HL Deb 16 July 1984 vol 454 cc1255-61

8.7 p.m.

Lord Lyell rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 6th June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order before us this evening facilitates the establishment of a new university institution in Northern Ireland. Following upon the final report of the higher education review group, the New University of Ulster and the Ulster Polytechnic entered into discussions about the creation of a new style of higher education provision to be formed by the merger of the two existing institutions. The two institutions agreed to the merger and have taken the necessary procedural steps to bring it about.

In November last year the New University of Ulster and the Ulster Polytechnic jointly petitioned Her Majesty the Queen for a charter for the new university institution to be created by their merger, and to be known as the University of Ulster. At the same time, the New University of Ulster sought that, if Her Majesty were graciously pleased to assent to this petition, she would, at the same time, revoke the charter of the New University of Ulster. A copy of the petition and of the draft charter and statutes was tabled in the House on 16th January this year. The charter contains many of the measures needed to bring about the merger, and, although the university charter is a matter for my noble friend the Lord President, there are a number of aspects of the charter to which I should like to refer briefly.

Firstly, this is the first merger in the United Kingdom of a university and a polytechnic, and as such it has attracted a good deal of interest on both sides of the Irish Sea. We have to emphasise, however, that in no sense is this merger a test-bed for higher education in the United Kingdom as a whole. It is, and, above all, was designed to be, the answer to the special problems facing higher education in Northern Ireland. If others can learn from it, so much the better.

Secondly, a unique feature of the charter is the requirement that no less often than every seven years an external review be carried out to assess how effectively the university is fulfilling the objectives laid down for it in the charter, and, above all, how effectively it is using the resources available to it. This is of particular importance because of the wide-ranging and challenging nature of those objectives, encompassing as they do work at all levels of higher education, including research, degree and non-degree work.

Thirdly, the draft charter and statutes were prepared jointly by the NUU and the Ulster Polytechnic, and at every stage in the drafting there has been wide consultation, including consultation with staff and students. The inauguration of the University of Ulster is planned for 1st October 1984. If Her Majesty is pleased to grant the university charter to the petitioners, certain legislation will be required to deal with those aspects of the merger which could not be included in the charter, and also to amend or repeal existing legislation affected by the merger. This short order now before the House contains these measures.

I turn very briefly to the provisions of the order. Article 3 transfers the assets and liabilities of the New University of Ulster and the Ulster Polytechnic to the University of Ulster. It also provides for proceedings in connection with anything transferred in this way to be continued in the name of the University of Ulster. I draw your Lordships' attention particularly to the provision in this article, in paragraph 4, for Magee University College, Londonderry, to be maintained as an integral part of the University of Ulster. Your Lordships may be aware that Magee College is a higher educational establishment, originally founded in 1865 by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland for the training of its clergymen. Its courses and entrants were broadened over the years, and, with the establishment of the New University of Ulster in 1968, it became a part of that university.

Article 4 dissolves the statutory corporate body known as the governors of the Ulster Polytechnic. This body will not be required following the merger, since its work will be subsumed in the council of the university, though some of the members of the governors have been nominated to serve on the university council. Some, however, are not continuing into the new institution. In particular, we should wish to thank—I am sure that all of your Lordships who are aware of the educational scene in Northern Ireland would want to do so—Mr. William McNeill, who has been chairman of the governors of the Ulster Polytechnic since it was established in 1969. We very much want to put on record his valuable and appreciated service over 15 years.

Article 5 provides a means of redress should any members of staff feel that the employment offered does not meet the criteria envisaged in Statute XXV, whereby all permanent employees at both the NUU and the Ulster Polytechnic were assured that they would be offered employment in the New University institution without diminution in pay, and that this employment would be as nearly as practicable upon the same terms and conditions as they enjoy at present.

If Her Majesty is pleased to grant the new charter, some minor amendments to existing legislation will he required. These are included in article 6 and in schedules 1 and 2. The latter repeals the whole of the Ulster College Act (Northern Ireland) 1968, which founded what was then the Ulster College and later turned into the Ulster Polytechnic.

I should like to pay our tribute to the work and the reputation of the New University of Ulster and the Ulster Polytechnic. Both were established in the late 1960s in response to the recommendations of the Lockwood Committee's report on higher education in Northern Ireland. The University of Ulster has determined to carry on, and build upon, the very best traditions of both of these institutions.

I am especially pleased to note that the noble Lord, Lord Grey of Naunton, the chancellor of the New University of Ulster, has agreed to act as chancellor of the University of Ulster. Under his very able leadership, I am confident that the University of Ulster will fulfil our expectations, and, in a new form of higher education provision, will meet the needs of Northern Ireland. The order before us this evening facilitates this creation, and I commend it to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 6th June be approved.—(Lord Lyell.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, unlike the draft education order, this order is short and straightforward. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, for introducing the order, which, as he explained, is necessary to enable the merger of the New University of Ulster and the Ulster Polytechnic to be implemented. The move towards a merger did not have a very auspicious beginning. There was a feeling that the merger was being foisted upon these academic communities, and there were complaints about inadequate consultations. But not very much is to be gained now by going into detail about that early history.

