise those people to do, but perhaps the fairest thing that could happen would be for some of the Ministers from the bosom of their Cabinet rooms to do as Rothko did.

11.56 am
Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

One of the agonies for hon. Members waiting a long time to make a speech is that they sometimes hear their points made by a preceding speaker, and that alters their speech. It may have the merit of shortening my speech today.

I and my wife are artists, my son is a sculptor, and my daughter is an art historian. I have a great interest in the future of art education in Kent. There are three art colleges in Kent, and I am worried about the proposal put forward by the National Advisory Body for Local Authority Education that there should be rationalisation of two of the major art colleges—Canterbury, with 600 students, and Maidstone, with 350 students. The proposal is wrong. I ask the Under-Secretary of State, as the general—I use the army metaphor—to listen to the regimental officers, the soldiers in the field, who know what goes on.

Kent is a big place—it could be two counties, not one. Ask any man of Kent, or Kentish man, and he will say that there is and always has been a distinct difference between east Kent and west Kent. Canterbury is east and Maidstone is west, and we need two distinct colleges to provide education opportunities in Kent. If this proposal is accepted by the Under-Secretary of State, it would be not only a tragedy but a denial of a real educational opportunity which is so important for students of art and design in Kent. Those colleges are extremely good at providing graphic design teaching as well as fine arts teaching. It would be madness to accept this proposition.

In recent months, I took up with the Minister the subject of student grants. Kent university is in my constituency, and I have been involved in its activities. I much admire the university and its students. I have listened to the students, and I am depressed by the Government's meanness and stingy approach to save a little money over the travel grant for students. The measure means that in my rural constituency, where students live perhaps 20 miles from the university—they are in college for only one year out of three—some students are perhaps as much as £200 out of pocket. I ask the Minister to think again, because he should not be making that type: of saving.

I want to refer to another aspect of higher education. It concerns the effect on our research activity, so well and concisely touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James). On Wednesday of this week I was unable to be here to hear the President of France because I had a prior engagement in my constituency to talk to the sixth form of an old and distinguished grammar school, the Simon Langton school. It is for boys and girls and is, in effect, two separate schools. I wanted to keep that engagement because these are the university students of tomorrow.

I spoke to about 60 boys. Afterwards I told the headmaster that I was surprised that in the vigorous questioning on a great many subjects of the sort that are before everyone today—the nuclear deterrent, unemployment, the state of the economy, the miners' strike—I had only one question on unemployment. I asked the headmaster and other masters why they thought that was so. I was told, "The reason is that they do not believe it will happen to them. They all expect to get jobs in high technology and the new industries." The headmaster said, "I certainly hope so. I am depending on them to keep me in my retirement." That is not funny; it is true. That is what older men are expecting of our young people—that they will go out and be the creators and innovators in our new society.

The young people were, in effect, saying to me, "We are expecting to get a place in higher education, in the universities, to do the things that you expect of us." The sixth former in a grammar school or a comprehensive school today is expecting that third sector of education to be his right.

It is clear that the demand for university places will continue at its present level, and that it may well increase. As we know, there is no sign of a fall in demand. At Kent university, well qualified and acceptable students are being turned away because the courses are full. I am not talking about esoteric courses that might be in some doubt but courses with computing activities, related to the modern world. We are turning people away from them.

I believe that we have reached the bottom of acceptable cuts, and that our universities must be provided with level funding in real terms for the next five years. If we are to have additional students in science and technology, extra funding will be required, because the cost of those courses is considerably higher than in the non-science subjects.

I said that I wanted to touch on research and the effect of cuts in the universities on research activities. The Secretary of State is properly having to consider the cost of everything. We know that he is a responsible Minister. He comes before us in a manner which appeals to the House, because we know that he is exercised about the problem. He has been suggesting that perhaps industry could find money for the research in our universities as well as for the research that it does within its own laboratories. But industry finance for research is basically for industry's own interests, and it is not a substitute for university research. It is separate and dependent; it is complementary. The Secretary of State gave us a hint this morning that he would not push industry too far on that course. He suggested that instead we should inch towards private sector support. That is helpful. One day we may achieve the American pattern, whereby basic research can be funded from private industrial money, but we are not there yet and we are not likely to get there for many years to come, if at all.

To make cuts now that affect research, on the assumption that industry will pick up the bill in the future, is wishful thinking. It can lead only to a decline in research activity. Indeed, research activity is already in decline. I know its effect at Cambridge, where I heard it said this week by the vice-chancellor. The editor of Nature, John Maddox, has already said that there is a positive decline in basic research in our universities. The Government must be warned of the danger.

It may look well now to produce figures which show a substantial saving in costs in the university sector. It may look right and it may seem satisfying but it is not right. It is a false economy in an area where we cannot afford to fail or to take risks.

There is much that is wrong in our society today. We have excessively high unemploymnent. We are struggling to regain our economic health. Our old industries are in decline. New industries are beginning to show promise of growth and new jobs. They are the sunrise industries. They depend on the courage of men to work in them and develop them, and they depend on the confidence of people. They depend on new investment, on new plant and on new management. They need trained and highly skilled—educated—workers, graduates and diploma holders. Above all, they need research in the companies, in the universities and in the science establishments—the units of our research councils. We dare not risk cutting our investment in research at such a critical stage of our recovery from recession.

What is happening is alarming. The universities are suffering cuts that are resulting in cuts in research activities. They are having the effect of driving distinguished scientists to look elsewhere for the financial support, the facilities and the equipment to continue their work. We may well lose some of our best men and women in this way. Certainly our young high fliers will be much more impatient; they will look elsewhere and be tempted to go overseas.

University research is financed through the dual support system. Some money comes from the UGC, and most of the rest of it comes from the research councils. The Secretary of State has said that he wants to increase the resources for fundamental scientific research, applied research and development. We thank him for that, but he has been looking to achieve it through greater selectivity, presumably by making cuts in specific areas. It is no doubt salutary to require scientists to exercise their judgment and to seek to pursue the most promising goals; but what are the most promising goals? That is a question that every director of research would like to be able to answer.

The scientist can decide to look in a certain direction but he can never be certain that it is the right direction.I serve on the Medical Research Council. That is a formidable task for a layman, not just in trying keep up with all the fellows of the Royal Society around me but in trying not to let them down as the parliamentary member of the council. Now we are to see a cut in the Medical Research Council budget. It will result in drastic cuts in the support given to research in higher education. Last year, 87 per cent, of high scoring—alpha—applications were awarded; this year the number has had to be cut to 53 per cent. The budget for the next three to five years is to be cut by £10 million. That is at a time when we should be pouring money into research to fund the new opportunities for Britain.

The money available for new programme grants is to be cut by 25 per cent; research studentships are to be cut by 30 per cent; advanced course studentships are to be cut by 30 per cent; intercalated awards are to cut by 10 per cent. Those are devastating cuts for scientists to contemplate.

It is up to Parliament to remind Ministers of the dangers of making cuts today which in 10 years could be catastrophic. We must not only remind them but try to restrain them. The cost of basic research is small compared with the cost of applied research and development. We are talking of a small amount of money in an area where it can do so much good.

The Secretary of State has said that he will listen. We know he will; he always has done. That is good. He has a record of being prepared sometimes to change his mind. I hope that he will have second thoughts after today's debate.

12.9 pm

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

The interest in this important debate is enormous. I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch), Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) and Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon), who made enlightened speeches. I am not in the habit of complimenting Conservative Members, but, unlike the lone Liberal spokesman, I have not referred to "Tory backwoodsmen". Indeed, when I made a rather milder comment a week or so ago I was thrown out. We have all had heavy postbags on this subject and, although I welcome the debate, I deplore the fact that it takes place on a Friday. Like the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud), who spoke for the Liberal party, and possibly for the SDP as well, I believe that virtually every organisation concerned has written to all of us. Moreover, every representation has ultimately been connected with the subject of my speech—resources.

The hon. Member for Cambridge spoke as though capital expenditure were separate from resources, but they come under the same heading. We have received representations from the Open University and other universities, often from the vice chancellors. We have also heard from the unions—from the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education and the Association of University Teachers as well as from the British Medical Association—which expect VAT to be put on books and are concerned about medical students in financial difficulty. We have also received representations from individual lecturers and others.

Having heard those enlightened speeches, I hope that we may achieve at least a tendency towards consensus and that there will be no Tory speeches upholding the horrendous cuts which have taken place in the universities and which have brought into action people who formerly would never have dreamt of criticising the Government.

A union not directly connected with academic life but representing many working people in education is ASTMS. Moreover, Clive Jenkins chairs the TUC education committee. In addition to its economic review, that union has published a document entitled "Higher Education: rationed without reason" which states: The second industrial revolution now taking place will bring in its train demands for new products and services and new skills. These will have to be met by the education and training system. It continues: At present, further and higher education are neither structured nor resourced to meet this challenge and the policies being pursued by the Government represent a concerted attack upon the principle of comprehensive education", by which it means education as a whole, including higher education.

On the many occasions when I have put questions to the Minister about the number of well-qualified young people who are refused entry to the universities, he has always fallen back on saying that they can go to the polytechnics. Those young people applied with proper qualifications to go to the universities but were turned down due to the draconian cuts imposed on the universities—especially on the red brick universities, rather than Oxbridge whence most Tory Members seem to come.

The Select Committee visited Stirling and Aston. The cuts there and at Bradford are appalling. It is incredible that anyone should seek to justify what has happened there. During the war, we used to say that if a battalion lost one third of its effectives it was virtually useless.

Mr. Gale

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Flannery

The hon. Gentleman has already intervened in the debate, and I should like to get on.

Aston university states: More high-quality engineers and scientists are needed to regenerate British industry and to ensure a successful future. It goes on to point out that for every place available at that university, which is devoted to engineering, 17 applications are received compared with nine nationally. It goes on to point out that the cuts at that university have amounted to almost 40 per cent. That is absolutely incredible.

