HC Deb 13 July 1993 vol 228 cc813-5
1. Mr. Wicks

To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he plans to meet the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals to discuss the places available in universities for students leaving school in the current year with appropriate A-level qualifications.

4. Mr. Nigel Griffiths

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what discussions he has had with principals and vice-chancellors about the funding of universities.

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

I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is unable to be on the Front Bench for oral questions this afternoon.

We meet the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals from time to time to discuss a range of matters affecting universities. My right hon. Friend and I intend to meet members of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals later this month.

Mr. Wicks

Has the Minister noted the concern of the universities and university authorities that, this year, some well-qualified young people with good A-level grades will not he able to go to university? If that assumption is true—I ask him to confirm or reject it—what message does that give to young people who have worked hard but cannot get into university? What message does it give to young people when we need well-trained and well-educated youngsters?

Mr. Boswell

The first message that I would give young people is to remind them that student numbers, on a full-time equivalent basis, have expanded by 46 per cent. during the past four years. We have more students and a higher proportion of our young people in higher education than ever before. There is some consolidation at present, which is an opportunity for universities to catch breath after rapid expansion and to assert the importance of the full quality of entry standards, to which we attach considerable importance.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

Will the Minister confirm that the Higher Education Funding Council is encouraging universities not to take arts students this year, and that it is spending up to £3.5 million encouraging them not to do so, as a kind of academic set-aside? What does that say for the Government's policy towards broad education across a range of subjects?

Is this not the first time in the United Kingdom that a Government have decided to restrict the number of students taking courses, and to channel students away from a broad range of courses—including arts, which are very valuable—into more technical subjects?

Mr. Boswell

It is difficult to please everyone on such subjects, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that the changes in tuition fees earlier this year referred to expansion at the margin beyond the funded number of places. There is no question of prohibiting people from going for arts or humanities subjects—far from it. There is a higher level of participation in those subjects than ever before. If the funding council, which has discretion in the matter, decides to set aside a proportion of money to meet the particular problems of institutions that have expanded so quickly, that is its decision, but I think that it is a prudent one.

Mr. John Marshall

When my hon. Friend meets the principals and vice-chancellors, will he pay a particular tribute to the work of the former polytechnics, such as Middlesex university in my constituency? Will he also draw attention to the fact that, three years ago, those people who are complaining about a shortage of places said that the introduction of student loans would result in a reduction in the numbers of people going to university?

Mr. Boswell

I shall, as ever, do both those things.

Mr. James Hill

When my hon. Friend visits Southampton, he will be able to recall some of the whingeing words of Opposition Members when he sees the college of higher education, La Sainte Unione and the university of Southampton moving ahead with increased numbers of students, and expanding on other sites.

Mr. Boswell

I cannot wait to receive an invitation from my hon. Friend, and I will do my best to respond to it positively as soon as possible.

Mr. Beggs

When the Minister meets the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, will he discuss the dramatic increase in student numbers but the absence of corresponding increases in the numbers of lecturers, and lecturers' concern that there could be a slump in standards?

Mr. Boswell

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. It is certainly the case that numbers of students have expanded faster than the number of lecturers. It varies from place to place and situation to situation and, in some respect, it can be interpreted as productivity.

Mr. Devlin

Will my hon. Friend telephone the Secretary of State this afternoon and wish him a speedy return to good health, and remind him that it is a source of great pride among Conservative Members that this country spends a higher proportion of its gross domestic product on higher education than either Germany or Japan, righting a long-term situation that has needed correction for some time?

Mr. Boswell

I am sure that the wise remarks of my hon. Friend will help speed up the return to good health of the Secretary of State.

Mr. Rooker

Will the Minister make an early response to the letter that he has received from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals asking for an extension to the consultation process about the funding of student unions to 1 November following the statement made on 1 July?

The Minister was careful to talk about full-time equivalent places when he answered my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks). Is it right to fund some universities for not filling full-time places and, at the same time, refuse to assist the University of Central England in Birmingham, which is undergoing a vast expansion of part-time places for which there are no taxpayers' contribution to fees or mandatory grants and is funding them free for students who happen to be unemployed? Will he do something about the unfair mismatch of the funding regulations between full-time and part-time university students?

Mr. Boswell

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I can assure him that the letter we received this morning will be carefully considered, and we will respond to it as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman has made clear in the past the views expressed in his second point. We have no proposals for the complete restructuring of the system of academic support at present. We recognise that we have greatly expanded the numbers in higher education, significantly in the new universities, including the ones to which the hon. Gentleman referred, as well as the older universities.

We have also quickly expanded, and are continuing to expand, further education. It is always possible to make suggestions, and they will be considered. We believe that we are delivering the goods in the structure that we have in place.