HC Deb 19 February 1996 vol 272 cc21-32 3.32 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on higher education.

Just over 30 years ago, the Robbins committee set out a vision for expanding higher education in Great Britain. Since then, higher education has been transformed beyond the expectations even of Robbins. It no longer caters just for a privileged elite but provides opportunities for a significant proportion of our young people. In Robbins' day, just one young person in 17 went on to higher education. Now, the figure is approaching one in three.

Higher education no longer exists to educate just young people—predominantly young men—prior to their outset on a career for life, and there are as many female students as there are male students, and more mature than young entrants. In total, there are more than 1 million full-time students in the United Kingdom—five times as many as in Robbins' day. In addition, half a million people study part-time.

Much of this growth has taken place since 1988, as a result of independence for polytechnics and colleges, abolishing the binary line, and introducing more competitive funding. Thanks to those policies, higher education now provides more highly qualified people than ever before for the labour market.

The number of newly qualified graduates gaining first degrees each year in the United Kingdom has doubled since 1979, and more than a third of those are science, maths and engineering graduates. Our graduation rate is now one of the highest in Europe, second only to Denmark in the European Union, and the UK produces more science graduates relative to the young work force than any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country. By the year 2001, the number of graduates in the work force is likely to be well over 3 million—twice as high as in 1981. It is not just academic qualifications to which higher education leads. More than 15 per cent. of those who have followed undergraduate courses leave with professional qualifications.

Impressive though those achievements are, future success requires universities and colleges to continue to develop, while preserving their best traditions. After such fast growth, it is time to take stock and to consider the future of higher education. That is why, just over a year ago, I launched a review of higher education with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of Sate for Northern Ireland. We asked consumers as well as producers for their views.

Their responses paid tribute to higher education's continuing role in advancing understanding and learning, and in developing the powers of the mind. But they also emphasised the growing importance of higher education in securing our future competitiveness and economic growth. The global markets in which the UK has to compete have been transformed by an information revolution and other technological advances. Our economic success will increasingly depend on higher levels of knowledge, understanding and skills. Higher education has a vital role to play. It can supply both young and mature people with those higher levels of skills and understanding, and the ability to adapt to changing knowledge.

Today's graduates face a world different from their predecessors'. They must be prepared for changes in the nature of work and the greater demands it makes. Increasingly, they will need to switch career more than once in their lifetime. We must ensure that they are equipped with the skills and flexibility needed by the labour market of the 21st century, both through initial education and through updating and upskilling throughout their lives. Higher education must be in the best shape possible to meet those needs.

As the pace of change quickens, there will be a greater premium on the capacity to innovate. The universities' contribution to the research base underpins the UK's ability to harness scientific and technological advances. It will become ever more important in enhancing wealth creation and our quality of life. Higher education can also help to drive local and regional regeneration through services to employers.

As the world around is changing, so too is higher education itself. Changes in institutional structures, modes of study and information technology are opening up opportunities to a broader range of students, both at home and abroad. Links with other parts of education and training are becoming more important, and boundaries are blurring. Higher education no longer needs to take place only inside a university or college. New technology enables more students to study in the workplace or from home.

Our consultations have made clear the extent of changes in both higher education itself and the context in which it operates. A huge and exciting agenda faces all of us with an interest in higher education. The scale of that agenda exceeds anything facing higher education since the early 1960s.

Thirty-five years ago—almost to the day—the then Prime Minister proposed the appointment of the Robbins committee to review higher education in Britain and advise on its development. The Robbins report provided a landmark for higher education policy that has stood the test of time well. But it is time to take a fresh and comprehensive look at the challenges facing higher education as we approach the 21st century.

So, with the agreement of the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I intend to appoint a committee of inquiry into higher education. [Interruption.] In carrying out its task, the committee will make appropriate arrangements to take account of the distinctive features of higher education in different parts of the UK. [Interruption.] I am delighted that Sir Ron Dearing has agreed to chair the committee.

We propose to invite the committee to make recommendations on how the shape, structure, size and funding of higher education, including support for students, should develop to meet the needs of the UK over the next 20 years. We shall supply the committee with the preparatory work that has already been undertaken in the education Departments as part of my review.

