HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc1553-5
5. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)

What representations he has received on the closure of science departments in universities. [154514]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke)

Both Ministers and officials have discussed this issue with a number of interested bodies and individuals, including some vice-chancellors. I have also received correspondence from several hon. Members.

Dr. Iddon

Has my right hon. Friend noticed the quickening pace of the closure of science, engineering and technology departments? Recently, for example, the closure has been announced of chemistry departments at King's college London, Queen Mary college London, and now the prestigious department at Swansea. It is not just a matter of falling numbers, and increased tuition fees will not end those closures. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend look at the high cost of maintaining SET departments, at the damage that the research assessment exercise has already done, and at the ratio of Higher Education Funding Council for England funding between arts and humanities courses, SET courses and medical courses, which I understand is currently 1:1.7:4?

Mr. Clarke

I will look at all the points that my hon. Friend raises, and I pay respect to his consistent campaigning on this issue. I do not accept his phrase "the quickening pace", although I am aware of the particular proposals that he mentioned. During the period 1994–95 to 2002, total enrolments in full-time science-based first degrees in UK higher education institutions increased by 12 per cent., from 328,000 students to 377,000. What that hides is a varying pattern. Chemistry has been studied in the same number of universities in that time. Materials science, physics, oceanography and combinations of physical sciences have had a reduction in the number of departments. Astronomy, geology, environmental and other sciences, archaeology and geography, however, have had an increase. It is therefore a moving pattern, but I am happy to look at the issues raised by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

Does the Secretary of State accept that engineering, science and technical subjects are not seen as being as sexy as some arts subjects, which seem to attract all the funding? We are looking for value-added employment, which means that we need technicians, scientists and engineers. Is it not therefore about time to incentivise our youngsters into universities to study those subjects? If we do not do so, there will be a skills shortage at the top end, and this country will come a cropper.

Mr. Clarke

I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman a short tutorial on the action that we are taking in each of those areas. One reason why we have proposed our foundation degree programme is to strengthen the important engineering and science base. He should also appreciate the shifting movements between subjects: yes, it is—in his words—about making those subjects sexier; yes, it is about specialist schools to encourage engineering, science and technology; and yes, it is about a better relationship between the science and engineering industries and education. All those measures are necessary and they are all happening. We will continue to take them further.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Coop)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many hon. Members do not view his reply with equanimity? In particular, there has been a catastrophic decline in people doing A-level mathematics, which is a feeder subject for engineering and other sciences. As a result, the figures that he has just quoted on those studying science contain fewer and fewer people with advanced mathematical skills. Does he accept that many students think that maths is much more difficult than other subjects, and will he make sure that that perception is rectified?

Mr. Clarke

I take my hon. Friend's point and do not view the situation with equanimity. We commissioned a major inquiry by Professor Adrian Smith on mathematics education, which will report in about 10 days' time, and it will reinforce my hon. Friend's concerns about the quality of higher-level mathematics education, so Professor Smith and I take his point. The report will point to a number of important steps that we must to take to rectify the long-term decline in those skills. There is no equanimity because we think that the matter is burningly important.

Mr. David Bendel (Newbury)(LD)

The funding system that the Government are currently trying to introduce is likely to put enormous pressure on universities—particularly the less prestigious universities—only to run courses where they can charge full top-up fees and which are comparatively cheap to put on. Does the Secretary of State accept that the new scheme is likely to lead to increased acceleration in the rate of closure of science departments?

Mr. Clarke

As a matter of fact, I do not accept that in any respect whatsoever. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) raised the issue of the money available for particular courses through the HEFCE formula, which is a key factor for universities. We must address that point, which is why I told my hon. Friend that I would examine those particular points. The Higher Education Bill, which is currently in Committee, will have a positive effect rather than the negative effect implied by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel).