HC Deb 18 July 1986 vol 101 cc1358-67
The Paymaster General and Minister for Employment (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

With the leave of the House, I should like to make a statement about the establishment of the College of the Air.

In 1981 my right hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Prior) announced the introduction and the formation of Open Tech. Open Tech was not a new institution but a series of programmes sponsored by the Manpower Services Commission designed to introduce new courses of technician training and to improve the accessibility of these courses by the preparation and the use of distance learning techniques. Distance learning enables people to undertake studies in particular subjects using books, other printed material, sound tape and video in their own homes or offices at their own speed and at a time of their choosing.

Since then we have invested some £45 million in Open Tech, enabling some 50,000 students to obtain new skills and qualifications. These programmes were often prepared in conjunction with private industry. Firms, such as Austin Rover, Lucas and ICI, among others, have taken part in the preparation of training programmes and helped in the accumulation of experience and knowledge in this modern method of training. Today the United Kingdom has taken a leading position in this field.

We now propose to build on these developments by assisting with the creation of an open college, the College of the Air. Our aim is to enlist the full contribution of radio and television to support and deliver open learning courses in all areas of vocational competence. The college will be able to assess needs and arrange, co-ordinate and promote courses. It will work through other organisations to ensure student enrolment, tutor support, work assessment and testing according to the individual requirements of the students.

We plan that the college should be a company limited by guarantee and registered as a charity. The college will be able to seek and obtain the active support and involvement of commerce and industry. It should be able to attract sponsorship consistent with the provisions of the Broadcasting Act 1981 and to establish good relations with the educational interests and the broadcasting authorities.

Once established I anticipate that at the heart of the college's relationship with the broadcasters will be an agreement with the Independent Broadcasting Authority. This agreement will as a minumum provide for regular programmes on Channel 4 devoted to college purposes commissioned from a variety of sources by the channel, and for arrangements for promotion of the college. It will set out the participation of the ITV companies in the production and transmission of college programmes and arrange for the involvement of independent local radio. The BBC, too, has expressed a willingness to provide series of programmes and course materials for the college as part of the BBC's continuing education output and there will also be some wider opportunities on daytime television. I would expect the college to pursue those opportunities.

I hope shortly to be able to announce the name of the chairman of the college whose first task will be to conclude detailed plans for the formation of the college after discussions with the Manpower Services Commission, broadcasters, educationists and the many potential sponsors and guarantors who have already indicated their interest. The Government will be prepared to join with others in acting as guarantors of the College and in contributing to its cost until it is fully established. Our aim is to create a self-sustaining institution which will not have to rely indefinitely on the public purse.

I hope that the College of the Air will start broadcasting no later than September 1987. This is an ambitious project and I anticipate that its range of courses could, within the first five years, provide up to 1 million students with the opportunities to progress towards vocational and technical qualifications.

The establishment of the college, following the developments outlined in our recent White Paper, "Working Together—Education and Training" will offer further radical developments in our training and education systems. It will help with the introduction of courses for the technical and vocational education initiative and be of valuable assistance in the training of teachers in scarce skills. It will also assist in the introduction of enterprise training and give help to careers officers in the field. It will also build on the national vocational qualification to be introduced by the new national council for vocational qualifications. I commend the initiative to the House.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

The idea of a College of the Air is a good one, and in principle hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome it. Unfortunately, when one looks closer at the proposals, one sees some sinister motives behind its creation.

Is the Paymaster General aware that his proposals involved the privatisation of the non-advanced sector of further education? Is it not the case that the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Paymaster General will go cap in hand to British industry, asking for sponsorship for training? That is bizarre. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware of the complete collapse of industrial training since the Government came to power in 1979? We need a much bolder initiative than this. Is he further aware that the level of training has decreased from 5–9 per cent. of those working in manufacturing 10 years ago to 2 per cent. now, and that only 112,000 men, women and youngsters are in training in the whole of industry?