We shall consult widely on the committee's precise terms of reference and composition. I shall place a copy of the draft terms of reference and the consultation letter in the Library. In due course, I shall make a further announcement on the committee's remit and membership in the light of the consultations. I expect the committee to start work after Easter, and to report by the summer of 1997. [Interruption.]

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)

Madam Speaker—[Interruption.]

Hon. Members

Get on with it.

Mr. Blunkett

I am getting on with it, thank you. Hon. Members must not act like a rabble.

May I take the unusual step of welcoming the statement, and commending the Secretary of State for her approach to the national inquiry? The public are heartily sick and tired of the knockabout politics that characterises so much of our public debate. It is in marked contrast to the antics of last week, therefore, that the Secretary of State has been prepared to offer a bipartisan national approach to the important long-term question of the part that further and higher education can play in the economic and social future of the United Kingdom. It is in that spirit that I welcome the inquiry.

Will the Secretary of State confirm her willingness to continue her approach to seeking solutions that will build agreement, in the same way as the Robbins committee built agreement and facilitated a way forward more than 30 years ago? I welcome the appointment of Sir Ron Dearing. Will she confirm that the approach that she adopted in developing the terms of reference with me will be carried forward into developing the membership of the inquiry? Will she lay to rest the belief that the inquiry will be a short-term fix? Will she rather confirm that it will be a long-term look at the needs of the United Kingdom for the next two decades?

Does the Secretary of State agree that we now have an opportunity to build on the four key principles of Robbins by adding to them—in this European Year of Lifelong Learning—commitments to lifelong learning for everyone, to the value of further and higher education to the economic and social well-being of each individual and to the nation as a whole, and to placing quality, equity and access at the very forefront of our deliberations?

Does the Secretary of State agree that we have a choice as a nation as to whether we are a low-wage, low-tech, low-added-value economy, or whether we build on the knowledge base that is possible in the decades ahead to produce a high-tech, high-wage, high-added-value Britain that can compete at the cutting edge of the global economy?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the way in which we proceed with the inquiry in terms of Britain's future needs in the global economy will determine whether our people have jobs that are built on the knowledge base and innovation that higher education offers the United Kingdom of the future, or whether we merely fill existing jobs? Does she agree that we must use higher education to foster enterprise and innovation, so that higher education itself can help to create employment, rather than simply fill the job market?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the humanities, arts and social sciences—as well as technology and science—will have a key role in the new economy of the future not only in offering opportunities to individuals, but in opening up opportunities world wide for our industry and commerce? Does she agree that equity and access for all capable of benefiting from it require actions to alleviate student poverty and parental worry and that, in seeking a way forward, no one should be precluded from entering higher education because of their income or background? Does she agree that, while the future is the responsibility of all of us—the Labour party is ready and willing to take up that challenge—the responsibility for the current crisis rests with the actions of the Government?

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that, in addressing the problems and the challenges of the future, it is necessary to face up to the responsibilities of the present? Will she therefore ask her right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to think again about the substantial cuts facing further and higher education, the £550 million that will be removed from the universities' budget in 1998–99, the two-thirds cut in capital spending for further education in the next three years, and the virtual collapse of the Student Loans Company and the loans system?

Will the Secretary of State provide a firm foundation on which Sir Ron Dearing can build? Will she ensure that, when looking to the decades ahead, we do not have to pick up the pieces that exist at the moment? We must agree with the way in which we provide probably the most important aspect of economic and social life for future generations. There must be a genuine consensus on opening up further and higher education, so that every young person—and every mature adult who wishes to seek it—has the opportunity to develop their talents and to flourish for the future.

Mrs. Shephard

I welcome the hon. Member's comments about the committee of inquiry. The future of higher education should be above party interests, as the interests of the nation are tightly interwoven with it. As I said in my statement, the membership of the committee of inquiry and its terms of reference will be the subject of consultation—which we expect to be completed by Easter.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the four key principles that were outlined by Robbins. In the course of our higher education review, it has become clear that there is a need to rebalance the aims and to look at the links between higher education and other sectors of the education service—particularly further education. We must look at the whole context and at the quality of what the system is producing—quality is essential.

