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College Of The Air

Volume 478: debated on Friday 18 July 1986

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11.35 a.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to make a Statement about the establishment of the College of the Air.

In 1981, my right honourable friend Jim Prior, when he was the holder of my office, announced the introduction and the formation of Open Tech. Open Tech was not a new institution but a series of programmes sponsored by the Manpower Services Commission designed to introduce new courses of technician training and to improve the accessibility of these courses by the preparation and the use of distance learning techniques. Distance learning enables people to undertake studies in particular subjects using books, other printed material, sound tape and video in their own homes or offices at their own speed and at a time of their own choosing.

Since that time, we have invested some £45 million in Open Tech enabling some 50,000 students to obtain new skills and qualifications. These programmes were often prepared in conjunction with private industry. Firms like Austin Rover, Lucas and ICI, among others, have taken part in the preparation of training programmes and helped in the accumulation of experience and knowledge in this most modern method of training. Today the United Kingdom has taken a leading position in this field.

With the aim of building on these developments we now propose the creation of an open college, the College of the Air. Our aim would be to enlist the full contribution of radio and television to support and deliver open learning courses in all areas of vocational competence.

The college will be able to assess needs and arrange, co-ordinate and promote courses. It will work through other organisations to ensure student enrolment, tutor support, work assessment and testing according to the individual requirements of the students. We plan that the college should be a company limited by guarantee and registered as a charity. The college will be able to seek and obtain the active support and involvement of commerce and industry. It should be able to attract sponsorship consistent with the provisions of the Broadcasting Act 1981 and to establish good relations with the educational interests and broadcasting authorities.

Once established, I anticipate that at the heart of the college's relationship with the broadcasters will be an agreement with the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Within this agreement there would at least be regular programmes on Channel 4 devoted to college purposes commissioned from a variety of sources by the channel, arrangements for promotion of the college and the participation of the ITV companies involving production and transmission of college programmes and the involvement of indepen-dent local radio. The BBC, too, have expressed a willingness to provide a series of programmes and course materials for the college as part of the BBC's continuing education output and there will also be some wider opportunities on daytime television. I should expect the college to pursue those opportunities.

I hope shortly to be able to announce the name of the chairman of the college, whose first task will be to conclude detailed plans for the formation of the college after discussions with the Manpower Services Commission, broadcasters, educationists and the many potential sponsors and guarantors who have already indicated their interest. Provided there is a substantial financial commitment from industry, the Government for their part will be prepared to join with others in acting as guarantors of the college. Our intention is to create a self-financing institution as quickly as possible. Any contribution from my department to the small net cost in the first years will be met from within existing planned public expenditure provision.

I hope that the College of the Air will start broadcasting no later than September 1987. This is an ambitious project and I anticipate that its range of courses could, within the first five years, provide up to 1 million students with the opportunities to progress towards vocational and technical qualifications.

The establishment of the college, following on the developments outlined in our recent White Paper Working Together—Education and Training will offer further radical developments in our training and education systems. It will help with the introduction of courses for TVEI and be of valuable assistance in the training of teachers in scarce skills. It will also assist in the introduction of enterprise training and give help to careers officers in the field. It will also build on the national vocational qualification to be introduced by the new National Council for Vocational Qualifications and on the national certificate which is already operating successfully in Scotland.

I commend this initiative to your Lordships.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Young of Graffham, for making the Statement to the House, and I welcome, in principle, the idea of extending the concept of the Open University, which has worked so well and which of course was the creation of a Labour Government and the apple of the eye of my noble friend Lord Wilson of Rievaulx.

Industrial training is recognised by everyone as the linchpin for the future manufacturing success of this country. It has been a disappointing experience to witness how this Government have allowed the collapse of industrial training in this country. In retrospect, does not the noble Lord agree that the abandonment of the majority of the industrial training boards was in fact a grave mistake? Is it not the case that the level of industrial training has fallen progressively under this Government as voluntarism has become the name of the game and industries no longer are required to train? Can the noble Lord say how many people are undergoing industrial training now as compared with 1979?