Sir Keith Joseph

I venture the opinion that both Aston and Salford are better universities through the energy, devotion and skill of their vice-chancellors and staff and all who work there as a result of what they have had to do. I remind the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), who is speaking so vigorously on this, that the Front-Bench spokesman for his party, the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), refused to pledge any future Labour Government to restore the cuts.

Mr. Flannery

With his usual subterfuge, the Secretary of State is attempting to convey the impression that the horrific cuts imposed were due to inefficiency and that the universities are all the better as a result. That is arrant nonsense. I can only say that the three Conservative speeches to which I paid tribute stand out in their eminence largely due to the aridity and flatness of the surrounding territory.

The cuts are utterly unjustified at a time not just of unemployment but when the whole world is moving into a new revolution in which we must hold our place. After discussions with the research councils, the Select Committee published an urgent report on biotechnology to try to stop biotechnologists going abroad as a result of the cuts.

Mr. Gale

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Flannery

No, others wish to take part and some speeches have been very long. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will let me get on.

In the mid-1980s more young people than ever need this kind of education. The cuts at the Open University and the other universities are taking place at a time when there is more demand for higher education than ever before. There is more demand even in the prisons. Indeed, we also put out a report about prison education.

Mr. Gale


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) has repeatedly made it clear that he does not intend to give way.

Mr. Flannery

It is even more dreadful in that the red brick universities have been cut almost on a class basis. I do not want any cuts. I want the money restored and I hope that it will be restored when the Labour party comes to power.

The cuts at Aston and elsewhere have been so horrific that even the UGC, which we have tended to regard as an arm of Government, has finally rebelled. Diana Warwick of the AUT states in a letter: We would like to draw your attention to a report just issued by the University Grants Committee, the Government's own confidential advisers on the university system, in which they assess the current state of Higher Education, as well as malting far reaching proposals for future development. In the conclusion to their report they state: 'The Committee's aim in July 1981 was to minimise the damage to the system caused by the cuts imposed by Government. But these cuts were so severe that great harm has still been done. Academic planning has been disrupted, morale has been impaired, thousands of young people have been denied a university education, confidence in Government has been shaken and will be difficult to restore.' The Conservatives should take note of such a statement from the UGC. That letter asks for two things. First, the Government should—or, in my view, must—provide truly level funding at least until the end of the decade. We should explain to people what level funding is. It means holding the finances firm so that we can continue at least until the 1990s to educate our people in proportion to the demand for education, on the Robbins principle. I am not sure that many Conservative Members understand the Robbins principle or that the Secretary of State himself understood it when he came to office.

The second thing that is being asked for is that access of students to higher education on the Robbins principle must be expanded, since the demand for graduates will continue to grow in proportion to the current industrial revolution. We dare not fall any further behind—we are already falling behind—by not providing enough money. Expressions such as "throwing money at a problem" are an abuse of language. Higher education needs money. Every letter that we have received states clearly that resources are what is required.

The money spent on each student must be increased, as must money devoted to equipment and premises. We: cannot have higher education on the cheap. It is no good intoning an incantation about how we want higher standards and about taking people from industry into higher education. There are no jobs for those people in industry and people are losing their jobs in higher education, even though we would like to see people moving from industry into higher education.

In a press release, Mr. Dawson, the general secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, pointed out that the quality of teaching and research would suffer if funds were not forthcoming. However, he also said that he was quoting from warnings given by the National Advisory Body for Local Authority Education—to explain the initials NAB to the public. In other words, the two bodies set up by the Government to advise them, the UGC and the NAB, have both criticised the Government which set them up and whose pliant tools many of us thought that they were, and have told them bluntly that there is not enough money for higher education and that if higher education is to be kept in good order we must give it more money.

Vast amounts of money are available on a grand scale, whenever they are needed, for armaments, including nuclear armaments. Let us not talk about a shortage of money.

Both the Government advisory bodies have given dire warnings. I hope that the Secretary of State is listening to my speech, which is an urgent plea for more money for higher education. I applaud the three Conservative Members who have shown that there is stern criticism of the Government on their own Benches for not paying enough attention to higher education. No doubt other Conservative Members share their views. I hope that this important debate will have brought home the lessons, especially about resources, which we deny at our peril. We will see in time whether the Minister has learnt from the debate.

12.25 pm
Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

The fundamental right to education and the fundamental importance of research can both be spoken about in sweeping and extreme terms. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) has given a classic demonstration of how exaggeration can be piled upon exaggeration. The arguments for more education and more research could run away with enormous amounts of cash—much more than would be possible if one bears in mind the practical considerations.

It may be uncomfortable to have to say this, but there must be a limit to the resources made available. In those circumstances, the Secretary of State is right to expect value for money. He should be complimented for seeking it. Of course, there will be protests at anything which seems to do less than exploit demand to the full. No doubt some of the protests will be—indeed, they are—well articulated. However, the pursuit of excellence cannot be conducted without regard to financial parameters. My right hon. Friend will also realise—none better, perhaps—that commercial and industrial success relates to the numbers of appropriately qualified people available to help us to achieve our purposes and to our ability to be in the van of at least some of the new technological and industrial developments with which we hope to maintain our competitive position. We must have a degree of research in a number of important sectors.

Some formidable arguments have been presented to my right hon. Friend from distinguished sources. Even before he publishes his Green Paper, he has received advice which is very daunting indeed. I hope that those arguments will assist him in the internal battles which he will have to fight to ensure that the maximum resources are available in a difficult situation. It seems to me that there is a case for greater rationalisation of the structure of higher education. There needs to be greater clarity, if only because this will help to cut out some of the duplication on either side of the binary line to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) has referred.

The Secretary of State wants efficiency. We are not getting the maximum efficiency out of the system as it stands. The present binary system has been defended in the advice tendered to the Secretary of State, but, he will have noted, not without some qualifications on the part of the NAB. The Department's own distinction between the two main sectors of higher education in 1981 was that Non-university education's key contribution lies in its provision of courses specifically designed to reflect the opportunities and requirements of the country's employment market. The NAB would say that neither side of the binary line should be seen as more vocational that the other. In the light of our present industrial needs I am inclined to echo that sentiment. The NAB says that it is imperative to have further progress towards integrated planning of higher education. I believe that the NAB is right on that point and that we would get better value out of an integrated structure. I believe that it would be easier within an integrated structure to achieve the shifts to certain types of subject that the Government are anxious to see. I believe that if the whole system were better understood both by the consumer and by the potential benefactors, more resources would come in and there would be a better understanding of what is the right course for a particular student. People are sometimes baffled by the distinctions between higher education, advanced education, non-advanced higher education and continuing education. Local authorities could perhaps be persuaded to be less paternal or, protective of one of their institutions if they were better able to understand how it fits into a national plan and helps to supply the regional needs of employers in various ways. New ideas are coming out all the time. I commend what is being done under the PICKUP scheme which is certainly concentrating the minds of local authorities to try to find the right and most relevant courses and give them support.

I hope that we shall look carefully at the new techniques which can be employed to take higher education to more people in Britain. I am not satisfied that we have exploited distance learning to the full. I do not want to enter into a full defence of the Open University in quite the same terms as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon), although I have great sympathy with what he said. We have a great deal of expertise within the Open University now which might be spread further through our higher education system in order to find an economic and sensible way to bring particular types of courses to more people than might otherwise have them if they had to rely on the traditional system of attending an institution.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the surging demand for continuing education. I hope that he will obtain advice on the way in which we can most fully exploit the exciting new techniques of bringing learning to more people in Britain. Those are two simple suggestions that I make in the limited time that is available today.

Unless we are able to satisfy the surging demand for all types of higher education, we should not underestimate the great discontent that there will be. We must ensure that as a country we do not sell ourselves short in the process.

12.30 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I promise to follow the excellent example set by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) and make a brief speech because I know that many hon. Members still want to speak.

I support much of what the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) said about the transfer of control of Scottish universities to Scottish institutions. At the very least, there should be a Scottish sub-committee of the UGC or a Scottish UGC. Some of my hon. Friends want much more. We should like to see in Scotland a much more closely integrated system of higher and further education under a Scottish Parliament.

I want to express my anxiety about the cuts in the Open University's budget as they affect Scottish students. In remote areas of Scotland the Open University is the only form of higher education that is available to students. In the Shetlands the Open University has about 74 students and in the Orkneys there are about 50 students. Throughout Scotland a third of the students are vastly removed geographically from study centres. In fact, much of the communication between tutors and students in Scotland is by way of the telephone and correspondence.

Scotland has already seen the closure of one study centre in Glasgow—the Jordanhill centre. I fear that, as a result of the cuts that the Department is seeking to inflict upon that institution—it has been described rightly as an excellent university—there will be a further diminution in the opportunities available to Scottish students of the university.

Particularly at risk are those who live in the geographically remote Highlands and Islands. I sincerely hope that the Department will look again, and much more sympathetically, at the problems bedevilling the Open University brought about by the cuts. For many people in Scotland the Open University provides the only chance to read for a university degree.

We have heard much today, understandably and rightly, about the cuts in research programmes, but there has been little or no mention of the marginality of the employment of research staff in our universities. The main consequence of the pattern of research grants is that research workers have no career structure. Therefore, they have little or no security of employment. As has been said, most contracts are for two to three years, but renewal is not always automatic. In the 1960s and 1970s that was not the problem that it is today, because many researchers moved into teaching posts. That was an established practice in many universities. That employment mobility has now decreased dramatically as the number of teaching posts has been reduced and the number of researchers has increased. That has certainly been the case in the past few years.

Moreover, funding bodies and universities have attempted to spread the reduced resources more thinly by taking on new, younger, and hence, cheaper research staff. That has led, in some instances, to the break-up of experienced research teams. I think that it is reasonable to say that, because of the marginality of their employment, research staff have inferior status to many of their colleagues in the universities, and, as a consequence of the lack of career structure, they are denied many rights that their colleagues around them have enjoyed for many years. For example, they have inferior conditions of employment compared with lecturing staff. They are employed on different pay scales and are often barred from playing an effective role in university government and decision-making. When appointed, they are often not assisted with removal expenses, and frequently are compelled to assist with teaching duties although they receive no pay for that work.

