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Agricultural Education

Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 25 June 2003

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

7.20 pm

I am very pleased to start a debate tonight on rural affairs and access to agricultural education in Devon. I confess to being slightly surprised that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will respond, as I had thought this a debate on education, but I very much welcome him to the Front Bench and congratulate him on his new position. I have no doubt that he will answer fully because I know that he has shared some of the concerns about Plymouth university's actions in the past, as he has an art college in his constituency that is facing closure, along with SealeHayne and another art college at Exmouth in Devon.

The university took the decision to close the SealeHayne campus and move the students to Plymouth at the end of last year. The university decided that it would have a one-month consultation, so that it could fully appraise itself of the views of the local population and the students. One of my arguments is that a one-month consultation is not adequate, and I shall come to that again later.

The college first opened in 1919, after Charles SealeHayne, who had been a Member of Parliament, stated in his will that a college should be established for the benefit of the people of the Newton Abbot area and to promote skills in Devon. The college currently has 180 hectares. It was originally run by a charitable trust. Although Plymouth polytechnic—later Plymouth university—took over running the main campus, the college still maintained its charitable status. Plymouth university only bought the campus—I believe, for a sum of about £850,000—in 1999. It said that it needed to do so because it needed to own the freehold so that it could invest in the campus to protect its future. That was obviously a very hollow gesture. I have every reason to believe that the university was actively considering closing the college when it was giving statements to the public that it wanted to buy the freehold to preserve it.

After I heard that the college would close, I arranged a meeting with the deputy vice-chancellor, Peter Evans. I was told that the vice-chancellor was not then available, as he was away on other business. I found it rather odd that, having decided to close three campuses, the vice-chancellor should disappear all of a sudden and not be available to contact local representatives. However, within a few days, I was able to see the deputy vice-chancellor, who assured me that the closure was necessary, that it needed to be done for academic "symbiance" and that it was for the good of all concerned.

Peter Evans went on to say in local papers that there were only four agricultural students—out of 700-odd students at the college—and that only 10 were studying agriculture part-time. I did some research, and a lecturer at the university has assured me that 521 students within the university study land use or food sciences in one way, shape or form, which is rather more than the deputy vice-chancellor suggested.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. On the point about food sciences, he will be aware that I have supported his campaign. As a former Minister with responsibilities for food, I opened the technology transfer centre at Seale-Hayne, which is a very important facility for those studying food sciences and of great interest and importance to the wider agricultural community that the college serves.

I take the point. I also thank the hon. Lady and other Devon and Cornwall Members who have supported the campaign to keep the SealeHayne campus open. The faculty that she opened is important, and a local food processing business in Newton Abbot, Uniqe, has told me that it might be interested in talking to the college about food sciences and using those facilities. Sadly, that will not be possible if the college is closed.

When I talked to Peter Evans, he said, "We'll look at what we can do. We haven't really decided yet. Maybe we'll open a conference centre there." That was about as vague as it was possible to be. There was progress as the weeks went on, but I did not think that it had been thought about fully. What he did not say—in the same way that he was misleading about the student figures—was that in February of that year the university had put in an objection to the district council about the lack of development status for the land. It had applied for housing, industrial and leisure use—everything. It strikes me that if it was applying for everything in that way, and it was looking to open up all those possible options, it must have thought at some point that it would want to develop the land for a non-academic use. Therefore, when he said, "We might open a conference centre," again, he was not necessarily telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as I understand it, because, clearly, the college was considering other options for the land.

The university also put great store in the fact that many students do not like going to Seale-Hayne. SealeHayne is a land use facility in a rural area, and it therefore strikes me as an ideal location for the students. The students to whom I spoke all like it. Indeed, the Seale-Hayne future group, which has been set up to discuss and oppose the proposals by the university, did some research, including a study of students at Harper Adams college in Shropshire. It asked the question, "Would students consider going on to Seale-Hayne for academic studies?" When that question related to the rural campus, 95 per cent. said yes. When it was put to them in terms of a move to Plymouth, however, only 70 per cent. said that they might be interested and would consider it. The impact of moving and closing the college could therefore be that even fewer students attend the college than at the moment. That must put in doubt the viability of some of the courses that are currently being studied.

The former governors of Seale-Hayne college who oppose these moves got together and went to see the vice-chancellor—they actually managed it. They had letters of support from a number of people—Sir Donald Curry, Lord Clinton, Lord Plumb, the president of the Royal Smithfield club, two former regional directors of the former Ministry of Agriculture, county councillors, district councillors and town councillors—all of them dismissed by the vice-chancellor and the college. In fact, I am told that the vice-chancellor considered that they were a bunch of old toffs trying to preserve their public school and that he was having none of it. To dismiss representations from such people in such a manner is a disgrace.

Sir Donald Curry, who is a chief adviser to the Government on agricultural affairs, said:
"We are in grave danger of losing core farming skills if centres like Seale-Hayne are taken away."
Lord Plumb, a former president of the European Parliament and chancellor of Coventry university, who therefore understands the issues and the problems facing other colleges, wrote a letter to the chairman of the board of governors.

