HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc1555-7
6. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab)

If he will make a statement on the future funding of the Open university. [154515]

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

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is about to undertake a comprehensive review of how funding for university teaching is allocated. In accordance with the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the House on 8 January, a major focus of this review will be how the funding system might further support the development of part-time study. The review will relate to those institutions with large numbers of part-time students and will be particularly relevant to the Open university, where all students are part-time. The Open university currently receives around £14 million in widening access and improving retention funding from HEFCE, and that will improve next year when ward-based data are used to measure social disadvantage.

Brian White

I thank the Minister for his reply and for the work that he did in January to try to ensure that the review covers the needs of the Open university. Given the ongoing concern that the largest university in the country does not have the same access to funding mechanisms as full-time institutions, will my right hon. Friend ensure that officials in his Department and the funding agencies are aware of the objective of securing the future of the Open university?

Alan Johnson

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who has been a great advocate for the Open university. As he says, it is the biggest university in the country, but it and Birkbeck have a particular problem because they are entirely composed of part-time students. I understand that the first meeting of both organisations with the chief executive of HEFCE, Howard Newby, went well and involved positive discussions. We will ensure that we keep on top of the issue and that the review comes to fruition as soon as possible.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

Quite apart from the funding review, can the Minister confirm or deny that the Government are considering cutting or closing the Open university and transferring distance learning functions to other new universities?

Alan Johnson

I deny that emphatically. In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) on 22 January, I described the Open university—in a fit of verbosity—as the "jewel in the crown" of British higher education. That has particular relevance on this side of the House, given its origins in the days when my hon. Friends were student revolutionaries. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we have no plans to damage the Open university in any way.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)

In discussions with the Open university, will my right hon. Friend pay some attention to the important international role that its excellence plays? It can be exported by supporting and developing links with universities in developing countries, where often the only method of communication for learners is the radio. The Open university has an important role to play in the help and support that we give to developing and poor countries.

Alan Johnson

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Wherever we go in the world, the Open university is even more famous than some of the other more mentioned universities in the UK. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reminds me that the Open university is now running a teacher training programme in South Africa. That is just one of the reasons why the Open university is successful. It is not concerned about imminent collapse: the concerns centre on the ability of other universities to obtain additional funding through the proposals in the Higher Education Bill. Because the Open university is composed of part-timers, it will not have the same opportunity, and the feeling is that the funding from HEFCE does not properly reflect the cost of part-time education. Those problems will be addressed in the review that my right hon. Friend announced on 8 January.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con)

Does the Minister accept that Harold Wilson deserves immense credit for the creation of the Open university and that it has prospered and expanded under Governments of both colours so that it now represents a treasure for the whole nation? Does he recall that in times past the Open university pioneered breakfast television programming? Today, it has a successful presence on the internet. What can the Minister do to encourage the Open university to use the new possibilities created by digital interactive television?

Alan Johnson

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments about the formation of the Open university.

I have spoken about the issue he raises on many occasions, but I have a meeting arranged with the vice-chancellor of the Open university in the coming fortnight and I will ensure that the issue is on our agenda.