The marginality of the employment of researchers in the academic system is typified by the requirement enforced by many establishments to sign away the right to claim redundancy pay and to take proceedings for unfair dismissal. I am pleased to say that, following negotiations with Association of University Teachers, Scotland, two Scottish universities have agreed to end that unsavoury employment practice.

That most inefficient system of employment can hardly produce good commissioned research. What is needed is the introduction of an improved career structure for research staff that would improve the quality of research and provide greater security for research workers. The Government, the research funding bodies, the UGC—all those involved—should accept their responsibilities to the people who carry out research work. No research worker should be compelled to waive normal employment rights, such as redundancy pay and the right to challenge his or her dismissal.

Taking part in this higher education debate reminds me of what was said by Louis MacNeice about 40 years ago when speaking of Oxford dons. He said: They had charm without warmth and knowledge without understanding. Before he shouts me down, let me say to the hon. Member for Cambridge that I would not think for one moment that such a charge could be levelled at today's Oxford or Cambridge dons. However, the charge of charm without warmth and knowledge without understanding can be levelled at Ministers and some of their senior officials, because of the damage that has been done to the system of higher education in Scotland.

12.37 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

I am glad that we have this opportunity to debate what is, after all, a fundamental part of the future of Britain. Over the years these green Benches have been populated by some of the finest academics that this country has produced. Unfortunately, I do not number among them. However, I did manage to obtain an external degree at the University of London while studying at Bournemouth college of technology, and a very fine institution that is, too.

As we approach the whole series of delicate questions relating to funding academic integrity and freedom, efficiency and standards, it is always necessary to bear in mind that there is a choice. Many people lay the base of their career at further education institutions. Many will leave the youth training scheme and start a career on the transferable skills that are taught there. Many will found a career based on nothing more than their native wit and natural talents.

Through my employment agency I have interviewed thousands of people, and I can think of a number of graduates who expected to enter top jobs automatically. I am delighted to see that realism has entered the scene and that one can now find graduates at every level of an organisation. Consequently, the graduate unemployment rate, which was reaching alarming proportions, is starting to decline. There are classes of university graduates on polytechnic courses taking professional exams and diplomas that are relevant to our expanding economy.

We must keep the usual calls for more money firmly in perspective. Higher education may produce good managers, but does it do much for the entrepreneur whom both sides of the House wish to encourage? Higher taxation to expand higher education could easily crush the very people who pay for it. That is why we must look towards the market to shape the future.

The university sector undoubtedly needs restructuring. However, one needs capital to restructure, and I fully support the UGC's advice to the Government to allow it to reimburse 50 per cent, of the cost of compensation under the premature retirement scheme. The difficulty about that scheme lies in the uncertainty about whether those retiring are those who need to retire and not those whose services are still required.

Similarly, the retention limits on the proceeds of sales of property should be lifted. That may create a slight increase in the money supply, but it will encourage the maximisation of assets and prevent institutes of higher education from becoming property dealers, calculating retention limits, possible changes and ways of getting round the system.

There is a theory that the UGC report says that the universities delivered in 1981 and that it is now the Government's turn. The NAB wishes to ensure that any deal made on cuts now in return for resources tomorrow will not be reneged on. At a time when we are only just coming out of recession—and higher education managed to keep abreast of inflation during its worst years—much thought must be given to whether the sector has performed as well as it could. Have all savings been found? Have all avenues of alternative finance been examined? Has financial viability been sacrificed for academic freedom? Without financial viability, there can be no opportunity for academic freedom.

There is a feeling in the higher education sector that the NAB is performing well in moving towards a planned and coherent system in its area. Many people think that the university sector could be helped by a similar evaluation exercise which would produce solid results.

One sector of higher education adjusts courses to perceived needs. It is high time that the majority of universities did the same. The French have a manpower projection and plan graduate output as part of a rolling five-year programme. Such an approach is not impossible and is compatible with academic freedom.

At a time like this, the Open University and Open Tech come into their own. A minor cut has been made; it looks large, because the campaigners take it as a cut in projected expenditure. On the whole, I support more resources for those institutions. Many of my constituents are taking their course. Nevertheless, those institutions must follow the same rules as the rest of the education sector. Waste must be eliminated. However, it is undeniable that the cost of producing an Open University or Open Tech graduate is substantially lower than the cost of producing any other graduate.

The education system is in ferment. The Government are tackling the problems of primary schools, secondary schools, further education and training. Higher education must look to its laurels—substantial though they are—in both the sciences and the arts. In that sector, we must look for the dynamism and willingness to change in a changing world that we look for in commerce.

At the same time we search for the ability to maintain standards and a belief in what was, along with the ability to pass on that knowledge and belief. This must be achieved without an excessive devotion to structure and work. Higher education must not only prepare people for the world, but must be integral to it. By setting the sector free in the market, with adequate backing, the Government will be performing the classic Conservative role of linking the nation past and the nation present with the nation of the future.

12.44 pm
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

It was said of Queen Victoria that when she knew that she was to be queen she said that she would be good. In deference to my colleagues, I should tell them that I shall be brief.

At the 1981 annual Labour party conference we passed a resolution on the education and training of the 16 to 19-year-old age group. It called for provision for that age group to be unified, universal, comprehensive and continuing. The use of alliteration and good sound common sense for the 16 to 19-year-olds is not mutually exclusive, and over the years the Labour party has consistently sought to increase greatly provision in the higher, further and adult education spheres. It has also sought quantitative change accompanied by qualitative change in the structure, content and organisation of education beyond the age of 16.

The Secretary of State referred to the triple purpose of higher education. He mentioned the individual, service to the economy and service to society. We have believed, and continue to believe, in the importance of the development of social awareness as a criterion for education; in the development of responsibility; in the importance of the capacity of the individual to lead a full and satisfying life; in the contribution that can be made to the development and culture of the community; and that an educated society can harness modern technology to provide the greatest freedom for everyone.

We believe that that would provide the maximum benefit to society as a whole, and that education at all levels must be seen as a right for all those seeking it, and not a privilege to be fought for through the artifically created and arbitrary system of barriers. Indeed, that was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) in his redefinition of and re-emphasis on the educational criteria and aims of the Robbins report.

The Opposition accept that there has been a certain maintenance of the level of total resources available in the public sector, although, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, the value of the recurrent grant to universities fell by 8.75 per cent, between 1980–81 and 1983–84. But to say that the resources have remained the same in the public sector is like standing still on a travelator going the other way.

There has been a rapid rise in the number of students, which has led to a significant drop—in constant prices—in the level of spending per student. Since 1981–82, spending per student has fallen from £2,670 to £2,060, which means a real cut of 20 per cent. That in turn puts our institutions of further and higher education under severe strain. There have been additional students but no additional resources. Even the NAB has warned that having extra students without extra resources has placed a heavy strain on the ability of the staff. In the words of the NAB report, it has prevented staff from updating "their knowledge and skills" in order to maintain quality. The NAB has warned: Deficiencies appear at first slowly, but then increasingly, and eventually require a major effort to correct. The danger is the lack of any immediate effect will lead to a false sense of security about the potential damage. Thus, drop by drop the cup is filled. The 1984 expenditure White Paper shows that the cash increase in resources for public sector institutions is less than the expected level of inflation. There is, therefore, by implication, a cut of 1.5 per cent, over the period.

Some polytechnic institutions are bailed out, if that is the right term, by their local education authorities. In the past that has accounted for 7 per cent, of income. As my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North said, NAB has warned against further cuts and urged as a first priority the preservation of the unit of resource at its planned 1984–85 level.

The polytechnic institutions have already expressed their grievance that their unit of resource—the money per full-time equivalent student—is significantly less than it is for the universities. The polytechnics accept that they are not research institutions, but even taking that into account the universities have, for teaching purposes, a differential in their favour of £800 per student. That means that the universities receive an allocation of about 25 per cent, more for doing the same professional work. That creates especial problems in science and technologies.

I pay homage to the sterling work of the Teesside polytechnic in my constituency. But it has difficulty in meeting the expectations of the Engineering Council for the support of engineering degree students. The fear throughout the polytechnics is that one extreme result will be to debar them from teaching engineering degree students.

In deference to my colleagues, I shall not make as long a speech as I intended, but the polytechnics have an additional worry—the capital allocation system. Polytechnic capital must be disentangled from local grant capital. The capital provision of £4.9 million for 1985–86 hardly meets the amount required. That is amply illustrated by the example of the merger of Ulster university with its polytechnic which requires capital of £11.1 million—half for buildings and half for equipment. The £4.9 million must be shared among 30 education institutions.

The polytechnics cannot make bricks without straw. To put that another way, we cannot teach chemical engineering without gas chromotagraphs. We need computer-aided design systems, machine tools and robots to interface. The cost of that is £50,000 and it may be beyond the capital allocation.

The Secretary of State said that several decades ahead a series of undramatic but useful steps must be taken towards contributions from the private sector. I hesitate to raise the ire of the Secretary of State by mentioning John Maynard Keynes, but he once said, In the long run …we are all dead. We are looking to the Secretary of State not so much for entrepreneurial drive and a competitive edge to success to the country's trade, but in our polytechnics we are looking for adequate resources, security for the future, the maintenance of standards of excellence and for resources, assistance, understanding and comprehension by the Government.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

The House will wish to know that the wind-up speeches are expected to begin at about 1.50 pm. If hon. Members continue to make short speeches, fewer of them will be disappointed.

12.54 pm
Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

As this is a strategic debate about higher education, I shall start with what I believe to be a strategic reality—that a civilised and technology-based society with ever increasing leisure time will develop an ever-growing thirst for broadly based education on a continuing basis and for people of all ages. Everything else that we say about higher education must be based firmly on that fundamental proposition. It is our responsibility to meet that need.

