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Volume 22: debated on Tuesday 20 April 1982

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asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he has given any consideration to the implications of a change in the length of the present university first degree course.

My right hon. Friend is always prepared to consider any initiatives that might increase the cost-effectiveness of higher education.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but does not he agree that, with the introduction of modern teaching practices, the trend should be towards shorter degree courses rather than longer? In this context, will he also resist any weakening of A-level academic standards?

My hon. Friend is probably aware that the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Williams) put this forward as one of her 13 points in 1969, when she called for an experiment with two-year courses. As long as we remember that there are some courses, such as enhanced engineering courses, that might be better if they are longer, I agree with my hon. Friend.

Will the Minister bear in mind in considering such alternatives that, if anything, degree courses need lengthening, not shortening? Those of us with experience in the university world realise that the intensity of many modern methods of teaching that have been introduced in higher education have meant that the real gap in student education is that they do not have enough time to think, although that is what universities are all about—thinking and learning.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree, from his experience, as I do from my experience, that great difference is possible in this area. There are some courses where it would be interesting to experiment with shorter, more intensive courses.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is obviously a case for people going beyond the level of schooling without necessarily having to go to the full extent of a four-year university honours degree? Does he further agree that there is a case now for reviving the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science, of the diploma of higher education, because higher education has got into a trough, particularly in the context of finding a suitable role in the longer term for colleges of higher education?

I agree with my hon. Friend. In general, the Department and, I am sure, the UGC, would welcome proposals for experiments in this area.

Does the Minister agree that, whatever the length of the initial course, the system of student support is of considerable importance? Given the Secretary of State's continual flirtations with the question of loans, will he say whether it is true that the Secretary of State said on "World at One" today that students who cannot live on the grant will have to find more part-time work? If that is true, will he say what effect he thinks that will have on levels of scholarship and on the passing of degrees, and, secondly, what part-time work he has in mind?

When the hon. Gentleman studies the transcript, he will see that he has not got the point quite right.