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Soviet And East European Studies

Volume 177: debated on Monday 23 July 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he will now make a statement on the recommendations of the Wooding report on Soviet and east European studies in higher education.

The Government welcomed the proposal to review the state of Soviet and east European studies in British higher education, and is grateful to the Universities Funding Council for commissioning the review undertaken by a working party under the chairmanship of Dr. Norman Wooding. A copy of the report on that review has been placed in the Library. While some of the recommendations in the report are addressed to the Government, many of them are for consideration by individual higher education institutions, the agencies that fund them and other bodies.The Universities Funding Council issued the report to universities. I am sure that they will have examined carefully its conclusions and proposals as they prepared their academic plans for future years, taking into account both national priorities as well as local circumstances. The council will be responding to those plans when it decides how to allocate funding to each university. The Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council is engaged in similar planning and funding processes with its institutions.The Department has been considering the recommendations to which it is proper for the Government to respond, and consulting other Government Departments and organisations.Government funding is helping to develop Soviet and east European studies. The Prime Minister announced the creation of additional lectureships during her recent visit to the Soviet Union. The scheme will be administered by the British Council through a special advisory committee whose members will include Dr. Wooding. The sum involved will be in the order of £300,000 over the financial years 1991–92 to 1993–94. The aim is to establish up to 10 posts, with the costs to be shared with the higher education institutions and other sources including the private sector. I hope that this initiative will encourage higher education institutions to develop their provision in Soviet and east European studies.In addition, both the Economic and Social Research Council—ESRC—and the British Academy are at present using a substantial proportion of their budgets to support activities in this field with the number of ESRC studentships in this subject area more than doubling over the past four years. There are currently 25 research postgraduates and 12 postgraduates on advanced courses being supported by council funds, and I understand that the council stands ready to award more studentships as suitable applicants come forward. In addition, the council is embarking on a major research initiative to investigate the economic, social and political changes occurring in eastern Europe, and is also funding 18 other projects in the field of Soviet and east European studies.The total public funding made available to universities, polytechnics and colleges in 1990–91 is being increased by some 10 per cent. over the funding available in 1989–90, and should allow institutions to plan for growth in different areas, including Soviet and east European Studies. It will, however, continue to be for the institutions themselves, in consultation with the funding councils, to determine how such funding will best be distributed.

The responsibilities of the funding councils for funding their respective institutions were given statutory effect through provisions of the Education Reform Act 1988. This Act also extended the university tradition of self-government and self-regulation to all higher education institutions. The processes for allocating public funds for higher education pay due regard both to the funding councils' responsibilities and to the institutions' autonomy in using the public funds at their disposal. As a consequence, the DES does not earmark funds for specific purposes such as Soviet and east European studies out of its general expenditure programme.

Both the Government and the funding councils are adopting funding processes which avoid over-emphasis on central planning for higher education. The development of academic policy within individual institutions in the 1990s will be subject to a wider range of external influences. Student choice and the demands of employers will play a more important part. This approach is necessary to avoid past inefficiencies and produce a better match between national needs and the output of our educational system.

For these reasons, it is not considered appropriate for the Government to set up the kind of central administrative body recommended in the Wooding report. A co-ordinating body which might help to define the market for Soviet and east European studies generally and encourage the involvement of the private sector may have a contribution to make, and I would hope that institutions would take the initiative in setting up such a body if they consider that their planning processes would be assisted by so doing.

I am sure that there is scope for greater collaboration between higher education institutions and industry in the field of Soviet and east European studies. The Wooding report hints at this and suggests some ways forward. There are now more opportunities for trade with the Soviet Union and the countries of central and eastern Europe than ever before. A growing number of business men are pursuing export and investment activities in eastern Europe and they should be made aware of the considerable expertise available in higher education which can help them to expand in these markets.

A network of language export centres has been set up to serve local businesses, and there are opportunities for sponsoring research and other activities in academic departments offering Soviet and east European studies.

Business men have often been reminded of the advantages of doing business in the language of the customer. If they make good use of the increasing number of students graduating in Soviet and east European studies, even more students will want to specialise in these subjects. And greater student demand will in turn prompt institutions to expand provision.

Finally, the Wooding report made some recommendations relating to the teaching of Russian in schools. The inclusion of a modern foreign language in the national curriculum and the Government's policy of diversifying first foreign language provision will help to rectify previous deficiencies in language learning generally. I am convinced that there will be more opportunities for learning modern languages such as Russian in our secondary schools as these policies take effect. Through various measures the Government are also addressing the shortage of language teachers and expanding the exchange programmes which involve teacher and pupil visits to the Soviet Union.

All this should in time stimulate the demand for language teaching at the tertiary level, and work through to stronger provision for Soviet and east European studies in higher education.