We have heard a great deal today and in all the papers circulated before the debate about the need to switch resources towards science and technology. Those of us who have been connected with companies in the last year see signs of approaching bottlenecks in skills. I have visited various companies in the high technology area, and they have said that there is no end to the number of electronics engineers that they want to recruit, and that for each good electronics engineer they recruit 25 other people to service him. That is the measure of the prize for which we have to strive.

While in no way diminishing the importance of increasing the provision in science and technology education, I do not believe that that can be done at the expense of beggaring other subjects that are less industry-oriented or less obviously career-oriented. Knowledge: is indivisible and one cannot predict from which piece of research or from what combination of different pieces of research great inventions and discoveries will come. Nor can one easily predict now what the fashions and trends in education will be in a decade or more. It is, therefore, inevitable and necessary that for a university to be worthy of its name it must be broadly based in its teaching and research.

In saying that, and in speaking strongly for the retention of broadly-based education in universities, I do not underestimate the need to provide for a shift in balance to science and technology. However, in the main that must be achieved by the generating of additional resources for science and technology and not by cutting the resources available for the arts.

We have heard from our universities and polytechnics that the cost of providing an engineering place is about three times that for providing an arts place. To make a significant contribution in response to the needs of industry in the provision of additional places in science and engineering would create a wholly unacceptable and disproportionate cut in the number of arts places.

I have a constituency interest to disclose in Leeds university. I share that interest with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and with the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett). I also have a strong professional interest in Sheffield university as my law firm has acted for it since its inception. Most of my partners and I have been deeply involved in its administration, and I have been involved in much of its technology transfer work. Those two great civic universities are in the forefront of the development of science and technology.

I accept and recognise that some of the new funds needed for science and technology will be generated by the increased commercial exploitation of academic know-how. That technology transfer is a vital national priority—not simply to provide additional resources for the education system, but to provide a basis for the regeneration of our industrial base. The ending of the British technology group monopoly for the development of publicly funded research is a great fillip for that process.

While there have been many significant successes and while some institutions have adapted quickly to the need to provide additional expertise and exploitation of their knowhow, taking an overall view of the country it can be only with a sense of disappointment that we look upon the opportunities that have been missed in Britain and compare Britain with those countries that have adopted more vigorous policies of encouraging the exploitation of academic knowhow. We can achieve a great deal more, but the problems and barriers are many and complex—far too many to deal with in any detail in today's debate when so many hon. Members wish to speak.

One matter of great significance has been achieved this morning, and that is the clear and unequivocal undertaking given by my right hon. Friend that when universities and polytechnics generate additional funds from the exploitation of academic knowhow they will not be lost in grants. The problem of deficit financing exercises the minds of many academics. As recently as yesterday, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals came to the House and raised that doubt. My right hon. Friend must be congratulated on setting those doubts to rest so clearly and unambiguously.

Notwithstanding the importance of technology transfer, it can never be a total alternative to the adequate public funding of research and teaching in universities and polytechnics, nor to adequate long-term planning horizons for our academic institutions. I do not mean merely the funding of teaching and research, but the pump-priming of closer links with industry. That pump-priming may come from budgets other than that of the education budget. The Alvey project provides a good example of the way in which industry and academe can be brought together. On a smaller scale, the Gateway scheme which is operating in Sheffield and under which the Manpower Services Commission, the Confederation of British Industry, universities and local businesses put graduates into small businesses which would not ordinarily employ them, has obvious spin-offs for all involved.

Time is short, so I shall conclude by affirming that our objective in higher education must be the pursuit, achievement and exploitation of excellence on a broad front. That, by its very nature, can never be cheap, but our future depends upon it.

1.2 pm

Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

In many ways, today's debate has been remarkable. There has been a broad degree of consensus. As I see it, there are three points of agreement.

First, we all agree that during the past few years, as a direct result of the Government's policies, universities have suffered severe cuts which have caused tremendous difficulties in administration, teaching and research. Secondly, we agree that there are more than 12,000 potentially qualified students who are denied university education because of the Government's policies. They are the victims of the cuts and of what in the jargon is called credential inflation. In other words, they have the qualifications but there are no places available for them. Thirdly, we agree that the polytechnics have taken more students but the Government, consistent with their policies in other directions, have not made additional funding available. In future polytechnics may face cuts in real terms, which will increase their problems.

The only discordant note was, unfortunately, the Secretary of State's speech. He does not appear to recognise the realities of the education system as do his hon. Friends ad my hon. Friends. It may be that the Government Whips told the real backwoodsmen of the Tory party to take this Friday off and go back to their constituencies and that we have not heard the real voice of the Conservative party on education today. That would have been a remarkable achievement.

I shall concentrate on two points, the first of which relates to research. I ask the Government to recognise that research is not merely an esoteric pastime but has an input in terms of the advancement of knowledge and learning and of teaching and curriculum development. I recognise three problems at Leeds university and in universities generally. First, there is a substantial decline in the number of postgraduate students. That means that we are destroying the seed corn of future research. We are depriving people who could make a contribution from the opportunity to make it. Secondly, there is a reduction in the number of technical staff. No hon. Member has yet mentioned university technical staff. Let us not forget that technical staff make a significant contribution in sciences, engineering and research. Over the past few years there has been a 10 per cent, reduction in the number of technical staff employed at Leeds university.

Thirdly, researchers face a squeeze in the amount of money made available to the research institutes and councils. I have had correspondence and discussions with researchers in the University of Leeds. Two important research projects in the department of biochemistry that have already been funded by the Medical Research Council are now to be deprived of funds. They are important projects that would help us, in some respects, to understand the causes of certain cancers.

Is the Secretary of State satisfied with a position in which the Medical Research Council can write to researchers saying "We realise that what you are doing is of merit, but we are not in a position to support and finance that project"? In one case we are talking about a project that has already been funded for three years and which has cost the Medical Research Council £90,000 but from which the Government in their stupidity are now cutting funds at the very point at which that research is likely to take off and be of value to us all. I shall write to the Secretary of State about those two research projects. I hope that as a fellow Member representing Leeds with a genuine interest in the university, he will pursue them with his normal enthusiasm.

I shall mention the UGC-NAB document in terms of recruitment. I approve of the shift in policy. It is one that says that we now look to benefit as the criterion against which we judge potential for university and polytechnic admission. If there is that shift in policy, there must be additional resources so that we can make it possible for mature students to go into higher education. We must reverse the pernicious cuts that the Government have introduced into university adult education, penny-saving cuts which will deprive many people of the opportunity to pursue further education.

We need also to ensure that we have a proper system of finance for students from the age of 16 onwards so that students of all classes can benefit from higher education. It is a scandal—perhaps the universities should look at themselves as well—that in this country social class 4 makes up 18 per cent, of the country's population but 4.9 per cent, only of university entrants; that the unskilled make up6percent. of the population but 0.9 per cent, only of university entrants. It is a scandal that the universities must face.

We need resources to achieve the objective of turning from qualification to benefit. We also need flexibility from the universities. I believe strongly that that flexibility is already shown in the public sector, but the universities have not shown it. It may be that they have arrived at a more flexible approach because the hangman's rope occasionally concentrates the mind. I hope that they have come to the correct conclusion about the need for flexibility because they realise that they have a role to play not just in terms of their own interests and institutions but in the wider community. That can play that role only if they become more flexible in terms of approach and admission policy.

In the House we substantially differ on higher education in only one important respect. We in the Labour party believe in higher education and education as of right. It is a moral right that people should be able to exercise. On the Conservative Benches education is seen in market and elitist terms. It means the disqualification of many. I look forward to the next Labour Government when we shall be able to give people the opportunity to enjoy higher education regardless of ethnic background and class, when the education system will be open to us all.

1.9 pm

Mrs. Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden)

It is a great privilege to participate in this debate, and, although it is Friday, I think that all hon. Members would agree that this has been a debate of high quality. We have properly looked—many hon. Members have a constituency interest in this matter—at the machinery of the provision of higher education. We have not touched quite so much on what the potential consumers and the general public—not those who are privileged to be sitting in the Chamber, not the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals or the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics—understand by higher and continuing education.

I want no one to be in any doubt about my views. I believe that higher education is of immense value, but I think that the House needs to look carefully at those who are participating and will participate in higher education. We should bear in mind that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science is seeking advice on how to proceed with the provision of higher education in the 1990s when fewer people of school leaving age will enter higher education. The reason for that is the diminishing birth rate in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The National Advisory Board and the University Grants Committee issued a joint document about the products of higher education and the skills it is supposed to give to people with degrees or diplomas. The document stated: These include the ability to analyse complex issues, to identify the core of a problem and the means of solving it, to synthesise and integrate disparate elements, to clarify values, to make effective use of numerical and other information, to work co-operatively and constructively with others, and, above all perhaps, to communicate clearly both orally and in writing. A higher education which provides students with these skills is serving society well. Amen to that, I think we would all agree.

Are the criteria upon which we base entrance into our higher education institutions reaching the people? Is the potential espoused in that rather nice paragraph being fulfilled?

I am not certain whether it is right to say that A-levels and O-levels are the absolute criteria. I know from recently thumbing through one of my children's great mass of university entrance forms that, unfortunately, the qualifications for entrance into university today are significantly lower than when I tried to enter university to read law. I admit that that was 30 years ago. I was a woman trying to get into a law faculty, which in those days was almost as difficult as it is now for a woman to enter Parliament. I seriously urge the Government, when they are looking at the future of higher education, to give clear guidance and thought to the criteria for entrance into the universities and polytechnics.