We on these Benches welcome the merger of the resources of these two institutions, uniting a university with a thriving polytechnic. We agree with the Minister that the University of Ulster can be a model that befits the Northern Ireland situation and its requirements. We want it to be a success, and its council and staff deserve to succeed.

We note that the charter will provide for the role and, presumably, the standards of the new institution to be reviewed no less than every seven years. While we go along with this, we are also bound to express the hope that the monitoring will be undertaken in a way that will retain the confidence of those being monitored. Article 3 transfers the assets and the liabilities of both institutions to the University of Ulster, and the assurance in paragraph 4 of this article that Magee University College will be maintained in Londonderry as an integral part of the University of Ulster will be welcome.

But the merger will mean that the work circumstances of some staff will change, and there will be problems of redeployment. Therefore, we welcome very much Article 5, which makes provision for compensation to be paid to employees who decline or relinquish employment in the circumstances specified in the article. We believe that the new article is an improvement on the original proposal, as it contains the right of appeal to an industrial tribunal. But the terms and conditions of compensation are not known.

The merger will be implemented on 1st October. That is no more than 10 weeks away. On the assumption that this order is not likely to be thrown out, I should like to ask when the terms and conditions will be known. Can the Minister tell us whether or not the department is likely to offer guidance by, say, the end of this month? Meanwhile, we on these Benches support the draft order.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, we, too, should like to thank the Minister for explaining the terms of this order. I think we have some reservations about the nomenclature of the new university. Admittedly, it stems from two institutions which both had "Ulster" written into their title. Nevertheless, as everyone who has anything to do with Ireland knows, Ulster is nine counties, of which only six are in Northern Ireland. It is a fact that there has been a certain amount of resentment at this appropriation of the name "Ulster" for this university. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that observation, or tell us the thinking behind the adoption of that name.

The whole matter of the payments for voluntary redundancies and the improvement in conditions of service for those who formerly worked at the polytechnic appears to be costing more money than the Government originally thought possible. This was raised in another place by Mr. Soley, and it is a valid point. We should like some assurance from the Government that they have now come to terms with this and are able to say that the necessary money will be forthcoming.

I should like to ask only one other question. A conventional university charter assumes a vice-chancellor, who is always an academic, and a registrar and staff who are the civil servants of the university and who belong to a career structure of their own. Polytechnics on the whole have directors who deal with different aspects of the running of the polytechnics and who are almost all academics. There is not the same Civil Service structure.

Although, as the Minister has said, this merger is possibly not meant to be taken as providing guidelines for what may happen in other parts of the United Kingdom, nevertheless it is a trail-blazing exercise. It appears not to have adopted in full the university staff structure, but to have gone along, to a certain extent, the path of the polytechnics' structure. We should rather like to know whether that was the intention and, if so, what is the thinking behind this particular point? Apart from that, we certainly welcome the order.

8.22 p.m.

Lord Grey of Naunton

My Lords, I intervene very briefly. First I should like to support the order and to thank the noble Lord the Minister for his kind personal reference to me. As he has told your Lordships, I have an interest to declare, in that I am privileged to be the chancellor of the New University of Ulster and, if Her Majesty is graciously pleased to accede to our petition, to be the chancellor of the University of Ulster.

I do not this evening canvass the merits of merger; that die is cast. Suffice it to say that if there were to be a merger, as the Government have required, obviously the best course to follow would be such as produced the maximum co-operation and good will between the two parties who were merging. That has been accomplished, thanks to the labours of many devoted people who have put aside feelings that they may have had about the disappearance of the institutions which they had served. This order is part of that procedure. So we in the new university and in the university yet to be hope very much that the rest of the procedure which has been embarked upon will be quickly and happily completed.

Of course, it would not be Northern Ireland if there were not some little differences of opinion about what is what. It is not only in the three counties that are not part of the Province of Northern Ireland that some reservations have been expressed about the title of, "University of Ulster". The Queen's University of Belfast, which has long considered itself to be "the" university of Ulster, has had some feelings about it. But it is not only in university life that perfection is hard to attain in Northern Ireland. I think that we have come as near to it as we possibly can and I hope that the rest will be happily completed. With those words I commend the order to your Lordships.

