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University Funding

Volume 506: debated on Thursday 4 March 2010

2. When he last met representatives of the Russell group to discuss university funding; and if he will make a statement. (320193)

The Minister will be aware of my association with the university of Glasgow, which is a member of the Russell group. The Beatson institute for cancer research remains at the cutting edge and international forefront of cancer research generally. Given the squeeze on higher education funding, can he assure us that internationally leading research of the type at Glasgow will continue to receive the support that it both needs and, as I am sure he will agree, deserves?

I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s position as rector of that university and his continuing championing of it in this House. I also recognise that that cancer facility is world renowned. He will appreciate that the Scottish Funding Council and the research council are rightly responsible for science funding more broadly, and that any funding decisions are rightly their responsibility under the Haldane principle.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that when the research money is allocated there is no further concentration of funding, for example, on the Russell group? Will he confirm that all centres of excellence in research, wherever they may be found across the university system, including in the superb materials science group in the university of Bolton—my own university—are considered equally for funding with the top-level research universities?

Drawing on his tremendous experience, my hon. Friend continues to champion science and research issues in this House. He is absolutely right to say that we should fund excellence wherever it is found, and that is the Government’s policy.

Can the Minister give an undertaking that when the Browne committee reports after the election and imposes greater debt on students in order to fund universities, that funding will not be removed from universities in terms of their central Government funding? Can he assure us that universities will at least be better off if students have to pay higher fees through increased debt?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is an educated man, but I did not realise that he was a fortune teller. I am not going to anticipate the Browne review.

Will the Minister consider reducing funding to universities that fail to take action to stop the propagation of Jew hate and anti-Semitism on campus?

I recognise that this is a very serious issue. I was pleased to meet the all-party group against anti-Semitism and to meet Jewish students recently to discuss these matters. My right hon. Friend will know that I have regularly brought together universities, students and others in the sector to discuss these matters. I do not believe that this is a widespread problem across British universities, but I recognise that examples of it are patchy. We must remain vigilant and we must not allow anti-Semitism anywhere on campuses in this country.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government have set a target of 50 per cent. of young people going to university, and that this year—the very year to which the target applies—they are fining universities to the tune of £10 million simply because they have recruited more students? Is it not the final absurdity of Labour’s target culture that it can set a target and then punish institutions for taking the measures needed to hit it? Why does he not instead match our pledge to offer 10,000 more university places this year?

Because the hon. Gentleman’s pledge is bogus and ridiculous. It would involve the Government borrowing more money to help which students pay off their loans quickly? The richest students. That is where his heart lies. The 50 per cent. participation rate is an aspiration that his party has continually opposed. We have got the figure up to 43 per cent., so there are more young people than ever before going to university, including more young people from poorer socio-economic groups than ever in our history, but his party has opposed the measure at every opportunity. This is the most opportunistic volte-face I have seen in the House for a long time.

Excellence should always be invested in. In the north-east, both Sunderland and Teesside universities offer such excellence, so is it not about time that they received research moneys equivalent to those received by the Russell group universities and the greater amounts received by universities in the golden triangle?

My hon. Friend continues to make the case for the north-east and for excellent universities such as Teesside and Sunderland, which do fantastic work, particularly in applied research. She is right that funding must follow excellence wherever it is found. I cannot anticipate decisions that are appropriately the domain of peer review, but she is absolutely right and the Government support that approach.