HL Deb 05 February 1997 vol 577 cc1668-70

2.47 p.m.

Lord Tombs asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reinstate the successful Top Right Bursaries Scheme to encourage some of the best aspiring undergraduates to study engineering.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, the Government set up the bursaries scheme on the understanding that it would last for only a period of three years. It has served its purpose in emphasising the importance of high quality students choosing courses in engineering and in attracting a limited number of such students into engineering. The on-going cost of providing bursaries for all suitably qualified students is, however, considerable and we have no plans to re-instate the scheme.

Lord Tombs

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Is he aware that his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland wrote to me on 4th November stating: A review was programmed for 1996 because it was recognised that there might be a case for a more permanent scheme if outstanding results emerged". There is a conflict, and perhaps the Minister can explain it. Is he also aware that in most cases it is necessary for boys' and girls' schools to make career choices two years before sitting A-levels and that, therefore, a review in the second year of the scheme was both precipitate and ill-advised?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as I believe the noble Lord will be aware, when we set up the scheme we were aware that there would be a certain amount of dead weight in such a scheme, which would attract people who were already going into engineering anyway. He will also be aware that we agreed to review the scheme after two years because that was the appropriate time. To review it after three years, when the scheme had ended, would have caused a hiccup before a new scheme came into operation, should a new scheme be considered wise. Having evaluated the scheme last year, we considered that it had not performed effectively enough in terms of attracting new engineering undergraduates. Therefore, it was not serving a valuable purpose for the considerable sums of money—about £13 million over its lifetime—which will have been spent.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, as stated in Realising Our Potential, innovative engineers are the most important ingredient of wealth-creating industry? Therefore, it is important to continue to encourage, as the Top Flight Bursaries Scheme did, bright young people to go into the profession of engineering. Does he not agree that stopping the scheme gives the wrong message? Will he consider reinstating the scheme, perhaps on a modified basis, in order to continue to encourage bright young people into the profession?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend about the importance of engineering. However, in the end the prime incentives for attracting an individual into a profession will be the pay and status of that profession. I believe that my noble friend will recognise that those are not, and should not be, matters for the Government; they have to be addressed by the profession itself.

In recognising the importance of engineering, we are involved in a number of other schemes to attract engineering students in order to promote engineering generally. However, we do not believe that this scheme represents good value for money.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, what do the Government think they are at? There is surely no question but that there is a serious shortfall of first-rate engineering students in our universities and colleges and there has been for a long time. How do the Government now expect to attract students to the sciences—by abolishing successful incentives to students to become engineers? Is not the decision to scrap the Top Flight Bursaries Scheme just short-sighted cost-cutting, which will do nothing to meet the problem of dwindling numbers of science graduates for British industry and for the university science base?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I totally reject the rather over-stated point put by the noble Lord. Some third of all students at our universities are now studying engineering, science or mathematics. Further, that is a considerable number, as over the years we have been in power the number of people entering higher education has doubled and doubled again, which is something we can be proud of. As I made clear to my noble friend, we have done a great deal to encourage people into the engineering profession, but even the noble Lord would accept that the prime responsibility for attracting people into any given profession will be the pay and status of that profession—and those are matters not for the Government but for the profession itself.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, what discussions has the Minister had with the Engineering Council and other engineering associations on this subject, because they do not tell us the story that he is telling us today?

Lord Henley

My Lords, obviously we discussed the matter with the Engineering Council. I understand that it was disappointed with our decision to end the scheme, but it has not lobbied for any reinstatement. We have discussed the matter with other colleagues in government. We have worked well and closely with the Engineering Council over the years. It has been administering the scheme and has agreed to continue to do so for the remainder of its life.