HL Deb 07 March 1987 vol 487 cc132-9

3.25 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey rose to call attention to the state of post-school education; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, a number of noble Lords, including some of my own Benches, have asked me why the title of this Motion on the Order Paper has changed more than once since it was first put down. The second change was an error in which I had no part, and an unimportant error at that. The reason for choosing the title "post-school education" rather than higher and further education was deliberate on our part and I think it is necessary for me to share our thinking on this with the House.

The first reason is simply a matter of numbers. The number of students in our universities is 290, 000. The number of students in the non-advanced further education sector is 1, 619, 000. But if we take the non-advanced further education sector and the adult and continuing education sector, which is included in the title "post-school education", we have a figure of 4, 852, 000 students, which is more than 10 per cent. of the post-school population and is educated in something like 600 colleges throughout the country. It is for that reason that we have chosen this wider title.

It is our firm belief that we will not get a true analysis of the status of tertiary education in our country by confining our analysis to the higher education sector or even to the higher and further education sector. No doubt individual Lords taking part in the debate will have things to say about the particular sectors of education in which they are experts—and that is no bad thing—but the House as a whole must in our view be concerned with the full state of post-school education in this country and the effects of the state of post-school education on our economy and society.

Before moving to that analysis I should like to say something about the question of education and training, which appears sometimes to be an obstacle to a full understanding of these issues. Far too often vocational training, particularly vocational training at entry to working life, is training for the first job that a person enters into. But we know very well now with the rate of technological change in our society that the first job a person enters into is certainly not going to be the last, and the skills that are relevant at the age of 16, 18, 21 or 25 will almost certainly not be relevant later on in a person's working life. For those reasons it is important to recognise both the fact that education is a wider concept than the vocational training first entered into and that it is a concept relevant and continuing throughout life.

There should be no need for us to deny the importance of the broader issues to which I have referred, or indeed to deny the great gap between our present performance and the performance of our competitors in the industrial world and the needs of our society. Perhaps I may look first at all at the issue of workers with recognised qualifications. In Germany, 66 per cent. of the labour force have a recognised vocational qualification. In the United States, 78 per cent. of the civilian labour force have a high school diploma. In Japan, 60 per cent. of the adult population have a lower secondary diploma. In comparison, the figures for the United Kingdom show that only 50 per cent. of the working population have even one certificate of secondary education. That by any comparison is a severe criticism of our existing system.

If we look at those bodies which have been considering the projections of future demand it is clear that, even taking into account the advances which have been made in recent months in government thinking—and I pay tribute to them as I have done on previous occasions—the official projection of an increase of 4 per cent. in the number of students by the year 2000 is, to use the words of the Committee for Industry and Further Education, at odds with the UK's ambitions for renewal and growth".

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals calls that figure too unambitious and says that the need for mature and part-time students over the next 10 years means an increase of 50 per cent. in the numbers of mature and part-time students. Thus there is no doubt that we have needs greater than are being recognised at present by society or by government.

What is the present position so far as concerns government policies and the effects of government policies on the provision that is available? I know that the Government object very strongly when we use the word "cuts" to apply to higher, further and advanced and continuing education, but the facts are without doubt. Let us look at the vacancies for university teachers. In biological, mathematical and physical sciences there are 175 vacancies for lecturers and 44 for professors. In engineering and technology there are 162 vacancies for lecturers and 27 for professors. In administrative business and social sciences there are 159 vacancies for lecturers and 15 for professors, and in medicine and dentistry, 152 and 15. If we look at the recurrent grant for education in real terms, taking into account changes in the funding system, in 1985–86 it was 89 per cent. of that in 1980–81.

The White Paper made welcome concessions for higher education, but even after those welcome concessions we learn from this morning's newspapers that Hull University, with an academic staff of 346, is forced to cut 90 academic staff from that number or face a £7 million deficit by 1990. That is despite the fact that it has achieved a 37 per cent. increase in external funding of research and has already cut its academic staff by 50. If one takes the Government's current predictions for the Open University, which is universally recognised as being the most successful innovative educational institution in the country, even on the higher projection that the Government have now accepted, there is no proposal for an increase in the number of Open University students.

