Skip to main content

University Centres

Volume 503: debated on Thursday 14 January 2010

As set out in “Higher Ambitions”, we are committed to the enhancement of locally accessible higher education through a new University Challenge initiative. Since 2003, the Higher Education Funding Council England has announced support for 17 new local HE centres. In October last year, the HEFCE announced that six new proposals would be taken forward, including one in Milton Keynes.

The criteria for University Challenge could have been custom written for the University Centre Milton Keynes. We are a city with a large population of young people, but a relatively low participation rate in higher education, and the local centre obviously encourages them to participate. It is based in the heart of our business district and has a proven record. I commend the University Centre Milton Keynes to the Minister and hope that he will ensure that it is at the top of the list for further funding.

I commend my hon. Friend’s continued championing of widening participation in higher education in her constituency. Milton Keynes as a city has perhaps done more than any other in the country to widen participation, being the home of the Open university, as well as the new centre. It is right to say that a strong bid was made, and, having seen the site and the proposed plans for the centre, I certainly welcomed it. My hon. Friend will know that, beyond the next spending review, it is hoped that the bid will come to fruition.

The Government have long had an aspiration for 50 per cent. of young people to go into higher education. Given the right hon. Gentleman’s savage cuts in the university sector, can he tell us in what year he expects to meet that 50 per cent. aspiration and what percentage of young people will be going to university next year?

I am pleased to say that we have more young people at university than ever before in our history, and we will have even more next year. However, if the £610 million of cuts to my Department’s budget were enacted, which was the Conservative proposal 18 months ago, that would mean a reduction of many thousands.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have to exercise a degree of caution as the number of universities proliferates? Universities are at the very heart of many of our communities, with the wealth and employment that they bring—Huddersfield university is the biggest employer in my constituency—but we must ensure that we maintain quality wherever we have a university campus.

My hon. Friend is right that we must keep an eye on quality. We must never be complacent about standards in higher education in this country. There is a reason why British universities are among the very best in the world, so while we seek to extend the reach of higher education more deeply into communities that have not experienced it, he is right to keep his eye on standards and quality.

The University Challenge programme was originally launched in rather different economic circumstances from those of today. Is it not the truth that we can now look forward to a period of contraction, limited opportunities for students and, what is more, higher tuition fees after the general election?

It is surprising to hear the hon. Gentleman mention tuition fees in his opening question, given the five positions on that that we have had from the Liberal Democrats over just the past year. I can confirm that there would be severe contraction if it ever came to pass that the Liberal Democrats were in power, because the money that we have seen as a result of our policy would be diminished, and so would the sector.

Has the Minister had an opportunity to read the piece on universities by Lord Mandelson in today’s edition of The Guardian? I am sure that the Minister is familiar with that newspaper’s comments and clarifications section, which we all enjoy. May I invite him to write something to that section correcting the record and setting out the figures showing how much further the unit of resource in universities is going to be cut as a result of the Government’s proposals? As we look at ways of easing pressures on universities, will he consider our proposal? Does he agree that we should not expect researchers and academics carrying out blue-skies research to produce impact statements—invented records of impact—and that the best thing to do would be to delay the research excellence framework until we have had time to work out whether impact can really be measured?

The hon. Gentleman continues his walk on the road to Damascus with this amazing U-turn on policy. I enjoy The Guardian every day, and I enjoy all that is said by the Secretary of State for my Department. I can confirm that the hon. Gentleman got his figures on the unit of resource wrong yesterday. I am surprised, given that the hon. Gentleman recognises the importance of science, technology and research, that he does not recognise the importance of the public being able to see the impact that that research—paid for by taxpayers’ money—could have. I am also surprised that he is jumping on yet another bandwagon.