A College of the Air based on a voluntary system will not work. How can it be a working proposition when in the past industry has refused to pay for training? Does the Paymaster General believe that industry will suddenly come forward to sponsor the College of the Air? We in the Labour party know that the only way to train our people is to make industry pay and to levy industry.

There is a further exceedingly worrying aspect. It is all very well having television programmes on various channels, but is the Paymaster General aware that the real task of vocational training is done on the ground, face to face, by qualified tutors and teachers? Are we right in thinking that all the contracts for delivery on the ground will be open to tender from any source, whether private contractors or Johnny-come-latelys into training? Is it the case that our further education colleges, their leaders and unions have not been consulted about the College of the Air? Is the Paymaster General aware that, given the widespread despondency in the education and training world, if there has not been consultation on the document and if the Government are to create a private sector of non-advanced further education, it will be resisted throughout the teaching and training profession?

The idea of a College of the Air is a good one. Unfortunately, it will be based on private sponsorship and on the privatisation of the non-advanced further education sector. If that is the case, as we believe it to be, it will not be a success. The spectacle of the Paymaster General trying to sell this as a bold new initiative does no credit to the Government or to the House.

Mr. Clarke

Obviously I am glad that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) began by saying that the idea was good and that he welcomed it in principle. I found most of the rest of his comments a most curiously political reaction, and his desperate attempt to find sinister motives behind the idea particularly curious. There is no question of this being part of any privatisation programme. The college will enter into arrangements with existing colleges of advanced and non-advanced further education and with private training agencies and training organisations set up by companies for their work forces to provide contact with students and to enable them to have access to new material. The College of the Air will have a small central unit and will enter into arrangements with all these groups, including the colleges, for the use of the material by the students.

The hon. Gentleman objects to sponsorship. The companies which have so far expressed support in principle and interest in becoming involved include the Mirror Group, ICI, Prudential Assurance, Lucas, the Burton Group, Unilever and the Bank of England. The motives of these companies are not sinister. They are showing their concern about training, and their support for an idea which will have a substantial impact in opening opportunities to people presently in employment and to the unemployed to add to their skills and improve their position in the labour market.

That should have had an unqualified welcome from the hon. Gentleman. I am sorry that, having accepted that there is a need for such a scheme and that it is a good idea, he went on to produce such extremely tortuous at tempts to find something to object to.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, as a strong supporter of distance learning in principle, I welcome the proposal, but it is difficult enough to get industry and business to invest in and support universities and polytechnics? This will clearly be an extremely expensive project. Will he hear in mind that, if it is carrried out at the expense of other institutions of higher education, I shall have to look at it very carefully?

Mr. Clarke

I note my hon. Friend's comments, and I appreciate that he has a strong interest and involvement in higher and further education. I assure him that the cost will not be as heavy as he expects. We are looking for guarantors for the company to support the central unit. We must ensure that the scheme does not lead to competition for funds among instituions of education. The amount of sponsorship and support that we want will be forthcoming without causing damage to other institutions. Among the main users of the College of the Air will be companies which wish to train their work forces. It will become part of their ordinary industrial costs.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

On behalf of the Liberal party, I warmly welcome the idea and regret the somewhat mean spirit in which it was received by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) on behalf of the Labour party. However, there are those in education and broadcasting who have already expressed their concern on professional grounds about some of the strategic proposals. I hope that the Paymaster General will note the constructive suggestions from the professionals.

On funding, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that the best solution to such projects is a partnership of funding between public and private bodies? Will he encourage the public education authorities and other education bodies to play a proper part, through their own funding, in the College of the Air?

On a personal note, as one who missed out completely on further and higher education at the age of 16 and who had the benefit of second-chance education later, I welcome any chance to broaden the opportunities and widen the horizons of British people. I hope that the idea works and I wish it every success.

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support for the idea and for the fact that he offered himself as an example of what can be achieved if people take advantage of such opportunities. In the discussions which have taken place so far, we have been very much involved with educationists, and we shall continue those discussions. Plainly, it is essential to have the support of those interested in education and training and to have the co-operation and support of professional bodies. Those who are engaged professionally in the colleges and in training organisations will enter into arrangements with the College of the Air to enable students to have access to the programme.