If we look at the funding side and the most recent government attitude, Mr. George Walden, speaking at the Universities Council for Adult and Continuing Education on 14th April this year, is using phrases such as "maximising income from students" and "keeping fees at a realistic level". In gross terms the money available in the government thinking does not square with the student numbers that they are projecting. They talk about 50, 000 more students by 1990 or 33, 000 full-time equivalent of students, but about an increase in grant between 1988–89 and 1989–90 of only £3 million, from £2, 327 million to £2, 330 million. That £3 million will not provide the funding for the additional 50, 000 students. On any reckoning of the success or seriousness of the Government's approach to post-school education there are serious defects.

I want to go further than that. I suggest that there are barriers to development and change in our post-school education system which are not simply the responsibility of government but deserve the serious consideration of all who are concerned with these matters. They have lessons for the academic institutions concerned, employers in industry and commerce and in the public sector, and the Government. I suggest that there are things that need to be done by all those if there is to be the kind of improvement that the country needs.

The first barrier to change and growth to which I want to refer is that of formal education qualifications. It was a great step forward in its time when the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, as Secretary of State for Education, established the principle that there should be a place for everybody who had two A-levels and had found a place in an academic institution. I pay tribute to him for that. It was a necessary step on the road to expansion in higher education.

I pay tribute also to the fact that in the recent White Paper the Government restated their belief in the Robbins principle that all those who have the intellectual competence, the motivation and the maturity shall have an entitlement to post-school education. However, it is still the case that far too many academic institutions at all levels are treating academic qualifications in themselves as part of the screening process without recognising what is now very well established—that those without prior academic qualifications perform extremely well at all levels of the post-school education system.

The Council on Industry and Higher Education in its recent report called A-levels a convenient ticket for limiting entry to a small academic world. The Council for National Academic Awards has indeed made significant progress in recent weeks towards opening up the higher education system. Even so, the general certificate of education is to be used as a benchmark and the use of access courses, which is very much to be welcomed, will remain only peripheral in its thinking.

If we are to expand the post-school education system, can we afford any longer not to be giving serious consideration to the entry into that system of those with qualifications from the technical and vocational education initiatives, from the CPVE and indeed from the YTS and JTS? Why, for example, should the de Ville review of vocational qualifications apply only to the further education system and not to the higher education system? We simply have not made enough effort to force academic insititutions and educational institutions in the broader sense to recognise the skills that are available in the country for more people to take advantage of post-school education.

In this context the old saying—I am sure that Mr. Kingsley Amis will not be grateful for its being revived—that more means worse has been proved so conclusively to be untrue since it was first made that no one has taken the trouble to learn the lesson that more means different; and difference is what is to be welcomed.

The second barrier to which I wish to refer is that of finance. I have referred to it to some extent in talking about government financial policies. We are still at a very early stage of thinking coherently and consistently about student grants and the relationship between grants for part-time students and mature students and the barrier of six hours' education for those on unemployment benefit. All those will be referred to by my noble friends who are much more qualified to speak about such matters than I am, in particular my noble friend Lady Blackstone, to whose maiden speech we are much looking forward this afternoon.

We have not yet faced up to the fact that mandatory grants must take a larger role and discriminatory grants—grants in which anyone, whether it be government departments, employers or local authorities, can discriminate against certain kinds of applicants—must play a smaller part. We have yet to take account of the huge financial pressures, placed by the Government on local education authorities, which have forced them to charge what Mr. Walden calls "realistic fees", which are in fact the full cost of much provision and have done a great deal to inhibit growth in provision.

The third barrier is the barrier of geographical accessibility. Here there are prospects with distance learning, with open learning, for many of these barriers to be overcome, particularly by those organisations such as the Open University which have taken care to use distance learning where it is appropriate, but to. make face-to-face access available wherever possible.

