HC Deb 19 June 1996 vol 279 cc864-5
10. Mr. Robert Hughes

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what assessment he has made of the equipment needs of UK universities for research purposes. [32117]

Mr. Jon Taylor

Research equipment and other needs of the science budget are assessed with advice from the Director General of Research Councils. The research councils are currently administering an equipment fund with the higher education funding councils.

Mr. Hughes

Has the Minister seen the recent survey, commissioned by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals with the higher education funding councils of England, Scotland and Wales, which concludes that four out of five university departments are unable to conduct critical experiments due to lack of funding? The survey also points out that the situation has deteriorated since the previous survey in 1987. In view of those facts, will the Minister abandon the folly of cutting university funding by half over the next three years and instead re-inject capital funding, as has been requested by the academic, business and industrial communities?

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman is selective in his quotation from the report. It also shows that 80 per cent. of universities consider that their equipment is better or at least adequate. That is an important factor. More than 52 per cent. consider that their equipment matches well with that of their international competition. The report is complex, not least because 91 universities responded, not all of which we would regard as being at the forefront of research. The figures must be examined closely.

We recognise, however, that universities have equipment problems which have an effect on research. That is why the Department of Trade and Industry, through the research councils, is administering a joint equipment budget, and why I have asked my officials to discuss with the vice-chancellors ways in which we can solve long-term problems, including a better way to allocate equipment between universities, a second-hand market and attempts to obtain bulk purchases. More details will be revealed when I am satisfied that we have got to the bottom of the problem.

Mr. Ingram

I do not think that that answer will satisfy anyone who is interested in our science and research base, least of all the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the higher education funding councils. Is the Minister prepared to accept that their assessment, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) referred, points out that there is a crisis in our science base and that cuts in research funding and equipment have seriously damaged our international competitiveness? If he is not prepared to accept that, I accuse him of indifference to what is happening to our science and research base. If he accepts the finding, it is not long-term solutions that are needed but immediate and quick ones to recover what has been lost.

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman should read the reports with a good deal more consideration. It is a simple fact that 25 of our universities receive 70 per cent. of the total equipment budget. That means that they are the excellent universities in categories 4 and 5 in the research assessment exercise. We are keeping a close check to ensure that our research is up to standard and of the quality required.

There are many complicated factors. If we analyse the reports, we find that about 147 magnetic spectrometers are required by universities throughout the country. There has been no discussion to ascertain whether they are all required, whether there should be bulk purchase, or whatever. Surely the hon. Gentleman agrees that, in those circumstances, a more rational approach to the long-term problem of funding equipment in our universities is required, which is precisely what I have already worked on with my officials. Indeed, I have talked to Professor Gareth Roberts, the vice-chancellor of Sheffield university.