I urge the Government to note the experiences of the public sector in higher education in trying—this began as early as 1975—to resolve the financial, funding and planning difficulties of what had been, until that time, a growing area. I am a great supporter of the binary system of public sector higher education and of university sector higher education. The difficulties that arose when it was necessary to reduce finance in the public sector—the National Advisory Body was instituted because of those difficulties—had dramatic effects in the early days on public sector higher education.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will acknowledge that good planning and sensible financing of higher education can be achieved not by a cataclysmic and draconian cut in funding but by a long-term plan to act carefully and slowly. If it is not undertaken, inevitably more expense, rather than less suddenly arises. It is a simple diseconomy of resource that is experienced by the people who are trying to run the institutions and they cannot manage it. It is exactly the position that the public sector faces today, having overshot its expenditure limit by about £20 million. That is notwithstanding the fact that, through sensible planning, it has proved possible to bring the student staff ratio to 12:1. That is an enormous improvement on the position five years ago in public sector education, when it was 9:1 on some courses and on others only 4:1. Overall expenditure and funding generally has already been brought to a much more satisfactory level.

My message to the Government for the next very difficult decade, in planning for higher education, is to look at the experience that we have already had in the public sector.

I support those of my colleagues who have spoken of the great importance of ensuring that institutions, such as the Open University, providing higher education for mature students, are not starved of resources or forgotten in the exercise of considering the overall planning for higher education. Many people benefit from the opportunity later in life to achieve a degree or diploma that is often offered by the public sector and by the Open University. Let us not forget that it has played a great part in getting us to where we are today, and is likely to play an even greater part in getting us where we wish to be in the 1990s.

1.17 pm
Mr. Michael Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for many reasons for calling me in the debate, not least because in my constituency I have Portsmouth polytechnic, the largest single public sector institute in higher education.

There is no doubt that the debate takes place in a climate of depression and pessimism that is almost entirely of the Government's making. It is difficult to believe that there can ever have been a Government who have talked so much about planning for the future and done so little to bring to fruition the things for which they wanted to plan. It is not the Government's record of action on higher education that deserves our rebuke today; it is their record of inaction. There has been an extraordinary failure to learn the lesson that we need to adapt and change in the provision for higher education. It is a damaging indictment of the Government's period of office.

There can never have been a greater challenge than that which now faces our higher education system. The need for highly capable and adaptable graduates, of whatever age, sex and background, has never been greater. Yet the Government seem prepared to see the number of graduates per year fall in deference to their own economic strategy. If ever there was a case of "cutting off your nose to spite your face", this surely is it.

The irony is that higher education in itself has begun, albeit slowly, to respond to the challenges in a positive and effective way. The increasing co-operation between the various unions in all higher education is brought about by a growing relationship between the University Grants Committee and the National Advisory Body for Local Authority Education.

Furthermore, a consensus has now emerged on some of the key issues. All concerned are clear that the touchstone for a successful future is improved access to higher education for those sections of the community which have so far been denied it. It makes sense, for two reasons. First, it is morally indefensible for large numbers of citizens, whose taxes keep the education system afloat, to be denied the opportunity to partake of it. Secondly, this type of education is precisely what our society needs if we are to face the difficulties imposed by rapid technological change.

I wish to identify various strands which I believe make up a coherent approach to higher education. We need greatly increased represenation of groups whose participation has previously been unrepresentative, such as women, ethnic minorities and the handicapped, as well as those denied the opportunity of higher education in the past. To this end the Government must guarantee sufficient funding for a sufficient number of graduates in the next few years. Our institutions of higher education must also adopt an increasingly flexible approach to part-time students, entry requirements and the need to provide for continuing education and retraining.

We should look again at the possibility of a credit system to allow students in vocational courses to transfer back into the universities and colleges, and we should consider shorter degree courses. Most important, we should examine the balance between science and the arts. There is general agreement, even in this debate, about the need for a shift towards greater promotion of the sciences, but we must not disregard the desperate need to reduce overspecialisation in many courses. The graduates produced must be able and qualified to cope with the challenges of the next 50 years. They must not be easy meat for the Chancellor's dole queues.

Another vital component in the education system—perhaps the jewel in the crown—is the Open University. It has been much praised in the debate, and no one can doubt its extraordinary success in pioneering distance learning techniques and breaking vital new ground in terms of access. Yet the Government wish to destroy all that in a niggardly attempt to make the Open University a reserve occupation for the rich by forcing fees up and grants down. That must be regarded by all who care about higher education as an outrage. For many people the Open University is the only opportunity for higher education, and it must be protected and safeguarded. Believe it or not, some areas of the Government agree with that view. In a recent report the Department of Trade and Industry highly commended the Open University's approach to distance learning. Perhaps the Secretary of State will discuss that view with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, to whom we wish a speedy return to the House.

The Secretary of State asks the Open University to shift to more science and technology-based courses. As I know from a recent meeting, the Open University would like to do just that, but it costs money—the very money that the Secretary of State has cut from its budget. The right hon. Gentleman should think again, write off the university's loan for the PICKUP scheme and reconsider its grant. If he feels so strongly about this, let him provide the extra money specifically earmarked for science and technology courses. For many people—some of them in remote areas of the country—the Open University is their only opportunity for higher education, but the Government are denying them access to it. We must not let the Open University suffer as a result of the Government's attitude towards further education in general and that institution in particular.

For the thousands of students in my constituency and throughout the country the Government have done precious little. The student grant remains pathetically low and many receive far less than they should because their parents cannot afford to pay the parental contribution in full. The Government have now attacked the travel grant. So much for the Secretary of State's comments about "centres of excellence" when students, well qualified academically to go further afield, are forced to attend the institution down the road due to financial considerations.

It is vital that all those concerned with higher education should understand that their case must be made. At a recent lobby in this House I spoke to members of the students' unions and of the unions with members within higher education. I told them that very few people, except those who are being educated themselves or whose relatives or children are being educated, consider that education is an important element in our society. Education—especially further education—must resell its importance to the community. If it is successful in doing so, I am sure that further education will have a powerful ally on its side when the debate continues outside the House.

The Government must not continue to neglect higher education. They must not neglect to consider the points of view that have been put forward today, and voiced consistently over the past five years by those who care passionately, that education must mean something not just now, but in the decades to come.

The Secretary of State commands great respect in the House and, I have no doubt, in the Government. I urge him to use that respect to protect and cherish those vital of all services—our education and our future.

1.26 pm
Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

I should like to begin by violating one of our most cherished traditions. I want to declare a constituency interest, but I do not intend to ask for more money for it. My constituency contains the university of Buckingham, a private university which gets on with the job and does not complain. I was there a week or so ago. The university is expanding nicely and looking forward to establishing closer commercial contacts with Milton Keynes.

My constituency also houses an excellent institution on the other side of the binary line—the Wolverton campus of the Milton Keynes college. That, too, is getting on with the job. For instance, Monsanto is to bring in 500 jobs. The college at Wolverton is already in touch with Monsanto, even though the company has not yet arrived.

Those two very different institutions are converging towards the same aim—the commercial and financial advantage of our country. That is an example of what can be achieved by a broad-minded and catholic approach, in contrast to the narrow, statist attitudes sometimes expressed by Opposition Members.

Whatever one may say about the Government's strategy, they have succeeded in initiating a debate. Dr. Johnson talked about concentrating the mind. I should like to use his phrase in a more productive sense than he did. The debate on higher education which the Government have initiated is being productive because it is a national debate. If one considers the range of consultations in which the UGC and the NAB have indulged, at the instigation of the Secretary of State, one sees that they amount to a national view. I am sure that the Government will listen to that view.

The debate is national in an even more important sense. Although the Opposition may not realise it, the debate is taking place in a specific national financial framework. That is an important point which I believe that the universities understand better than the Labour party does. I had intended to say that the Labour party considers education—and, indeed, every other problem—in a financial vacuum. However, the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) showed a commendable diplomatic disinclination to make wild promises about restoring cuts. Perhaps that is one of the first fruits of a new realism which we can expect to follow yesterday evening's shadow Cabinet elections. One can only hope so. I suspect that many Labour Members, although they cannot say so, realise that we have come to the end of an era of indiscriminate expansion in higher education.

Some say that it is now more difficult for qualified people to get into university. I was looking at some specific statistics yesterday and it looks as though in a whole range of subjects the A-level qualifications for getting into university have increased. For sociology, achievement at A-level increased from 7.3 to 8.6 per cent, between 1980 and 1983. Perhaps it is not such a bad thing that we now have the prospect of fewer and better sociologists. It is difficult to think of a more encouraging definition for the future than that. Do not let us be downhearted at the thought of higher qualifications for people who want to enter higher education.

I note that the UGC and the NAB propose a new definition for entrance to higher education. Like the Secretary of State, I am unhappy about that. The Secretary of State did not like the subjective overtones of the proposed formula. I would go further and say that it is exquisitely imprecise. The idea of "ability to benefit'' has a nice warm Rousseauesqe ring to it, but it does not seem to be helpful in practical life. On the other hand, it is an obvious aspect when considering admittance to university. Therefore, I propose that we should retain the elements; of ability and attainment in the old definition but, if one likes and if one must, add the element of ability to benefit. That may sound like one of those dreadful Foreign Office compromises, but it is no less sensible for that.

As many hon. Members have said, this has been a good debate. If we are to have a national debate, it is obviously important that the Government should listen to what is said. I want to stress three; points and I hope that the Government will lend an ear to them. My first point relates to private funding. I was encouraged to hear the Secretary of State use the word "inch". Let us be realistic. We are only talking about inches. In this area we must be prudent in our expectations, but we should not be too prudent in what the universities try to achieve because otherwise they will under-achieve, which is one of the major problems in our education system.

One rather depressing but realistic detail of what we are up against with regard to private funding is shown by the recent activities of Volkswagen in West Germany. That company stepped in to fund some academic posts after some Government cuts. The prospect of British Leyland acting in that way would be a sad joke. One reason why the Government had to trim costs, not only in education but in other areas, was that they had been funding companies such as BL at enormous cost for years. One can see the circularity of the problem. BL is getting better now, but for years it has been deficit financed by the Government and it all comes out of one pocket in the end. That is another reason for not expecting too much from British business—it is not as profitable as it should be.

