HL Deb 04 November 2002 vol 640 cc478-81

2.58 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether there is any cost to public funds arising from the course available to students at Bradford University relating to beer drinking in Yorkshire.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, the University of Bradford offers a part-time degree programme in local and regional studies, with a module entitled "Drinking and Society". The course is supported by the university's grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and by tuition fees paid by students.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Is she satisfied that in general terms universities are not packing their prospectuses with absurd courses such as this one just to keep up their numbers and the public funding that goes with that?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I shall deal slightly more fully with the specific issue of Bradford University. The course has been running for five years and this new module will be offered for the first time after Christmas. Bradford expects 15 of the 55 students currently studying this degree course to take up the module. It is worth noting that the total cost to HEFCE for the 15 students will be £5,700. Universities take enormous care to ensure that the courses they offer are relevant. Sometimes media reports take the courses out of context and perhaps make them sound less than they might be.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in raising the virtues and qualities of the University of Bradford, the noble Lord could alternatively have praised the Department of Peace Studies and its work in conflict resolution? Furthermore, will the Minister join me in congratulating the Rotary Foundation on giving more than £1 million in grant aid to the Department of Peace Studies to enhance its work in conflict resolution?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I would indeed pay tribute to the Rotary Foundation. It is perhaps also worth saying that, since November 2000, the University of Bradford has received excellent scores in various subject reviews covering pharmacy, physiotherapy, radiography, optometry, nursing/ midwifery and archaeological sciences, with top marks for peace studies and interdisciplinary human studies.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, have the Government considered setting up a system of independent quality control in our universities and higher education instead of continuing to rely on the somewhat shaky system of quality assurance, which many of us from outside the universities, but who have worked in the system, believe to be run far too much by academics for academics?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as the noble Lord has indicated, I think, the Quality Assurance Agency—to which he referred—is an independent body funded by subscriptions from universities and colleges of higher education and by contracts with HEFCE. Under this system, the institutions are audited every six years. If there were particular concerns about a university or a course, those could be reviewed separately. We have no concerns at the moment about this quality assurance.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the yeast in beer is very good in alleviating acne, pimples and spots, and that beer drinking is also very good for nursing mothers?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I am now, my Lords.

Lord Peston

My Lords, does my noble friend believe that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, has much experience of universities if he thinks that this course is absurd? If he had attended any of the courses that I have taught over the years he might not feel as he does. Nevertheless. is this not a very serious topic which should be dealt with seriously, as I am sure that the University of Bradford is doing? Does the topic not also have the merit of possibly interesting students? Those of us who have taught courses to which no one—as we realised years later—was even remotely interested in listening might occasionally learn something from what universities are doing today in trying to do something useful. I should hope that my noble friend will agree with and reinforce what the University of Bradford is doing rather than criticise it.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I was seeking to reinforce what the University of Bradford is doing. Indeed, Bradford University is one of the top 10 universities for graduates moving into work, with 95 per cent of year 2000 graduates in employment six months after graduating. Bradford should be credited for that record.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, does the Minister accept that drinking beer in Yorkshire is one of the great pleasures of life, particularly after a five-mile walk in the dales? On a more serious point, does she accept that the revival of local brewing in Yorkshire and of rural pubs is a very useful part of preserving and promoting employment in dales which are currently suffering very badly from the decline in farming? Is the subject not something that local universities ought to be encouraging the study of and the recruitment of new people into?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Lord may be interested to know that Heriot -Watt University offers several courses in brewing and distilling specifically in order to support the needs of industry. I therefore very much agree with him.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, is the noble Baroness satisfied that, in general terms, the universities are sufficiently concerned to be offering the courses that our economy and our nation really require and not things that are just headline catchers or catch the fancy of a student who is not particularly concerned to do very much?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am indeed satisfied. As I know that the noble Lord has a great interest in engineering, he will be pleased to hear that I have come prepared with lots of information about engineering courses which I should be happy to discuss with him later. As I said, universities sometimes offer courses that are quite relevant within a given context, as is this Bradford course which provides only 20 credits of the 360 credits required. Sometimes, however, the media make more of those courses than they should. There is always a tension between ensuring that university courses are truly relevant to the needs of students and that they are interesting and perhaps contemporary.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I will not disappoint the noble Baroness because I am going to mention engineering. Does she agree that it does not help the image of higher education when the public hear of degrees in beer drinking, for example, when we also know—I certainly know—of courses in engineering and other near-market occupations for which the Higher Education Funding Council has refused funding?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I cannot comment on the specific courses to which the noble Baroness refers. I reiterate, however, that this is not a course in beer drinking; it is unfortunate that it has been so described in some press reports. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that engineering is a crucial subject, which is why we have been very keen to support engineering courses. It is also worth noting that the specialist school programme now includes engineering colleges. The first four colleges began operating from 1st September 2002. There are many different ways in which we would want to support engineering in our schools and universities, not least by encouraging women to go into engineering as a career.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the most important criteria as regards whether a subject is suitable for degree work is whether it produces a serious body of published research? Does she agree further that the country is full of unemployed graduates in subjects which we thought 30 years ago we were going to need?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is certainly not the case in Bradford. Research is very important. I should hope, however, that degree courses enable our young people to develop and to go into careers that provide them and their future families with the type of worthwhile employment and the income levels that are relevant to them. Research is important, but research per se is not the only issue.