Orders of the Day — Universities (Government Expenditure)

– in the House of Commons at 7:43 am on 23rd July 1981.

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Photo of Mr David Ennals Mr David Ennals , Norwich North 7:43 am, 23rd July 1981

The Minister and I had a sneaking hope that this debate would have been included in item No. 1 last night, but the rules of the House must be preserved. I feel much fresher at this time of the morning than I would have done last night, and I hope that the same applies to the Minister.

I did not hear all that was said in the debate on Aston university, but I shall mention some of the other universities affected by the Government's cuts in funds available to the University Grants Committee. I wish to put them into a broader perspective.

No one can doubt the gravity of the present economic plight of our country. I am not suggesting that all our problems starred in May 1979, but in almost every respect they have become dramatically worse since then—for example, a massive slump in output and a massive increase in unemployment. However, I am not so pessimistic as to believe that as a country we cannot pick ourselves up from our present plight, if not under this Government, then under a Labour Government.

The Government seem to be determined to undermine many of the essential means of our recovery, not just by their monetarist policies and devasting cuts in demand but by actions that damage the development of training and skills, especially of the younger generation. I cite as examples serious reductions in the number of apprenticeships, the damage to the structure of the industrial training boards and now the damaging effect of the proposed expenditure cuts on the universities.

In the debate on this issue on 8 July, the Secretary of State made light of cuts which the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals estimates to be about 15 per cent. between 1979–80 and 1983–84. He said that we should not believe all we read.

What does the right hon. and learned Gentleman say to the comments of Sir Alec Merrison, the Vice-Chancellor of Bristol university and chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors? According to newspaper reports Sir Alec said that the Government 's proposed grant reduction would create a crisis without precedent in the history of Bristol university. He added that Bristol would lose more than £10 million over the next three years. It was a situation the university could neither manage nor accept. He said that the university will lose up to 15 per cent. of its 2,400 academics and support staff in all areas, including science, engineering and medicine. The Government's figures meant that many of these losses could conic only through forced redundancy. He described the policy as "short-sighted and destructive", and went on: The redundancy bill in universities, which would be inevitable if the Government kept to its present policy could amount to £250 million, which could only come from the Government. What does the Minister say to the former Minister of Education, the former chairman of the UGC and the present Vice-Chancellor of Leeds university, Lord Boyle? He warned that cuts would make redundancies inevitable and that the university council said that they would have a "serious effect" on teaching and research. He then said: The gravity of the situation can hardly be overstated. The university must reduce its expenditure by nearly £5 million per annum by 1994, and the rate at which this must be done makes redundancies inevitable". Leeds and Bristol are to be hit much less than the three universities that concentrate on science and technology—Salford, Aston and Bradford. I want the Minister to consider the problems of the University of East Anglia, which at first sight might appear to have done reasonably well on the UGC's hit list.

The number of students would be cut only from 3,760 to 3,640 by 1983–84, but the real situation is very different. In April this year, the UGC authorised the University of East Anglia to purchase Keswick college—a teacher-training college—and on 1 August this year, the college and its 400 students will be incorporated in the university's new school of medicine. That must be financed, but no additional funds have been found by the UGC. It presents the university with a grave problem, bearing in mind the fact that the decision to incorporate Keswick in UEA was approved by the UGC.

We are therefore actually talking about a 12 per cent. cut in student intake—which means at least 400 fewer students per year—and a 12 per cent. cut in cash As the vice-chancellor, Professor Michael Thompson, has made clear publicly, this will have a serious effect on UEA, which already has to bear the consequences of a 35 per cent. fall in applications from overseas students as a result of the Government's full cost policy. Like most universities, therefore, it is taking two blows as a result of decisions taken by the Government.

UEA is distinctive as a regional university. It is 60 miles from Cambridge and 80 miles from the University of Essex, with no local polytechnic and thus a significant proportion of part-time students. It also has a high academic standard. This year there were 15,000 applicants for 1,500 places, which shows how popular the university is. It also has some sound and excellent research projects. Nevertheless, it will be hard hit by the Government's decisions.

The Government's action in slashing the funds available to the University Grants Committee has nothing to do with education, only with cuts in essential expenditure. In my view, it is educational vandalism. This is the first Government in 500 years to wield the axe on growth in university education and the first to go back on the recommendations of the Robbins committee. In view of the redundancy pay that will be involved, I do not see how the Government will save any money at all in the lifetime of this Parliament.

