HL Deb 10 October 1989 vol 511 cc142-4

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are committed to maintaining the quality of the first degrees awarded by British universities.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the maintenance of academic standards is, under their charters, a matter for individual universities themselves.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I heard that reply with interest. Is the noble Viscount aware that one cannot have something for nothing? Does he agree that his answer carries a risk of conflict with the Universities Funding Council circular letter 20/89, in particular with the Dutch auction proposal for competitive bidding and the proposal for two-year degrees? Will the noble Viscount perhaps tell us whether, when vice-chancellors conclude—as is their office and as they have done—that they cannot maintain quality on present funding levels, the Government would prefer them to cut quality or to raise fees?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I cannot answer for the Universities Funding Council. That particular circular discussed receiving comments on its proposals for 1994–95 upon which I think the House would not expect me to speculate.

The Government have provided universities with a reasonable share of public spending. By international standards, spending on higher education in Britain as a proportion of GDP is well up in the league and staff-student ratios are as good as any elsewhere. Furthermore, public spending on the universities through block grant and tuition fees has increased by 9 per cent. in real terms since 1979.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, when the Minister says that quality is a matter for the universities, does he agree that, if they are to increase the number of first-year students and maintain quality, they must have more money, and that money is something for which they must indirectly look to the Government? Is it the Government's policy to increase the availability of money to meet an increase in the number and quality of first-year students?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, with great respect, perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, that, like all enterprises, universities can distinguish between full and marginal costs. The cost of educating an additional student is not necessarily the average cost. Very substantial economies come into play, particularly when there is a marginal capacity to be used. Perhaps I may suggest that universities should look at the achievements of the polytechnics where student-staff ratios tightened from 8.4:1 in 1979–80 to 12.4:1 in 1986–87 and expenditure per full-time equivalent student declined in real terms from £3,800 in 1981–2 to £3,150 in 1985–86; yet, according to Her Majesty's Inspectorate, the quality of teaching and learning has improved.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, without following the noble Viscount down the unprofitable by-ways of comparing unlike with unlike, perhaps I may ask him whether he is aware that, at their recent meeting, the universities totally rejected the current proposals of the Universities Funding Council as inapplicable? Is he further aware that, far from increasing their ability to take on new students, the absurd administrative burden which these proposals put on them would mean that all university teachers would have their time wholly taken up with filling in forms and none would have time to teach students?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science said that universities would continue to receive considerable support from public funds. No one could properly guarantee particular levels of public support in the future. That is considered every year in the public expenditure round alongside other calls on the public purse. I am afraid that I am not in a position to enter into the argument between the Universities Funding Council and the universities.

Lord Peston

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that his comments on the polytechnics are a little puzzling given that his department reported last week that up to a fifth of teaching in the country's 30 polytechnics is substandard? That is precisely what his department reported. Is he saying that that has no connection whatever with financing? On the question of universities, it is true that those of us who teach in universities are responsible for maintaining standards. The point being put to the Government, since they provide most of the funding, is whether they will take into account the need to maintain standards in determining the funding that they make available.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, so far as concerns the polytechnics, I was quoting from the report of Her Majesty's Inspectorate when I said that the quality of teaching and learning has improved. That is indisputable. In his recent speech to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science said that the Government's assessment of student demand is based on maintaining standards of attainment for those entering higher education and it is no part of the Government's intentions that greater efficiency should lead to a reduction in academic standards within higher education.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, surely the noble Viscount will agree that the fact that standards have improved does not necessarily mean that they are good? It depends what they were like before.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I should have thought that the noble Baroness would agree that, if standards have improved, it is better than saying that standards have gone down.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that perhaps the single most important factor in teaching in universities—as in all education—is the quality of the teachers and the teaching itself? That being so, is it not also a fact that there is a so-called brain drain from our universities to American universities? Is the noble Viscount looking at the matter and can he provide any figures? If not, will he have a look at the matter?

Viscount Davidson

Yes, my Lords, I shall do so.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that it follows from his first answer about quality being a matter for the universities that how much quality can be had for the money is also a matter for the universities to decide? Will he say that respect for university autonomy is not confined to cases where it would save the Government money?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am saying that universities can make better use of the substantial public funds that they now receive through increased efficiency. They can also diversify their sources of income to tap the increasing wealth in the economy. They can increase their income from fees through recruitment above present targets. All those measures will enable universities to expand recruitment without damage to academic standards. That is what I am saying.