HC Deb 24 July 1990 vol 177 cc434-40

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

12.21 am
Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)

This is the second Adjournment debate that I have had on Newbattle Abbey college. The first was in March 1989. One thread will run through this second debate that I am inaugurating in these small hours of the morning, and that is the appalling discourtesy of the Secretary of State for Scotland.

The Secretary of State for Scotland announced the withdrawal of funding without consulting the college, the governors or the trustees from the ancient Scottish universities. As I outlined in the first debate, there was a comedy of errors as to how I was informed, as the hon. Member representing the constituency in which the college is located.

I regret having to spend valuable time in this Adjournment debate with this introduction. However, we are nearly back to square one. The Secretary of State has refused to meet the governors or the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to discuss the academic plan that has been submitted and so allow the governors the opportunity to put their case. The Secretary of State has refused to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) to discuss the matter. My hon. Friend is the Opposition shadow spokesman on education in Scotland.

I am approaching 25 years' membership of this House. In that time, I have had dealings with many Secretaries of State for Scotland, Ministers and parliamentary colleagues. I have never had any problems if I have asked to meet them to discuss matters affecting my constituency. I was always treated with great courtesy as a fellow parliamentarian. During my five years as a Minister, I never refused to meet a fellow parliamentarian if he requested a meeting to discuss matters affecting his constituency.

I deeply regret having to say that, for some peculiar reason, the present Secretary of State for Scotland refuses to uphold the traditions set by his predecessors. He refuses to meet me. It is not my first such experience with his Department.

I must quote what the Secretary of State said in his letter of March 1989, when he officially made it known that he would withdraw funding from the college, and setting out his reservations. He said: I have all along made it clear publicly that a prerequisite to continued Government funding of Newbattle would be that the education authorities and higher education institutions in Scotland were themselves convinced that the College could form an integral part of their own efforts to widen access. My Private Secretary's letter of 25th July therefore advised the Governors that before I could consider continued funding of the College, I would want firm and specific undertakings from authorities and institutions backed up by appropriate financial support to use Newbattle in support of the Government's commitment to widening access to higher education. I emphasised, when we met, that my concern was not primarily financial—but rather to be satisfied that the education world at large regarded Newbattle as being an important part of efforts to widen access, despite the changing circumstances since it was founded before the war. Because of the pressure of time, perhaps it is not appropriate that I relate the history, which is cherished in some parts of Scotland, of how and when the college was formed.

The college's case is that the Secretary of State's prerequisites have been fully met and that the case for a resumption of grant aid has been met. That view is supported by the advisory group, which included university representatives, local authority representatives, residential college representatives, the Workers Educational Association, and by the ancient universities, which have given encouraging support for the proposals to give accelerated entry to those who successfully complete a Newbattle diploma course. The local authority contribution to the college will have exceeded £250,000 by the end of the 1990–91 fiscal year.

Parliament must be informed that, after spending six months drawing up the proposals, having first sought the agreement of the Scottish Education Department, the only responses to the detailed proposals are two brief letters. The first was sent on behalf of the Secretary of State and is dated 29 May this year. It stated that, after careful consideration, he had concluded that the plan did not provide a basis for reconsidering his decision to terminate direct funding support to the college.

The second letter came directly from the Secretary of State in a reply to a request from the chairman of the board of governors for a meeting to discuss the matter. He stated that he did not consider that there had been any significant change in the factors that had led him to reaffirm in March last year his decision that the current funding of the college should cease. He therefore saw no advantage in having the requested meeting. As I have already explained, the right hon. and learned Gentleman also refused to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie.

Although the changes proposed in the academic plan are extremely significant, no formal meeting to discuss the submission has been held and no formal statement has been made by, or on behalf of, the Secretary of State. That is more than a sad state of affairs: it is deplorable. That is one reason why the college and the rest of the educational world feel that its treatment has been discourteous and offhand.

In respect of public accountability, statements have been made to the effect that the grant aid previously given has now been reallocated to SWAP—the Scottish wider access programme. Given the limited resources at his disposal, it is maintained that the Secretary of State believes that that reallocation gives better "value for money".

