HC Deb 25 July 1986 vol 102 cc887-94 12.26 pm
Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the future of Birkbeck college in the University of London. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsburg) also hopes to catch your eye during the debate, Mr. Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) has told me that, although he is unable to be here today, he supports what I have to say. Many of his constituents, like mine, are past, present and prospective students and supporters of Birkbeck college, and they wish him to express his support for it.

I left school at the age of 15. It was a very good school, but that was the end of my school education. The war was on and all London schools and university colleges had been evacuated. I got a full-time job, but I aspired to higher education. Only one college of London university then remained in London. It was sited in Breams Buildings, just off Fleet street. It was founded in 1823 by George Birkbeck to teach arts and sciences, during the hours of the evening. It has continued to provide part-time evening study for adults for 163 years. Of the 2,794 students at the college last year, 91 per cent. were part-time students in full-time employment.

In 1941 the blitz was on every night so, characteristically, Birkbeck opened all day Saturdays and Sundays. It had a distinguished academic staff, including such well-known names as Dr. C. E. M. Joad, Professor J. D. Bernal and Professor E. G. R. Taylor. I obtained permission from my employer to have Saturday mornings off in return for working later during the week. I joined hundreds of other Londoners of all ages, paying the fees myself and participating in all the college and student activities. Those were exciting and rewarding days for me.

Eventually, I got an intermediate degree, by means of which I was able, after war service with the Royal Air Force, to go on as a full-time student to London and then to Oxford universities and to be called to the Bar. The House will understand that I have a great affection for Birkbeck and that I owe it a debt that I wish, if possible, to repay.

The concept that it serves is one that should be applauded by the Government, for it enables men and women whose education has been interrupted or foreshortened, or who are late developers, to aspire to higher education by their own efforts at their own expense. The student body at such a college is of high quality in every way. Birkbeck graduates achieved a higher proportion of first-class degrees in 1984 than any other London college, except Imperial. Birkbeck was operating for the benefit of the likes of me for over 150 years before the Open University was even thought of, and the College of the Air is an even later comer.

Now Birkbeck is in great difficulties. The finances of this excellent institution are arranged by a complicated formula based on full-time equivalents and organised between the University Grants Committee and the Court of the University of London. The present crisis started when the UGC made known on 20 May 1986 that it had employed a national standard conversion factor of 0.5 per cent. for all part-time students. When applied to Birkbeck, that would have meant a major drop in the college's funding base line over four years, which could not be less than £2 million by 1989–90. Last year, it received £7.7 million. This year it may get only £6.2 million. Neither the college nor the University of London could be expected to replace lost income on this scale.

There has recently been a review of the position and the conversion factor has been raised, but the result is still a prospective cut of about 21 per cent. in Birkbeck funding, which could eventually cause the closure of the college. That would be a tragedy, and a humiliation for the Government and the principles for which they are supposed to stand.

Why is the conversion factor operated in this way? Is it because 91 per cent. of Birkbeck's students have full-time jobs? Do its laboratories, lecture halls and academic facilities cost less to acquire than in full-time institutions? Mr. Michael Prouse, in the Financial Times of 23 July, wrote: The overall cost to the economy of a Birkbeck education is only about a third of that at a normal college. Is that a good reason to reduce the state's investment in this college? Is it wrong that students should pay for their education? On the contrary. We need more part-time students paying their own way and earning their own living, and not fewer. If we had more, we would have fewer problems with full-time students, because they are subsidised by the taxpayer and expect to be kept in funds even during the vacations. Birkbeck students do not even get tax relief on fees that they pay for tuition. If the Government really believe in an enterprise society, they should encourage, not discourage, hard-working mature students who strive to help themselves and find a solution that will encourage Birkbeck to continue and expand its good work.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, who I am glad to see on the Front Bench, said in a letter dated 9 July: It would not be right for the Government to intervene in internal university decisions. That may be so, but the Government have a duty to see that Birkbeck survives and, what is more, that it is encouraged.

