HL Deb 23 May 2000 vol 613 cc631-4

2.47 p.m.

Lord McCarthy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take to deal with problems of recruitment and retention in higher education institutions following independent reports by Industrial Relations Services and the Office of Manpower Economics.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, higher education institutions are independent bodies which appoint and retain the staff they need to run their academic programmes. For their part, the Government plan to increase funding for the higher education sector by over £1 billion over the four years up to 2001–02—a real terms increase of 11 per cent. The Government have begun to consider the level of public expenditure on higher education and other areas in 2002 and beyond. The pay of higher education staff will clearly be a factor, but we cannot prejudge the outcome.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her helpful Answer and in particular for the announcement that increased sums of money will be made available. However, the Minister has not denied the fact that, since 1997, three independent reports have been published about the growing crisis in retention and recruitment in the higher education sector. Overall levels of turnover are rising. The situation is worse in the prestige universities and is worse in certain critical subjects. Furthermore, the situation will deteriorate even further because 30 per cent of dons are now over 50 years old. Does the Minister agree that unless something is done immediately, we shall face the kind of crisis that we have seen in nursing, with doctors in medicine, and in the police service? Will the Government act quickly to alleviate this situation, given that they seem to realise that there is a problem?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I readily accept that the pay of university teachers has not grown as much as that of many other professional groups in the public sector over the past 10 to 15 years. As I said in my earlier reply, this is something that is featuring in discussions about public expenditure after the year 2002. My noble friend describes the position at the moment as a crisis. I do not accept that we are in a crisis position. I do accept that there are some problems with recruitment, particularly in certain subject areas. However, on the whole, retention has held up quite well right across the system.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, none the less, given that it is to the universities that we look to supply our schoolteachers, is it not a matter for special concern that some areas in which it is found most difficult to recruit teachers for universities, notably maths and the sciences, ominously coincide with areas in which it is very difficult to recruit teachers for secondary schools? How will the Government address what appears to be a vicious spiral?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, it is not the case that maths and science are the areas where it is most difficult to recruit academic staff. The most difficult areas are those where there is big competition with the private sector. Computer science is one of the most difficult; there are some problems in management, and in engineering. There are small difficulties in some scientific areas, but it is not so hard to recruit in those areas as in the three that I have cited. The noble Lord looks puzzled, but I have just looked at the statistics in the document concerned.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the quality of a university depends very much on the quality of its professors? Does she accept the indication in the report referred to by the noble Lord that many gifted young academics are not applying for chairs in universities because of he low pay? Are the Government satisfied that that is not happening; and if it is happening, will not their strategy for higher education be considerably damaged?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that the quality not only of professors but of all academic staff is vital to our universities if we are to retain our world-class position. I am not clear why the noble Baroness thinks that young academics are not applying for positions as professors. After all, that is a route not only to greater responsibility and the rewards that go with it, but also to higher pay. My experience is that most young academics are only too keen to attain senior positions in our universities.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, pending an overall pay review, will the Minister consider the possibility in the shortage subjects of advanced fellowships being offered which are much more competitive with private industry and offer the chance of a competitive salary?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, it is for the universities to decide how they want to spend their resources. There is nothing to prevent universities offering advanced fellowships in any subject, particularly in shortage subjects. The pay range for professors is wide. It is perfectly possible for a university to offer a substantial salary to someone whom it particularly wants to recruit, possibly from overseas, in a subject area where it is hard to recruit in the UK.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

My Lords, I acknowledge that all institutions are experiencing recruitment problems in specific specialisms, but will my noble friend agree that there are particular problems in attracting junior staff in subject areas where academic starting salaries lag behind those for new graduates in the private sector? Anecdotally, many such examples come to my attention. I declare an interest as chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. I welcome what my noble friend has said about the approach in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. However, given the Government's target of 50 per cent of young people entering higher education by age 30 within the next decade, will she ensure that the Treasury acknowledges that recruitment and retention of quality staff is vital to the sector?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I cannot ensure that the Treasury does anything. However, I shall personally do my best to pass on to my colleagues in the Treasury the importance of having academic staff of the highest possible quality in our universities. Pay is a factor, although by no means the only one. Many other issues arise when young people decide what kind of career they want to pursue. There are, I am glad to say, numbers of highly intelligent young people who believe that this is a worthwhile career.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, every time the noble Baroness answers a question on this subject, she says that the response to the Bett report is a matter for the universities themselves. In the light of her original Answer, is the Minister saying that the pay factor and the response to the Bett report will be specifically taken into account in the Comprehensive Spending Review?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, there is nothing in conflict with what I have said. Decisions regarding university teachers' pay are not made nationally. There is no pay review for academic staff; decisions are made in negotiation between university management and the trade unions representing those staff. But, of course, there is nothing to stop me and my colleagues in the department pointing out to the Treasury in a spending review that this factor needs to be taken into account when deciding the allocation of public spending.