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Birkbeck College: Funding

Volume 476: debated on Friday 13 June 1986

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11.25 a.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they intend to take to ensure the future of Birkbeck College, University of London.

My Lords, the funding of Birkbeck College is in fact a matter for the University of London.

My Lords, with respect, is the Minister aware that I am totally disappointed by that reply? Is she aware that the trouble has arisen because the University Grants Committee changed its formula and that the threatened cut of one-third in the financing of Birkbeck College is ultimately owing to the Government's own cuts in further education? Will she give a guarantee to the House that Birkbeck will not be crippled or indeed forced to close? Is she further aware that at present it is the only college that is devoted entirely to further education for part-time students who pay their own fees? Does she not think that this is something which the Government will want to encourage? Will she therefore assure the House that whatever the University of London or the University Grants Committee are forced to do because of lack of finance, the Governmment will give a clear undertaking that this unique college will continue and that its future will be assured?

My Lords, I am sorry that my original response disappointed the noble Lord. However, I may be able to give him some comfort. In fact there has been a development, and I understand that there was renewed discussion on the funding of Birkbeck when the University Grants Committee visited the university on Wednesday of this week and that the Committee will be considering its future grants to London University in the light of what was said and the further evidence which will be provided by Birkbeck. There is no doubt that the Government recognise the very valuable work that is done by Birkbeck and indeed by other part-time colleges of this nature.

My Lords, as I was President of Birkbeck College for over 30 years, may I ask whether the Minister is aware, or indeed whether the University Grants Committee is aware, of the unique and valuable work that is done by this college? It is for students who work by day and study by night, and it has produced in its time some of the best graduates, not only for teaching in our schools but for our industries and sciences. As it is unique in this way, I hope that everything possible will be done to allow it to continue its excellent work.

My Lords, as I have said, the Government are very well aware of the unique contribution that is made by Birkbeck. In fact, the University Grants Committee has not issued instructions or advice about the funding of Birkbeck College. It has drawn the attention of London University to the weighting that it has applied nationally for the funding of part-time students, but that is only one of the factors which the University Court will need to consider when determining Birkbeck's grant.

My Lords, as a graduate of Birkbeck and a Governor at the present time, may I ask the Minister whether she and the Government realise that though we are described as part-time students, in fact we are reading for full-time internal degrees of the University of London? The fact that we study at night rather than during the day is no reason why we should be devalued to 0·5 of a full-time student. Do the Government think that we obtain our books or our laboratory equipment at half price? Do they think that we pay our staff half-price or maintain the buildings at half-price? It seems to me that as we are talking about public money the Government ought to take more direct interest in this important question.

My Lords, it is the University Grants Committee, and not the Government, which has decided on the weighting to be applied nationally for the funding of part-time students, and indeed other students. It may help the noble Baroness to know that the recurrent grant to the University of London is over £200 million a year and it is for the university itself to decide how to fund its constituent bodies within that substantial total.

My Lords, before I ask my supplementary question, I must declare an interest. I am Chairman of the Court of the University of London, which is the body that is responsible for allocating among the schools of the university the block grant received from the Government on the advice of the University Grants Committee. It was with a hollow laugh that I greeted the initial reply to this Question, that the scale of finance for Birkbeck is a matter for the university and not for the Government. The question that I wish to put is this: are the Government aware that either in the department or in the University Grants Committee, or in both, a technical calculation has been used in estimating the money that Birkbeck will need which the university considers to be wholly unreal?

I shall indicate what it is. Is the Minister aware that the calculation that was used was that each part-time student was worth 0·8 per cent. of a full-time student? That was the old reference. The Government have reduced it to 0·5. That means a heavy reduction of grant. Are not the Government responsible, even though the university has to distribute it?

My Lords, the UGC has adopted a standard weighting of 0·5 for part-time students at all universities and has made that explicit for the first time. The funding implied is less than some universities have previously allocated for part-time students but more than others have allocated. Individual universities are free to continue allocating their resources internally, as they judge best. I wish to repeat that it is not for the Government but for the UGC and the universities themselves.