The fourth barrier, perhaps the most important barrier of all, is the barrier of the structure of our educational system. Our post-school educational system is divided almost arbitrarily into what is called higher education, further education, and adult and continuing education. Even the changes taking place within the CNAA, and even the changes proposed in the recent higher education White Paper, go far too short a way to overcome those barriers. We are abolishing the University Grants Committee and the National Advisory Board, but we are not creating one body in their place; we are creating two bodies.

The credit accumulation and transfer scheme of the Council of National Academic Awards is a worthwhile initiative, but it only applies to public sector higher education and not to universities. The White Paper itself takes the easy step for any government to take by centralising; by taking the polytechnics away from local authority control. It does not take any of the more difficult bolder steps of breaking down the barriers in the binary system between the different parts of our post-school education.

Above all, there is still inadequate recognition paid to the need for adult and continuing education. The Council for Industry and Higher Education reckons that 1.3 per cent. of university income, £30 million, comes from the short courses which surely are the central component of the kind of retraining that our industry needs. It describes it as being an "underfunded spare-time activity" of our academics, and it contrasts it with the way in which the departments of continuing education in very many United States universities draw on the academic strength of the whole university.

If anybody should think this were too recent, Sweden has had the 25-4 system, which says that anybody who reaches the age of 25 and has been in work for four years shall be entitled to continuing education throughout life whether it is in the form of retraining, the form of purely academic pursuits, or in any other way that the student wishes it to be. That retraining has taken place since 1969 and it has successfully raised the calibre of the Swedish workforce in a way that cannot be compared with any activities in this country.

I have said that there are demands on our institutions, our Government and our employers. I am conscious of the time and I certainly cannot repeat in any way what I have been saying about the institutions. It is obvious that a partnership between government, employers and our institutions is going to demand great changes on the part of our universities, our polytechnics and our colleges. We can no longer afford for our academic institutions to be producers' co-operatives as they have been in the past.

Demand on industry and employers has been in my view very much mistaken by the present Government. They have talked as though contribution towards, for example, city technology courses is an adequate demand to be made upon employers. In fact, the demands upon employers are going to be much greater. They are going to be in terms of support for students, support for collaborative research, support for certain kinds of academic staff posts, for courses and for buildings, and only in the last resort for cash. Employers are going to have to learn to take the responsibility for their employees throughout their working lives for all the retraining which is going to be necessary as the world changes around them.

So far as concerns government, the demands have been throughly set out in many of the documents from the unions, from the academic organisations and from those other public bodies which have commented; and not least the Council for Industry and Higher Education. If, to take one example only, the Government cannot get their act together as between the Manpower Services Commission and the Department of Education and Science, and if we still have the situation where the job training scheme is in competition with MSC-funded non-advanced further education places, it is clear that the Government have not thought through the whole range of the problem of our futher, higher and advanced and continuing education.

More means different. It means changes for all of us. It is not going to be easy for us to achieve. It means a recognition of the lifelong rights of our people for a better education. It means the creation of a learning society. It will certainly not be done with present policies or even by demanding more of the same. It can only be done by a recognition of the partnership of all those involved. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Blake

My Lords, I am sure that we all welcome the Motion proposed by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. It is important that we should discuss these matters. As he said in his opening remarks, there are a wide number of subjects to be discussed and each person contributing to this debate will have his own field that he would like to talk about. I am going to concentrate on the university field, which is the one I happen to know something about, and with particular reference to the White Paper to which the noble Lord referred.

I welcome some features of it. It is right that the polytechnics should be removed from local authority control. This removal will be generally appreciated, though possibly not by the local authorities themselves. The recognition that the polytechnics and colleges are national and not local institutions seems to me to be important and that is a good thing.