Mr. William Benyon (Milton Keynes)

What role will the Open University play in this scheme? I refer especially to the spare capacity in its modern television and radio studios and to the expertise that it has in distance learning.

Mr. Clarke

I realise that the Open University has been extremely successful in developing its programmes and that it has some spare capacity. We are discussing with the broadcasting authorities access to the main television channels, promotional activity during the day, and the potential for broadcasting training videos. There is not necessarily a conflict or competition with the Open University. If we can build on the experience of the Open University where it is relevant to the project, we shall be glad to do so.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

What will be achieved by the new college that cannot be achieved by existing educational institutions such as the universities, the Open University and the polytechnics, given adequate resources? In view of the Government's mean and shortsighted handling of the universities, does it not augur ill for any new proposition? How much additional new public money will be involved as a direct consequence of the proposal?

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman does not fully appreciate the difference between distance learning, to use the jargon, and the traditional position of students in colleges and universities that he described. Distance learning, which involves the use of material made available through video tapes, audio tapes, books and other material by students such as we describe, enables people to improve their training while they are at work. They can learn during working hours if the firm enters into the right arrangements. It enables people to acquire more training and education without having to enrol as full-time students at polytechnics, universities or colleges of education. Many people can learn only in that way. It is impossible for them to take one or two years out of their lives to become full-time students.

The proposal is not in any way a challenge to the education institutions or to the professions. It is an addition and a new facility which will support the growth of distance learning and give more opportunities to more people.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

As one whio has an honours degree in the university of life, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that I am delighted to welcome the College of the Air? Will he take on board the warm welcome expressed by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft)? Those who missed out on higher education will have an opportunity to expand their skills and learning through the scheme. Does he agree that there will be no difficulty in finding sponsorship as companies will flock to the idea? It is very much to their advantage to support the scheme. I warmly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the scheme.

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. No doubt he has a first-class degree in the university of life, which he demonstrates in his lifestyle. He also acknowledges that sometimes more tangible qualifications are required in many walks of life. The scheme will provide an opportunity for many people to acquire skills.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Can the Minister explain what the sponsors will get out of this? Since big business will be involved in one form or another, and since it is involved in making profit at the expense of everyone else, what will it get out of the scheme? Will Imperial tobacco plc be a sponsor? Will any of the companies that are heavily involved in South Africa take part in sponsorship? Can he give me a guarantee that the College of the Air will not be the 18th occasion on which the Government have fiddled the dole figures?

Mr. Clarke

Big and small companies are interested in improving their competitiveness and performance and, therefore, guaranteeing their continued existence and giving added security to their work forces. What a company will get out of this scheme is the ability to give extra training to its work force, to raise the level of skill and, therefore, improve competitiveness and the job security of the workers. Big companies have expressed a general interest in the scheme and have supported it in principle. Small companies will receive assistance, if necessary, through the Manpower Services Commission's training programmes to participate in the scheme. The effect can only be beneficial, both for industry and for employment.

I shall treat the hon. Gentleman's comment about tobacco companies as a serious one and tell him that they will be governed by the usual rules that apply to sponsorship and advertising by those companies, particularly in broadcast material. Therefore, the ability of tobacco companies to participate in sponsorship would be limited. Cigarette manufacturers would be barred from being involved in broadcast material. There would be no such sponsorship on the air; that has been banned for many years.

The hon. Gentleman's persistence in trying to find a connection with other political issues, such as South Africa and the calculation of the unemployment figures, is about as pathetic as the attempts of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) to link my statement with the usual political debate. The new college will be beneficial for companies and their employees and for the unemployed. It ought to be welcomed.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have to bear in mind the fact that Friday provides a greater opportunity for Back Benchers to take part in debates. I will allow questions on the statement to go on for another 10 minutes and I hope that in that time everyone who wishes to be called will be called.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I press the right hon. and learned Gentleman about the open learning courses? Would one such course be a study in depth of Select Committee recommendations in relation to the behaviour of most senior civil servants who are as close to the Prime Minister as Haldeman and Ehrlichman were to Richard Nixon? The description is "improper".

