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Higher Education

Volume 115: debated on Thursday 30 April 1987

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8.2 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on higher education in the Adjournment debate, particularly following the Government's recent publication of a White Paper on the subject. That White Paper sets a most encouraging tone for the future of higher education, which I greatly welcome.

Good education, whether at school or in higher education, is one of the most important investments for the future of the individual and of the nation. There is no doubt in my mind that the quality and quantity of higher education will be important factors in enabling the country to develop new products and services from which our businesses and industry can enable the country to flourish.

There is a good story to tell on student numbers. Over the past eight years the number of British students in higher education has risen by more than 85,000 to over 500,000, an increase three times greater than was achieved during the previous decade. This has resulted partly from the peaking of the number of 18 and 19-year-olds in 1982. Perhaps more significant is the steady increase in the number of able young people who wish to take advantage of higher education. With Hatfield polytechnic being only a few miles from Stevenage I am pleased to observe that polytechnics have played a major role in providing for the growth in student numbers.

As regards the future, I am pleased and relieved that the White Paper plans for a growth in student numbers over the next few years and envisages steadily increasing participation. The larger figures now projected are vital if we are to compete effectively as a leading nation in an increasignly competitive world.

There are four areas upon which I should like to dwell briefly: first, the position of polytechnics; secondly, funding for higher education thirdly, the emphasis on different types of courses; and fourthly, the funding for research in higher education institutions. The polytechnics have clearly established themselves as institutions providing excellent education. Industry values particularly the sandwich courses that are often provided and the close co-operation that frequently exists between the polytechnics and industry and commerce, both in the locality of the polytechnics and sometimes more widely. Again, Hatfield polytechnic has close contacts with British Aerospace, Marconi Instruments, STC and various companies which are able to co-operate with it in producing useful courses for students and also in developing various scientific research projects.

I have noticed at Hatfield and at other polytechnics that there have been strains in the relationship between the polytechnics and the local education authorities. Although the local education authorities frequently regard polytechnics as the jewel in the crown of the spectrum of education for which they are responsible, nevertheless there is a great deal to be said for the proposal in the White Paper of a system of control analagous to that applying to universities. Therefore, the proposal for a polytechnic and college funding council is an important step forward for the future of polytechnics. They will be able to advance even more effectively in such a structure. Quite a few local education authorities have found the polytechnic to be such an unusual item in the education activity in which they are involved that they have not been able to address the problems of the institution effectively. Under the proposals in the White Paper there are much better prospects of polytechnics being treated more satisfactorily.

On the general question of the funding of higher education, concern has frequently been expressed to me and to other hon. Members about the funds being provided to universities, polytechnics and colleges. I understand and sympathise with some of the worries put forward but I also believe that in the 1970s there was much waste in various sectors of higher education, with numerous courses being indifferently controlled and monitored. There is a great need for a much more stringent examination of the financing of courses and of the need for certain courses. Nevertheless, the substantial increase in higher education funding for this year is greatly to be welcomed. Some institutions were finding the pressures very great. Hatfield polytechnic had commented to me on several occasions that with the substantial increase in the number of students, the strains on staffing activities and so on were considerable.

I should like more funds for research, particularly scientific and technological research. There is considerable potential for funding from industry and commerce. To encourage the provision of such funds more imagination should be shown to ensure better co-operation between higher education institutions and industry and commerce. A number of higher education institutions have complained to me that if they are successful in obtaining extra funds perhaps their funding from the local education authority or Universities Grants Committee has been adversely affected. That is hardly an encouragement for higher education institutions to seek to co-operate more.

The final point concerns priorities and emphases on different types of courses being provided in higher education. Criticisms have been made that the Government were taking a philistine position in urging that larger numbers should be educated in mathematics, certain sciences and technologies, and perhaps relatively fewer in the more abstruse subjects. I reject these criticisms. With half a million students in higher education, it seems perfectly sensible to encourage the expansion of those activities that will be most directly relevant to the various needs that industry may have in this country in the coming years.

A total of 500,000 people are in higher education—a large number. Those young people must be encouraged to pursue courses and to develop ideas in areas that will benefit both them and the country as a whole in the future. Therefore, I hope that the Government will not be deterred — and the White Paper suggests that the Government are not being deterred—from making sure that the priority will be to encourage higher education being well directed to the future needs of the country, its industry and commerce.

8.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. George Walden)

I am glad to respond to the positive and forward-looking speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Mr. Wood). He has been a lecturer in high-tech subjects with one of our largest firms, and he is talking from personal knowledge and a more general interest. The Hatfield polytechnic is very close to Stevenage. I was there recently and I had an opportunity to discuss with the deputy director some of the problems and prospects facing that institution. My general impression was of optimism and forward-looking attitudes.

My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of polytechnics in higher education. Polytechnics have improved their efficiency greatly and are now a major part of higher education. The Government has been following with gratitude the efforts that polytechnics have been making to accommodate more students.

My hon. Friend next raised the question of funding. Last year we increased funding for polytechnics and colleges by 8·5 per cent., which is well over the current rate of inflation.

The third point my hon. Friend dealt with was research in the polytechnic system. Although there has been a lot of contact between polytechnics and industry, as in the universities, we recognise—as do other members of the educational and business communities — the need to expand contacts between education and industry. We have seen positive proof of this expansion in the polytechnics, in increased investment, industrially related development, and also a major increase in the role of the provision of training by the polytechnics.

Government policy in this regard is to do everything we can to encourage these developments. That is the reason why we set aside last year £15 million to be directed specifically to encouraging a number of initiatives, including research in polytechnics. We were careful to stress, as we shall continue to stress, that the sort of research that we want to be pursued in polytechnics and colleges must be of the applied variety and closely associated with industry. This has been accepted by the polytechnic community. The sums that we offered, which in effect doubled the amount of finance available for research, were applied for by many polytechnics and colleges. Our philosophy is to encourage contacts with industry by encouraging polytechnics to bid with a business plan for the available funds.

Finally, my hon. Friend mentioned courses and the pattern of courses between the arts and sciences in higher education. There is a widespread misconception that this Government have a philistine attitude to education and to higher education in particular. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do we not underestimate the contribution of the arts and humanities but, in simple figure terms, such has been the expansion in the number of students since 1979 that there are now not only far more students doing science-related courses than ever before, there are also more students doing arts-related courses. Since 1979 we have increased student numbers by 160,000 full and part-time. We hope now to add to that another 50,000.

Whereas I welcome the stress that my hon. Friend placed on the need for vocationally orientated courses, particularly in science-related subjects, I am sure he agrees with me that the humanities — whether languages, economics, business studies, or humanities in their purer form, the classics, or whatever—have a very important role to play in higher education, both for their own value in themselves and also for training the mind in rigour and dexterity.

I am glad to have had this opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend's points. I share his optimism about the future of higher education in this country in general and about the new prospects that the White Paper offers for polytechnics in particular.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Eight o'clock.