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Distance Learning

Volume 181: debated on Tuesday 27 November 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he has any proposals further to promote distance learning in rural areas.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Alan Howarth)

The Government recognise that distance learning methods are an efficient and effective means of expanding the education opportunities available to students living in rural areas. The Government support the Open university, and are also providing special support for the further development of open and distance learning by local authorities.

I welcome the Minister's positive reply. Is he aware of the whiteboard techniques adopted in Orkney in my constituency, which allow teaching from central point to be disseminated to a number of points? Does he agree that that offers opportunities to keep open schools that might otherwise be closed as well as opportunities for adult education and training? Will the Department carry out a study of what is happening in Orkney and its possible application to other rural and dispersed parts of the country?

I understand that not only the hon. Gentleman, but his right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), recently had the benefit of an electronic whiteboard tutorial in Orkney. I share the hon. Gentleman's view that that technology may well open up useful possibilities for students in remote areas, which could be of great benefit. The Training Agency has sponsored two pilot projects in the highlands and islands, and I look forward with interest to its evaluation of them.

The Minister has already mentioned the Open university. Can he confirm that the Government intend to maintain and, indeed, enhance its level of funding relative to the rest of higher education so that it can maintain its initiative in distance learning throughout the United Kingdom?

The capital and recurrent grants for the Open university total £79·5 million in the current year, and its block recurrent grant will rise by 8·3 per cent. in 1991. That is clear evidence of the Department's firm support for the Open university. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a review is taking place, and the Open university is playing its full part in that. The review is continuing, and conclusions will be reached in due course. Our expectation is that the Open university will find ways to develop its mission, rather than to curtail it.

Does the Minister accept that increasing fees for courses are a deterrent for many people who would like to take the opportunity of studying with the Open university? What is the Government's specific policy on the future level of fees and on support for part-time and distance learning students? Does the Minister accept that they need better support, and what does he intend to do about it?

From the impressive history of the Open university in recent years, it is clear that a large number of people want to study with it and that they have not been deterred by the fees regime. The review is under way, and the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised form part of it.