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University College Of Wales, Aberystwyth

Volume 115: debated on Thursday 30 April 1987

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. — [Mr. Ryder.]

6.58 pm

I am delighted that I have been given the opportunity to debate the future role of the University college of Wales, Aberystwyth. The college has a special place in the hearts of the Welsh people as it was the first college of the university of Wales to be established, in Aberystwyth. The institution was built through the efforts of many dedicated men and women and by the scarce pennies that were contributed by the people of Wales over a century ago.

The University college of Wales is held in high esteem for sentimental reasons and because of the excellent academic standards that it has achieved over the years. Many distinguished ex-students, many of them in public life, in education and in industry, are making an important contribution to the wealth and welfare of the nation.

It is with horror, therefore, that we learn of the drastic cuts that were imposed as a result of the Government's higher education policies on all the university colleges in Wales, and on Aberystwyth in particular. As a result, between 1981 and 1986 the University college of Wales suffered cuts of about 22 per cent. in its University Grants Committee grant, which led to a reduction of 20 per cent. in its academic staff and of 22 per cent. in other staff. There are now to be further reductions and the future looks even more bleak.

To cope with continuing financial restraints between 1987 and 1990 and to avoid huge deficits, the college is being forced to make further painful decisions that could involve a reduction, either by amalgamation or closure, of the number of departments from 32 to 22 and the loss of up to 75 academic and non-academic posts. When we consider that this is happening in an institution with about 3,000 students and with fewer than 300 academic staff, the seriousness of the situation becomes obvious to anyone.

Over the past few years the college administration has applied itself to coping with immense difficulties. Expenditure on academic services, administration and maintenance has been cut to the bone. The college has been successful, however, in increasing research income and in attracting a growing number of overseas students. At the same time it has pioneered significant developments in transbinary co-operation, which include working with the Welsh college of agriculture and the college of librarianship in Wales. It is therefore discouraging for all those involved — students, staff and anyone concerned about the future of the college—that decisions affecting an important institution in the heart of Wales should be taken by a centralised committee without sufficient weight being given to the special circumstances of the institution.

First, the college is relatively small but broadly based. It is geographically remote from the other constituent colleges of the university of Wales. Any rationalisation within the university has therefore to be limited because of the practical and geographical difficulties involved, and the need to offer an adequate range of mutually supporting disciplines on the one campus.

Secondly, the college has a special role to play in the cultural and linguistic life of Wales. It has therefore to use a significant part of its resources to accommodate bilingualism and Welsh medium teaching, and to fulfil its obligations as a guardian of Welsh culture.

The college is situated in the heartland of rural Wales and it makes a significant contribution to the economy of that area. It has close ties with the community around it. It is one of the largest employers in an area that is devoid of large-scale industry and business. It is integrated with the life of the surrounding area in a way that few other colleges outside Wales can be. To take away the viability of the college through the implementation of further cuts would be a serious blow to Aberystwyth in terms of jobs and economic prospects. My constituents are aware of this, but their displeasure goes further than that. They are fiercely proud of their university college and of its fine tradition, and anything which diminishes that tradition diminishes us all.

I maintain that the way in which the UGC allocates its funds is grossly unfair to Wales, and especially to the UCW. I do not believe that it takes fully into account the unique character of Welsh colleagues and their special place in Welsh society. The Welsh university tradition is entirely separate from that of England, and this should be taken into account. That is why I share the serious concern of the college at the attitude of the Croham report, which dismisses any idea of a Welsh committee within the UGC. In my view it is essential that such a committee should be set up immediately, as it is the only way to defend the interests of the UCW of Aberystwyth in a climate of dwindling resources and Government indifference to higher education in Wales.

The Government must take responsibility for the serious problems in higher education, because they are starving it of funds. It is demeaning to treat education in terms of profit and loss. I know that it can be demonstrated that Aberystwyth uses its resources with care and responsibility, but the immense contribution that it makes to the community, to Wales and to the world of education cannot be measured in money and its future must be sustained by increased resources and encouragement by the Government.

At this late hour I make a plea to the Minister to reconsider the grants that are allocated by the UGC to the UCW. I hope that she will give the matter favourable consideration and that I can return to my constitutents to say that the future of the college at Aberystwyth is secure for generations to come.

7.7 pm

The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North) (Mr. Howells) has presented his case eloquently for the University college of Wales, Aberystwyth. With him, I wish to pay tribute to the UCW's long history of service to the community and to its special place as the senior college of the university of Wales. I recognise with the hon. Gentleman the high esteem in which the college is held within its own area. I recognise also that the funding changes to which the hon. Gentleman has referred that have been introduced over the past five years, the reductions that have gone with them and the policies that underlie them have presented all seven of the colleges in Wales with problems of adjustment. Some of these have been shared with other universities in Great Britain and some have derived from the college's own characteristics.

I am standing here this evening instead of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science with special responsibilities for higher education because he is even now returning from another part of the Principality. My hon. Friend has been visiting University college, Swansea to see for himself how it is coping with change. On a wider front, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science and my hon. Friend have had the opportunity of discussing these matters directly with senior members of the university of Wales, and have recently met a deputation from the Association of University Teachers in Wales. We are not unfamiliar within the Department with the matters which the hon. Gentleman has raised, and the Government are not unsympathetic. As Minister of State, I take an interest in higher education so I, too, have been following the matters to which the hon. Gentleman has referred with considerable interest.

The public funds available to universities through the University Grants Committee are the subject of at least three levels of decision, and in Wales there is a fourth, owing to the federal structure of the universities. It is important that these levels are not confused.

