HC Deb 29 January 1997 vol 289 cc355-7
12. Mr. Sheerman

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what steps she is taking to retain and recruit high-quality staff in British universities. [11737]

Mrs. Shephard

The staffing of universities is for institutions themselves, which are responsible for setting their own levels of pay and conditions of service.

Mr. Sheerman

Is not the Secretary of State worried that a combination of extremely low pay and a growing number of short-term contracts—many universities have more than half their staff on such contracts—will depress standards even in the medium term? That must concern all hon. Members. Is it not time that the Government realised what an asset we have in our universities? If we run down that asset, our possibilities for wealth creation and the regeneration of local communities will be severely damaged.

Mrs. Shephard

I agree that the higher education sector is a priceless asset for this country because of its research base and the opportunities that it affords us to increase our global competitiveness. I remind the hon. Gentleman that under this Government there has been an expansion in the number of young people going to university from 12 per cent. in 1979 to 30 per cent. now. It is also encouraging that, while this country accounts for about 1 per cent. of the world's population, our universities account for 5 per cent. of the world's research. The sector is in good health and is doing well.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that pay and conditions of service are matters for the universities. Royal Society research shows that the number of British academics returning to employment in Britain exceeds the number going abroad. I do not think that there is cause for concern. Investigating that issue is one of the tasks of the national committee of inquiry into higher education.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Lancaster university on its ability to attract the highest calibre of staff, enabling it to be placed third in the recent research assessments, after only Oxford and Cambridge, which it hopes to overtake eventually?

Mrs. Shephard

I should be delighted to congratulate the university of Lancaster. In the recent exercise, the best universities have done better than last time and new universities and higher education colleges have significantly increased their number of active researchers and have improved their performance. I am happy to congratulate the university.

Mr. Bryan Davies

We all understand why morale in universities is not high. What about the bombshell that the Secretary of State suddenly exploded this week among further education colleges? Will she confirm that she has refused to fund the demand-led expansion of student numbers, to which colleges are already committed, with students on their courses and private providers already under contract? What is the explanation for that disastrous decision? Why has it been taken now, in the middle of the education year? Has she any idea of the number of colleges that will be plunged into deficit as a result of the decision? How many jobs will be lost in the public and private sectors? Does she accept that the House requires an explanation?

Mrs. Shephard

I cannot confirm the hon. Gentleman's first allegation, because it is not true. The proposals announced in the recent Budget provided a funding increase of £80 million to existing baselines of further education for the next two years. The plans provide for 20 per cent. growth in the number of students in further education between 1993–94 and 1998–1999. However, I am discussing with the Further Education Funding Council ways of meeting costs arising from the demand-led element of its funding this year. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he should be exceedingly wary before giving any impression that additional funding pledges might be the intention of his party.

Mr. Butler

Will my hon. Friend acknowledge the superb work of the Open university, of which you, Madam Speaker, have the honour to be chancellor and which is in my constituency. It is currently rated 10th out of more than 100 such institutions in terms of its research work, in addition to producing by a multiple factor the largest number of top-quality graduates of any university in the kingdom.

Madam Speaker

It has also just won the Queen's anniversary prize for higher and further education.

Mr. Butler

Indeed, Madam Speaker, it has also just won the Queen's award.

Mrs. Shephard

Perhaps I should congratulate you, Madam Speaker, as chancellor of that excellent institution. The innovative work by the Open university is possibly showing the way for the development of the delivery of learning systems for the next century. One of its most interesting qualities is its work overseas—it has 17 outlets in Russia alone. I am delighted that you are the chancellor of such a first-class establishment.