The products of our higher education system and the system itself are subject to strong competition from other countries. That is why competitiveness and the contribution that higher education can make to our competitiveness will be important elements in the work of the committee of inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the so-called current crisis. I cannot accept that any sector that receives £7 billion of funding—21 per cent. of the total funding of the education system—is in crisis. We spend more per student in higher education than any other country in the western industrialised world. There has been no collapse of student loans, but the committee of inquiry will examine the context of what is being spent overall and the way the system is funded. It will also examine a number of the broader issues that were outlined by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. I hope that Dearing becomes as notable a landmark in our history as Robbins. I hope that the review, while looking forward 20 years, will also examine two problems of the current era: at the bottom, the problems that recruiting pressures have in potentially distorting the market; and, at the top, the funding problems, not so much for buildings—which the private finance initiative resolves—as for equipment that is absolutely critical.

Mrs. Shephard

The committee of inquiry will be considering all aspects of the higher education system, of course, including the way in which the funding methodology adopted by the Higher Education Funding Council affects recruiting methods, and the balance—this is extremely important—between research and teaching in different establishments. As far as equipment is concerned, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of the fund that has been set up between the Office of Science and Technology, the Higher Education Funding Council and the Department to help higher education institutions to cope with the needs of replacement of equipment and infrastructure in the current climate.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I too welcome the establishment of this inquiry, but does not the Secretary of State agree that some issues need urgent attention and cannot wait for the outcome of the inquiry? In particular, will she be prepared to find ways to reverse the damaging cuts to the capital budgets in further and higher education?

May I also welcome the appointment of Sir Ron Dearing to head the inquiry? Does the Secretary of State not agree, however, that, since the Government have so often had to turn to Sir Ron Dearing in recent years to clear up the mess that they have created, he might be justified in stealing Oliver Hardy's line and saying, "That's another fine mess you've got me into"?

Mrs. Shephard

May I set the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest straight away—Sir Ron Dearing is delighted to undertake this task, and is very well qualified because he chaired the Council for National Academic Awards and the Universities Funding Council in England.

I must say something of the same to the hon. Gentleman as I said to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). We are spending £7 billion of taxpayers' money on the higher education sector. The recurrent spending of universities was maintained in the recent public expenditure survey round.

There have been reductions in capital but, with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, we are setting up a small expert group to help universities make the best they can of the opportunities afforded by the private finance initiative. Many are doing well in that respect already. I have already mentioned the equipment fund set up by the OST, the Higher Education Funding Council and so forth.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

I am sure that the appointment of Sir Ron Dearing to head the review will give it a weight that will exceed the weight of the previous review on the same subject, which has just been completed in my right hon. Friend's Department. Will she recognise, meanwhile, that the financial problems of the universities have been building up for some time, and have reached a critical point after the public expenditure settlement of last November?

Does my right hon. Friend also accept that many Conservative Members would not regard unit spending on the continent as a model for which we should be aiming? Does she recognise that universities have a duty to maintain their standards, that they are independent of the Government, and that they have a right as well as a duty to take appropriate steps to secure the resources they need to underpin the quality of their courses?

Mrs. Shephard

It is always a delight to hear from my hon. Friend on this subject, about which he knows such a great deal. Only part 1 of our higher education review was completed in the Department. The second part, which would have been putting out the findings of part 1 to consultation, will obviously be remitted to the committee of inquiry for it to take forward the questions that resulted from that analysis.

My hon. Friend's other questions underline why it is essential to have the committee of inquiry. It is necessary to consider the balance between research and teaching, and, before one looks at funding and the way in which that is carried out, to study the future size, shape and function of the higher education sector as we approach the 21st century.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Will the Secretary of State also consider the shambles that has been created by the research assessment exercise, with football transfer fees being paid to lure productive lecturers into other institutions? Will she consider the effect of that on the institutions themselves and on the expectations of some of the students who join them?