It is an ill wind that blows no good. All the publicity about Birkbeck has demonstrated what an excellent institution it is and how it could be used to further the Government's education programme. A mere reprieve is not enough. The task of defining a new role for the college is beyond the purview of London university and the UGC. The problem should be tackled in the context of the work of the Open University, the home counties polytechnics and the needs of the secondary school system for better teachers, especially in the hard sciences. There is overlapping and duplication amounting to over-provision in some subjects in the south-east, yet, as the Tight report on part-time degree-level studies in the United Kingdom shows, provision is patchy and inadequate away from the south-east. There is a real job for a committee to do. It need not take long, however, because all the required data are readily available.

At the college, the faculties of arts and of social sciences could phase out bachelors degree courses, except in psychology, and possibly the history of art, and offer only taught masters degree courses and research facilities. Birkbeck, the Open University, the London Institute of Education and the home counties polytechnics could then collaborate to provide fresh courses of general degree standard in the science subjects which are taught in secondary schools, starting with physics and mathematics, in which the shortage of school teachers is critical.

A combination of distance learning, face-to-face evening teaching and full-time vocational work could be developed. Generous incentives could be offered to serving teachers of arts subjects who want to convert to science teaching. Mature new entrants could receive graded financial support amounting to a full teacher's salary if pedagogy is intercalated full-time in school term time. A five-year guarantee of employment could be offered to those who complete the course successfully. The departments which undertook that role could retain facilities for masters degree level teaching and research. Other science departments could be transferred to other colleges of London university.

Those are just suggestions to illustrate that, far from there being a case for closing Birkbeck, there is an opportunity to develop it and make it serve the role for which it was devised 163 years ago, and which it can and has so successfully fulfilled. Birkbeck is known to and trusted by the teaching profession. It is to have a new Master from October next year. Given a newly-defined role, proper financing and a realistic scheme of student support, Birkbeck could make a major contribution to a critical situation in our secondary schools.

For all those reasons, I ask my hon. Friend to persuade his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to intervene in this matter. I urge him not to sit back and allow a tragedy to occur, but to ensure that this excellent institution continues its good work, and is positively encouraged to do so.

12.40 pm
Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) for allowing me to intervene in this important debate. I wish to make just two points, as my hon. Friend has already put the case exceptionally cogently. However, I shall confine my remarks to the present.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will give the stock answer that a Department of Education and Science Minister has to give, namely, that the Department must not interfere with the UGC. However. I hope that he will convey to it the strength of feeling in the House over one of the most inept and stupid decisions that it has ever taken. The UGC tried to justify it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington said, by changing the conversion factor. Having received a deluge of protests from hon. Members representing London and elsewhere, it thought again and rejigged the conversion factor. It thus showed that it is just tinkering in order to try to justify its original foolish decision.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will not let the UGC get away with that, and that he will indicate as firmly as possible that the House does not accept that sort of argument. As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington said, Birkbeck may have a different role in future. However, I am pleading for the present.

12.41 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. George Walden)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), both for the careful and reasoned case that he has presented, and for taking the opportunity of bringing the affairs of his old college to the detailed attention of the House. It is a matter about which many hon. Members are concerned. There have been a stream of questions, and my postbag has been full of letters about Birkbeck. That is a tribute both to the pulling power of the college and to its pushing power. The college is also fortunate in having in my hon. Friend not only one of its most distinguished alumni but a doughty champion. I have also received personal representations from the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) is interested in the debate and shares the concerns that have been expressed.

If I had not already been very well aware of the valuable work undertaken at Birkbeck and of its special role in the teaching of part-time students, I would be a new convert now. As it happens, I needed no convincing. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington saw me nodding vigorously at some of the points that he made. He is quite right. Some splendid work is done at Birkbeck. Many people would be a good deal worse off but for the opportunities that the college has provided and which, let me make it quite clear, the Government hope that it will go on providing.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not ony individuals who will be much worse off if Birkbeck is not allowed to continue as at present, or cannot function as well as it has done? Institutions, particularly schools and universities, and many commercial organisations that have profited from the added qualifications that people have obtained following part-time courses at Birkbeck, will also suffer.

Mr. Walden

The normal response would be to say that I was about to make that point, but I was not about to do so, and I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for adding to our debate in that way.