In Scotland, it seems, we are to have either Newbattle as the country's sole adult residential college—Scotland's equivalent to Ruskin college—or SWAP. I hope that I have the opportunity to argue that there is room and finance for both.

Newbattle is now an integral part of SWAP provision. More than 250 students from SWAP west—Strathclyde Consortium—have attended short residential courses at the college since October 1989. The college has been prevented from adding to that number by the curtailment of grant.

For the record, I must state that the amount of grant requested is £361,000 per year for a full range of activities for unqualified adults. That would include access courses for those that the education world know as "returners", as well as long courses. That required sum represents one quarter of 1 per cent. of the Scottish education budget for higher and further education. SWAP has its own separate budget.

I must remind the House what the Secretary of State said in the letter that I quoted earlier. He said that his concern in relation to Newbattle was "not primarily financial". Whatever reasons the Secretary of State has for his decision on Newbattle, we are entitled to hear them, and the people of Scotland are entitled to hear them. That is why it is pertinent to ask why the Secretary of State advocates for those from Scotland who attend Newbattle's sister college in Wales and the six colleges in England while denying the people of Scotland the opportunity for a similar facility to operate in Scotland, where there is a clear need. More than 80 unqualified adults have expressed their intention to attend Newbattle.

I believe that I have made a restrained speech this evening, although I have found it difficult to quell my dismay and some anger at the way in which the Secretary of State has handled this whole affair. Let me briefly explain why. I do not intend to be too personal about it.

My full-time education ended when I was 14 years of age. I started work in the coal mines in 1934. All my adult life, I have been extremely conscious of the need for, and value of, education, although my own full-time education was limited. I have been very conscious of the fact that many people in life need second chances—another opportunity to try to gain qualifications or to profit from education. One of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my life was when I was appointed chairman of my county education committee. Before I came to Parliament, I played a leading role in the furtherance of education in many national committees in Scotland. I am a former governor of Moray House teachers' training college, and was one of the very few laymen appointed to the committee in Scotland dealing with research into education. So my interest and activities in education are of long standing.

My experience has taught me the value of education not only to the individual but to the nation as a whole. To let Newbattle Abbey college wither as an adult education college would be nothing short of educational vandalism. It is for some of those reasons that I have inaugurated the debate. I appeal to the Secretary of State to reconsider the matter. At least let us meet him and discuss it; in my view, those who drew up the document deserve no less. I hope that I shall get a favourable response to my request when the Minister comes to reply.

12.37 am
The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Ian Lang)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) on his success in securing this debate on the subject of Newbattle Abbey college.

The hon. Gentleman started his speech with a criticism of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State on the grounds of discourtesy. May I at once address that charge and wholly reject it on behalf of my right hon. and learned Friend. During the 21 months since this issue first came into the public domain—between the announcement of the decision in December 1987 to cease recurrent funding and its coming into effect in 1989—the views of all those who had expressed an interest in the future of Newbattle were considered. My right hon. and learned Friend met the chairman and representatives of the governing body on 24 February 1989 in the course of considering the matter further.

The hon. Gentleman has told the House that Newbattle Abbey college is a residential adult education college whose main purpose is to prepare mature students for entry to higher education. In the past that was achieved by a two-year diploma course that was accepted by the Scottish universities for entry purposes. That course, however, ceased a year ago. Perhaps I may begin by summarising the main events relating to Newbattle and wider access to higher education in Scotland.

In December 1987, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced his intention to withdraw recurrent grant from Newbattle. This followed consideration of funding of the college as part of a normal review of Government expenditure. He felt that he could no longer justify spending taxpayers' money on the college as the best way of implementing the Government's policy of wider access to higher education. To meet this objective more effectively, we launched in April 1988 the Scottish wider access programme—SWAP, as it is usually known. SWAP is aimed at increasing significantly the number of mature entrants to higher education in Scotland.