Mrs. Shephard

I do not accept the hon. Lady's assessment of the research assessment exercise as a shambles. There is the exercise of brisk competition. There should be a thorough and profound examination of the relationship between funding mechanisms and their effect on research and teaching as components of the activities of higher education institutions. I imagine that the hon. Lady would agree with that.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the two periods of greatest expansion of opportunity for higher education have occurred since the war and under Conservative Governments: under the Macmillan Government, and then as a result of the reforms that this Government have introduced? Does she agree that the huge doubling of numbers has created acute financial pressures on higher education? Will she consider instructing Sir Ron Dearing immediately to produce an interim report specifically to examine funding, and in particular the financing of students, at a time when universities and Opposition Members are floating notions of graduate taxes, which some of us do not believe to be the most suitable way forward? Funding is the real issue, rather than the structure and shape of the system, at a time when we need some consolidation.

Mrs. Shephard

The very welcome expansion in higher education that my hon. Friend describes has, in a way, caused the current emphasis on funding. That is why I think that future size should be one of the first considerations of Sir Ron Dearing and his committee. When my hon. Friend has had a chance to examine the terms of reference, he will find that that necessary emphasis is clearly laid out.

We have reached a time of rapid and welcome expansion—most rapid expansion has occurred under Conservative Governments—and it is time to consider whether we now need consolidation, more expansion, or more emphasis on quality. We need to consider where we are going with higher education, and that will be the committee of inquiry's main purpose. Obviously we are consulting on the terms of reference, but it will be for the committee of inquiry to establish where it wishes to begin.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement, which is long overdue, and the fact that it has been supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Does the right hon. Lady think that it is occasionally worth reiterating that higher education is not and has never been free, that it must be paid for, at some point, by someone? I suggest to her—or, through her, to Sir Ron Dearing—that one of the biggest problems in coming to grips with the difficulties and the opportunities of higher education is that, by and large, the overwhelming majority of hon. Members think that higher education is still like it was when they were students.

There is a good case for making it compulsory for hon. Members to attend a seminar, run by Sir Ron, that would give them the facts and figures. Hon. Members do not believe what has happened in higher education in recent years. Unless they accept what has happened, I must emphasise that we shall never reach a solution that will benefit our constituents of all ages. There is no hope for any change or progress for all our constituents without that acceptance.

Mrs. Shephard

I am most intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. It is obvious that education must be paid for, which is why I keep reiterating the figure of £7 billion—21 per cent. of the total education budget. That is worth thinking about for a moment, because that money directly benefits 1.5 million people, the broader economy and research, as compared with the 6 million schoolchildren who benefit from the remainder of the budget. Yes, education must be paid for.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, on higher education issues more than any other, hon. Members' views are coloured by their own generation's experiences. Because the House encompasses hon. Members of many different generations, the generational baggage they bring varies. However, I do not think that I would go as far as the hon. Gentleman and insist on all hon. Members attending a higher education establishment for a refresher course.

It is very difficult to obtain dispassionate views on the state of higher education, and that will be one of the committee of inquiry's starting points.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this is a timely and appropriate moment for her to take stock of the big questions, which must include both the finance and the future role of post-compulsory education? I deliberately say "post-compulsory" education, because the old adjective "higher" is no longer the most appropriate word to use. In that context, will my right hon. Friend do everything she can to ensure that Sir Ron Dearing has access to the widest possible range of advice and input, as that will benefit the result of his findings?

Mrs. Shephard

I agree that we need to ensure that the best possible range of information and advice is given to the committee of inquiry. As I said, we shall consult on its membership, but, knowing Sir Ron Dearing's ways of working, I think that the expertise made available to the committee will go far beyond its immediate members.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

I add my welcome to the right hon. Lady's decision to establish the inquiry. I particularly welcome her appointment of Sir Ron Dearing—there is no one wiser or better fitted to undertake the task. I am pleased that the right hon. Lady is asking Sir Ron Dearing to include in his purview further as well as higher education.

Whatever the outcome of the inquiry and the debate on the most appropriate use of the £7 billion of expenditure on higher education, according to the present pattern and plans—under which I understand there is to be a 5.1 per cent. squeeze on unit funding by 1996–97 and a 9.4 per cent. squeeze on overall higher education funding by 1998–99—we are liable to witness some damaging effects on the academic system. Those effects will include unfilled academic posts, libraries and laboratories that are not brought up to date, academic staff who are so overstretched by teaching and administration that they are unable to pursue scholarship, and impoverished students. Will the right hon. Lady do all she can in government to ensure that the squeeze on the academic system is at least relaxed, until we have been given Sir Ron's recommendations and have had time to consider them?

