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Aberdeen University

Volume 114: debated on Wednesday 8 April 1987

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10.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will have discussions with the University Grants Committee regarding the financial situation and the future of Aberdeen university; and if he will make a statement.

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but the allocation of grants to individual universities is a matter for the University Grants Committee.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend does not remember what my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland said last week about a new committee to run the universities. Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a grave crisis in Aberdeen university due to underfunding by the UGC? This is leading to the loss of viability of a considerable number of specialised research units in the Grampian region. Will my hon. Friend take steps to do something about the funding of Aberdeen university, so that it does not have to close down before its 500th birthday?

The principle of the funding of individual institutions is a matter for the UGC, and the UFC after it, and that is not in doubt. We have recently endorsed it in our White Paper.

In the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of United Kingdom universities in September last year, he gave an assurance that the Government would not consider any proposals for the closure of a university.

Does the Minister accept that there are two problems that affect Scottish universities in general, and Aberdeen in particular? The first is that the University Grants Committee has had its funding effectively cut—particularly in view of the settlement for university teachers. Secondly, for the second time in only five years, Aberdeen university has been singled out for a depth of cut that makes it virtually impossible for the university to maintain a breadth of departments and future viability. Will the Minister intercede to ensure that the university is not victimised yet again?

The decisions of the University Grants Committee are made on the basis of issues such as peer group review and an examination of the merits and strengths of each university. The recurrent grant is distributed at different rates to different universities. On the hon. Gentleman's point about the total amount of money for universities, of course the Government have attempted to control and constrain public expenditure. This has played the important role in the fact that productivity is up, inflation is down and tax rates are being reduced. Now, unemployment rates are falling, too. The universities have to play their part in restraining that public expenditure.

Would it not be more helpful to the University of Aberdeen, in assisting it to become more viable, if Ministers and academics were to support the principal in his efforts to reorganise the university and make it more suitable for the training and education of graduates, who would then have a ready place on the market? Should not that training be done more efficiently and within a shorter time?

It is important that Aberdeen university should plan properly for its future. The proposals that my hon. Friend mentioned must be considered by the university, and by the UGC if the university puts them forward. That would not be a matter for Ministers. I should have thought that all sorts of proposals, radical and otherwise, are meat and drink to universities.

I congratulate the Minister on the fact that he is answering this question and has not transferred it to the Department of Education and Science. All Labour Members appreciate this opportunity to discuss the problems of the University of Aberdeen. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is odd that he is answering this question when, only last week, the Government rejected the STEAC recommendations and refused to accept that the Scottish Office should have a say in the funding of Scottish universities?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced that he would play a part with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science in giving guidance to the UFC on universities in Scotland and on institutions in the non-university sector. Before the Opposition, as usual, attempt to portray some part of Scotland as totally negative, I remind them that in the higher education sector—it is the same in all sectors—there are 10,000 more students in place than there were under the last Labour Government.