Secondly, I want to stress the question of numbers, which obviously matters as well as quality. Like many of my hon. Friends, I am unhappy about a certain imprecision—I put it no higher—in the projections of student numbers. The Government should not be too pessimistic, not only because of the factors that have been stressed by the UGC, the NAB and others—the social aspect or the question of more women coming into higher education—but because of an important element in the Government's strategy, which is the improvement of standards in primary and secondary schools. We must be optimistic about the Government's chances of success in that area. If they succeed, as I sincerely hope they will, there will be greater pressure on the higher education market. That is another reason for thinking not in static numerical terms but in dynamic terms because we shall need all the higher education that we can get in future.

I should like to refer to the Open University, which is not in my constituency but next door. I do not wholly echo what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon) on that matter. I would be a little more insistent on the need for the Open University to look closely at what it does with the large sums of money that it gets, but that will be done shortly in an efficiency study. I encourage the Government to preserve a sense of proportion. The Open University receives much money, but seen against the £3 billion for higher education it is not all that much. It is very much in the Government's interests that in their attitude to the university they keep in mind that sense of proportion. I agree with the Government's broad strategy on education. It would be sad if the Government's tactics on the Open University became to their national strategy as the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers almost became to the National Coal Board last week.

I should like to refer to the proportion of £3 billion to £14 billion. If one made a graph of the problems of British education, my hunch as a relative newcomer would be that they would be concentrated, like most of the money, at the bottom and middle end—in the primary and secondary sectors. One does not automatically think of higher education as the biggest education problem facing the Government. As the Secretary of State reminded us, it is not the biggest problem in financial terms—£3 billion out of £14 billion being spent on it. Whatever we do, I hope that the Government will retain a broad sense of proportion and take into account the fact that the urgency for radical action is very much at the primary and secondary end. We must not neglect higher education, nor must we get the problems out of proportion and perhaps overtreat the symptoms as they arise.

1.38 pm
Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

I am pleased to take part in the debate, which has been a strategic debate looking at the machinery needed for higher education in the 1990s.

It is timely that the four principles of Robbins should be resurrected and brought before the House for debate. It is encouraging that the notion of continuing education has come out strongly in many letters that I have had and in the joint statement produced by the UGC and NAB. I have an interest in the debate because there is a college of higher education and a college of further education in my constituency, as well as the University of Hull nearby.

Continuing education will have a profound effect on colleges of higher education. We need to get away from the notion that education ends at 16, 18 or 21 if one goes to university. Education must become a continuing thing so that we make sure that our professional and skilled people have the most up-to-date skills to take us forward into the post-industrial society. I do not have time to cover the details of the National Economic Development Office report on information technology, but it poses many fascinating questions on what needs to be done urgently in higher and continuing education to make sure that that industry does not go down the drain to be lost for ever.

I believe that education should be directed at those who can benefit from it and not just at those who already have a string of qualifications. The concept of continuing education would undoubtedly place considerable demands on our colleges, but I cannot believe that we shall see a decrease in the demand for places. The idea of cutting expenditure is crazy.

Our education system is directed mainly at middle class white males. It should be broadened to embrace the financially less well off as well as blacks, Asians and women. I feel strongly that the education cuts have had a shattering impact on young people who have studied diligently and achieved the right grades at A-level. We have heard that 12,000 young people who achieved the criteria that existed for university entrance in 1979 have failed to gain university places this year. The barbaric cuts made by the Government have produced the sense of disillusionment among young people.

The system of marking A-levels is unacceptable. A difference of only three marks can reduce a student's grade from B to D. I have seen young people coming out of a local comprehensive school shattered by the fact that, although they had 10 or 11 O-levels and were regarded as B-grade material for their A-levels, they had been given D grades. All that is a result of the cuts.

In a recent article in The Guardian, John Fairhall quoted a sixth form master at a comprehensive school in Leamington who said that the three marks separating B and D grades could be accounted for by such factors as marking error, examiner bias, examination technique or hay fever. The future of young people who want to go to university could depend on such factors.

Consideration must be given to student grants and the well-being of recipients of education. Little has been said about that so far, but students want a thorough review of grants, and the highest priority should be given to ensuring that parental contributions are minimised. The Prime Minister wrote to Aberdeen university students' union when she was Leader of the Opposition in 1978: The next Conservative Government will, as we have repeatedly promised, conduct a thorough review of student grants. In that review highest priority will go to a reduction in the parental contribution. That review has not taken place and parental contributions have increased because the minimum level of grant has been reduced by 50 per cent. In addition, the general level of grants has fallen by 17 per cent, since 1972.

The travel award system has produced much hardship. When tackled on the subject, the Under-Secretary admitted that the new arrangements would inevitably invoke rough justice, with some gaining and some losing. He continued: We shall certainly be prepared to consider any hard evidence which emerges on the effects of the new arrangements. Perhaps I can give just two small examples. If a student at Hull university lives in Birmingham, he loses about £66.50. Somebody who lives in Mid-Glamorgan loses about £100.85, and someone from Cornwall loses about £108.50. That is hard evidence, and demonstrates that students—many of whom now live in poverty—are being hammered even harder. I know that a lot of grant issues concern local authorities, but there is also funding from central Government through the rate support grant and other mechanisms. I hope that this issue will come to the forefront in the Green Paper and that there will be a thorough examination of it, so that we can ensure that the well-being of the recipients of all this education is properly taken into account.

1.46 pm
Mr. Piers Merchant (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

In the short time available, I hope to make four brief points. I have a strong personal interest in the subject and a marked constituency interest, in that Newcastle upon Tyne, Central encompasses both the university of Newcastle and Newcastle upon Tyne polytechnic. Thus 10,000 to 15,000 students are my constituents.

My first point contains a financial thread in common with the other points and upon which they hang. It is a question of how one assesses the worth of higher education and how one regards the money spent. Indeed, that point was brought out by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch). I fear that there is an increasing tendency to regard spending on higher education simply as revenue expenditure, or even as a form of social service. That is a most inadequate analysis.

Like many others, I believe that much of the spending on education should be seen as an investment. That is particularly true of higher education, especially when there is such a strong drive towards a highly vocational and job-oriented interpretation of it. In that sense, we are investing in human resources and in perhaps the single most important component of our future economic hopes. If that is not investment, I wonder what is.

That leads me to my second point, which concerns capital financing. There is considerable strong feeling in universities and polytechnics that the harshest aspects of spending restraint are felt on the capital side. Institutions of higher education have tremendous overheads to maintain, including thousands of square feet in buildings, acres of grounds, and millions of pounds worth of plant and equipment, all of which are very costly to maintain, renovate and repair. Because of the university building bulge, many of the buildings are now just reaching a stage at which fairly extensive work is required. If that is delayed for too long, the savings will become an extremely false economy, because the deterioration will produce an eventual cost that is far higher than maintenance today would be.

I shall cite an example from Newcastle university, where lift maintenance alone will cost some £600,000 over the next five years. That work is required purely for health and safety reasons. In other words, it is an essential capital work. There are many other similar examples. The capital needs of universities and polytechnics are dire, and it would be most helpful if the Government could relax constraints and avoid making the false economies that I have mentioned.

There is some merit, too, in investing more in the essential growth areas of new buildings and equipment for state-of-the-art research and industrial and technological co-operation with commercial firms.

That brings me to my third point, which is the role of universities and polytechnics in the community and, specifically, links with industry and with the growth of technology, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste). The Government have been right strongly to encourage such growth, and there has been a very good response from higher education. Unfortunately, I do not have time to quote from a paper which has recently been published by the vice-chancellor of Newcastle university, Professor Lawrence Martin, which is entitled "A University's Links with the Business Sector". It ably demonstrates the benefit to universities and the economy of the region that has flowed from a renewed look at co-operation, and the extent to which it has been developed. I commend it as an excellent account of a successful move which should be studied and extrapolated to other higher education institutions.

Where will the funds come from for encouraging cooperation and growth? I applaud the Government for encouraging industry to fund much of the research, but ironically business is not necessarily best placed to judge the most effective use of research money in the next 10 years. There is therefore a need for some pump priming by central Government, whether it goes via industry and commerce or direct to the institutions.

My final comment is about students and student financing which other hon. Members have discussed in detail. I add my support to those who say that we need a thorough review of student financing. Theirs is a deserving case. At present there may be greater priorities in the community, but students have proved themselves to be extremely tolerant in facing difficult economic times. We must now examine closely the need to do away with minimum grant. Much thought must be given before tuition fees are introduced. Some people suggest that such fees should be imposed upon students on minimum grant.

I hope that all such matters will be examined closely by the Government. When considering the future of higher education we must not make the mistake of seeking short-term financial advantage at the expense of long-term interest, not just of the higher education sector but of our whole economy with which higher education is so intimately connected.

1.52 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

This is a rare opportunity for us to discuss higher education. The debate has been excellent and well-informed. A clear message has been given to the Government, even though it was delivered in guarded terms by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden). Across the House, hon. Members want no further cuts in higher education and if possible they want expansion. I hope that the Leader of the House will take note of today's good attendance and the large number of hon. Members who have been unable to take part, so that when the Green Paper is published he will arrange a further debate, ideally at a more helpful time.

We should look at the history of education in Britain and remember that for almost 75 years in this century there was a political consensus that education should be expanded. The only argument across the political spectrum was about how quickly that could be done. It was the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, now the Prime Minister who in 1973 who set out the Conservative Government's belief in maintaining the Robbins principle that anyone with the necessary entry qualifications should be able to enjoy higher education. It was she who envisaged a participation rate for the 1980s of 22 per cent, of the 18-year-old population. She was thinking in terms of 750,000 students.

The Government have achieved a participation rate of only about 14 per cent, or 560,000 students. The Government are now talking about cutting resources for higher education in the next 10 years, possibly by 15 per cent. For the first time since the Robbins principle was enunciated, a growing number of people are unable to enjoy higher education even though they have the qualifications.

The Secretary of State claimed that if students moved to different courses they could get in. I have no evidence of higher education courses being under-subscribed at the start of term. The Secretary of State says that students should go for the courses that are available, but it is difficult to switch from arts at A-level to a science subject at university. I do not believe that those vacancies exist. Even if they do, people could not make the switch. I hope that the Under-Secretary will give a clear commitment to higher education. I hope that he will end the worry and anxiety of so many higher education institutions by making it clear today that he envisages no more cuts.