Lord Blease

My Lords, for a number of years I was actively involved in the general work of both the New University of Ulster and the Ulster Polytechnic. For those reasons I should not like this occasion to pass without saying a few words in respect of the order. During the years I came to know something of the great sense of commitment, the dedication and the excellent academic and educational contribution made to Northern Ireland by the officials and staffs of both these institutions. We all know something of the tremendous community, social and economic difficulties with which each of these organisations has had to cope from initial establishment. However, we are also pleased to have witnessed the high hopes, the new aspirations, the sound ideals and the new opportunities for learning which the New University of Ulster and the Ulster Polytechnic opened up to many young people in Northern Ireland and, let me add, from the Republic and from overseas.

For many reasons I have a very warm regard for the New University of Ulster, its officials and staff. I know that they will continue to give of their best to the University of Ulster. I should like to add that I know that the choice of the noble Lord, Lord Grey, as the chancellor of the University of Ulster has been very well received in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Grey, does not need me to sing his praises. He has very many friends in Northern Ireland. He has proved to be a great help, a great encouragement and a great stalwart in times of trouble in Northern Ireland. He has stood at the head of education in the Province in his efforts to keep it afloat and I know that he has numerous friends in many parts of the community in Northern Ireland.

I join with noble Lords and others in wishing the merger every success, and I hope that the University of Ulster will have the facilities and resources, and will provide the opportunities for educational excellence, to enable it to contribute much that is necessary to the wellbeing and prosperity of the people of the Province. I support the order.

Lord Bowden

My Lords, I should like briefly to intervene because I knew the university at Coleraine very well when it was first being established. I should like to pay a very warm tribute to the genius of its first vice-chancellor, who tackled appalling problems with very great courage and skill and in a manner which to most people was really rather surprisingly untypical of academics. He had a curious mixture of the academic distinction which one expects of such a man and an enormous ability in practical affairs. I hope very much that his work will be remembered and that the tradition he established of a combination of academic distinction and practicability will be retained in the new institution; I am sure it will be.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, once again I should like to thank those of your Lordships who have devoted your time to this educational subject, which is on a somewhat different plane, and who have studied the order in detail. I assure the House that all the contributions that have been made this evening will be carefully noted and I shall do my best to answer the points that have been raised.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, for his welcome of the order and for what we hope will be achieved. The noble Lord asked me two questions. First, he asked about the review, and about monitoring. The monitoring of the new works and of the finance will be undertaken, in addition, by the working party of the University Grants Committee. Secondly, the noble Lord made reference to Article 5. I shall have to write to the noble Lord, but I hope that I shall be able to answer him satisfactorily by saying that regulations will shortly be made available. I cannot go into the exact timespan of "shortly"; but clearly they are underway and in preparation as regards compensation, which is covered in Article 5.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, also had very kind things to say as well as one or two other comments on the institution. I stress to the noble Lord and to your Lordships who might be a little lost by the nomenclature of "Ulster" and what it means, that the title "University of Ulster" was the unanimous choice of the staff of both institutions. Your Lordships will be aware that the name "Ulster" appears in both present titles and as far as we are aware we have received no objections to this title for the new institution. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, also asked about the merger costs. I am able to inform him that for the first year the university will have what is known as "level funding" and it will therefore have the financial funding which would have been available to both institutions had they continued in their separate existencies. But in addition, the Government have made available a further sum—in the region of £360,000—to cover such items as superannuation costs.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, also raised one other question on the staff structure. I would stress to him that this particular structure has been the subject of very close consultation and it has been designed to meet the requirements of an institution of the type which we envisage. I was very grateful for the kind words spoken by the noble Lord, Lord Grey, and we are very pleased that he has been able to make a contribution this evening. We thank him for his support. Of course, he will have been aware of the Government's gratitude to him from my earlier remarks.

We thank the noble Lord, Lord Blease, for his support for this new venture in Northern Ireland. We are sure that it will live up to the high traditions of learning and academic excellence, which are endemic in Northern Ireland. We are very grateful for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Bowden. We are confident that the spirit and the talent that he mentioned will be seen in the new University of Ulster.

In conclusion, I should like to pay the Government's tribute to those who have worked very hard over the past two years to bring about this merger. The union has been guided by the steering group under the chairmanship of Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, and we should like to pay our tribute to him and to his group now that the task is virtually complete. We want to place on record our thanks to him and his colleagues on the steering group for the job which they have done so well in such a short time.

The actual work of knitting together the two institutions will fall to the council and the staff of the university, and in particular to the vice-chancellor designate, Mr. Derek Birley. We believe that one of the most encouraging aspects of the past two years has been the way in which the staff from both institutions at all levels have come together to plan the courses and the faculty structures for the University of Ulster. We believe that this spirit of co-operation has been fostered by Mr. Derek Birley. His work—and the work of the university—is only just beginning, but I am sure that all noble Lords who are in the House tonight and also those who read the report of the debate will join with me in wishing Mr. Derek Birley and the University of Ulster well. With that, I commend the order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.