HL Deb 05 May 1975 vol 360 cc94-7

2.44 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what percentage of local authorities meet in full tuition fees of Open University students and what percentage of Open University students receive no local authority financial assistance.


My Lords, I regret that the information requested is not available, but we have the results of a questionnaire sent by the Open University in November last year to local education authorities, excluding those in Scotland. Out of the 113 authorities, 100 replies were received and analysed. The number of authorities ready to consider assistance towards tuition fees for teacher employees was 73, and for other students 36; but all were willing to consider helping with the cost of attending summer schools. The University knows of no authority unwilling to consider any assistance to its students.


My Lords, am I to understand that the Open University, which was established to make the higher levels of education available to the richest and the poorest, is now available to the rich and the well-to-do, but is no longer available to the poor?


My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, that is not true. The education provided by the Open University is available both to the rich and to the poor. Indeed, as I told your Lordships' House last time, the evidence is that an increasing proportion of manual workers and people from poorer homes are enrolling for courses at the Open University, and I am delighted to know that this is so.


My Lords, may I inform my noble friend that in the early days of the Open Univer- sity the attack upon it was that it was only for the well-to-do, but at the very moment when poorer people are coming into it the Labour Government, which established the Open University, are raising the initial fee from £25 to £40. May I say quite bluntly that the Open University is not now for the poor and I will no longer be associated with it. I established it and I was not willing to be associated with an educative body only for the poor; but now the Labour Government have said that the Open University is to be available for the well-to-do and not for the poor.


My Lords, when the noble Baroness raised this issue only a short time ago, I tried to make it clear that the proposal by Her Majesty's Government to increase tuition fees was under discussion with the Open University. Equally, I tried to make it clear that I was not at all satisfied with the situation. I also tried to point out that I did not think that extending the present discretionary grants system to mandatory grants was the right way of approaching this question. Equally, I thought that the existing situation was not satisfactory, and I tried to emphasise to your Lordships' House that I was in urgent consultation with the Open University to see in what way we could produce a situation which would be satisfactory to all concerned, and would enable the Open University fully to achieve and continue to achieve all the high hopes that we have of it.


My Lords, since twice as many local authorities are making grants in respect of their employees who are teachers as are assisting students of other categories, is this not in contradiction of the original purpose of the Open University, which was to help people who have not been able to obtain any qualifications at all and who are starting out to obtain them in middle life?


My Lords, as I have explained, so far as local authorities are concerned this is an area of discretionary grant and discretionary decision. I myself would not like to comment at this stage on the way in which they are exercising their discretion.


My Lords, now that the cost of a basic Open University degree is increasing, will the noble Lord ask his colleagues to look into the possibility of creating a scholarship scheme, like those which obtain in ordinary universities, for the poorer student who will be priced out of this wonderful institution?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his question. I have said that all ways are being looked at, and this will be one of them—as will the whole area of hardship funds. I am in urgent consultation with the Open University to try to produce a solution which will be satisfactory to all concerned.


My Lords, am I to understand from what the noble Lord has said that a married woman in a poor home will never be denied the opportunity of entering the Open University?


My Lords, I did not make any promise of that kind. Quite clearly, the situation at the moment is that anybody can apply to the local authority for assistance. Nearly all local authorities give assistance of some kind or another to students who are at the Open University. As I think I pointed out, there is no authority which gives no assistance.


My Lords, in view of the importance of the Open University scheme, will my noble friend consult with his right honourable friend, with a view to putting himself in a position where he can answer the Question on the Order Paper?


My Lords, will my noble friend please totally dissociate me from the Open University? As I think your Lordships' House knows, I was not prepared to be associated with a ghetto for the poor. However, I will not be associated with an Open University which is available to everybody except the poor.


My Lords, is it not humiliating that anybody should have to plead poverty in order to have access to higher education in this country?


My Lords, will my noble friend pay very serious attention to this matter, because the Open University is necessarily charging very heavy fees indeed, especially to those taking science courses, who have to pay an additional heavy fee for the scientific equipment which they get and, furthermore, they have to pay a heavy fee for attending the summer schools. Is it not appropriate that these charges should be met on a mandatory and not on a discretionary basis?


My Lords, we are giving consideration to all the points raised by the noble Lord, but I have observed that we do not see that the mandatory grant way ahead is the right one in this situation.


My Lords, would my noble friend consider withdrawing the title "Open University" and substituting something else, as it is clearly not open?


My Lords, this really is an Open University and very great progress is being made as is illustrated by the fact that the number of people from poorer families enrolling and attending courses at the University has considerably increased. It is not the intention of the Government that it should be otherwise, and that is the basis of the urgent discussions that we are having with the University at the moment, as costs are inevitably rising and as people's incomes are also rising.


My Lords, will the noble Lord not accept that we in this House are anxious to shelter education, beyond other things, from the effect of inflation, since this is in a sense the seed corn of our future income-generating capacity?


My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are anxious, and I too am anxious, to do all we can. Indeed, I regard it as an important part of my job to do all I can for education in this extremely difficult financial and economic situation.