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Higher Education (Scotland)

Volume 113: debated on Wednesday 1 April 1987

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4.2 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on arrangements for planning and funding of higher education in Scotland announced in today's White Paper on higher education. This follows consultations on the recommendations in the report of the Scottish Tertiary Education Advisory Council on future strategy for higher education in Scotland and advice from the Advisory Board for the Research Councils and the Croham committee on the University Grants Committee.

In my statement to the House on 17 July 1986, I said that the Government accepted STEAC's view that there is scope for improvement in the planning and co-ordination of provision in higher education by the universities and colleges in Scotland. In reaching decisions on the future, I have recognised that six out of eight Scottish universities opposed the central STEAC recommendation for a separate Scottish body with funding responsibilities for both the university and college sectors. I share the views of the universities that they should continue to be, and be seen to be, an integral part of the British university system and believe that that might be prejudiced by removing them from the British funding framework of the UGC and its successor.

Irrespective of the source of funding, it is, however, highly desirable that both the university and college sectors can plan the development of their provision in the knowledge of what other institutions in Scotland are planning to do. But knowledge is not enough—we need arrangements to ensure that plans can be discussed, adapted and co-ordinated to take account of what other institutions intend to do and to ensure that overall provision in both sectors is in line with likely national and local needs. That is why we announce in the White Paper that we propose to accept and build on the recommendations of the Croham committee that the proposed Universities Funding Council should have a Scottish committee. The committee will play an important part in planning higher education in Scotland. It is important that the Universities Funding Council and its Scottish committee should take into account the needs of Scottish higher education as a whole. To this end in future the Secretary of State for Scotland shall give the Universities Funding Council guidance on plans for the other sectors of higher education in Scotland and will expect it to have regard to his views on the implication of Scottish needs for the university sector. These will, of course, be consistent with guidance given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to the Universities Funding Council. The UFC and the Secretary of State for Scotland will then be able to plan provision, with the help of the Scottish committee, in the university and college sectors respectively, with a clear knowledge of the implications of each other's plans.

I expect the committee to advise the UFC on the implications of the Scottish education system for the needs of the Scottish universities. It will, in consultation with my Department, consider the demand for higher education in Scotland and the balance of provision between its constituent parts. Appointments to the Scottish committee will be a matter for the Universities Funding Council in consultation with the Secretary of State for Scotland. I envisage that the committee will include members drawn from the non-university sector and employers as well as from the UFC and the universities and that there will be representation from the Scottish Office.

I believe that the establishment of a Scottish committee of the UFC on these lines will mark a very important development in the relationship of the Secretary of State for Scotland with the university sector, with far-reaching implications for the proper planning of higher education. For the first time he will have formal access to a group taking an overview of the needs of the Scottish university sector and will be able to discuss with them his views on the priorities for higher education in Scotland and the plans of the college sector.

I am confident that the arrangements will be welcomed by the universities in Scotland. They will be able to maintain their role as part of the British system, but will have a new focus for looking at Scottish needs. They will be better able to plan their provision in the light of knowledge of each other's plans and those of the central institutions. The central institutions for their part should welcome the more systematic opportunity afforded by the Scottish committee for joint planning between my Department and the universities on how demands from students and employers should be met. Most importantly, Scotland should benefit from the improved arrangements for co-ordination and planning of higher education to meet the changes envisaged by the White Paper between now and the end of the century.

The Secretary of State, perhaps typically, has opted for the least exciting possibilities open to him. To many of us on the Labour Benches his announcement sounds like a recipe for muddle and confusion.

Even in terms of the Croham report, is not the Secretary of State a minimalist? I concede that Croham offered a Scottish committee of the University Grants Committee, but it did so only if a Scottish planning and funding body was not established. The Secretary of State has made a great deal of the views of the six out of eight Scottish universities, but perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest that they were the views of six out of eight principals. In any event, they emphasised their fears about the peer group review. That matter was specifically referred to the Croham committee. Can the Secretary of State confirm that Croham made it clear, when considering the matter, that a separate funding solution would not affect or disrupt the maintenance of national standards or any other aspect of the peer group review as it presently operates?

Is not the Scottish sub-committee of the Universities Funding Council a poor apology for an effective, coordinating body, which would consider central institutions, colleges of education and universities, as recommended by the Scottish Tertiary Education Advisory Council report?

The new system means that the Secretary of State for Scotland, together with his colleague the Secretary of State for Education and Science, will intimate his views to the Universities Funding Council. The sub-committee is no more than a nod in the direction of consultation; a little bit of window-dressing that perhaps cannot do much harm, but certainly will not do much good.

