HC Deb 19 March 1985 vol 75 cc768-9
9. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement about the future of the Open University.

Sir Keith Joseph

The Open University will continue to play an important part in the Government's programme for higher education by providing degree level education for those who missed the opportunity earlier in life and through continuing education relevant to the updating needs of industry, commerce, the professions and public services.

Mr. Bennett

Does the Secretary of State accept that the visiting committee totally repudiated his view of the Open University and that it set out clearly that the Open University is doing an excellent job? Would it not be fair for the Secretary of State to say to the House that he has got over his prejudice against the Open University and will give it money so that it may continue to do a first-class job?

Sir Keith Joseph

No, Sir. The Government value the Open University and the work that it does, but they believe that, like other institutions, it has to seek to cover its costs by economies, where possible.

Mr. Alexander

Bearing in mind the value of the new technology courses of the Open University in broadening the skills of our work force, what reassurance can my right hon. Friend give that those courses will be continued, despite the drop in income?

Sir Keith Joseph

The Government have used taxpayers' funds to meet some of the needs of the Open University in the light of the visiting committee's report. But the visiting committee thought that there was scope for the Open University to make some economies, and it was disappointed that the Open University did not have the management figures to enable it to consider the economies that it might make.

Mr. Donald Stewart

The cut in funds to other universities, though deplorable, is understandable in view of the policy of the Government, but why do students of the Open University, who appear to meet the criterion of Conservative philosophy because they are doing their own independent study without the use of buildings, and so on, not receive assistance from his Department?

Sir Keith Joseph

They do. Open University students, whose initiative and enterprise the Government admire, meet only 14 per cent. of the costs of their studies, or 19 per cent. if one includes summer school fees. The taxpayer bears 86 and 81 per cent. respectively.

Mr. Sumberg

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Open University is one of the most cost-effective centres of higher education? Is that not a reason why we should give it more rather than less support?

Sir Keith Joseph

I grant that it is cost-effective on one form of reckoning. On another form of reckoning it has about the same public cost significance as other such institutions.

Mr. Fisher

Does the Secretary of State recognise the importance of the Open University to unemployed students? Will he undertake to protect the unemployed students' fund in the Open University, to ensure that that part of its work is increased rather than decreased?

Sir Keith Joseph

Yes, Mr. Speaker. That is why the fund for the unemployed in the Open University budget has been protected.

Mr. Hannam

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Open University offers special opportunities to disabled people, who cannot gain access to other university campuses? Will he therefore ensure that the number of disabled places is maintained in any future reorganisation?

Sir Keith Joseph

Yes. The visiting committee took special care about that.

Mr. Freud

Will the Secretary of State reconsider the visiting committee's report and try to meet its demands a little more closely?

Sir Keith Joseph

The Government have met £4 million of the visiting committee's proposed suggestions and are considering a number of others.