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Universities And Polytechnics

Volume 20: debated on Tuesday 16 March 1982

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11.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what further representations he has received about the cuts in university and polytechnic allocations.

My right hon. Friend continues to receive a variety of representations about the financing of higher education.

Is the Minister aware that a few days ago a group of students from the Derby Lonsdale college of higher education and the Matlock college marched the 150 miles from Derbyshire to London to protest against the massive reduction imposed by the Government's cuts? Is it not true that the reductions in the number of places in colleges, universities and polytechnics will ensure that those who get special schooling pass the exams to get to Oxford and Cambridge, where the present intake from public schools is 47 per cent.? Therefore, will not that percentage rise because of the UGC cuts?

I shall reply to the hon. Member's point about the Derby colleges. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) has been in regular consultation with me about Matlock, which is in his constituency. I have met a top level delegation of local authority and college leaders from Derby Lonsdale, and neither college faces insuperable problems.

With regard to universities, is there not evidence that after the initial shock the broad strategy set out by the UGC is gaining considerable acceptance? Is it my hon. Friend's experience, as it has been mine, that in a number of universities two speeches have been made, one for public consumption and one for private discussion?

The House will regard it as only natural that each institution makes as strong a case as it can. Needless to say, there are many within the university system—for example, Professor Bernard Crick and Professor Randolph Quirk—who have accepted that the university system has some weaknesses that are being put right.

Does the Under-Secretary agree, following my hon. Friend's question, that the broad strategy, as it has been described by one of his hon. Friends, is one that will reduce the age participation ratio and probably the qualified participation ratio as well, which has traditionally been high in this country, throughout the lifetime of this Parliament and far beyond? Is that an achievement that the Government can call a strategy?

The hon. Member knows that the Government have never disguised the fact that the age participation ratio for universities is bound to fall. It is necessary, in view of the savings that have to be made in public expenditure, that this is so.

Does my hon. Friend agree that since the economies in education have been advanced much nonsense has been talked on the subject, that expansion in the universities since 1960 has been over-rapid, and that some decrease in activities would be both desirable and reasonable?

I have heard many people inside the university system saying exactly the same thing.

Will the Minister help those hon. Members who have been approached by constituents who say "Last year my children would have gained a place at a university or polytechnic, but this year and in succeeding years under this Government they will not receive a higher education, although they have the same abilities"? What advice does the Minister suggest that we give those parents?

I advise the hon. Gentleman to tell those parents that the £200 million that the university system will be saving during the next few years will make a significant contribution, for example, to the expansion of training for 16 to 19-year-olds, which arguably is an even higher priority.

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he will arrange to meet the University Grants Committee to discuss the financing of universities.

My right hon. Friend has frequent meetings with the chairman of the University Grants Committee, but has at present no plans to meet the committee formally.

Is the Minister aware that there are 8, 000 applicants for only 600 places at the University of Stirling next year, yet the UGC is still hell-bent on imposing a 27 per cent. cut in student numbers and a 23 per cent. cut in recurrent grant? Will the Minister intervene now and give more money to the UGC to enable universities such as Stirling to take in more, not fewer, students? Or is it now official Government policy to throw more and more well-qualified young people on to the dole queue, instead of giving them a place in higher education?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the policy of Her Majesty's Government remains that of their predecessor, which is that they will not intervene in specific recommendations of the UGC. That remains our policy.

Is the Minister aware of the fine relationship that exists between Lancaster university and the Edge Hill training college? Is he aware of the danger of the closure of the Edge Hill training college by the Lancashire county council? Has he any comment to make? If not, will he look into the matter, with a view to safeguarding the future of that fine training college?

I visited Lancaster university and had an interesting discussion with staff there. I am not aware of the problem to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and I shall write to him about it.

As my hon. Friend visited Aberdeen university recently, does he accept that, in view of the devastating effect that the UGC cuts will have on that university, it might be a good idea if he and his right hon. Friend met the chancellor again to see what can be done about that important university, where oil and gas technology is being acquired by people who are bringing cash into the country?

My hon. Friend exaggerates when he refers to the "devastating" of Aberdeen university. Aberdeen university is a fine university with a long tradition. It will complete its 500th anniversary, and I have no doubt that in due course it will complete its millennium. Any help that my hon. Friend can give in increasing the contribution made by local industry to that university, which undoubtedly is doing much for the oil industry and which in my view does not receive the support that it should from the oil industry, would, I am sure, be welcomed by the university.

Does the Under-Secretary recall from his visit the other day that the principal made it clear that the effect on Aberdeen will be serious, damaging to the career structure, and damaging to the university? Is he aware that there is great resentment in the university in that on 23 February it received a curt one-paragraph letter saying that nothing had changed, despite all the representations made to him and to the UGC? Does it not show that his visits to universities are a fatuous public relations exercise, costing a great deal of money, and to no purpose? Would it not be a service to universities if he resigned, instead of being the Secretary of State's poodle?

I shall not take up the suggestion in the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question. No one underestimates the problems that are being faced by Aberdeen university, but it has resources available to it that will enable it to solve those problems satisfactorily.

When my hon. Friend next meets the University Grants Committee, will he discuss with it the reduction in the number of degree courses for the clothing and textile industry, which is the second largest employer in the United Kingdom? With the closure of the courses at Bradford and the possible reduction in the courses at UMIST and Leeds, this industry is suffering. Bearing in mind that we need high technology courses in this industry, will he discuss this matter with the University Grants Committee?

This subject is a classic example of one that is taught across the binary line, both in polytechnics and colleges, and in universities. We are now in a position to plan to concentrate resources on the necessary but relatively small subjects that he mentions, and I have no doubt that the national advisory board and the UGC will discuss textile and other clothing subjects.

Does the Under-Secretary accept that the contributions of the hon. Members for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie) are only the latest in a series of plaintive cries from his right hon. and hon. Friends, and that it would be more honest for him to answer the question "Cannot something be done?" with the answer "No, Sir, there is nothing we will do, because we in the Conservative Party believe that there are too many degree-giving institutions open to too many people spending too much money, and we believe that they should be cut to a point where we restore the elitism of a previous generation"?

The hon. Gentleman should remember that at the end of these cuts there will probably be more students in the system than there were during the last year of his Government.