My Lords, as I sat on the Court of London University for some 10 years, may I reinforce what has been said about the impossible task that it has in the allocations that it has been given? Is the noble Baroness aware that the effect of the UGC decision, if it is a decision, is to cut the budget of Birkbeck College by more than 20 per cent.—£2 million out of £9 million? Is she also aware that most of the students there have got on their bikes to get a job and they then get on their bikes to improve their education and skills? Will she please bring pressure to bear to relieve the college of that impossible burden?

My Lords, I believe that all the remarks made this morning will be carefully considered by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. But I must repeat that the UGC makes a block grant to London University and it is for the university court to decide how that is allocated.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has sought to distance herself from the grotesque error made by the UGC. Will she recall that when the announcement was made in this House of the allocation of resources to the UGC for the forthcoming year the Government took great credit for the way in which the grant was to be allocated and the reforms that were to be made in the allocation? Is it consistent with the attempt to take credit for the method of allocation now to deny responsibility for one of the effects of the allocation? Is she aware that the simple error is that these are not part-time students in the same sense as students in other universities? They are full-time students working at night.

The noble Baroness gave an indication that there might be rethinking by the UGC. Will she take note that if that does not come out in the way that universally, I believe, in this House it is expected and hoped, I shall be asking my noble friend the Opposition Chief Whip to seek time for an occasion in the House when we may take a vote on these matters?

My Lords, I note all the noble Lord's remarks. I remind him that the position of Birkbeck College is under review or reconsideration, but we believe that the general approach of the UGC as a result of its review and detailed survey has been beneficial.

My Lords, as the noble Baroness has consistently drawn attention to the responsibility of the UGC, does she agree that by applying that formula, which has resulted in about a 30 per cent. cut (which is the figure that I have) in the allocation to Birkbeck College, the UGC has made it impossible for it to survive and has passed a death sentence on that worthy college? Does she agree that perhaps it has made a mistake?

My Lords, the suggestion that Birkbeck's grant has been cut by 30 per cent. is speculation. That is not the case. So far as the Government are aware, its grant for 1986–87 has not yet been determined.

My Lords, I cannot give the House that, since it has not been finally determined.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness say whether this is her understanding of the problem? The UGC had the most difficult allocation that it has ever had to make this summer, and that it was so difficult is the Government's responsibility. But, that having been said, one of the things that the UGC did was to try to iron out the great differences in the cost of educating part-time students in different universities.

In doing that, it came to the conclusion that the simplest thing to do was to calculate that half a part-time student was the equivalent of a full-time student. Nevertheless, that produced an anomaly at Birkbeck College which has now been brought to the attention of the UGC. Is it her understanding that that having been done, the UGC recognises that it may have made a slightly false calculation in determining the grant for the University of London?

My Lords, the UGC's task may have been difficult but I believe that it was conducted thoroughly and based on sound principles and objectives. I cannot prejudge anything that it may determine as a result of the recent meeting and any new evidence at which it may be looking.

My Lords, will the Minister admit that the new rating of a part-time student as 0·5 of a full-time student means a loss of 35 per cent. of the grant allocated to Birkbeck College? That is the figure that has been given to us. Will she confirm that that is the anticipated loss?

My Lords, it may well be that the UGC pointed out that the national figure for part-time students was based on a weighting of 0·5. But it is up to the individual universities to decide what in their circumstances they wish to do. They are not in any way restricted by the weighting.

My Lords, while we may hope that the UGC will think again about its new formula, will the Government make it crystal clear that they understand the difference between the so-called part-time students, who indeed are whole time at Birkbeck College and who do a four-year course for which they themselves pay, and the negligible number of part-time students who are enrolled at other universities?

My Lords, I shall ensure that that distinction is fully considered in the right places.