He said:
"I wonder if the Board of Governors fully and truly understands and appreciates the immense contribution the uniqueness of Seale-Hayne has made in the field of education in Agriculture and land-based subjects, and in training many of our most respected leaders today. In my view, it would be a tragedy if this 'compact and lively' College does not continue in its original form".
As I said, such comments were dismissed by the vice-chancellor.

Eventually, the vice-chancellor agreed to meet me. Today's Western Morning News said that some people consider him to be a bully-boy—apparently he has a reputation for that; I cannot really comment. The newspaper has run a lively campaign to try to keep the college. In today's edition, the vice-chancellor says that if he does not get his way, he will mothball the college. I do not know what sort of negotiating tactic that is but it is strong-arm and I rather resent it. I asked the vice-chancellor what modelling he had done on the effect of keeping Seale-Hayne campus open. Apparently, none had been done, so he could not say.

One of the reasons why there are fewer students at the campus than there should be is that it has not marketed itself. It was represented at the two county shows in Devon and Cornwall this year but not in previous years. When my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on higher education, visited the college with me at the end of last year, the first thing that he said to me was, "Oh, they've got a marketing opportunity. There are very few foreign students here." Indeed, I am told that only 24 of the 561 people studying land-use studies are foreign students—all the rest are from the UK. It is absolutely amazing that the college cannot attract more people. I put that point to the vice-chancellor and he said, "Well, I wouldn't encourage them because the student union is a hot bed of racists." If one has such a problem, one deals with it. One does not use it as an excuse for not taking the college forward.

In my meeting with the vice-chancellor, he continued, without any prompting, to try to denigrate members of the student union in my eyes. He said that he had heard the rumour around the college that one of the student union leaders was going to stand in the local election for the British National party. I might be appalled by the idea of a person standing for the BNP and by all that the party does, but it is up to students to stand for any party that they like. It is not for the vice-chancellor to tell me such tittle-tattle to try to put down my view of the students. I do not know whether he is a bully-boy, but he is about as arrogant as a colonial governor and his management is a disgrace.

Is it not outrageous that the university, which is funded by taxpayers' money, is steamrolling the decisions without any accountability to the community that will be affected and that it is not taking on board the clear expression of people who live around Seale-Hayne and in the wider south-west region? That gives grounds for somebody to call the vice-chancellor in and tell him what his job actually is.

I thank my hon. Friend and I agree with his well-made points.

The professor said today that none of the money that will come from Seale-Hayne will be used to prop up the £60 million that he proposes to spend on the redevelopment of the university of Plymouth. His plans to redevelop the university are welcome and if the proposed schemes go ahead, it would be good for the south-west. I understand that he will be in place for perhaps only another five years—many in the southwest think that that is five years too many. What will happen after that if the university is in debt after spending £60 million? If money is available, I would be surprised if the governors did not asset-strip the campus site. I have no faith in the professor's assertions that the money will be ring-fenced and not used.

The university has to answer a number of questions. Who developed the financial model on which the decisions were made and who validated that? What technical expertise was contracted to advise on, for example, construction, marketing and other issues? What capital and recurrent costs and income assumptions were built into the model? What sensitivity analysis was conducted to enable the university to provide decision makers with a balanced range of scenarios on which to form a judgment? At what point in the decision cycle was a financial model made available to governors and other interested parties? What are the financial and other risks to the institution arising from the strategy? The Higher Education Funding Council obliges all universities to identify, quantify and manage risks as part of the annual cycle. I understand that the development has not been included in that. That issue should also be raised with the university.

Seale-Hayne is an excellent college. Its researchers are currently on the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council stand at the Royal show as representatives of the university of Plymouth. I want to see them there in future years, still based on the SealeHayne campus.

Access to rural affairs, agriculture and land use studies is important. The Daily Telegraph on 18 February this year said:
"Agricultural students are few and far between after the crisis in the industry puts off many potential applicants."
Action is required by the Government to encourage people to undertake such studies. If we lose SealeHayne, we lose an excellent centre and the opportunities that it provides. Perhaps we need a regulator that people can approach to examine the actions of universities and how they reach decisions. The Minister should ask the Department for Education and Skills to investigate the manner in which the university of Plymouth undertook the closure. One month's consultation is, to put it bluntly, a farce.

We could learn from the experience of Seale-Hayne. I hope that there is still time to save it, but if there is not, at least let us ensure that other communities and colleges are not dealt with in such a high-handed way by universities and vice-chancellors.

7.37 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing the debate. I was initially as puzzled as he was that I was requested to be the Minister at the Dispatch Box. However, we take advice on such matters from officials and I think that it was the reference to rural affairs in the debate's full title that landed it on my plate—or, to be more accurate, on the plate of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality, who unfortunately cannot be here. In a sense, it is sensible that I am here because I have some knowledge of the subject and my constituency of Exeter will be affected by the closure. As the hon. Gentleman explained, the restructuring of Plymouth university is having a serious impact on my constituency. The proposed closure of the excellent Exeter school of art and design has caused considerable concern.

The Minister might not know that the vice-chancellor of the university said today that the money from the sale will go towards financing the site in Plymouth.

