HC Deb 09 February 1993 vol 218 cc955-62

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

11.32 pm
Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Tonight I am paying a tribute to the staff and students of the new Sunderland university. I decided to speak about the university because, as one of the Members of Parliament representing Sunderland, I am extremely glad and proud that university status has been achieved, for the benefit of the staff, students and community.

Every institution has to have a leader. In Dr. Anne Wright we are fortunate to have a person who will lead the university into the 21st century. Dr. Wright has already stamped her mark on the city of Sunderland in a big way. She has ensured that there is a major relationship with industry and has speedily established strong links with the wider community.

The pro-vice-chancellor has said: The next decade is going to be a time of great change for the university. It is also a time of great change for the city of Sunderland. The two will work closely together as the 21st century aspiration begins to come to life.

A contributor to "Sparks", the university staff magazine, says: Hand in hand with the changes go vast benefits for the city of Sunderland and its residents—generating directly and indirectly thousands of full-time and part-time jobs, encouraging investment and supporting new businesses. That can only be to the good. Too many jobs have been lost in the city, and activity at the university in many different ways will result in very many jobs being created.

The pro-vice-chancellor recently wrote: The university currently has around 48 buildings, some of which are very recent purpose built, others which are longer in vintage. As we cope with the changes taking place in our education, it is our aim not to diversify the campus further but to have a smaller concentration of more purpose built accommodation. Once again, that will benefit the people of the area and create more jobs.

It has been a good time for those who wish to participate in some way in welcoming the new university and at the same time welcoming the new city status of Sunderland.

There are many problems in the north-east and Sunderland has had more than its share. We have seen the destruction of the shipping industry and the decimation of the collieries. However, this evening I wish to concentrate primarily on the role of the university.

For many years Sunderland has had a polytechnic and it has produced a rich vein of students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. According to the history book the poly was designated in 1969, but its origins can be traced back to 1860, and I reckon that that is a few years before my time and the Minister's time.

Sunderland polytechnic was one of the first. To a large extent the poly was able to flourish because of the full support of the local authority, then the Sunderland borough council. Thirty years later, the polytechnic lost its title and the university of Sunderland was born. The change to university status has my full support. In reality it was too long in coming. The change from polytechnic to university has led to some interesting situations. My niece Julie, for example, left school in the hope of getting on an undergraduate course. Julie took the first part of her degree at the Leicester polytechnic. Later, she did a year in industry, and she will graduate, it is hoped with a good degree from the de Montfort university. There must be many students throughout the country who have had experience similar to that of my beloved niece Julie.

In the past, some students who could not get on a university course settled for a place in a polytechnic. There were two different institutions, and one did not have the same bite as the other. In effect, the university place meant more than the polytechnic place, although I must confess that I never believed that to be the case. It has been asked "What's in a name?" In this instance, a great deal, I would think.

I had many friends who worked in the polys and they produced research of the very highest level, comparable with that of any university. For some time I had a very bright woman working in my office. Hanna had completed a master's degree at Sunderland poly in economics, and her husband completed his PhD at Sunderland poly too. Yes, I am pleased that our higher education institutions are now known by the same name—university.

The university of Sunderland has had a strong school of art over the years, and I was extremely glad to be invited to meet the head of the art department, Flavia Swan. Flavia runs a large school of art where students turn out work of the highest quality in painting, sculpture and other subjects.

However, I was more than pleased when I discovered that there was a photography course in the department. The quality of the work that I saw was very good. The two teachers on the course had to work hard to satisfy all the demands of the students. I suppose I could get away with a hint at this time. I should like to see the photography department strengthened and an exhibition area built in one of the new buildings—accessible, I should hope, to the public.

For many years we had to use the silver halide process, though in the next century we will see new processes using computers and digital methods to create new styles of photographs. I am fortunate to be invited to the university photographic department from time to time to chat to students about short-term and long-term changes in photography. I look forward to continuing to do that.

The university has plans to grow in size to 16,000 students by 1996 and to achieve its target of 18,000 students by the year 2000. Dr. Wright believes that the distinction between full-time and part-time attendance modes will fade as modularisation advances.

Additionally, the number and types of courses have changed to meet the changing demands of our ever growing and more complex society. Many new departments and courses will flourish, either by additions to existing ones or the creation of new ones. It is a most exciting time for all of us who have looked forward to the new university and its growth plans.

An important aspect of a university is its relationship with industry. I was glad to be invited by Dr. Wright to hear a fine speech by Peter Wickens, director of personnel and information systems for Nissan. He had been awarded an honorary professorship of the university. I can think of no one more deserving of such an honour. Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) Ltd. is based in my constituency; it builds fine cars and has created thousands of jobs for the local population. We are very fortunate to have Nissan in Washington. The company has a role to play in the city of Sunderland and in the north-east generally. As Nissan prospers, it is only to be expected that other companies will locate in the area.