Can the noble Lord say how much the Government will actually put into the new scheme? He said that it would be a small amount. I should be most interested to know exactly what amount the noble Lord has in mind. Is it not the case that to put in a small amount of pump-priming money, in the hope that industry will be attracted into providing the bulk of the funding in the form of sponsorship, is not really adequate? What incentive is there for a company to take up this opportunity? Is it really sensible and fair to rely on private funding and private initiative in this realm? Can the noble Lord tell the House how much money has been promised by industry so far?

I can assure the House that we in the Labour Party believe that this is too important an issue to be taken out of the control of the Government. We believe that it should remain firmly in the hands of the Government and have government impetus behind it. Can the noble Lord also say what consultations have taken place in the development of the scheme? Has the DES been involved in the planning of the scheme? What representations have been made by colleges of further education? Will such colleges be responsible for providing tuition, or will this be placed for tender and go to the lowest bidder?

While I welcome this scheme, it must be made clear that we on the Opposition Benches have severe reservations about the details of its operations and we question whether, in the light of the deterioration in the level of industrial training, this measure really is adequate.

My Lords, we on these Benches also thank the Minister for the Statement. We look on this as a non-political subject and hope that it will have the support of all parties in the House and all organisations.

As I understand it, what is proposed is something like the sub-degree courses and not taking people right up to degree level. We welcome any proposals which come forward to enable people to improve their education and the standard of their qualifications. The success of the Open University encourages one to support any extension of distance learning with that object in view. I hope that the proposals will have the full support of the radio and television services. Indeed, that is one of the uses which many of us envisaged for Channel 4 at the time it was developed.

In his Statement the Minister says that there have been about 50,000 students already who have had new skills and qualifications as a result of their involvement in the existing Open Tech. Is the noble Lord able to tell us, either now or in due course, what sort of help has been given to those 50,000 students? How many of them have obtained better jobs, or, indeed, have obtained jobs at all. as a result of the extra training they have had?

Can the noble Lord also tell the House how the demand for courses is going to be determined and whether it is proposed to involve local radio in the courses right down to the basic level? Also, what is likely to be the cost to prospective students and how will such costs be met? How will students be helped to meet the costs if they are unemployed or are low wage earners?

11.45 a.m.

My Lords, I start by saying that I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for her welcome for my Statement, and in particular her welcome for it on non-party lines. I had very much hoped that these proposals would appeal across the bounds of party lines because it is a matter of fundamental importance to the future of our nation. It is a way in which we can use, so to speak, the down time—the time that is not being used—on television networks and local radio for the general use of the whole community.

To deal first with the points raised by the noble Baroness, may I first say that we will, of course, very much use local radio. The cost will vary. There may be many courses of general interest which will have no cost other than the ability to receive the programmes, and there may be others which go on to B-Tech and City and Guilds and other qualifications which I hope will involve the local colleges of further education or other training institutions. All this is to play for, because today's announcement is but a preliminary one which I hope will lead on to a more definite announcement before the end of this year if we are to make our timetable of starting broadcasts in September 1987.

Perhaps I can answer the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, by saying, as regards party lines, that I am terribly sorry that he should be under the impression that this Government, of all governments, have neglected vocational and technical training. The dissolving of 16 or so of the industrial training boards, which were admitted by the industries concerned not to be of any worth, cannot begin to compare with the great strides that this nation has made in bringing forward a two-year YTS course; in bringing TVEI into the school system, with the reform of vocational education in the colleges; and the establishment of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.

All these matters mean that at long last this nation is beginning to enter the 20th century in this field. I must also point out that our competitors are about to leave this century and go into the 21st century and we have a long way to catch up. The noble Lord opposite thinks that somehow this is too important to be taken out of government. If it was that important, why, in the name of all that is important in the progress of our nation, did we not do such a thing a decade or 15 years ago?