I also welcome the projection of student numbers in the White Paper. It may be a bit of a deathbed repentance on the part of the department to produce figures which correspond faintly to reality, unlike previous ones, but still, deathbed repentances should be welcomed along with others. Certainly it is much more realistic than what has appeared before.

I also welcome the creation of a new body to replace the University Grants Committee. This largely follows the lines of the report by the noble Lord, Lord Croham, though not entirely. I think it is right that we should have a body which is more representative of non-academic interests and less exclusively dominated by academic interests. This is a change for the good.

However, I am worried about the White Paper in certain respects. In a short speech, as this has to be, I can only pose this briefly. I am worried about exactly what is intended by the new University Funding Committee—the UFC—which is to replace the UGC. It is apparently to be a strong and independent body but it does not seem as though it is in a position to advise the Government. At least it does not look like that from the recommendations of that report.

However, there is some obscurity in its role. What is meant exactly—and I hope that the Minister may be able to explain this when she replies to the debate—by the substitution of "contracts" for "grants"? Who exactly contracts with whom, for how long and on what basis? The whole affair is somewhat obscure. I hope that we shall be told just what is meant.

I have a faint feeling that this business of contract in the White Paper—something which at any rate does not appear in that form in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Croham, —is a belated, bright idea thought up by someone or other in Whitehall or elsewhere rather late in the day. It reads as though it has been superimposed on the document at the last moment. If its purpose is to restrict still further universities' independence and ability to decide their use of resources, I am somewhat depressed by the prospect. One cannot make contracts to produce Nobel prizewinners.

There is in the White Paper a certain spirit of utilitarian commercialism which bodes not too well for our future. What will happen to universities which fail to win contracts? On one interpretation, this new body will have enormous power; on another, it will be the UGC under a new name. I think that clarification of this point will be welcome.

I can see all too easily the possibility of elaborate bureaucratic supervision which will hamper and hinder the natural development of ideas and initiatives. We do not want the kind of rigid control which prevails in the highly centralised state-run universities in continental Europe, where even the most trivial issues must be referred back through endless tiers of authority for final decision.

After all the battering, cuts and shifts in finance, what is now needed in the university world is a measure of predictability. It is essential to see a least some distance ahead. I note that the White Paper, if accepted, substitutes a rolling programme rather than the fixed triennium which the noble Lord, Lord Croham, and his colleagues recommended. I am far from sure what that means. It sounds all right and it appears in the context of a statement recognising: the importance of giving higher education institutions as much advanced information as possible about total resources likely to be made available". That total is absolutely crucial.

I revert to my uneasiness about the UFC's role in the matter of finance. It is disturbing that it does not appear to be in a position to advise the Government on this matter. In the White Paper there is a specific statement that the UFC's essential responsibilities relate to allocation of funding between universities rather than to its overall amount, which is a matter for the Government to decide after considering all the evidence. Under our system the Government must have the last say in funding. What is the evidence that the Government will consider? Would not advice from the UFC at least be a useful element in that evidence?

In conclusion, I should like to make certain suggestions which may seem slightly outrageous. When Mr. Gladstone lost a certain election in Oxford he came to his new constituents and said, "At last I am come among you unmuzzled". There are perhaps remarks that one can make towards the end of one's time in academic life which are difficult to make when one is currently involved. I have two points which I believe the Government, or whoever is involved in university education, should consider quite seriously.

First, can this country afford to have research spread over 46 universities? It is the scientific research which costs money. I know of all the difficulties that might be involved, but is there not a possible case for considering whether advanced scientific research in that sense should be confined to a smaller body of universities; 10 to 15, rather than 46? I think that economies could be made in that respect which might be important.

The second suggestion which I should like to float to your Lordships is this. Is there anything sacrosanct about all dons and professors being paid more or less equally? Is there not a case for considering whether certain talents and suchlike are in short supply, and that those should be recognised by additional payment? After all, that is a normal feature in most aspects of life in the country. I cannot see that this rather dullard egalitarianism, which prevails all too often in the university world, should continue.