HC Deb 02 May 1989 vol 152 cc3-5
3. Mr. Bowis

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is the current age participation rate for higher education; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

The provisional age participation index for 18-year-olds for 1988–89 stands at a record 15.1 per cent. The trend since 1979 has been strongly upward. We expect this autumn to see more than 1 million students in higher education for the first time in this country.

Mr. Bowis

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those figures show a towering record of achievement in the past decade, and of providing opportunities for the young people of this country? Does he further agree that such opportunity will be even more enhanced, come the greater emphasis on fees in the funding of higher education?

Mr. Baker

In this celebratory week, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Over the past 10 years there has been an increase of over 200,000 students in higher education, one of the biggest increases in our history. I agree with my hon. Friend that the announcement that I made last week on increasing the public element of fees will stimulate universities, colleges and polytechnics to enrol more students. I am glad to see that that announcement has been so widely welcomed throughout higher education.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is a strong feeling in west Cumberland that the further education college should be able to provide a three-year degree course, if only linked to Preston, whereas at present it can provide only the first year, with students having to travel to Preston for the subsequent years? Will the Secretary of State take a personal interest in the matter and see whether the rules can be changed so that this right is available in west Cumberland.

Mr. Baker

I will look into what the hon. Gentleman has said. Only 10 days ago I was in his part of the world and visited the further education college in Barrow-in-Furness, which is being expanded and rebuilt at a cost of between £4 million and £5 million. I was impressed with the provision of that college.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

That is not the same.

Mr. Baker

I accept that it is not the same, but it is quite close. I will have a look at what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Anthony Coombs

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, of the large rise in student numbers in higher education over the last 10 years, the increase in those attending polytechnics, of about 30 per cent. to 300,000, is the most impressive? Does he further agree that, given the fact that polytechnics are particularly well placed to offer flexible entry and modular courses, particularly for older people who seek retraining, they will be in the forefront of higher education over the next 10 years?

Mr. Baker

I am sure that polytechnics will follow their success of the last 10 years, because most of the expansion has been in the polytechnic area. This has been achieved because the polytechnics have been flexible. They will grow even faster now that they are not under the control of education authorities. As my hon. Friend has indicated, by being resourceful, entrepreneurial and devising new courses related specifically to the needs of students, they have achieved this growth. I am sure that they will represent one of the major elements of expansion in the next 10 years.

Mr. Andrew Smith

Perhaps I may be permitted to interrupt the orgy of unjustified self-congratulation taking place amongst the Conservatives. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, as per the answer to me of 10 February from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, the percentage of 18 to 24-year-olds in higher education has gone down, not up, under this Government? Will he further confirm that the public expenditure White Paper projects a fall in the real value of expenditure on higher education between now and 1992? In view of the claims that he is making about fees and increased numbers and the comments last week about what a great victory this represented over the Treasury, will he tell the House by how much the budget for higher education will be increased above the White Paper figures, or is this yet another example of how far the reality of the Government's resourcing of education falls short of its rhetoric?

Mr. Baker

The participation rate for 18-year-olds has increased from 12.4 per cent. to 15.1 per cent. over the last 10 years. What was being said a few moments ago was not at all an orgy of self-congratulation. It was a simple and modest statement of the continuing success of this Government over the last 10 years, projecting even greater success over the next 10 years.

Mr Marlow

Could my right hon. Friend look at the mental age as well as the physical age for acceptability to higher education, so that in future we can prevent such futile and disgraceful gestures, as the award of office by a students union to a convicted murderer?

Mr. Baker

I have already said—and I say again—that the decision by a very small minority of students at the London School of Economics is both despicable and shameful. It is deeply offensive to the family of PC Blakelock. It has been condemned by the London School of Economics, and by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and by many people across the country. I very much hope that that decision will be changed. The reputation of the London School of Economics should not depend on a small minority of the loony Left.