In July 1988, the governors of Newbattle were given an opportunity until the end of that year to demonstrate a specific commitment from education authorities and higher education institutions to support the college as an integral part of the Scottish education system and of their own efforts in wider access. My right hon. and learned Friend met the governors in March 1989 to consider what commitments they had secured and to hear their case for him to reconsider his decision to withdraw grant. The governors were able to show only limited commitments from other bodies and to hold out rather distant hopes of raising funds by the disposal of assets at Newbattle. That did not persuade my right hon. Friend to change his decision, and recurrent grant ceased at the end of September 1989.

In March 1990, the governors submitted to us an academic plan as a basis for possible renewal of grant. I should emphasise that this was done at the governors' own initiative and not at our invitation. This plan showed a modest increase in external support, but the college would still have been reliant mainly on Government funding to produce a relatively small number of entrants to higher education. The governors were told that the plan did not provide a basis for reopening our decision. Meanwhile, SWAP had been very successful in improving opportunities for mature entrants to higher education, so in May we announced that its funding would be extended until 1994.

I respect the hon. Gentleman's commitment to the importance of adult education opportunities. We share that priority. However, I believe that our initiatives during the last two or three years have been enormously successful in opening up such further education opportunities to adults.

Mr. Eadie

It is all very well for the Minister to say that he respects my lifetime commitment to adult education. However, he has not addressed the question why the Secretary of State has been so discourteous in refusing to meet not only me but also my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, who is the shadow spokesman on education. That is unheard of.

Mr. Lang

I have already answered the charge of discourtesy. In the rest of my speech, I shall address the other points that the hon. Gentleman made.

The decision was originally made known to the college on 10 December 1987 and confirmed on 9 March 1989. It was further confirmed on 29 May 1990. Therefore, some two and a half years have elapsed, during which that decision was consistently confirmed, although further consideration of it took place during that time. To seek further to develop the argument only creates uncertainty and does not serve the interests of adult education.

In considering whether continued funding of Newbattle was justified, we had to have regard to the other avenues which now exist for those seeking a "second chance" to enter higher education. We had to consider whether, in educational terms, Newbattle had the same role to play in Scottish education in 1990 as it had when it was founded before the second world war. We recognised the achievements of Newbattle in the years following its foundation in 1937. We acknowledge the foresight and generosity of the 11th Marquess of Lothian in leaving the estate in trust for use as a residential adult education college, but we also looked at the considerable changes which have occurred since Newbattle's foundation.

In 1937, there were four universities in Scotland; now there are eight, together with the Open university, the central institutions and colleges of education. Those institutions do not simply provide places for students who have just left school with three highers. They cater willingly, indeed they compete increasingly fiercely, for entrants of all types, regardless of school achievements or age. In 1988, there were nearly 7,500 mature entrants to full-time higher education in Scotland—more than a quarter of the total—plus nearly 2,000 new entrants to part-time degree courses in the Open university. There are also throughout Scotland about 50 further education colleges, catering for around 200,000 students up to diploma level.

In the light of that wide range of opportunities for mature students in further and higher education, we concluded that expenditure on Newbattle to provide about 50 out of more than 25,000 Scots entrants to higher education each year was not justifiable.

The Government's policy is to increase opportunities for entry to higher education, especially for adults without the conventional entry qualifications. It is also our policy to ensure that public funds are used most effectively; indeed, it is our duty to do so. It appeared that annual expenditure of more than £450,000 on Newbattle was not the best way of using those resources to improve opportunities for entry to higher education. In announcing withdrawal of grant from Newbattle, we emphasised our view that the college's job had largely been done and that funds released from Newbattle would be devoted to encouraging wider access in ways more relevant to current. needs. That we set out to do.

We were aware of initiatives in the west of Scotland, involving Strathclyde regional council and higher education institutions, whereby mature students would be guaranteed places in higher education on successful completion of an access course at a further education college. We considered that those initiatives were worthy of imitation throughout the country in the interests of both employers and students.