The Secretary of State will be familiar with paragraph 8.19 of the Croham report which, when discussing the possibility of a Scottish sub-committee, advised that it would have the specific remit of looking at the existence of separate Scottish school examinations and four-year honours courses at the universities. The report said that it would consider, specifically,
"the proposed resource distribution as it affected Scottish universities".
Will he say whether that distribution of resources, in particular, will be part of the remit of the sub-committee he is establishing? If it disagrees with the Universities Funding Council, what will be its powers to do anything about it? Can it merely complain on the sidelines or can it really and effectively affect the outcome?

The Croham recommendation was that the Scottish Education Department or any sub-committee would be represented by an assessor. Will the Minister tell us whether it will be by an assessor on this occasion or will it be by direct appointment and, if so, why has there been a change? Will he accept that there is nothing in the sad and damaging cuts of recent years to suggest that Scottish universities will be safer as a result of the rejection of the STEAC proposals for an over-arching body?

The Secretary of State knows of the Opposition's commitment to a Scottish assembly—[Laughter.] There is a certain amount of nervous laughter by hon. Members. When that assembly is in being, it will have responsibility for the universities and for their separate funding. Will he note our regret that the chance has not been taken now to move in that direction and to accept the STEAC vision of an over-arching body with the necessary authority to plan and build a healthy future for higher education in Scotland?

We have just had the somewhat ludicrous occurrence of the hon. Gentleman seeking to present himself as the champion of the Scottish universities while he simultaneously rebukes the Government for having accepted the representations of the Scottish universities. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He knows perfectly well that overwhelming opinion among Scottish universities was adverse to the recommendations of the STEAC committee in this respect. He knows also, or he ought to know, that even among the central institutions there was a difference of view, with a minority of the central institutions rejecting the recommendations of the STEAC committee.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of individual questions. He asked about peer review and suggested that the Croham committee had said that peer review need not be affected by separate funding of the Scottish universities. That is indeed the case. However, if the hon. Gentleman wished to be open and frank with the House he might have added that the Croham committee qualified that statement by suggesting that parity of research funding could not be guaranteed if British peer review advice was interpreted by separate funding bodies north and south of the border. As the Scottish universities have a legitimate interest in access to proper research funding, the hon. Gentleman might have reminded the House of that aspect of Croham's conclusions as well.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the membership of the Scottish committee.[Interruption.] He might advise his hon. Friends to remain silent while I am answering his questions. The hon. Gentleman asked about membership of the Scottish committee and I said in my opening statement that there would be representation from the Scottish Office. We shall naturally wish to have consultations on the detailed question of representation. but we wish to have a broad base of representation on the Scottish committee, which will include not only the Scottish Office but representatives of others with an interest in the work of the Scottish committee.

I was somewhat puzzled, surprised and disappointed by the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the Scottish committee of the sort we propose would have only what he chose to describe as cosmetic functions. He seems to have failed to appreciate that the announcement we are making today goes significantly beyond the recommendations of the Croham committee. The Croham committee merely suggested that there should be—

I am well aware of the fact that it rejected STEAC. I informed the hon. Gentleman that it rejected STEAC so he does not need to remind me of that fact. The hon. Gentleman should appreciate that what we have announced today provides the Secretary of State for Scotland, for the first time, with a locus with regard to the universities to ensure that the interests of Scottish higher education are taken into account, to ensure that there is a minimum of duplication between the role of the central institutions and those of the universities and to ensure, as does the White Paper and my statement, that the proposed Universities Funding Council should have regard to the views of the Secretary of State for Scotland with regard to the needs of higher education in Scotland. That represents, for the first time, a significant development in our ability to co-ordinate higher education in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman might at least have had the grace to acknowledge that, even if he was disappointed that the STEAC recommendations were not being accepted.

Order. I have to apply the same ruling to this statement as I applied to the previous one. In view of the pressure of business, I propose to allow questions to go on for a further 15 minutes. I remind hon. Members that there are Scottish questions on Wednesday next week.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is right to accept the wise advice of six out of the eight Scottish universities and set up a Scottish co-ordinating committee? Will he agree that there are more students in higher education in Scotland than ever before and that that shows how the additional finance put into education by the Government is paying off?

Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. The number of students in Scotland in higher education has increased by about 10,000 since the Labour Government left office in 1979.

Will the Secretary of State accept that there is a wide feeling of victimisation within Scottish universities at the way in which they are being treated, that there is particular discrimination against small universities and small departments and that there is mistrust as to whether the University Grants Committee does understand the Scottish dimension? The right hon. and learned Gentleman will know that I have a constituency interest in the university of Aberdeen and am rector of the university of Dundee, both of which are facing savage cuts that will devastate their ability to face the future. Will he acknowledge that what he is proposing today is merely cosmetic and that there is no evidence that that body will be able to address itself to the fundamental problems facing Scottish universities? Is he prepared to accept that that is the case, that more action will be needed and that more funding for Scottish universities and colleges will he necessary?

