asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations he has received about the reductions in grant proposed for Aston, Bradford and Salford universities; and whether there have since been any changes in the grants for engineering and scientific subjects.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment—which I hope has removed any doubt about chips.
From those 1,000 representations, has my hon. Friend understood the serious concern felt in the West Midlands that the reductions proposed by the University Grants Committee strike directly at the technological departments of the university and ignore those research efforts at the university funded by industrial firms?
I hope that I understand the quite comprehensible concern expressed in the West Midlands. My hon. Friend's commitment to the University of Aston is well known. We must surely remember that the university system is to be regarded as a national whole. Overall, of the former colleges of applied technology, three have been asked to increase their engineering and two have been asked to diminish it. Understandably enough, we have heard more about the two than the three, but the increases are true, as well as the decreases.
Does the Minister accept that the reductions proposed at Bradford will diminish the opportunities for young people, place jobs at the university in jeopardy in an area of high unemployment, and undermine the potential viability of the university? Does he realise that the local authority, the university and local trade unions and people bitterly oppose the cuts? As a new Minister with a reputation for cultural achievement, so-called, is he not opposed to these philistine policies, and is he about to embark on a reversal of them?
—no one would want to deny that, but at a time when all public programmes, even the most valuable, must have limited resources applied to them, not even the most valuable of all public provision—and the University of Salford is and will remain a fine institution—can be wholly protected.
Behind the understandable anxieties of individual universities mentioned in this question and others, is not the point touched on by my hon. Friend of very great importance—that for virtually the first time the UGC has intervened positively and moved resources towards the technologies, in a way that very large numbers of people in the House and outside would very warmly applaud?
My hon. Friend is right. Within the reduced overall total of students the University Grants Committee has arranged for an increase of 1 per cent. in the sciences and in technology. It has also arranged for an absolute increase in numbers in engineering and technological subjects.
I thank the new Minister for bringing a fresh mind to a stricken field. Will he consider the position of those universities that are sending out redundancy notices that will add to the overall bill of £250 million in redundancy payments? Will the hon. Gentleman note that students at Aston university are suing the university for breach of contract? What will happen to those legitimate claims from both staff and students? Will it be a matter of a supplementary grant, or will the Minister tell his Department to rethink the whole problem? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the present situation has contributed to—as the hon. Gentleman has called it—the socially reactionary nature of this Government?
The hon. Gentleman—no less than I—knows the unpredictability of the extent of the redundancy problem. It would be foolish for Ministers or others to deny that there is a problem. However, we must tackle that problem when it comes. Since the cases involving the Aston students are being brought to court, the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to comment on them.
If my hon. Friend acknowledges the importance that technology, particularly as practised by Aston university, plays in industrial life, will he agree that the Government are courting unfair, unfortunate and unjustified criticism because of the decisions made by the so-called independent UGC? Will my hon. Friend consider consulting his right hon. Friend to see whether a breath of fresh air can be breathed into the UGC's independent decisions, thus restoring some emphasis on the technological institutions?
I regret the use of the words "so-called". In its academic judgments the UGC is entirely independent of Ministers. In a recent book Lord Robbins called the institution—
one of the happiest of our constitutional inventions.
It would be wrong for Ministers or for my hon. Friend to try to direct the UGC about its judgments on academic policies.
Although the Minister may not be able to comment directly on the Aston students who are suing the university, will he at least make it a principle that students who have been accepted on courses do not find them axed? Will he agree that, as at Brunel university, students who have started courses should not find them axed?