Higher education in Britain is essential for our prosperity, democracy, peace and pleasurable leisure. It is not something to offer to an elite, to be savoured by a few, perhaps like malt Scots whisky. It should be made as available as air or water. It may be an ideal, but it is something for which we should aim. Our future prosperity depends on a highly skilled labour force and we must ensure that more and more people reach high academic standards in all subjects, especially in the new technologies.

Most of us boast proudly that Britain is a democracy, but a democracy can be little more than a sham, an excuse to retain power by a ruling elite unless the whole population is given information and knowledge on which to make democratic choices and learn the skills to evaluate that information and knowledge. Education has a vital role to play in providing those skills and we should be providing the knowledge for as many people as possible.

There is a great deal of concern that we should move more and more resources into providing higher education in science and technology. I argue strongly that those areas do need expanding, but we must also be clear that that must not be done at the expense of existing arts and social science courses. Throughout society our greatest difficulties are not in areas of science and technology but in our ability to live peacefully one with another on world, national and local scales. The problem is sharing resources between the rich and the poor and finding ways to resolve conflict by peaceful discussion rather than violence and war, something that still too often eludes us. We must find far more resources to deal with those problems. It is ironic that we have great skill at blowing people to bits but far less skill at solving our differences peacefully.

Leisure will clearly be more important in future. Whether it is pigeon fancying, leek growing, the arts, music, reading, television, drama or walking in the country, all are enhanced by knowledge and learning. If we wish to claim that we are a civilised society, we must have a clear commitment to move towards an expansion of higher education for more and more people and, ultimately, to make it available to all.

I want the Minister to give me specific answers to certain points. In view of the UGC and NAB reports and the Government's revision of future predictions for student numbers in report 100, will the Government make resources available to carry out the ideas contained in the reports and to support the numbers of students contained in report 100? Will they change the public expenditure forecast, because unless they do and make the money available, the whole exercise will have been a waste of time? Are the Government still committed to legislate on tenure for future academic appointments, and if so, why? Is it because the Government envisage a major contraction in higher education? Since 1982 one in eight university staff have already accepted early retirement, even though they had tenure. Why do the Government need to take away tenure? If they do, how will they guarantee academic freedom?

If the Minister wants to take away tenure, which has always been considered as one of the conditions of employment, those people can rightly say that their conditions have been made worse and that they want either improvements in a different area or more pay. It is time that the Government set that red herring to rest and made it clear that they do not want cuts and they do not need legislation.

I now turn to the question of quality. The Secretary of State keeps telling the House that problems cannot be solved by throwing money at them. The only area that I can find at which he has thrown money is the TVEI. Preliminary results appear to show that the schools which got the extra money have done well with it. The Secretary of State should compare his view with the problem facing a person who buys an expensive car, gets pleasure from polishing it but has no money with which to buy petrol so that he can use it. The problem with too much of our higher education is that, by skimping at the end, we deny ourselves the opportunity to use our investment to the full.

The level of resources in far too many institutions of higher education is desperately stretched, and throughout the country I have met people who are extremely worried about it. The Secretary of State must examine the problem carefully because academics are caught in a difficult position. If they become too specific about the lack of resources in their own departments and question why their students are not achieving the appropriate standard, they could undermine their opportunities to bid for resources, whether for research council grants or international research funds. There is considerable alarm in most higher education institutions over the present level of resources because it is getting dangerously stretched. It is a serious problem and the Government must re-examine it.

I hope that the Secretary of State will recognise that the present level of student support is putting standards and, for some students, access at risk. The cut in grants of what is effectively 14 per cent, since 1979, the change in student travel arrangements and the halving of the minimum grant have made it harder for students. When hon. Members visit universities, polytechnics and colleges, they should speak to lecturers as well as to students. Many admit that their students' work is suffering because in some cases the students do not get enough to eat and in many cases they do not get to seminars and lectures or they arrive late because they cannot afford the bus fare, and hitch-hike. In some of the bigger cities students take evening jobs in bars or take on cleaning work, which takes jobs from the local community and impairs their study.

Many higher education institutions are worried about the drop-out rate. I am sure that it is in part created by the anxiety of students about their grants. They face problems with parents who do not top up the grants or who apply strings to topping it up, which the student finds unacceptable.

Too many students complete their first degree with a substantial overdraft—so-called back-door loans. That means that they are forced to search for a job rather than to continue with professional training. The Government should be worried that the student grant is so low that the quality of education is suffering.

The Government must consider carefully whether they are breaking the Prime Minister's promise and the political consensus that, resources permitting, we should aim to make 18-year-olds independent of their parents. Why was the minimum grant halved this year? Is there any prospect of it being restored, or are the rumours that the Government will abolish minimum grant and make students increasingly dependent on their parents true?

The Secretary of State must answer those questions. If he remains silent, he will provoke a big reaction. It would be ironic if having done that, he then said that the rumours were not true. Do the Government still aim to move towards the position where 18-year-olds are independent of their parents for finance? Will he assure us about discretionary grants? Many of these are available for postgraduate work and many for work which is of central importance to the future prosperity of Britain. The difficulty is that with rate capping and the penalties, more and more local authorities are looking at discretionary awards as a way to save money. Can the Government take many of these essential discretionary awards and finance them from the main grant? We also plead with the Government to consider the problem of medical students, their longer terms of training and problems of finance.

I must pay tribute to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon) for the amount of work that he has done on the subject of the Open University. We must place on record the fact that the Open University, Britain's largest and newest university, had already established a worldwide reputation for the quality of its courses and the success of its students. I emphasise the fact that much of its teaching material has gone out to other academic institutions and has had a major impact on schools. We should be using its expertise to send the resources into wider education and using them to the full.

I argue also that there is enormous potential for the Open University to encourage people at work and the growing number of people who are unfortunately unemployed to take up opportunities in higher education. We should take that on board.

The Government have started to admit that there is a growing demand for higher education from mature students. The Open University is ideally placed to help those people. We should remember that this year there are 45,000 applicants and about 18,000 places. For those applicants there is no opportunity to apply somewhere else; it is their only chance. The Government should be giving the Open University the resources to increase student numbers, not forcing it to cut them.

The Open University has gone through a series of efficiency drives. It has increased the number of students. It has established a balance between arts and science, even though that is expensive to achieve; it has expanded its non-degree work, particularly for professional updating; it has increased its income from outside sources although, unfortunately, that has also meant that the fees charged to students have doubled. It had done all that to improve its position and yet the Government do not appear to be satisfied. They are now demanding further cuts in the services it can provide and the resources that the Government will give it.

The Government should accept that the £13 million or 20 per cent, cut that the university is claiming—I know that the Minister claims that it is less than that—should be restored. We need to ensure that the Open University has the resources to do the job that the country wants.

I make one plea. The visiting committee has now carefully studied the Open University. I hope that when the Government receive the committee's report they will publish it, and if, as I believe, it justifies the Open University's worry about the cuts, the Government will restore the necessary money.

I wish to deal with the subject of the Government's approach to adult and continuing education in universities. It is amazing that despite all the claims from NAB, UGC and all quarters that we should encourage adult and recurring education, the Government persist in cutting the WE A grant by 8.3 per cent, over three years and that of the university extramural departments by 14.3 per cent. How can the Government justify that?

I also press the Minister to tell us how he sees UGC and NAB allowing the institutions to initiate new courses in science and technology. We have received worrying reports from institution after institution that they are applying to start new courses and are being told that they cannot have a decision until after Christmas or well into the new year. That means that they cannot take any new students on those courses this year, and that no one will graduate from those courses for at least another three years. We are in danger of not making use of the opportunities offered by the new technology.

I ask the Minister to study the growing problem for those people who work in universities who are on three-year research contracts. In the past they have had an opportunity to move into academic posts or other areas. Their chances have greatly diminished. The difficulty now is that some of them do not complete their contracts but, naturally, move on to other jobs because of the uncertainty and anxiety that they face. The Government must look into this problem.

I warn the Government not to go into private funding with great enthusiasm. Private funding rarely comes without strings. Many people in the academic world are already worried that if they take money from a particular source their academic freedom or the academic freedom of their colleagues who may want to criticise will be reduced. [Interruption.] If a person is asked to give evidence for Friends of the Earth and knows that his evidence conflicts with the interests of a large company that is sponsoring his institution, he wonders what he should do.

Can the Under-Secretary set to rest the fears expressed by many colleges, particularly the art college to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) referred? Great worry is expressed in the greater Manchester area about the problem of de la Salle. The Under-Secretary of State could do much to prevent anxiety by telling us his plans. Can he justify closing those places? I would have thought not.

I remind the House that the number of people enjoying higher education and the quality of that education during the next 20 years will be a major influence on this country for the next 60 years. We must ensure, for the sake of a little extra expenditure now, that we do not blight all our futures.

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

This has been an excellent debate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) spoke for an hour at the beginning of the debate, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) had, and I shall have, 40 minutes at the end, and 21 Back-Bench Members fitted into the fewer than 200 minutes in between. That is a model for other debates. The debate has created something of a patchwork quilt in terms of the questions that I have been asked, but I shall do my best to answer as many as I can before 2.30 pm.

One of the glories of the system is that it forms, in the words of the hon. Member for Durham, North, different types of provision for different types of people. Although some hon. Members attacked the Government for reduced opportunities at universities, the warming features of this debate were the tributes paid by a series of hon. Members to the public sector of higher education. I think particularly of the tribute paid by the hon, Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell). His tribute was followed by those of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Merchant).