Mr. Clarke

As one who frequently has to study Select Committee reports as part of his job, I am sure that I am being educated and trained every time that I turn to one from the Select Committee on Employment or elsewhere, just as I am always educated by the hon. Gentleman's ability to make his point in the most ingenious way on what are otherwise irrelevant matters.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend extremely warmly on this timely, important and imaginative initiative. May I point out, as I have sought to do in the House on previous occasions, that the value of a service of this kind is enormously enhanced if it is not confined to an English language service? We should aim to produce a world service, on the model of the English language services of the BBC.

There would be a new source of funds to finance the project if we worked with the European Community to make the project part of our contribution to the Lomé convention.

Mr. Clarke

As we must have further discussions with the broadcasting authorities, I shall bear in mind the points made by my hon. Friend. Certainly the Open University and the Open Tech have gained substantial export earnings and found substantial interest abroad in the learning material that they produce.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will the Minister tell us what significant feature is found in the new scheme, other than commercial sponsorship, that is not actually or potentially within the present structure, including the Open University and the public system of education?

Secondly, what proportion of public and private sponsorship money does the Minister expect to find for the scheme? Thirdly, when people have done their distance learning, who will provide the money for centres where machinery, plant and experienced skilled persons will top it up?

Mr. Clarke

The Open University is providing extremely good quality academic education. The Open Tech is a procurer of programmes, largely aimed at training technicians—quite a narrow field — and also achieving good quality programmes. The College of the Air will be much broader and is aimed at a wide range of education or training for skills. It will aim to provide a much wider range of qualifications and steps towards qualifications in each course. It will fill a gap and invite collaboration with a much wider range of organisations than is the case with existing institutions.

It is not intended that the College of the Air will be sustained by public funds except in the early stages, because there is no doubt that it will be of such value to industry that it will have no difficulty in attracting sponsorship. Obviously there is a political divide between us. I cannot understand why the Labour party is instinctively hostile to a scheme the moment it discovers that it is not dependent on the taxpayer for its financing.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I join in the general welcome that my right hon. and learned Friend's statement deserves and I hope that the College of the Air will succeed, but I draw attention to the fact that the statement raises again the question whether we need a Department of education and training. After all, the very name of the new institution suggests that the Department of Education and Science should be closely interested in it. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) illustrates the great need for co-ordination.

We are promoting an exciting new enterprise in education and training, and some public funds will be necessary, but under the existing policy we are depriving Birkbeck college of London university of funds. Birkbeck does a useful job in a related field to that about which my right hon. and learned Friend has been speaking. May we have some co-ordination to ensure that Birkbeck has a part to play in the new institution?

Mr. Clarke

Questions about the structure of Government ought to he addressed to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but I am sure that she would agree with me and my hon. Friend that concentrating on the structure of Government and the shape of Government Departments is less important than concentrating on what they do. I assure my hon. Friend that there are close relationships between myself and my rght hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Science and for Employment and that we work closely in all these areas. I shall draw my hon. Friend's comments about Birkbeck college to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

We were saddened to hear about the academic shortcomings of the Eton education enjoyed by the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), but we recognise that in his case perhaps Eton is not entirely to blame.

May I return to the important matter of funding? We do not want any fudging. May we have a simple answer? What proportion of the funding of the new service will be provided by the Government? Is it true that the proportion will probably be less than 5 per cent.?

Mr. Clarke

Knowing my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) as I do, I can vouch for the fact that his mind is as formidable as his physique.