Mrs. Shephard

I have already made it clear that we are working closely with the sector to help it to take advantage of private finance initiatives in respect of capital. We are closely in touch—full stop—with those in the sector on all aspects of their budget and general working. Universities have been efficient in absorbing efficiency savings that we have demanded of them, on which I congratulate them. There is clearly a division between the immediate, with which we are closer in touch, and the bigger and broader questions, on which we hope we shall receive their full co-operation—I have no reason to believe otherwise. The hon. Gentleman, who, after all, was closely involved in abolishing the binary line, will understand that it must be right to look at the issues of consolidation, continued expansion and demand-led expansion, while at the same time considering how they might be financed.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

I cannot give a commitment to the House, but I want to try to call every hon. Member who wants to speak, as this is an important statement. There is another statement to follow and hon. Members could help me enormously by making their questions and answers brisk.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

Will the inquiry have a close look at the relationship between industry and universities, and will it also look at training methods for university lecturers and teachers?

Mrs. Shephard

Yes, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Thank you. That is very helpful.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

It is not the Government's normal approach to set up such inquiries, or, where there are inquiries, to adhere to their recommendations. It is even more unusual for those on our Front Bench to agree. Would it not therefore have been appropriate to have the draft terms of reference, so that we could all see whether the right action was being taken?

Can we be assured that those of us who may have different views on education from those that are normally expressed by the Government have opportunities to present our views on continued education, lifetime education and access to higher education for people with abilities but without formal qualifications?

Mrs. Shephard

The terms of reference have been placed in the Libraries of the two Houses. They will, as I have made clear, be subject to consultation, and the hon. Gentleman's concerns will be part of that.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

As the Member who represents the university of Essex, I emphasise the view expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House that finance is the crunch issue of Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that we want universities to remain non-state, private institutions, and not become entirely beholden to the taxpayer and to the Government?

Mrs. Shephard

I entirely agree that one of the great strengths of our system is the essential independence—both financial and academic—of our higher education institutions. Many of them have done marvellous work in diversifying and in responding to the needs of employers, industry and enterprise, and to the challenge posed by competition overseas. All those questions will be considered by the committee of inquiry, which I am sure will want to consider best practice.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May I remind the Secretary of State that it is some nine months, if I might modestly say so, since I published and launched the document "The Case for the University of the Lakes", which was the product of four and a half years' work? Will the inquiry draw upon the application of developments in information technology, and especially the use of an electronic library linked to a multi-campus university, which is essentially the concept behind the university of the Lakes?

Mrs. Shephard


Dr. Ian Twinn (Edmonton)

I join in the all-party support for my right hon. Friend's statement. Does she agree that the success of the Conservative expansion of higher education has been due to the magnificent response of universities and their staff, and the positive way in which they have adapted to the challenge of expansion? Will she ensure that quality of staff and students is maintained by considering the way in which universities are funded, so that they get continuity, not Treasury stop-start funding?

Mrs. Shephard

That is an important matter. I pay tribute to the way in which the whole sector has taken advantage of the greater independence given to it by the Government—not to mention the increased funding—and turned itself into a sector of flourishing and diverse institutions. One thing that concerns me is career structure for academic staff, and I hope that the committee of inquiry will consider that.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

When does the Secretary of State hope that the inquiry will be completed? Does she realise that, in the interim, she must do far more to raise the morale of today's students and academics than offer them an inquiry?

Mrs. Shephard

I have already described the work that we are doing to cope with the current situation, with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and others. I expect the inquiry to report in early summer 1997.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

Will my right hon. Friend invite Sir Ron to consider whether all courses now offered reach the standards that one would expect of a university course, and consider the approaches to university teaching that, in its experience, produce the best results and the highest quality?

Mrs. Shephard

I hope that the assurance of quality will be at the heart of the work of the committee of inquiry.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

As the Dearing inquiry will not report for a long time, will the Secretary of State urgently look into the hardship that is being caused to students with disabilities, including blind students, who now have to pay VAT on the information technology that they require for their studies? That seems to be an unfair imposition on students who used to be exempt from VAT on such purchases. I hope that the Secretary of State can intervene quickly, to ensure that that hardship is not allowed to continue.