Since actions sometimes speak louder than words, I report to the hon. Member for Durham, North that 53 per cent, of those with a single A-level now enter institutions of higher education to take sub-degrees, whereas 44 per cent, of those with a single A-level did so when the Labour party left office. I am proud that there are now more than 300,000 part-time students in the system. At the wider level, one in four of those who are gathering in places of higher education this autumn can expect to obtain a degree next year compared with one in seven for the West as a whole. Although more young people enter higher education in Germany than in Britain, the effectiveness of our system generates more graduates than Germany's system.

The hon. Member for Durham, North raised the matter of access and the Robbins principle. He issued a challenge at the end of his speech, asking whether everyone who was qualified found a place. During the past year, I have consistently challenged student and academic audiences that I visited to produce people who have been seking a place and have not been able to find one. I am reasonably confident that if such people existed they would have been produced. [Interruption.] That does not conflict with the Robbins principle.

The hon. Member for Durham, North asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the redefinition of the Robbins principle in the advice that we had received. The reformulation suggested by UGC and NAB is that courses of higher education should be available for all those who are able to benefit from them and who wish to do so. This reformulation places particular stress on the concept of ability to benefit, which goes beyond assessment simply by a quantified measure of examination success. The Government would welcome discussion of that recom- mendation, but I think that it would be agreed that, under such a principle, the student's ability to benefit must be exactly judged by institutions in terms of the aptitude and motivation of the candidate for the course that he or she wishes to follow, regardless of whether the candidate is conventionally qualified. It is of no benefit to the institution, to the student, to the economy or to society, and particularly to the taxpayer who has to meet the bill, if higher education institutions take in those who have no real aptitude or inclination and whose prospects of fruitful employment are unlikely to be enhanced. Only if a policy on access achieves a proper balance between quality, opportunity and cost will institutions have the resources and facilities to meet the challenge of increased demand for other types of participation such as addult and updating courses and part-time study.

I was not sure whether the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) was making an official speech on behalf of the Social Democratic party, but he managed to make a speech about access whch avoided referring to quality and rigour.

In terms of return on ROE 100, referred to by the hon. Member for Durham, North, subsequently by the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud), and by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), in some very sensible comments, I welcomed the process through which we went over the 15 months. Those of us who listened to the ALSISS lecture last night at the University College of London were delighted to hear Professor Smith of Southampton university, who led the Royal Statistical Society team, say that he thought that ROE 100 was an excellent report, and that the technical report was a model of its kind.

I should like now to respond to the question put by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish. Provision is planned by the Government sufficient to meet the lower level of demand—that is variant Y of ROE 100. If demand turns out to be higher—the Government monitor demand closely and are considering how information in this area may be improved—the Government have committed themselves to reviewing the level of provision.

With regard to the question of overseas students—another form of access—my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) intervened, and the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) spoke about it at some length. I had the privilege of representing my right hon. Friend at the Commonwealth education Ministers conference in Nicosia, where we had a lively debate on the subject. There is recognition at—least on the Government Benches—that indiscriminate subsidy to overseas students is a waste of the taxpayers' money. But I recognise the point that Dr. Mutumbuka made in Nicosia, and subsequently on his visit here. If I may marginally correct the hon. Member for Greenwich, the Pym package is not simply concentrated on Hong Kong, Malaysia and Cyprus, because the Commonwealth scholarships and fellowships programme has been substantially increased, and Overseas Development Administration provision has been increased likewise. I should like to say, in response to those who have raised the matter, that in Nicosia I committed the Government to a full review of the scheme without commitment as to the outcome. That review is now under way.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) made a substantial speech on financing, and the hon. Member for Durham, North taxed us, in his reference to the cuts, with making the university system live from hand to mouth. I remind him that the resiling from the quinquennial system occurred when his party was in office rather than when my party was in office.

The hon. Member for Durham, North quoted the UGC guidance correspondence between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the UGC on the possible shading of 2 or 1 per cent. I do not think that he included the fact that my right hon. Friend—and the UGC, in its 28 questions—also postulated level funding. It was to some extent a response to the charge that the universities have rendered to us that the earlier cuts had to be made in much too short a time; therefore, the question was being raised as an alternative to level funding in an attempt to show how a longer term cut could be managed.

Mr. Radice

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Brooke

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way, simply because of the limited time available to me.

Much reference was made by the hon. Member to the constitutional eccentricity of my membership of NAB, both giving advice to the Secretary of State and receiving it. No other country would attempt that constitutional eccentricity, but because we are British it works extremely well. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold) for her contribution to the NAB process.

It is true that the NAB unit of resource has fallen, but that was as a consequence of specific decisions by the NAB committee that it wished to widen and enhance access. When the question arose as to whether access could be sustained, it came back to the Secretary of State last year, and he made available the extra funds for which it asked in order to sustain itself.

Mr. Radice

I cannot let the Minister get away with that. As they have said many times, the poly directors agreed to take the great increase in the number of full-time students at 18, but they were not given matching resources, as the Government themselves have admitted. The directors are therefore now asking for more resources.

Mr. Brooke

Last year, the NAB committee asked the Government for a further £20 million and received it. On Monday, the committee will be discussing the distribution of the AFE quantum for the coming year.

I welcomed the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel) about how the funding worked. On the comments of the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East about the NAB unit of resource, the area about which we are concerned—I make that observation from within the NAB—is the level of capital equipment. That is where we feel pressure. As the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) said, next Monday we shall be considering the Kent colleges and other questions of art and design, including the Cambridgeshire college of art and technology to which the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East referred. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) managed implicitly to introduce a quotation from Kipling into his remarks about Kent.

The one charge against which I would defend the NAB is that levelled by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch. It is indeed an open system. The process, debate and dialogue which has occurred in the present case is a good example of that. There is plenty of opportunity for communication before decisions are taken and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State takes very seriously the advice that he eventually receives. Moreover, there are prolonged debates within the committee when we get down to the level of institutions. I do not think it reasonable to expect us to visit every institution that comes up for review. Broadly, speaking, however, I accept virtually every invitation that I receive, so it is always possible for an institution under threat to invite me in my ministerial capacity. The Kent colleges were certainly under some threat a year ago. They could have invited me at any stage in the intervening months, but they did not do so. My hon. Friend the Member Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) referred to greater clarity in the system through rationalisation and the NAB process very much lends itself to that.

The subject of the Open University was raised first by the hon. Member for Durham, North and subsequently by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes apologised for having to be in his constituency at this time. The Open University was also mentioned by the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), the hon. Members for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman)and for Portsmouth, South and others. I must challenge the observations made about cost-effectiveness as they are potentially misleading. In terms of provision of education there is little difference in cost, although I freely acknowledge that the absence of maintenance grants and the fact that the students are self-financing makes it more economical in public expenditure terms. Nevertheless, in terms of education provision the costs are similar to those of a conventional university.

We have now reached agreement with the Open University on the differences in data to which reference was made today and the visiting committee has received the Open University's recommendations and plans as to how it will handle its funds. The efficiency study is being financed in the main by the Department. I do not wish to encourgage optimism as the Government are not awash with surplus funds, but I readily accede to the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes that these matters should be looked at care fully.

The right hon. Member for Western Isles and I are veterans of a universities debate in the House in January 1978. I do not think that anyone else who took part in today's debate shared that experience, although the hon. Member for Cambridge, North-East seems to contest that. The right hon. Member for Western Isles and the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow referred to the planning of higher education in Scotland. As they will know, the Secretary of State for Scotland has now set up a body with the infelicitous acronym of STEAC—Scottish Tertiary Education Advisory Council—to provide him with advice.

In terms of the pressures for change in the structure of the UGC, the current enthusiasm on the part of Scottish principals for some form of devolution is in marked contrast to their anxiety to stay close to the UGC at the time when proper devolution had been proposed.

The decision about numbers at Heriot Watt does not spill over into the overall provision. The whole House recognises the strength of the Scottish education provision. Equally, that does not invalidate national examination of areas where there is over-provision. In the Scottish case, the reference was to the Scottish need for pharmacists. That was why the comparison of numbers was made.

Hon. Members have referred to the switch from arts to engineering and technology. I realise, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James), that the process will involve extra cost. Many of our calculations in the NAB are addressed to that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) spoke well on the subject of women in science and engineering and the whole area of industrial sponsorship. The number of women in higher education who are studying science and engineering is rising proportionately at about the same pace as their participation in the system as a whole. My hon. Friend will recall an admirable occasion when a girl from Brunei told us about the sandwich work that she was doing.

During the summer the allowable sponsorship levels have risen sharply, and so have the amounts that a student can receive before he or she suffers any tax loss in terms of addition of the sum to his grant.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West talked about equipment and the American experience. There has been some comment in the Butcher committee about the difference between the United States and the United Kingdom in terms of tax and of enthusiasm for responding to incentives. Those points are being examined. I cannot prejudge the reaction to them.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned the associated topic of research. I welcome the suggestion by the hon. Member for Durham, North that we should have a debate on research. That is a matter for the usual channels, but I should welcome such a debate. On other occasions, the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) has said that we debate science insufficiently in this Chamber. I agree with him. I recognise that research is a wide topic.

Mention has been made of employment within the area of research. It is dangerous for hon. Members to bring the personal impedimenta of their past experience into a debate. However, I ran a professional service organisation for almost 20 years before I entered the Government. I think that universities could provide better opportunities for research workers if they organised the matter better. Research contract money is certainly available in the market, and the amount given has already risen sharply.

I have been asked about the question of tenure. Our attitude is not influenced by any immediate plans for future contraction. As the House knows, our proposals are not retrospective. However, we feel that there is a need for greater flexibility in the system. The experience of the past three years proves that that is so. The employment laws in their present form offer widespread protection.

My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) referred to technology transfer. That is something that I welcome. Historically, we have been outstanding inventors and rotten developers. The more that we can do to enhance the relationship between higher education and business, the better.

We shall be meeting again on Monday to discuss grants. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish gave me his trailer.

I appreciate that staff cuts have imposed difficulties and hardships on part of the system. But, as my right hon. Friend said, there is no question that those parts of the university and polytechnic system which have had to respond to and manage the challenges that they have been set have gained encouragement and improved morale from the demonstration that they can.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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