In partnership with industrial giants—Nissan, Vickers, Grove Worldwide, Komatsu—the university's school of engineering and advanced technology has launched the first course in the United Kingdom to combine specialist training in automotive design and manufacture. Practically based, and taught in a purpose-built design studio setting, that unique programme offers options from graduate to postgraduate level. The programme is geared towards producing highly skilled and flexible graduates for direct entry into the north-east's burgeoning automotive industry.

The availability of specialist consultancy and expertise has been a major factor in the decision of several Japanese companies to locate in the north-east. The university has a Japanese studies division which supports Japanese industries moving into the region and provides practical training for local companies looking to expand into the Japanese market.

The university also has an important role in the community which can be illustrated by two interesting projects. The Hendon nature space is an award-winning, student-run nature reserve developed on derelict industrial land for use by local school and community groups.

The university, Sunderland football club and the city have a role to play. Many believe that the heart of the city is Roker park, Sunderland football club's ground. The university plays an important role by sponsoring a soccer player and running a certificate course in crowd and stadium management—a brilliant innovation. The course has been designed in partnership with Sunderland football club, local authorities and the emergency services. It is the first course in the United Kingdom to provide specialist training in safety for stadium managers and stewards. Disasters such as Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough have shown the need for such a co-ordinated approach to crowd safety. It is a credit to the university that it has established such a suitable course.

The university is also committed to improving access to its courses for women, mature students and other groups who all too often miss out on higher education. The university of Sunderland recruits more students from access courses than any other north-east university. We recruited 300 in 1992 and more than half the current student body was 21 or over at entry. Graduates in 1992—this must be fairly unique—included a family of four: a mother, father, daughter and son-in-law, who all graduated on the same B.Ed course. To top that, a 70-year-old grandmother graduated on the same course.

I have given the Minister notice of some questions that I should like to have answered. First, the long overdue opening up of higher education pioneered by the university of Sunderland and the former polytechnic has been a considerable achievement. However, given the Government's current policy of consolidating student numbers in the higher education sector, is there not a danger of much of this excellent work being undone?

Secondly, the north-east has one of the lowest higher education participation rates, and there is a real danger of mature students being squeezed out by the consolidation. Is not this to be regretted, bearing in mind the urgent need for a skilled work force to lead the economy out of recession?

Thirdly, Sunderland, along with many other new universities, performed well in its first entry to the Higher Education Funding Council for England research rating exercise, despite the fact that the former polytechnics have historically received only 1 per cent. of Government funding for this area. Will the Government take this considerable achievement into account and develop a more equitable funding system for research in the unified higher education sector?

Finally, given the university of Sunderland's excellent links with business, industry and the community, will the valuable role of higher education institutions be properly addressed in the measures being introduced on employment and retraining?

I should like to conclude with the words of Dr. Wright, whom I respect and admire greatly. During an address at the annual awards ceremonies for 1992, she said: A new city, with a new university, but in celebrating change we also celebrate history and continuity, the University of Sunderland has the same commitment to providing knowledge and skills, confidence and capability for life and for work, to fulfil individual potential and contribute to society and its economy.

11.49 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) on his good fortune in securing the Adjournment debate and on his extremely positive and constructive message of a success story. I am also delighted to have the opportunity to speak about the higher education sector and, in particular, about the extremely high quality of education and research at Sunderland, one of our new universities. As the hon. Gentleman said, the enterprise and initiative of the vice-chancellor, Dr. Anne Wright, and the senior management of the university are creating many exciting developments in the north-east.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Sunderland university has grown quickly from small beginnings into one of the leading higher education providers and a major employer in the area. When it began life as a polytechnic in 1969, it had just 1,000 students. The number has increased steadily, and there are now 11,000 students studying full and part time. Indeed, the figure has risen by 3,000 since 1989 alone.

The growth is remarkable, but it reflects what has been happening throughout higher education in the past decade. Encouraged by the Government's policies for growth, universities, the former polytechnics and colleges have been educating more and more people. Last year, student numbers were more than 60 per cent. higher than when the Government came to power in 1979. During that period, the proportion of young people entering full-time higher education has doubled from one in eight to well over one in four. We remain well on target to see participation reach one in three by the end of the decade.

Expansion has not merely meant more of the same. During the 1980s, the proportion of female students, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, increased from just over 40 per cent. to about one half. Mature entrant numbers rose faster than those of young entrants. I find it remarkable that by 1990 more mature students were entering higher education than young students.

We see no reason to suppose that the recent developments are likely to discriminate against mature students. We have safeguarded the fees position of the part-timers which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, mature students will so often be. I think that his fears on that issue are not justified.

The figures that I have given are statistics. As the hon. Gentleman said, what lies behind them is the reality that thousands of young people whose parents never went into higher education and many of whom never even thought about it, have benefitted from one of the best educations in the world. Perhaps even more satisfactory is the fact that thousands of older people who missed out when they were at school have returned to education and received a qualification.

That is a development of enormous economic and social significance not only in Sunderland but nationally. Apart from the benefits to the people themselves, which are important, the country as a whole can only profit from an investment on that scale in its most potent and precious resource—its people and their personal skills.

Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that the growth in student numbers has not been at the expense of quality. More has not meant worse. Despite rapidly increasing numbers, entry standards have been maintained. The proportion of first and upper second class degrees awarded by universities, former polytechnics and colleges has increased substantially.

Although those figures relate to teaching, expansion has not been confined to teaching alone. During the 1980s, universities' earnings from research grants and contracts more than trebled. Increasingly, the private sector—industry, business and commerce—looks to our universities and colleges to provide the expertise and research facilities that it needs to compete in world markets. That includes not only British companies but those from the European Community and further afield. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman mentioned Nissan's involvement in his local university.

The hon. Gentleman asked about research. I remind him that the new universities—although they are new and have not traditionally conducted large amounts of research—have the benefit of drawing on a pool of £16 million earmarked as pump-priming finance for the former polytechnics and new universities. That was a positive and imaginative move.

It is particularly valuable that, at Sunderland university, over 40 per cent. of all students are studying the sciences, engineering and technology. This rises to over half if subjects and professions allied to medicine are included. I know that it has not been particularly easy for some universities and colleges to attract students to study science. I therefore commend the achievement of Sunderland, on which I hope that it will build.

The commitment to science goes hand in hand with the contribution Sunderland university is making to its local community, especially the business community. Perhaps this can be seen most clearly in the new industry centre that has opened recently on the campus. The centre aims to offer industry the highest possible standards in training, consultancy and manufacturing services, and may pick up some revenue for the university in the process.

Contained within the centre is a micro-technology centre, one of the north-east's leading microcomputer training and consultancy organisations; there is also an advanced manufacturing systems centre, reputed to be the most up-to-date facility of its kind anywhere in the United Kingdom providing consultancy services in computer integrated manufacturing and design systems; and a scanning electron microscopy centre offering a 24-hour turnaround service.

The university's commitment to local industry and business is matched by that to local residents. That is equally important given the circumstances of the city. For too long, the world of higher education has often seemed remote, not to say elitist, for many of the people who live just a stone's throw from the walls of a university or higher education college. To combat this, Sunderland has worked closely with local further education colleges in the area to ensure that, for those who wish to enter higher education, there is close integration of course work and teaching. That makes Sunderland university a warm and welcoming place of learning.

So much for the past and the present. What of the future? The Government announced their funding plans for HE in last year's autumn statement. The plans mean that a total of £3.9 billion will be available to HE institutions in 1993–94, an increase of £265 million, 7.3 per cent. in cash or 4.4 per cent. in real terms, in available public funding for HE. That builds on successive increases of 10 per cent. in each of the past three years and provides for an 8.5 per cent. growth in full-time equivalent student numbers next year and 106,000 extra places by 1995–96. That means that the current record levels of participation can be maintained over the next three years before they are projected to rise to one in three by the year 2000. There is a useful period of consolidation, a time for universities and colleges to take stock—something I know that many have been seeking.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the implications for Sunderland, and I feel that institutions that have expanded especially fast may benefit from a pause before a period of further expansion. That would not be to their disadvantage. At the same time, institutions will need continuing improvements in efficiency by making better use of their resources, and I am sure that they will make them.

I stress that, by 1992, we had already reached participation rates that we had projected in our White Paper would not be reached until 1994 or 1995. That shows that universities and colleges such as Sunderland have responded magnificently to the challenge of expanding and making productivity gains. But the rate of expansion has been so great that it now makes sense to pause and take stock, and to put some additional emphasis on further education.

Like many other universities and colleges, with Government support Sunderland university is building for the long-term future. It is developing its existing campus, and a new building for pharmaceutical sciences will soon be in operation. In co-operation with the Tyne and Wear development corporation, the university is building a new campus site on the north bank of ther River Wear estuary, covering 25 acres of former industrial operations. Appropriately for a university, the site includes the historic seventh-century church of St. Peter's, where the Venerable Bede studied.

The plans are for a four-phase development over 10 years. Eventually, the site will house the business school, computing and information systems, the school of education, the school of art and design, a conference centre, a heritage centre, and a learning resource centre. Also, 450 direct and indirect jobes will be created by the first phase of the development, and more than 1,000 will be created when the project is completed.

But growth is not just a matter of spending money and increasing accommodation. Institutions can maximise the use of their resources through distance learning. To its great credit, Sunderland university has embarked on a major initiative, which I much support, to develop open and distance learning across the massive range of its courses, using a range of media to reach the maximum possible number of students, ever developing the community campus-based radio station, Wear FM community radio. It is pioneering and developing computer-based learning, including the use of external data, satellite and cable television. It is transforming its learning materials into high-quality distance learning packages, which are very valuable for part-time mature students with family and domestic responsibilities.

Those are very positive developments. I take great pride as a Minister in our diverse higher education system. It is buoyant, optimistic and successful. In the university of Sunderland—a new university; a former polytechnic—we have a prime example of much that is good in higher education today. I join the hon. Gentleman in commending its vice-chancellor, Dr. Wright, her staff and the students for their continuing achievements. I wish them every success for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Twelve o'clock.