HL Deb 12 April 1989 vol 506 cc246-50

2.53 p.m.

Lord Hatch of Lusby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their reason for ceasing to fund Newbattle Abbey College.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sanderson of Bowden)

My Lords, the Government consider that the resources which are being spent in support of Newbattle Abbey College could be used to better effect by helping more people into higher education, through initiatives such as the Scottish Wider Access Programme. Consultations undertaken by the governors of the college showed that education authorities and other institutions did not see a significant part for Newbattle within their own activities to encourage wider access to higher education.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, is it not the case that the decision was taken by the Secretary of State for Scotland because, as he said, he was asked to do so by the Scottish Education Authority and he did so without consultation with the governors or trustees of the college? Is the Minister aware that at present there are 100 students in the college and that it is used during the year by 1,500 part-time students? Is the Minister telling the House that the last residential adult college in Scotland is to be closed and that Scotland, unlike England and Wales, will be left with no residential adult college?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, in December, 1987, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced the withdrawal of our grant from the Scottish Office. My right honourable friend then announced that he would consider the various representations. The college governors set out to deal with the situation and after a period they reported back to us.

Having dealt with the situation the college governors could not persuade my right honourable friend that their evidence was sufficient to justify the expenditure on the college. It could attract firm commitments from other bodies amounting only to the value of £30,000 per year. Faced with the fact that £290,000 could be better spent on Scottish education through the scheme which I have outlined the Secretary of State took that decision.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, would it not be wise to delay the closure of this important education institution in order that the governors can look at the possibility of developing the 125-acre site? That may take two years but it would be sad if the college was closed while the negotiations proceeded. The development of the site may relieve the Government of the amount of money which they now spend. Finally, why is the government funding of £300,000 to be withdrawn from the only Scottish adult education college of this type, while Ruskin College in England—which I fully support—attracts £663,000 per annum and Coleg Harlech in Wales is similarly supported?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, those matters were seriously taken into consideration by my right honourable friend. We are also concerned with the number of people in education in Scotland where there are 7,000 entrants aged 21 and over to full-time higher education. I must point out to the noble Lord that in Scotland there is already a much higher rate of participation in higher education than elsewhere in Great Britain. We seek to increase that level of participation still further with the help of a more effective use of the resources released from Newbattle Abbey College.

The noble Lord asked why we should wait for a further five years—and I must insist that that is what the governors ask for: a further five-year delay in making the decision. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State took that into consideration. The question relating to the disposal of land now rests with the trustees of the college. The noble Lord will understand that it is a most complex situation and one at which we have looked most carefully. The trustees must now address their minds to it.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how the wider access programme, about which he spoke, will work in the more remote parts of Scotland to which the residential college at Newbattle was of particular value?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I recollect that of late out of a total of approximately 95 students there were three at Newbattle Abbey College from the Highlands and Islands area. As regards the swap arrangements for Scotland, we believe that by setting up consortia in its four major cities—and we now see evidence that in Glasgow the initiative is beginning to succeed—we are addressing the problem which we all wish to see resolved; that is, taking more people into higher education.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House a little more about the point of view of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which are the education authorities, on this subject? I understand that when the announcement was first made it agreed to attempt to quantify the kind of use which could be made of the college, about which it felt so strongly. Can the Minister tell the House what it came up with?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, my right honourable friend wished to see evidence of specific commitment from education authorities and higher education institutions. As I understand it, the total sum to which two local authorities and one university committed themselves was £30,000 per year, which was put into the report submitted by the governors of the college to the Secretary of State.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, can we take it from the answers so far given by the Minister that the Government have no criticism of the academic performance of Newbattle Abbey? If that is the case, can we take it that the Government have no desire per se to see the college closed down? If that is so, why could not the Government phase out the subsidy instead of abolishing it, thus giving the college some time to find alternative sources of finance?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, we felt that the right way to proceed was to give the college governors a year in which to see whether there was support for the continuation of the college. A sum of £290,000 out of the Scottish Office budget, although it may not be so in other budgets, is a lot of money which we feel can be better spent in pursuance of a policy to help people into higher education in Scotland.

Lord Morris

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me what is so wrong with Newbattle Abbey that it can only attract £30,000 per year in funding?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I believe that that is something which the noble Lord would have to ask the principal and governors of the college. However, I note what has been said in that £290,000 from the Government is a very substantial amount of money against £30,000, which seems to me to be the amount promised by three institutions.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the £30,000 was promised some 18 months ago? However, the imminent approach of the final closure has greatly concentrated the minds of the supporters of Newbattle Abbey College. I understand that there was a meeting on Monday. I do not have the results of that and the Minister may have more knowledge on that than I have. However, I understand that education authorities and many trade unions, including the EIS, which I understand is a fairly wealthy union, were going to look at the matter in quite a different way, particularly since the question of the sale of land referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, has come to the fore.

Does the Minister appreciate that Newbattle Abbey is a very special place which takes people straight from the workshop floor into higher education, which would otherwise be too big an initial hurdle for them to jump? Therefore, Newbattle Abbey has given generations of Scots in that situation a chance which they would never otherwise have had.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I am aware that a meeting took place earlier this week, but I have no knowledge of the results of that meeting. However, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State looked very carefully at the question of the estate land and the constraints which may be placed on the trustees in that regard. We recognise that Newbattle Abbey has contributed a great deal over many years to an education facility. However, we felt and still feel that it is not worth the cost when we now have very much better ways of helping into education those people who have not had the benefit of higher education.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, may I probe the Minister on his answers? First, on the question of finance, is it not the case that there is a pledging fund still collecting money? That will take some time if, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, pointed out, it is allowed to sell part of the land valued at £5 million. Secondly, the noble Lord talks about the wider access programme, which I believe is being given £3 million by the Government. Is he not aware that that scheme has a quite different objective from that of Newbattle Abbey? It is not a question of how many students are in higher education in Scotland but what the prospect is for those students who wish to partake in adult education as distinct from vocational education and who have not been able to do so because of their social and economic circumstances in the past.

Will the Minister ask his right honourable friend to look again at the possibility mentioned by my noble friend of at least giving some extra time to see whether this valuable jewel in the adult educational world of Scotland can be preserved for a little longer?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord says. However, I must point out that the figure I gave of 7,000 entrants aged 21 and over to full-time higher education in Scotland is considerable. If one gauges that against the figures of 94, 98 and 94 for the last three successive years, it puts the matter in perspective. I am sorry, but I must say that we feel that the money spent in that area could be more wisely spent for the better use of further education in Scotland. I must remind the noble Lord, whom I know has great experience, having been at Glasgow University, that we are now 40 years on from that time and I believe that what I have said about higher education in Scotland is a credit to government in Scotland.