The hon. Gentleman has made a general and unqualified statement. If he is seeking to imply that he wishes that the recommendations of STEAC had been accepted, he has to explain why he takes a view that is contrary to the representations made by the university of Aberdeen and the university of Dundee, of which he says he is the rector. He does not seem to be in touch with opinion in the two universities to which he has chosen to refer. The hon. Gentleman should bear that in mind.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that the new committee provides a proper forum for providing funds for small but significant research programmes in Scotland, which the UGC has failed to do?

The purpose of the Scottish committee is to ensure that the new Universities Funding Council will have full access to information as to the particlar needs of Scottish universities and will, therefore, be able to take into account those needs and the needs of higher education in Scotland overall in coming to its decisions.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the structure he has announced today, with a sub-committee of the Universities Funding Council, having no executive powers, acting only in an advisory capacity and subject to the guidance of the Secretary of State, is completely inadequate to meet the basic recommendation of STEAC, which was that we need a coherent, single planning and funding body for university and non-universiety sectors of higher education in Scotland? The structure announced today does not even meet the need for a single planning body, leaving the question of funding aside. Seven out of the eight universities want a single planning body.

I have to point out to the right hon. Gentleman that the precise role of the Scottish Office in future will be to provide that planning and co-ordinating responsibility of the sort to which I have drawn attention in my statement. For the first time the Scottish Office will not only be involved in the planning and funding of the central institutions in Scotland, but will have the right and responsibility to be involved in the co-ordination of the central institutions with the Scottish universities. The right hon. Gentleman should appreciate that, where the majority of Scottish universities and a number of the central institutions made representations against the proposals put by STEAC, it is a sensible outcome to have a situation where the involvement of the Scottish universities in the United Kingdom as a whole is maintained.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that when he was Secretary of State for Scotland and the subject of devolution was considered, the Government of which he was a member rejected the idea of the Scottish universities being devolved to a separate funding arrangement. The right hon. Gentleman had better reconcile what he said then with what he says now.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that both of today's statements should help to improve standards and value for money in higher education? Does he agree that colleges and universities could contribute to those aims by re-examining the academic year? The principal of Aberdeen university has shown how that might be done, and he should have the support of Ministers and academics.

That is a matter for the university of Aberdeen to determine, and I do not wish to comment on it. One of our objectives is to ensure that there is a proper use of resources and that unnecessary duplication is avoided. There has been occasional duplication of resources between the central institutions and the Scottish universities — for example, in the subject areas of engineering and technology, business and management, and architecture and town and country planning. The proposals have been announced to ensure better coordination of provision.

Does not the nature of the sub-committee for Scotland give us the worst of both worlds? Is there not a danger that the Secretary of State for Scotland may end up playing second fiddle to the Secretary of State for Education and Science, who will now be involved in the Scottish universities? What guarantees can the Secretary of State offer that the Universities Funding Council, which will appoint the sub-committee with his agreement, will not end up with a creature that suits it?

Because the appointment of members to the Scottish committee will be planned in consultation with the Secretary of State for Scotland. I have already outlined the broad spectrum of people—from a broad spectrum of backgrounds—that I would expect to serve on that committee.

The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science and I subscribe to a common policy of government. My role will be to ensure that proper account is taken of the interests of higher education in Scotland and that the role of the central institutions and universities in Scotland are more effectively co-ordinated. The universities in Scotland want that co-ordination to be effected without it being done at the expense of the great value that they rightly attach to their presence as part of the United Kingdom university structure.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his statement is most welcome, not only because he has accepted the advice that I gave in the Scottish Grand Committee in January of last year, but because Scotland will get the best of both worlds? Students from all parts of Great Britain will continue to be able to come to high quality universities such as the university of St. Andrews.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that possibly the most important and welcome news that we have heard this afternoon has been that scientific research will continue without pause this year, and that more young Scots will have access to higher education in the years to come than ever before?

Yes, my hon. Friend is indeed correct that the announcement of an additional £15 million for research that was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science earlier will make a valuable contribution to ensuring the smooth continuation of important research during the years to come.

Will the Secretary of State concede that what we all want is a Scottish higher education system that meets the needs of the 21st century? We are concerned that the sub-committee will not hold to systematic views, but be a pantomime horse that will try to face in both directions at once. There will be no co-ordination or thrust in relation to the needs of Scottish education, now or in the future. We desire a thrustful organisation, a spearhead, a planning organisation, and that has manifestly not been included in the statement.

