Skip to main content

Universities (Key Subjects)

Volume 460: debated on Thursday 24 May 2007

6. What recent steps the Government have taken to ensure the maintenance of capacity in key subjects following the closure of departments in universities; and if he will make a statement. (138958)

We are allocating an extra £25 million a year through the Higher Education Funding Council for England to maintain capacity in key subjects, but the best long-term way of achieving that is to raise and stimulate demand and we are making genuine progress on that. The latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service application figures show increases of more than 10 per cent. in many strategically important subjects, and last week I announced that we will launch a national campaign to promote careers in science and other key subjects to young people, parents and teachers.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but is not the real problem that children are not being enthused to study these subjects? What is he doing to ensure that children throughout the country—especially those in the maintained sector—are being encouraged to study languages and sciences at school in sufficient numbers to make university departments viable?

With regard to modern foreign languages, the most important change that we can make is the commitment that we have made to roll out a modern foreign language in every primary school by the end of the decade; that can transform the situation. With regard to science subjects, we are making changes to the science curriculum to make it more stimulating and engaging. We are introducing a statutory entitlement to a course of study leading to two science GCSEs and we are making triple science more accessible and available from 2008. Backed up by the significant investment that this Government have introduced, we have a way forward on this issue.

While I welcome what my hon. Friend said about the Government’s current plans, is it not time to introduce a high degree of central planning in the provision of university courses so that we make sure that we have sufficient engineers and scientists in particular for our long-term economic needs and we do not leave things to the vagaries of short-term market forces?

The key is not the number of science departments but the number of science students, and the fact is that we have 130,000 more science students today than we had 10 years ago. I disagree with my hon. Friend in that I think it would be wrong for central Government to dictate what subjects are taught in which universities. That would run counter to the policy of allowing universities to play to their strengths, which has led to us having one of the best higher education systems in the world. However, we do not stand back. We have invested an extra £25 million to promote the strategic subjects, and we expect institutions to work with the funding council when considering a closure to ensure that the numbers are rolled out elsewhere regionally and there is not a drop in capacity. As I have said, we are doing an immense amount to stimulate demand from students, which is the key to this issue.

The closure of university science departments is likely to have an impact on the recruitment of science graduates for teaching. With that in mind, how are the Government progressing in meeting the Chancellor’s pledge in last year’s Budget to recruit an additional 3,000 new science graduates for teaching?

As I said earlier, applications for science subjects next year are up by more than 10 per cent. That demonstrates that we are fulfilling that demand. Driven by the extra support—including bursaries and golden hellos—delivered by the Government, we have seen a 30 per cent. increase in applicants for teacher training in science subjects over the past 10 years. We are genuinely making real progress on the issue and I wish that, just for once, the Liberal Democrats would recognise that fact.

But one in three physics departments at universities have closed or merged in the last five years. Is not one of Britain’s greatest post-war scientists, Sir Harry Kroto, the winner of the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1996, right when he says that he holds the vice-chancellors responsible, in that they bleat about freedom but divert money earmarked for the sciences into soft courses, thereby eliminating science departments in favour of trendy cheap courses that train students for non-existent jobs. Is he not right?

I respect my hon. Friend’s views on many issues, but I fundamentally disagree with him on this point. The key to the issue is the number of science places and we have increased the number of places for physics—the issue he raises—in the past 10 years and applications are going up. If he honestly believes that sitting in Whitehall dictating to university departments what subjects and areas they should teach is the way forward, I do not agree.

Surely the problem has to be attacked at both ends. It is strange that media studies are so popular, while science and language courses are removed from universities. The Minister is right that we need to enthuse youngsters to study science and languages. Last Friday, I visited the excellent Clitheroe royal grammar school in my constituency and saw the new language block that has just been completed. I do not care who opens it—the Secretary of State, who would be delighted to do so, or the shadow Secretary of State—[Interruption.]—but it will open in September. Even better, the school will open the facility to the community so that members of the public can learn foreign languages.

I think that every hon. Member will have heard the implicit rebuke of the Leader of the Opposition’s position on grammar schools. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to do more to set out the opportunities that exist when young people engage in science subjects. We need to get across much more clearly the substantial additional graduate earnings premium that goes with undertaking the study of science. The really radical change in the study of modern languages that we are making is ensuring that by 2010 every child in every primary school can study a modern language.

I agree with much of what the Minister says about not dictating to universities, but does he agree that a fundamental problem is that the league tables posit a false equivalence between crunchy subjects, such as maths, physics, chemistry and modern languages, and other subjects in which it may be easier to get an A, with the result that the former are increasingly ghettoised in the independent sector? The result is that at Bristol university, some 48 per cent. of students doing modern languages are from the independent sector. Is it not time for the Minister to join us and stimulate the uptake of those subjects in all schools, boost applications to universities and help to keep university departments open by giving core academic subjects proper weighting in the league tables?

It is the hon. Gentleman catching up with us, rather than the other way round. The change that we are making in the league table to demonstrate the proportion of youngsters taking a GCSE in a science subject will be a significant step in the right direction. However, an area in which we agree is that the problem is fundamentally about stimulating student demand. The changes that we are making to the curriculum, the guarantee of two science GCSEs, the increased accessibility to triple science and the 250 after-school science clubs that we are rolling out are all part of the way forward. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support us in taking that programme forward.