I must make it clear that 1 am not blaming the UGC, which I believe has been placed in an intolerable position, but I agree with early-day Motion 524 tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and myself and supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It reads as follows: That this House finds totally unacceptable in terms of public accountability the defence by the Secretary of State for Education and Science of the decisions of the University Grants Committee to withhold funding of certain universities, and especially Aston University in Birmingham"— I would not say especially Aston, but other universities as well— without any consultation with the universities concerned; asserts that such decisions must be open to public scrutiny and representation and insists that Ministers have a duty to ensure that such opportunities are provided both for university authorities and for Members of Parliament; believes that such principles of public accountability have nothing to do with principles of academic freedom which it is anxious to maintain and which are in fact undermined at the universities concerned by the arbitrary decisions of the University Grants Committee; and calls upon Ministers to guarantee that discussions with them and with the University Grants Committee will be genuine in the sense that those taking part will not be rigidly bound by the decisions already announced. In conclusion, I very much hope that the Minister will feel that he should have discussions with the University Grants Committee, which in my view can only have misunderstood the situation in relation to UEA and the incorporation within it, already agreed, of what will be the new department of education. I look forward to an encouraging reply from the Minister.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North 7:53 am, 23rd July 1981

With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the third debate on universities in this long but interesting evening.

I should first declare an interest in that my elder son-in-law took a degree at East Anglia university and got engaged while he was there. I therefore visited it not only to see the university but also to see what kind of future son-in-law I was acquiring.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Sir W. Clark), who is always interested in scholastic studies, asks what discipline my future son-in-law was in. He was reading English. However, in view of the urgency of other matters this morning, I leave that matter there and shall seek to reply briefly to the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals).

The situation with regard to university degree courses has changed beyond recognition since the war. There are now 10 times as many people taking degree courses in Britain as there were in 1939. We have six times as many universities and another 200,000 students in 396 other institutions in which degrees can be taken. There comes a time when one must consider whether things are being done in the right way. One must consider whether, instead of being properly created, the system has, like Topsy, "just growed".

A previous Labour Government—not the last one—made an analysis in 1969. Indeed I am sure that the right hon. Member for Norwich, North was a member of that Government. At that time, Mrs. Shirley Williams issued 12 or 13 points—which were reported in The Times—that universities were advised to follow. All of them were stricter than our actions in the past year. The only difference is that the previous Labour Government did nothing about the situation. A statement was issued to the effect that something should be done. Apart from the decrease in the pupil-teacher ratio, nothing was done. The idea of loans and of tying jobs more closely to university courses were all included. [Interruption.] People listened but did nothing. It costs nothing to listen. Indeed, it is very nice to listen. However, the main thing is to make up one's mind and to do something. We were landed with having to do something at some stage.

We must face the fact that 1982–83 will be the peak for 18-year-olds. After that year the figure will fall. In the following 10 years, there will be a 30 per cent. drop in the number of 18-year-olds in Britain. That means that either a lower standard will be set for those entering degree courses, or there will be a decrease in the number of degree courses available. The very fact that we faced economic stringency acted as a catalyst. We had to act more quickly than we would otherwise have done.

With the 8·5 per cent. cut in real terms within three years, the UGC has undertaken rationalisation. There is a movement towards the technical and physical sciences and away from the arts. In three years' time 7 per cent. more students will be reading physical sciences, 3 per cent. more will be reading mathematics, 2 per cent. more will be reading engineering and technology and 5 per cent. more will be reading medicine. That compares with a 12 per cent. decrease in social studies. Most people will agree with that switch in the subjects being studied. That does not represent an attack on the other subjects. However, this country's future lies, as the right hon. Gentleman, said, in turning out technologists and engineers as well as in training 16 and 19-year-olds to create the finished goods that have been discovered in our universities.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to overseas students. At present there are 7 per cent. more overseas students in our universities than were allowed for in the quota allowance of the previous Government for this year. There are 13 per cent. more in higher education as a whole and 7 per cent. more in universities than would have been funded under the previous Government's plans. The right hon. Gentleman gave two quotations from university vice-chancellors. I shall give him two back. Like trains passing in the night we get off at the handiest station and read the newspaper that we have to hand.

The Financial Times states: This shift, however small, in the emphasis of higher education towards the sciences seems a desirable outcome of the University Grants Committee's proposals, as a first step in reducing United Kingdom higher education to a size and shape the country can afford. London university's new vice-chancellor, a distinguished linguistic scholar, was interviewed by The Times. He congratulated the University Grants Committee on the way that it had managed its task and said: They have taken extraordinary care within their abilities and the financial restraints, to ensure that the best remains the best, and possibly even improves; that the universities continue to serve the country and to preserve the wide range of studies; and that modest increases are made in such necessary fields as technology. They have let the cuts come where they will do the least damage. I thank the right hon. Member for Norwich, North for raising this issue. We have confidence in the Government and in the work done by the UGC. We believe that there was a need for rationalisation and that it is going in the right direction.