HL Deb 23 July 1981 vol 423 cc352-5

3.17 p.m.

Lord Rochester

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 whether they are satisfied that the restructuring, redundancy and early retirement that will result from the reductions in grant and student numbers recently announced for universities are practicable within the constraints of time and money imposed.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Baroness Young)

My Lords, until a clearer picture emerges of what reductions in university staff are likely, it is not possible to estimate how and when these reductions will take place or what they will cost.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, I can draw little comfort from that Answer. Will the noble Baroness acknowledge the accumulating evidence from universities that a sum of only £20 million and a period of only three years will not permit the contraction which the Government have in mind to take place in an orderly and cost-effective manner? In view of the financial, legal and especially the human problems involved, would it not be preferable for the Government either to make more funds available to the University Grants Committee or to allow reductions in grant to be spread over a longer period, so that, so far as possible, the contraction which they have in mind can be achieved through voluntary early retirement and natural wastage rather than through enforced redundancy?

Baroness Young

My Lords, in an ideal world, the Government would not have wished to reduce expenditure for the universities either so soon or so sharply. However, in the world in which we live, the over-whelming need was action to bring public expenditure within the scope of what the country could afford, and higher education, including the universities, could not be exempt from that policy. We recognise that rationalisation is bound to lead to redundancies of academic and non-academic staff, but we believe that it is still too early to say to what extent these reductions can be achieved by early retirement or redeployment as opposed to compulsory redundancies. The matter is being discussed both with the University Grants Committee and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

Lord Wynne-Jones

My Lords, does the answer of the noble Baroness mean that the Government are indifferent to the consequences of their policy upon higher education, or does it mean that they are deliberately trying to squeeze higher education?

Baroness Young

It does not mean either of those things, my Lords. The Government believed, as I indicated, that higher education could not be exempt from the public expenditure economies that needed to be made. They have, as always, turned to the University Grants Committee to determine how the allocation of the money should be made between the universities. The UGC believed that they had to be selective in their allocation of recurrent grant, not only to protect the wellbeing of the university system as a whole but also, by rationalising, to enable support to be given to new developments.

Lord Robbins

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness the Minister, on behalf of those of us who are sceptical about existing arrangements as regards contract in the universities, whether she will agree with me that legal contracts must be kept?

Baroness Young

My Lords, we are aware that in the whole of the matter of redundancies there is the question of the payments as well as the question of tenure. At the moment this is a matter which needs to be tested in the courts.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, will the Minister not accept that the UGC have been very drastic in their cut-backs on the technological universities; and is she aware that there is grave disquiet at the University of Aston in Birmingham, a university which is turning out graduates who have no difficulty in getting jobs at all and whose research is of great importance to industry in the West Midlands?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should be the first to applaud the employment record of some of our technological universities, but we do rely on the UGC, whose advice successive Governments have taken for many years now on the distribution of the grant, to look at the overall distribution of courses within the university system as a whole. The noble Baroness, who I am sure has studied these matters, will recognise that the UGC's proposals in fact indicate a slight shift away from money going into the arts-based subjects towards the sciences and technological subjects as well as medicine.

Lord Annan

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that the £20 million fund to which the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, referred is a fund for this year only and not for the full three years? Secondly, would she not agree that it might be of advantage to the Secretary of State if the universities were to be asked—say, by the end of this year—to provide an estimate of the actual number of posts for all kinds of staff which were likely to be reduced and the staff contracts terminated, and in that list would it not also be helpful if estimates could be made of the costs of the termination of a contract breach of which would incur liability for damages in the courts?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I can confirm the first part of the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Annan—that is, that the £20 million has been set aside for this year and that the universities have been asked by the UGC to make proposals by the end of January 1982. I shall certainly draw the point that the noble Lord has made to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. I am sure that it would be useful for this to be done; what we cannot be sure of is the cost of redundancies until this matter has been tested in the courts. That is the difficulty.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

My Lords, is the noble Baroness therefore telling the House and the country, in respect of the very large cut in public funds going to higher education over the next three years, that, being unable to estimate at all the cost which will be involved in early retirement and in breaches of contract—on which I understood her to answer the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, that she would prefer it if the contracts were kept or paid for if they were broken—the amount that will actually be saved in public expenditure by the cuts in higher education is therefore totally unknown, even to the Government?

Baroness Young

No, my Lords, I did not say that. I have indicated that what the Government have said is the total reduction that they have proposed for the universities as a whole. What of course we do not know is how much will come about by early retirements and redeployment. There are a lot of imponderables in this matter, and I cannot answer a question on tenure until this matter has been tested in the courts.

Baroness David

My Lords, is the Minister aware that all countries which have overtaken Britain in gross domestic product and in living standards per head overtook us first in the size of their higher education systems, and is she happy that in the national interest it is wise to be reducing our higher education systems, both public sector and university, at the speed which is being proposed in these cuts?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as I indicated at the beginning, in an ideal world we should all like to have more money going to the universities and the rate of contraction to be slower, but this is not the situation in which we find ourselves. I do not think it is in any way true to draw parallels between our success as a country and the expansion of the universities, as these universities have expanded many times over since the end of the war. Unfortunately, our economy cannot be said to have expanded at the same rate. I do not think that the analogy is a proper one.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, if there is to be such a contraction, would it not be more rational and more equitable for the Government to seek means whereby universities and institutions such as polytechnics and colleges of higher education are treated on the basis of comparable criteria?

Baroness Young

My Lords, for 1981–82, the reduction in expenditure in respect of home students in polytechnics and in the non-university sector of higher education will generally be comparable with that of the universities.