Most of what has been said in recent weeks has been about Birkbeck's value as a teaching institution. The UGC's recent assessments of research quality reveal beyond doubt that the college is more than that. Research in six departments — psychology, crystallography, geography, economics, the history of art, and philosophy — was assessed as of above average standard in the United Kingdom. A good part of the rest was judged to have research of around average standard. Birkbeck clearly has academic strengths in both teaching and research.

Perhaps I may now turn to the cause of the recent controversy— funding. It is not a straightforward tale, so I had better tell it in full. In parts I shall be reiterating what my hon. Friend said. I hope that he will forgive me, but it is important that all the facts are laid out clearly. In a number of respects this is a field in which honest men may differ, but it should be on interpretation that they differ, not on facts.

There is considerable irony in the fact that all the disputation is rooted in a decision by the UGC, as part of its current major planning exercise, to increase the resources allocated to part-time students. Previously, the unit of resource used for funding part-time students was lower per full-time equivalent student than that for full-time students in the same subject. The UGC decided that this discrimination should stop and that henceforth the same unit of resource should be used for full-timers and for part-timers on equivalent courses.

Many commentators have accused the UGC of introducing discrimination against part-time students. Its intention, as spelt out in circular letters to universities, was quite the reverse. However, when the UGC came to put that intention into practice some difficulties arose. The increased unit of resource had to be multiplied by the full-time equivalent of part-time student numbers, and when the committee examined the full-time equivalent figures submitted by universities, it had some doubts. These doubts arose because, in submitting their figures, universities had used conversion factors ranging between 0.2 and 1. The committee had insufficient information and time to examine these more closely if it was to announce its overall grant allocations in May. Therefore, it decided that it would be fairer to use a common conversion factor of 0.5 for part-time students at all universities. With hindsight, as Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer has freely acknowledged, that was a mistake. However—and here I come to the second important point — it was not a mistake that was wrapped up and conveniently buried.

The UGC's resource allocation procedures are now much more open than previously. The committee explained to all universities precisely how it had allocated resources for part-time students, and, because of the concentration of such students at Birkbeck college, it particularly drew this to the attention of London university. Not surprisingly, it was not long before Birkbeck college realised that the implications of the UGC's approach were not to its advantage. It protested, and at a meeting between London university and the UGC on 11 June the committee agreed to review the matter in the light of further information about Birkbeck to be submitted by the university.

A month later the UGC announced the twofold outcome of this review. First, it decided that for 1986–87 its grant to London university in respect of Birkbeck should be calculated on the same basis as in previous years, and thereby that the total grant to London should be increased by £600,000. Secondly, and perhaps more important, the committee decided that from 1987–88 part-time students should be resourced on exactly the same basis, taking their course as a whole, as full-time students on equivalent courses. That means that if a part-time course at a university takes six years to cover the ground in a three-year full-time course, students on the part-time course will in future be weighted as 0.5 full-time equivalent.

At Birkbeck, undergraduate courses are normally four years while taught postgraduate courses are of two years compared with the normal one year full-time course. The weightings attracted will thus be 0.75 and 0.5 respectively. Information on the normal period for postgraduate research students at Birkbeck and for all classes of students at other universities is not currently available, and that explains why the UGC is not introducing this new approach until 1987–88.

Several commentators have dismissed the committee's approach as simplistic. It is not for me to defend it in detail, because that is the committee's business, but I should point out that arrangements with a strong underlying rationale are often simple. For someone watching from the sidelines, like me, there certainly seems to be a sound and reasonable basis for the UGC to say that the most sensible approach is for it to provide the same sum of money for a particular type of course whether it is taught full-time or part-time. Those who believe otherwise will need to deploy detailed arguments to prove a different case.

From the Birkbeck side I have heard a lot about the Ashby formula. On inquiry, I discovered that that formula weighted Birkbeck undergraduates at 0.8 and postgraduates at 1, that it was derived from a 1967 report and that it originally related solely to accommodation requirements. Before such a formula can be accepted, it seems to me that someone has to produce strong arguments that the situation has not changed in the past 20 years and that an assessment based on accommodation requirements can equally well be applied to overall funding.

