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Degree Courses: Funding And Length

Volume 548: debated on Wednesday 14 July 1993

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2.59 p.m.

What are the vires for the proposal in Higher Education Funding Council for England Circular 19/93 to use the funding scheme to influence the length of degree courses.

My Lords, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has powers to fund universities and colleges under Section 65 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 subject to such terms and conditions as it thinks fit. The proposals in the council's circular 19/93 are designed to secure value for money and to enable wide participation in higher education.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. Does she remember that when we were discussing Clause 68 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 the House deleted a power to link grants to the duration of courses as a result of an amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff? Does she agree that there is a connection between the duration of courses and their standard, and that the qualifications of the Department for Education to decide the standard of degree courses are not obvious?

My Lords, I remember the occasion very well, as I imagine do many of your Lordships. I remind the noble Earl of something that he said then:

"I admit that it is at all times proper for the Secretary of State to consult, to request, to ask and to persuade".
But what was important on that occasion was that it was the will of the House, and subsequently the will of Parliament, that the Secretary of State should not have the right to override the will of academics in higher education.

My Lords, will the Minister tell me the Government's current position as regards the length of the degree in architecture which they are willing to fund?

My Lords, it is a matter for the Higher Education Funding Council and the individual institutions. My right honourable friend and the Government have no power in those matters.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there has been a problem as regards equivalent degrees between British and European universities? That problem will be exacerbated if degree courses are shortened. Can the Minister give the House an assurance that there will not be a reduction in standards? Shorter means worse. Will she assure us that that is not the Government's intention?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point about quality. It is absolutely essential that quality does not suffer in the reforms taking place in higher education. Our higher education provides for a higher proportion of the population and it is only right that what is on offer should become more diverse and reflect the differing needs of students.

United Kingdom degrees are reflected worldwide and we hope that that will continue. Where we lag behind our international competitors—and this is where the noble Lord is wrong—is in not providing sufficient shorter vocational diploma courses which help to provide highly skilled technical personnel for industry. Circular 19/93 will help in that respect.

My Lords, the noble Baroness quoted correctly what I said in 1992. But does she agree that the use of the funding lever is closer to dictation than to consultation? When she invokes value for money, will she please consider the value as well as the money?

My Lords, I disagree profoundly with the noble Earl. It is not closer to dictation. This House and the will of Parliament have made it absolutely clear that my right honourable friend and the Government have no powers in that respect. They can seek and request that the Higher Education Funding Council has a view to value for money, but at the end of the day the Higher Education Funding Council and the individual institutions have the freedom to decide how value for money will be achieved.