Mrs. Shephard

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in such matters, and, if he will send me details of those cases, we shall look at them urgently.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the inquiry will focus very much on the way in which education can improve the United Kingdom's competitive position in the world? In that regard, will she also say whether the inquiry will properly consider the way in which distance learning techniques—using the information super-highway and the Internet—may be enhanced so that people may undertake higher education in their own homes?

Mrs. Shephard

We felt it necessary to establish the committee of inquiry partly because of those changes in emphasis and in circumstances. If my hon. Friend looks closely at the terms of reference, which have been placed in the Library, he will see that both those aims are laid out very clearly.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

Before Sir Ron Dearing reports to the House, will the Secretary of State examine the education situation in the Wakefield area in my constituency, and the distribution of part of the £7 billion to further and higher education in that area? My constituents wish to extend their education, but they are unable to do so because of the current economic situation. That fact is borne out by the training and enterprise council, which has revealed that only 25 per cent. of local people are properly trained or receive adequate levels of training and education.

Mrs. Shephard

Obviously, people have a wide range of opportunities—although I cannot speak in detail about the hon. Gentleman's constituency—offered through training and enterprise councils, further education, linked courses with higher education and so on. I wish that I were able to comment in detail on the cases that are worrying the hon. Gentleman. If he will provide those details, I shall try to help. However, I hope that his constituents are taking advantage of existing mechanisms, such as career development loans and non-mandatory grants. I shall be glad to hear from him about the matter.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that having one in three people in higher education is a superb achievement? However, does she not also agree that too many universities have too many courses which do not lead graduates into work? One of the great problems of higher education throughout history is that courses are not market led—despite the best efforts of the inspectorate, of which my right hon. Friend was a distinguished member, to ensure that courses would lead students into work. Does she believe that the Dearing committee should consider that issue?

Mrs. Shephard

The expansion of higher education-which has meant that nearly one in three people are now in higher education, compared with one in eight in 1979–80—is a major achievement. Some 15 per cent. of university courses now lead to vocational qualifications. It is important that young people leaving higher education should be employable, although they may require further vocational training in order to get a job.

It is absolutely clear that young people must do well in education and attain high-quality qualifications. Their education must equip them to express themselves well, to be members of teams, to be thoroughly literate and numerate—in short, to be employable. The question of employability and the contribution that higher education makes to the broader economy will be at the heart of the terms of reference of the committee of inquiry.

Mr. Bryan Davies (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Although the committee will not report until summer next year, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that that in no way absolves her from her responsibility of ensuring that the immediate needs of higher education are fully met? This year's budgetary settlement—in contrast to the position last year—must recognise that fact.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that, although the siren voices on her side of the House and perhaps from parts of the education sector are saying that consolidation must be the lodestar for the committee, Labour Members and others in many parts of the country will be emphasising Robbins' initial principle: higher education courses should be available to all those who are qualified to undertake them and who are able to benefit from them? As that number will inevitably increase as our schools produce more qualified students, we will expect the committee to consider expanding higher education.

Mrs. Shephard

The Robbins initial conclusion was that higher education should principally concern itself with instruction in employment skills, and that only after that should it promote the general powers of the mind, the advancement of learning and the transmission of a common culture and common standards in citizenship.

I have explained the ways in which we keep in close touch with the sector about matters immediately of the moment, but I repeat that, when considering expansion, consolidation or future role, one must set all those in the context of what the needs of the economy will be, the future of the country, and the contribution that higher education can make to meeting those needs. It is a broader issue, which affects the issues that immediately confront us this year, and that will be the focus of the committee of inquiry.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Will Sir Ron Dearing consider the success of Buckingham university in managing to grant degrees after only two years of study—degrees that are internationally recognised as very satisfactory? Will the Dearing committee also consider the different staff-student ratios that apply in the old polytechnics and the long-standing universities? Does not the success of the polytechnics suggest that there may be slack in staff-student ratios at universities?

Mrs. Shephard

I expect the committee of inquiry to consider length of courses and good practice throughout all institutions.