The Government will be one of the guarantors of the company when it is set up. We expect that the college will require pump-priming funding, which will be derived from the budget of the Manpower Services Commission, but we expect that the college will be self-financing. If we can start with as little as 5 per cent. public funding, I shall regard that as a virtue. We cannot be specific at this stage, because one of the first tasks of the chairman and the college will be to work out proposals in more detail, to get the costs specified, and to begin to attract sponsorship. We shall put in the public money required to get it under way. It is intended that it will become wholly self-financing within a short period.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the initiative. Does he agree that the concern expressed by industry about the need for employees to be trained for vocational jobs will be met by the initiative, because employers will be able to say to the College of the Air, "These are the sort of training programmes that we want and these are the skills and employees that we want you to produce"?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is essential that training is geared closely to the needs of employers and what is required in employment. It is a positive advantage of the scheme that it will attract private sponsorship, because that will enable it to meet that essential requirement.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement. Many will be surprised at the carping tone of the Opposition, coming as it does from the party of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx who created the Open University; although one recalls that it was my right hon. Friend the leader of the Conservative party who, as Secretary of State for Education and Science, gave new life to it. My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of my interest in the TVEI scheme, especially as it was pioneered in Gainsborough, as well as my interest in vocational training. How does he expect schools to benefit from the new scheme and how will the scheme be sponsored by industry as regards the perhaps 40 per cent. of children who do not receive an adequate technical training under the present comprehensive system?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend's first comment, despite the barracking from Labour Members insisting that they provided the cash. The Opposition apparently welcome our proposal as a good idea in principle but insist that the taxpayer must pay for it despite the willingness of many large firms to sponsor it a most curious reaction.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's continued support for TVEI which, to some extent, was pioneered in Lincolnshire. The College of the Air will encourage the production of programmes which could be used directly by post-16-year-old students in schools involved in TVEI. The material that we have in mind is aimed at anyone in education from 16-plus and schools may well participate in the arrangements.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. As we are approaching the summer holiday, I will call the three hon. Members who have been seeking to catch my eye, but I ask them to be brief.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

When the scheme achieves the success that it deserves, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider re-examining the basis on which some existing facilities such as the Open University are funded and moving them in the directon of this scheme rather than vice versa?

Mr. Clarke

I note my hon. Friend's comments. The Open University has already taken great steps to market its material and to raise a considerable proportion of its own resources to supplement the public funding and the other universities are also making great efforts to involve industry much more and to have access to the type of funding that American universities have enjoyed for years. I entirely share my hon. Friend's approach to this.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

What an excellent idea that is! As my right hon. and learned Friend will no doubt be looking for somewhere to locate the headquarters of this exciting scheme — somewhere central, growing, expanding, positive and energetic, with above average intelligence and possibly quite close to Milton Keynes — will he consider placing it in Northampton?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is right in saying that one of the first things to be discussed when the chairman is appointed will be the location of the central unit to start the college's work. I shall certainly note that my hon. Friend has made the first bid for the location of the unit in suggesting his own constituency.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on this superb initiative. With regard to the carping remarks of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and other Opposition Members, does he agree that Oxford, Cambridge and many of our other universities were endowed by the people who had the money at that time—great merchants and others—and that without that kind of sponsorship there would be no universities of the sort now being created through my right hon. and learned Friend's brilliant initiative?

Mr. Clarke

I entirely agree. Had we announced that the scheme would be wholly financed from public funds, when Labour Members discovered the huge commercial advantage to companies in the upgrading of the skills of their work force the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and other Labour Members would doubtless have criticised the extent to which we were subsidising capitalism out of taxpayers' money. I think that they have merely latched on to the argument mentioned by my hon. Friend today for lack of any other argument to latch on to.

Mr. Sheerman

Is the Minister aware that the Opposition greet his announcement with some suspicion because it comes after seven years of dismantling education and training in this country? Like UK2000, it is yet again something that will cost the Government very little. A scheme with a large element of privatisation which will not be financed by the Government will look to most people like another example of the gimmick a day that the Government hope will keep the electorate at bay. Scheme after scheme is being announced by the Government because they know that they are deeply unpopular in all these spheres, and the election is coming.

Mr. Clarke

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that his suspicions are groundless and I trust that they will be allayed as the details are worked out. I advise him to stick to his original comment that the scheme is a good idea which he welcomes in principle.

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