In April 1988, the Scottish wider access programme was launched. Since then, four wider access consortia have been established, involving all education authorities and higher education institutions, and covering the whole of Scotland. In 1989, the consortia attracted to access courses almost 750 potential entrants to higher education, and that number is expected to rise by half as much again in 1990.

I understand that success rates on access courses have been high and we expect several hundred new students to enter higher education in 1990 as a result of SWAP. The resources for SWAP are being used for exactly the same purpose as they were at Newbattle—preparing mature students for entry to higher education—and I believe that it is clear which offers better value for money.

But SWAP is not only about student numbers. The consortia are aiming to ensure that wider access will become an intrinsic part of our education system—another aspect of Scottish education which we believe will be worthy of imitation elsewhere. This is why we recently renewed our commitment to fund SWAP.

We are constantly reminded of three particular themes in support of Newbattle. First, it is said that a long residential course is necessary for many students. But how do our critics know that? As I have just said, there were nearly 7,500 mature entrants to full-time higher education in 1988. On the basis that the college provided each year no more than about 50 entrants to higher education, it can hardly be claimed to have demonstrated that long residential courses are an essential prerequisite of entry to higher education for mature students.

It has been argued that Newbattle is a national facility serving the whole of Scotland. But the domicile of its students in recent years does not provide much support for that argument. Around 30 per cent. of Newbattle students have come from outside Scotland. Of the students from Scotland, half or more have come from Edinburgh and the Lothians. That suggests that Newbattle has been a regional rather than a national facility, and it is doubtful whether residential provision is essential for all those students.

There have been very few students at Newbattle from the remoter parts of Scotland, from areas where other educational facilities may be limited and residential provision might be regarded as a more important requirement. I acknowledge that short residential sessions at Newbattle have been a successful element of some SWAP courses, but Newbattle is by no means the only facility in Scotland where such sessions can be provided.

Secondly, it has been suggested that because there are residential adult education colleges in England and Wales to which the Government contribute in funding, there must be similar provision in Scotland. Opposition Members sometimes criticise us for imitating the English education system, but in this case, they are insisting that we should do so. We will plan our provision in the Scottish education system on the basis of what we consider to be most effective for Scotland.

Thirdly, it has been suggested that we are opposed to Newbattle because of the non-vocational education which it has traditionally provided. But there are now far more opportunities than when Newbattle opened for adults who wish to improve their education for its own sake. The Open university, other universities' extra-mural departments, further education colleges and, indeed, many schools provide facilities for adults who wish to do this.

The hon. Gentleman reminded the House of the commitment made to Newbattle by local authorities in the academic plan submitted to the Scottish Education Department in March. Great emphasis has been given to the amounts involved—over £100,000—but these sums amount to only 15 per cent. of the college's projected income. The amount sought from the Government is about £500,000 including student maintenance, or 70 per cent. of total income. These figures do not suggest to us that there was an overwhelming commitment to Newbattle from outside bodies.

In the years immediately following Newbattle's foundation, the Government were not the major shareholder, but only one of a number of benefactors contributing to the college's income. But, over the years, the support from those other bodies gradually declined, until the Government were the only significant funder of the college. Many of those who are now loudly criticising the Government for withdrawing support for Newbattle are those who had pulled their own money out of the venture long before the Government did. Under the governors' plan, the main emphasis of provision at Newbattle would have continued to be on a two-year course producing no more than 50 entrants to higher education each year. I should like to make it clear to the House that at no time has the board of governors been led to believe that there was a significant prospect of renewed funding on the basis of their latest plan. The plan was submitted at the governors' own initiative, so it would have been discourteous not to have given it consideration. We considered the plan very carefully and we acknowledged the efforts which had gone into its preparation, but we concluded that renewed expenditure on Newbattle, approximately equal to what we have committed to SWAP, could not be justified. My right hon. and learned Friend's decision taken over two and a half years ago stands.

Recurrent grant was withdrawn from Newbattle after we had heard the views of all those involved and after a meeting with the governors. We see little value in further meetings or discussions at this stage. The future of the college is now in the hands of its board of governors and of its trustees.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to one o'clock.