The first level is the decision made by the Government on the amount of funding; then the UGC decides on the distribution of grants to universities; then the universities settle their internal distribution. Conventions are attached, quite rightly, to the extent to which the Government comment on the decisions, both of the UGC and the individual universities. Those conventions are designed to protect the autonomy of universities. Because those distinctions are sometimes confused, it is important to be clear about where matters now stand.

The Government have made known their expenditure plans for the current financial year and the following two years. Although they are the subject of review, they at least give some indication of what is in the Government's mind. The UGC has informed universities of their initial basic allocation for the academic year 1987–88 and the provisional allocations for 1988–89 and 1989–90. I stress that it is an initial allocation, because the UGC has held in reserve certain funds for special purposes, including measures to promote rationalisation within and among universities. Universities are preparing academic and financial plans which accord with the level of grant they expect to receive.

Within the university of Wales, a related exercise is being conducted by a special working party on rationalisation. The hon. Member referred to the outcome of the rationalisation working party exercise, the report of which has been passed to the colleges, and to Aberystwyth's outlined academic plan. It would not be proper for me to comment on those documents as they are still in a formative stage. At Government level, both the resources we are providing and the policies outlined in our recent White Paper on higher education, to which the hon. Member referred, demonstrate our firm commitment to universities within a wider higher education system.

Last November my right hon. Friend announced an additional £95 million for universities in the current financial year. Additional funds have been made available following the conclusion of a satisfactory academic pay settlement. That means an increase in funding for universities of some 10 per cent. The benefits of that additional funding and the extra money flowing through the science budget will not be felt immediately, although the benefits of the higher pay are immediate. The funds will not be spread evenly among the universities.

We come to the second level of decision-making; the decisions taken by the UGC. The outcomes of the UGC's resource allocation procedure have been widely misunderstood in Wales as in other parts of the country. It has sometimes been presented, unfortunately, as being discriminatory. It is discriminatory in the sense that it discriminates in favour of research excellence, but it also uses criteria that have been applied fairly to all universities.

Except in respect of certain additional sums made available in recognition of special factors, the UGC's method treats Welsh universities the same as any other universities. I hope that all parties will accept that this is as it should be. All universities, wherever they may be located, should be judged against the same standards, using the same measure of performance.

There is room for debate about what these criteria should he. One criticism levelled against the UGC's allocations is that it tends to favour the larger institutions at the expense of the small ones. Colleges such as UCW are consequently disadvantaged and disfavoured, but that is a matter for the UGC, which has said that it will look at that again, although it appears from the preliminary statistical analysis that smaller institutions generally do not have higher unit costs than larger institutions., I reiterate that the UGC has pointed out its willingness to look further at that.

I should mention two further factors that are relevant to the UCW. The first is the importance of achieving effective rationalisation of provision. That means looking again at the small departments to see whether they are being cost-effective or whether there is a better means of securing academic strength through the concentration of provision.

The Government welcome the lead taken by the university of Wales in promoting and co-ordinating rationalisation among the colleges. I understand that the UCW has the strategic objective of substantially reducing its departments, although that does not imply a corresponding loss of opportunities for students, particularly as it relates to disciplines within larger departments.

The second factor I emphasise is research excellence. The Government have been encouraging the UGC to pursue selectivity in the funding of university research. Selectivity favours those institutions with a proven record of success or where the prospects of success look brightest.

The UGC first introduced more specific selectivity in its grant allocations for the current academic year. In doing so, it made judgments on research quality in 37 subject-related cost centres in every university. Although the UGC was able to identify departments microbiology, botany and international politics-within the UCW, which were above the national average ranking on research, the college did not fare particularly well from the exercise, but I am glad to see that one of the college's explicit objectives is to improve its research ratings. It intends, in its internal resource allocation procedures, to effect that aim.

The hon. Member talked about the Welsh factors arid teaching through the Welsh language. The Government and the UGC recognise the commitment of the university of Wales to Welsh medium teaching and the provision made at Bangor and Aberystwyth. That recognition is given expression in two ways: first, as a special factor, in effect, as an addition to grant in the allocations made to the two colleges and, secondly, in a separate grant made to the university of Wales registry which covers, among other items, the activities of the board for Welsh medium teaching.

The hon. Member made plain his views about the current committee report and how he feels it would be best to deal with universities in Wales. I take note of those views and will report them to my hon. Friend.

I accept that grant levels have not permitted as much expansion of the board's activities as the board and the university would have liked, but equally the past seven years have seen a substantial development of Welsh medium provision and I hope that more will come. I am assured by the UGC that the level of provision, in its calculations, has not been reduced, although, in accordance with the conventions, the separate elements of each university's block grant are not identified.

Some members of the UCW have argued that the college's commitment to Welsh medium teaching imposes upon it the need for a more generous student-staff ratio than might apply in other areas. I accept that that is the case. The purpose of the special recognition made in the UGC's formula is to take account of the additional staffing need. If the present allowance turns out to be insufficient, that matter can be taken up with the UGC.

Another matter about which the hon. Gentleman made a particular point was the relative geographical isolation of Aberystwyth and the fact that it is located in a mainly rural area of disadvantage in terms of its place and other respects. If there is a case to be made, I am sure that the UGC will listen to it with much sympathy.

One possible disadvantage is that the college might be less attractive to overseas students, but that is not entirely borne out by its success in recent years in considerably increasing the number of overseas students. Therefore, the point about it perhaps being in a disadvantaged area with less opportunity to attract people, and being isolated and in difficulties because of its situation and lack of resources is not entirely borne out by what has happened with overseas students.

Over its 115 years, University college, Aberystwyth has demonstrated great flexibility in responding to changing circumstances, and for that we give it all credit. Now is the time for similar flexibility in order to build on the college's strengths and to improve its overall cost-effectiveness. I am confident that the ingenuity and talent of the present generation of academic leaders within the college will be able to match up to the present challenges in the spirit of their predecessors.