The essential difference between the Open University and the College of the Air is simply this. The Open University is about taking degree-type courses. It has built up a valuable reputation in that field and I am the first to pay tribute to it. We are looking at the College of the Air to go between one extreme, that of taking B-Tech and technician courses, and the other, that of courses of general interest. Those could perhaps be on how small businessmen can improve their cash flow, perhaps on maintenance on plant and equipment, and so on. There could also be, within the school system, the opportunity of providing enterprise courses and perhaps, within the school teacher training system, the opportunity of getting help so that teachers can acquire the new skills.

I cannot limit where this proposal will go; it depends on the interest of industry. The interest of industry is important so that those who wish to spread the training and those who see the need for the training will sponsor it. It will be an interesting exercise to see how well the private sector will respond, to this invitation. We have had a great deal of initial interest by many companies—companies such as Lucas, ICI, and many others. Some companies which are not industrialists, such as the Mirror Newspaper Group, and others, can see the advantages. I hope there will be many more. It will, I hope, become clear by the autumn whether or not this scheme has a strong prospect of succeeding.

My Lords, I ask the noble Lord two brief questions and I shall be content with two brief replies. Looking at the Welsh scene, it seems that this scheme is to be based on Channel 4, but the noble Lord will know that there is no Channel 4 in Wales—it is, in fact, Channel S4C. Is the noble Lord able to say that the programme will go out on Channel S4C?

Secondly, can the noble Lord clarify the position about the national vocational qualification and the national certificate? What subjects will be covered by them? What is their equivalent? For example, are they equivalent to the higher national certificate or to an authorised diploma?

My Lords, I shall be very glad to answer these questions quite briefly. First, I hope that it will be all television companies who will be able to take advantage of broadcasting. It is not limited to Channel 4, although Channel 4 has expressed considerable interest; it is the IBA and companies that are part of the IBA, and the BBC itself. I have no doubt that there will be a demand for these courses in the Principality, and even less doubt that these courses will actually be shown there.

Secondly, it depends on what sort of courses are given. This is something which has yet to be determined. I hope that the new national vocational qualification will cover all qualifications starting from higher national. The announcement of the formation of the new national council mentioned Level 1 to Level 4. Level 4 will be about the level of higher national and it will cover all qualifications.

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister in his second contribution said that he would be the first to pay tribute to the Open University. I was somewhat disappointed not to hear the words "Open University" in the original Statement. It is quite clear that the new endeavour will owe something to the experience of the Open University over the past 15 years. The Minister will be aware that the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, and I serve on the Council of the Open University as nominees of the Lord President of the Council, so perhaps the Minister can tell us the way in which he and his colleagues have sought to use the experience of the Open University over the past 15 years.

Secondly, I wonder whether the Minister could say a little more about the use of local radio. No doubt he understands the disappointment that is felt in many quarters at the announcement that was made by the Home Secretary two weeks ago not to proceed with community radio. I must say at once that I am a firm advocate of distance learning, perhaps because I am the only parliamentarian in either House who has had a degree awarded to him by the Open University, and I am privileged to have had that opportunity. I wonder whether the Minister will recognise that there is a need for balance. There is the possibility that we may run into a situation in which we regard the Open University as at one level and the new concept at another. I should like the Minister to say that he considers it as an integral part of the same operation, intended the better to prepare our workers for their jobs in the future.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. Of course, there is a fundamental difference between the Open University and the College of the Air. The Open University is an institution which awards degrees; the College of the Air will be a method of facilitating the taking of other qualifications, be they B.Tech., City and Guilds, and so on, or indeed of enabling people to take courses which may possibly not lead to any qualifications at all, for example, courses to instruct new small businessmen in how to run their businesses better. From that point of view there is a considerable difference. Of course, I pay great tribute to the Open University, but there is that fundamental difference between the two.

I may not have taken a degree from the Open University, but I read for the degree that I have as an evening student. Looking at the progress of both the Open University and the College of the Air I can well imagine that I would have welcomed the opportunity to have repeated any lectures that I heard in those days rather than try to make sense of the rather incoherent notes with which I used to end up as my legacy of the lectures that I attended. I very much hope that we will use local radio, but all this is to play for. Today, I am only announcing the beginning of negotiations, and I hope to come back to your Lordships' House with more details in the autumn.