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New University Towns

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

We want to give everyone who has the talent the chance to go to university whether they are about to leave school or already in work. Students should have access to local provision offering flexible courses to suit their needs. Our new university challenge initiative gives the chance for 20 towns or areas to develop new university centres or campuses by 2014. We are delighted by the interest that exciting initiative has generated.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. I understand that the Higher Education Funding Council will lead debate on the initiative. Through the Secretary of State, may I suggest that the council considers the Alsager campus? It was formerly part of Manchester Metropolitan university, and is one of the foremost sports science and physical education colleges and is right next to Alsager school, which is a business and enterprise college. Bearing in mind the difficulties that may arise in the economy it makes sense to me—does it to the right hon. Gentleman?—that an existing facility should be used for one of those splendid new universities.

The hon. Lady is perfectly correct. The Higher Education Funding Council, rather than Ministers, will both set out the details about how the new university challenge will work and, ultimately, take decisions about where developments take place. I am sure that the council will note the hon. Lady’s remarks. Because the area is very close to her, I am sure, too, that she will welcome the £70 million investment by Manchester Metropolitan university in the university development in Crewe.

I agree with the Secretary of State about the importance of more people going into higher education. I admired the commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) in pressing for a proposal that has much to commend it. We want better links between further and higher education, and more higher education across the country.

Will the Secretary of State clear up the widespread confusion about what the Government are actually proposing? His Department recently briefed one paper that he was committed to 20 new universities and the Prime Minister was so carried away on the “Andrew Marr Show” the other day that he promised

“a university…in every town and city”,

but the £150 million that the Secretary of State has set aside for his programme is not enough to pay for even one new university. What is it? Is it a university in every town? Is it 20 universities? How many new universities does he want to see?

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. He features so regularly in the list of shadow Cabinet members most likely to be sacked that those of us who are his admirers are always delighted to see him on the Front Bench again.

In February, we said that over the next six years—the current comprehensive spending review and the next—we wished to be in a position either to open or to commit to open 20 new centres. As we made perfectly clear in the document, most of them are likely—often but not always—to be developed on the basis of existing college investment, such as further education colleges, in association with an existing university. For example, at the universities of Medway, where three existing universities have come together to develop a campus of 10,000 student places, such a development can bring university education to people who otherwise would not have it. That is the whole point of the policy.