HC Deb 07 May 1998 vol 311 cc855-7
12. Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

What plans he has to broaden the scope of the assessment exercises for universities for research and teaching to other fields. [40044]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Dr. Kim Howells)

Annual grants for universities and colleges approach £1 billion for research and exceed £2.5 billion for teaching. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State believes that, in the interests of accountability, the distribution of such large sums should take account of assessments of quality. The Government value other university activities and are, with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, considering ways in which these can be evaluated and supported.

Mr. Sheerman

Is my hon. Friend aware that many universities want to help the Government to build a knowledge-based information society that is an enterprise society in which jobs and wealth will be created into the next century? However, they feel inhibited because— although there are teaching and research assessment exercises—no matter how much work a university puts into enterprise and helping businesses internationally, nationally and locally, little credit is given to them. Many universities want an enterprise assessment exercise so that they can get credit and take part in useful partnerships.

Dr. Howells

I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend's suggestion. Universities are tremendous resources for the communities they serve. They are too often underutilised in terms of what they can provide for local businesses. I would be interested in any suggestion or scheme that encourages the link between universities and the local economy and in studying how they can have a symbiotic relationship with each other to increase competitiveness in their regions and in the universities.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

The Minister will be aware that many people in higher education are worried that research and teaching will be hit next year by the Chancellor's Budget increase in employers' national insurance contributions. If the Minister really wants to help them, he could give an assurance that they will be fully compensated for higher national insurance contributions next year. Can he give that assurance?

Dr. Howells

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing such matters with the Treasury. We will ensure that, in future, university funding does not suffer as it has over the past 18 years.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

Will the Minister change one of the more ludicrous aspects of the research assessment exercises in universities? If a university manages to recruit a star lecturer or professor from another university, all research previously published at his or her old university is included in the research assessment exercise, to the credit of the new university. It is as though a football club that paid a transfer fee for a centre forward also received the goals that that centre forward had scored in the previous season, which would be ludicrous. What will the Minister do to change that absurd inheritance from the mob on the Opposition Benches?

Dr. Howells

My hon. Friend's point is valid. It is crazy that people come trailing clouds of glory that often evaporate quickly if they do not find themselves in a suitable working environment. The research assessment exercise is under review, and the issue that my hon. Friend raises will be a main focus of study.