The hon. Gentleman makes a bland statement without supporting evidence. He must acknowledge that the views that he has expressed are flatly contradicted by the vast majority of those in the universities of Scotland, and he will have to explain that.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's announcement of the future involvement of the Secretary of State for Scotland in the Universities Funding Council and the Scottish committee. That is clearly a major step forward.

My right hon. and learned Friend has said that there is a clear need, accepted by everyone, for effective planning across the binary divide in Scotland. Is he satisfied that the system—it is essentially a guidance system—that he has announced will achieve that? As regards his point about demand, does he agree that the crucial figures are the participation rates in higher education in Scotland, which have been excellent in recent years? Can he give the House any guidance on how those figures are likely to go next year?

I believe that the UFC and the Scottish committee will have the same interest in the proper co-ordination of higher education in Scotland as would the Scottish Office. That will represent substantial progress.

On participation in higher education in Scotland, my hon. Friend knows that the White Paper is based on an assumption that the proportion of young people who will have qualifications for entry into higher education in the United Kingdom as a whole will have reached 20 per cent. by the end of the century. I am happy to inform my hon. Friend that Scotland reached that figure in 1980. By 1985–86, the proportion in Scotland was 23 per cent. That shows the great opportunities that are available for higher education in Scotland under this Government.

When the Secretary of State referred to six out of eight universities, if he did not mean exclusively vice-chancellors and principals, precisely whose opinions did he take into account before making his statement? Why has he disregarded the overwhelming—if not unanimous—view of students, who supported the STEAC recommendations about an over-arching body? Why has the Secretary of State rejected their views?

I am not aware of any referendums having been held in the universities of Scotland to establish the views of students as a whole. Such referendums have not been held. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman's assessment of students' opinions is no better or worse than that of anyone else. We are entitled to assume that the views of university principals — unless they have been repudiated by the university courts or senates — represent the views of the universities. If the hon. Gentleman were able to inform me that the majority of university principals were in favour of the STEAC recommendations, he would not have tried to suggest that that was of little value in determining opinion in the universities.

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the considerations that led the last Labour Government to believe that the integrity of the British university systems should prevent the Scottish universities' removal from that are as powerful now as they were then.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that Scottish universities enjoy exceptionally generous funding compared with those in England and Wales? I have seen figures that suggest that they receive as much as 25 per cent. more. Can he confirm that the new system will not prejudice that, since funding under a Scottish Office body might? Are we not witnessing yet another example of the Opposition's Scottish assembly dogma being put before the interests of the people of Scotland?

No, I would not suggest that the Scottish universities are funded better or worse than universities elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Because the Scottish universities have four-year degree courses, they require additional funding for each student, compared with that for students in universities with three-year degree courses. That means that a higher proportion of funding goes to Scottish universities.

May I assure my right hon. and learned Friend that, contrary to the ridiculous nonsense uttered by the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), his statement will be welcomed in Aberdeen, particularly by the Robert Gordon's institute of technology, which will now be able to increase its number of science and technology students? Is my right hon. and learned Friend also aware that his statement will be welcomed by the university of Aberdeen with the demise of the University Grants Committee? Will the Universities Funding Council look closely at the need for Aberdeen university to have more money for research, rather than have penalties imposed upon it by the UGC?

The Universities Funding Council has not yet come into existence, so it is difficult for me to anticipate what its view will be. But I remind my hon. Friend of the important announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, that the resources for research at universities in the United Kingdom are being increased substantially.

Will any organisations have a right to serve on the Scottish committee, or will they simply have to take their chance? Does my right hon. and learned Friend hope to see employers' organisations on the committee, so that there is some industrial input, in these days when we require more industry?

Members of the proposed Scottish committee will be there as individuals rather than representing organisations, but I have said that I envisage that the committee will include members drawn from the non-university sector and employers, as well as from the UFC, and that there will be representations from the universities in Scotland as well as from the Scottish Office.

May I take it from what my right hon. and learned Friend has told the House that the proposal will preserve the university framework in Great Britain, with a clear Scottish dimension within that framework? Is he satisfied that the importance of higher education throughout Scottish society will be fully recognised and pressed by the Scottish angle of the new body?

I firmly believe that the proposals that we have announced today represent the best of both worlds for the Scottish universities because they not only provide continuing integration of the United Kingdom structure, which is what the universities want, but, for the first time, they enable a sensible co-ordination of the needs of higher education in Scotland, which both the Scottish universities and the central institutions recognise as being important to their future.