The other main Birkbeck argument is that because the college has so many part-time students it incurs certain costs disproportionately which, in universities with fewer part-timers, can otherwise be offset against full-time costs. But at this point Birkbeck omits to mention that it is part of London university. Although the college is an important institution in its own right, part of its strength, academically and otherwise, surely lies in it being part of the university also.

In fact, the university's role is quite central in this whole affair. The UGC pays a block grant to London university, and it is for the university court to determine how much is allocated to each of its constituent colleges, schools and institutes. The UGC provides the court with information on how the total grant was calculated, but the court is free to adopt quite different criteria in its own internal distribution of funds.

In recent years London university has allocated well in excess of £1 million more each year to Birkbeck than the UGC had allowed for the college in its block grant. It is because the university court has decided to reduce that supplement in 1986–87 that the grant to Birkbeck will fall by 5.5 per cent. —despite a slight increase in what the UGC has allowed for the college within the block grant.

The university argues that this action is forced on it by the stringency of the Government's funding policies generally. I shall come back to that point in a moment, for there is another aspect that also deserves mention. London university has been very active in rationalising its provision and in taking a whole host of measures to ensure that its available resources are used as effectively as possible. I applaud that, and there are a number of other universities that could well learn something from London. My point, however, is simply that if Birkbeck, as it claims, incurs costs which at other universities are not a charge on part-time provision, there may be some scope for increasing the co-operation between Birkbeck and other London colleges so as to spread those costs. Let me say rapidly that I do not know whether such scope exists, and I certainly have no package of new joint arrangements to offer. I suggest simply—as the UGC has already—that this is an area which should be investigated.

Before I dig myself deeper into territory which is not the Government's direct concern, let me return to some of the general issues. My hon. Friend will have heard me say on a number of occasions that the Government have a good record on student numbers. Home full-time numbers have increased by almost 80,000 since 1979 and the proportion of 18 and 19-year-olds entering higher education has increased by an eighth. All very well, one may say, but in the context of a debate on Birkbeck, what about mature students and part-timers? Well, the news on those fronts is good, too. The number of mature entrants to full-time courses has increased by 15 per cent., and the number of part-time students is up by 60,000. Those figures speak for themselves. In describing the whole ethos of part-time education, my hon. Friend will be gratified to learn that it is vey much on the up and up. The Government's clear aim is that there should be yet further increases in the whole area of continuing education in every form.

Finally, I return as I promised to the general question of university funding. The Government have already announced their willingness to increase financial provision for the universities—provided that they demonstrate real progress in implementing and building on the changes that are needed. These changes include better management, improved standards of teaching, selectivity in research funding and rationalisation of small departments. We shall be discussing the way forward with the University Grants Committee and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals over the next few months, before future public expenditure plans are finalised in the autumn.

If the universities do commit themselves to the necessary changes, extra funds will be forthcoming. Without doubt some part of that addition will be allocated to London university. Together with the UGC's new arrangements for the funding of part-time students, that should help Birkbeck, but I stress that, whatever the level of funding, there will always be a need to get the relationship between full and part-time funding right, and that is what this dispute is about.

Mr. Stanbrook

Before my hon. Friend sits down, will he say something about the possibility of using Birkbeck, with its excellent traditions and high quality education, in the Government's future plans, especially to meet the particular problem in secondary schools by producing more science graduates?

Mr. Walden

As I believe a Welsh poet once said, I was coming to that.

My hon. Friend's typically imaginative suggestions about the Open University, the London Institute of Education and Birkbeck will be noted by the Government and certainly by the University Grants Committee which, in my brief experience, makes a habit of keeping a close eye on all debates on this subject in the House. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making such an interesting and constructive suggestion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) accurately anticipated my reply that this is an area where the prime responsibility is with the UGC and the universities concerned rather than with the Government, but he, too, made the point that he hoped that the UGC would take note of the representations being made in the House, and I can assure him that, on my experience, that will certainly be the case.

Finally, I point out, with all due respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington, that there seems to be no basis at all for the horror stories in the press about the possible closure of Birkbeck college. It is by no means the Government's wish that that should happen—quite the contrary. Our hope is that the good work done by Birkbeck will continue and that the college will continue to offer what are necessary opportunities for part-time study.