HC Deb 29 April 2004 vol 420 cc992-4
5. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab)

If he will make a statement on university staff salaries. [169208]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson)

Universities are autonomous, independent bodies and are responsible for determining their own affairs, including pay for their staff. The Government play no part in setting the levels of pay or conditions of service for higher education staff. However, we recognise that Government funding plays a part in what institutions can pay their staff. The Higher Education Funding Council for England will allocate almost £6 billion of grants for 2004–05, a 9.3 per cent. increase on 2003–04. Within that, funding for teaching is increasing by 5.6 per cent.

Mr. Chapman

In recent times, I have had a great deal of correspondence from academics expressing their concern about the relative long-term decline in academic salaries. I share that concern. Does my right hon. Friend accept that, if we are to have world-class academic institutions, we need to attract and retain quality staff? Does he agree that as the Government have a role to play in the funding of higher education, they have an influence on salaries? Does he have a long-term plan to solve the problem?

Alan Johnson

I entirely accept the point that my hon. Friend makes. Indeed, the Prime Minister, in a speech late last year, said: The shortfall of teaching funding has badly hit the salaries of academic staff, which have shown practically no increase in real terms over two decades. That is one of the reasons why we are pursuing the controversial measures in the Higher Education Bill. Not only are we putting in an extra £3 billion from the taxpayer, but an extra £2 billion will come through existing fees and through the increase. University vice-chancellors tell us that, in general. at least a third of that money will be put back into the salaries and conditions of their staff. That will make an enormous contribution in tackling a very serious and deep-seated problem.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con)

Has the Minister seen the survey by the Association of University Teachers that confirms that higher education was better off under the last Conservative Government than it is today under Labour? Will he confirm that Labour's only answer to the growing funding crisis in universities is to force students to run up bigger and bigger debts? While that will almost certainly deter many young people from poorer backgrounds from applying for university at all, it will do nothing to address the problem mentioned by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) with regard to universities attracting and retaining top-calibre staff.

Alan Johnson

The hon. Gentleman always does a good turn at the Dispatch Box; it is always amusing.

The problem with the AUT study, which I have seen, is that it does not compare like with like. There was a change in the way in which student support funding is measured and reported, as we moved to economic cost rather than cash outlay, and that has distorted its figures. The independent statistical first release, which takes into account that change, shows a level of student support that was higher in 2002—03 than 10 years before. If one takes the AUT's own statistics and report and strips away student support, one sees that they show an increase in higher education funding of more than 25 per cent. above inflation between 1994 and 2003—04.

I find it incredible that, during the most important debate on higher education since the early 1960s and the publication of the Robbins report, the Opposition still do not tell us how they plan to tackle these difficult issues. While our proposals are controversial, they are the right thing to do, as many of the hon. Gentleman's own party members will be telling him from the other place as we take the Bill through the Lords.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West) (Lab)

While I obviously accept the Minister's initial response with regard to the independence of universities, given the Government's input into the funding, may I ask him to confirm that he continues to raise in dialogue with universities the fact that there remains among academic staff a differential between women and men?

Alan Johnson

Yes, I will raise that issue. Actually, it does not need to be raised, because vice-chancellors are very aware of it. Indeed, as my hon. Friend will know, the latest pay deal, which is a two-year deal, seeks to address some deep-seated issues, including inequality in pay and an 8.1 per cent. increase for the lowest pay grades in universities. She makes a very important point that I shall reiterate on every occasion I can.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP)

May I share with the Minister my concern in support of the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman)? As the representative of a university constituency, I know that there is great concern about a brain drain in which our academic staff go abroad because we cannot pay them proper salaries. Will the Minister therefore consult his colleagues in Northern Ireland to see whether what is happening in England can also happen in universities there?

Alan Johnson

I will certainly speak to my colleagues in Northern Ireland. As the Higher Education Bill progressed through the Commons, I spoke to many Northern Ireland Members and to the vice-chancellors of both universities in Northern Ireland, who are aware of the problems. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, although we think that the issue should be devolved—we are keen to see a devolved Administration pick it up again—universities in Northern Ireland must face up to the controversial issues surrounding higher education funding that we are trying to face up to in England.