It was always likely to be the case that if the university made any money out of the sale of the land, it would be reinvested in the university.

I expressed the concerns about the closure of the school of art and design to the university, but no matter how strongly we feel about such decisions, it must be the right principle that academic institutions are free to make the decisions that they think are in their best interests and that they are prepared to defend those decisions. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) reminded me before this debate that as a young radio reporter I interviewed her at Seale-Hayne in her capacity as an agriculture Minister about the thorny issue of badgers and TB in cattle, another issue that has landed on my plate.

I am well aware of the excellent work that SealeHayne does hut, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge pointed out, the university of Plymouth, has made a decision about which courses to offer and where to run them in the best interests of the university as a whole. In December, the university's board of governors unanimously approved proposals that will have an impact on Seale-Hayne. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about his initial problems in getting access to the vice-chancellor. If that is the case, that is deplorable. Anybody in any public institution should be available to elected Members of Parliament, as we are here to make representations on our constituents' behalf. However, in the same breath, may I say that I am not sure that the extent to which the hon. Gentleman personalised the issue in tonight's debate will necessarily help or strengthen his case.

The university has said that the changes may ultimately benefit the rural area in which Seale-Hayne is located. Thanks in no small part to the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman and others, as well as the strong local campaign by friends of Seale-Hayne, the university has committed itself to carrying out a feasibility study to establish a long-term future for Seale-Hayne. It has tasked the university's rural economy review group, chaired by Professor Mike Beveridge, the deputy vice-chancellor, and including several prominent key players in the south-west, to look at the future use of Seale-Hayne. The university has no plans to close the farm at the Seale-Hayne campus and will retain research facilities there.

Good innovative research is a vital aid to the Government, and I am glad to report that agricultural researchers from across the world visited the University of Plymouth Seale-Hayne campus for the first time as part of the UK Agricultural Economics Society conference in April this year. That conference was a valuable forum to discuss the increasing significance of the rural economy. One current proposal for the longer term use of Seale-Hayne is that it should become a rural centre of excellence—a training business centre for rural businesses to support and promote the rural economy of the south-west region. All parties involved in discussions—the university, the South West of England Regional Development Agency, Teignbridge district council and Devon county council—are in agreement about the general direction and long-term future use of Seale-Hayne. The proposal has been welcomed by, among others, Councillor Stuart Barker, who is chairman of the Teignbridge district council's economy committee and has described the plans as exciting and innovative. The idea is to establish a rural centre of excellence linked to the University of Plymouth's entrepreneurship programme.

I accept the point made by the Minister. We all welcome the very good scheme proposed by the National Farmers Union and the RDA, but that proposal could be additional to a plan to keep undergraduates at the campus. It is a separate issue, and it should not distract us from the key issue—the removal of undergraduate students from the site.

In the end, those are decisions for the university and its board of governors. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will work constructively with all the interested parties that I have mentioned in pressing for something that most people seem to agree would guarantee a good future for the college.

As I said, the proposal would support potential entrepreneurs across the region who need access to specialist expertise to help them develop their business ideas. The programme is being delivered with public money from the RDA as part of its three-year programme, "Knowledge Exploitation South West". That programme aims to boost the productivity and competitiveness of regional business through better exploitation of the higher education knowledge base in the south-west. The Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food included a recommendation that the Land-Based Training Association—LANTRA—and my Department should review agricultural education in full. In response to this recommendation DEFRA is carrying out a broader review of learning opportunities for rural businesses. The review will cover the provision and delivery of education and training, knowledge transfer, advice and information services, and measures to stimulate demand for learning.

The land-based colleges are a key partner in the review, and the review's project team at DEFRA has met a number of key partners and stakeholders including several land-based colleges, among them Seale-Hayne. The team has also met the National Association of Principals and Agriculture Education Officers, the organisation that represents land-based colleges, to discuss how the facilities of colleges can best serve the rural communities in which they are located. The approach being taken by the university of Plymouth in developing a rural centre of excellence at Seale-Hayne matches well the thinking of many of the organisations already consulted as to how land-based colleges can most effectively meet the needs of their local rural communities.

I have asked the team at DEFRA to discuss with the university of Plymouth and other land-based colleges the proposals and how we can work together in our work on the learning skills and knowledge review to shape learning providers such as Seale-Hayne to the changing needs of rural areas.

The hon. Gentleman had a couple of specific questions about how decisions made by education institutions such as the university of Plymouth may be challenged. I am sorry to tell him that the Government have no locus to intervene in such decisions. As I made clear at the beginning of my speech, those decisions are made by autonomous universities and their governing bodies. There are proposals to establish an adjudicator who may have a locus to intervene in such decisions, but that will not happen until later in the year.

I hope the debate has been helpful for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. The Government are working hard to ensure that the learning needs of people in places like Teignbridge are met. As part of that work, we need to make sure that those providing education and skills are able to meet the changing needs of a dynamic rural economy, and that they can meet the needs not only of those engaged in agriculture, but of others living and working in rural areas. I hope the university of Plymouth will use Seale-Hayne to good effect and to the benefit of Teignbridge and the wider south- west in future, as its founder intended.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Eight o'clock.