Higher and Continuing Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:34 pm on 25th June 1986.

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Photo of Mr Clement Freud Mr Clement Freud , North East Cambridgeshire 7:34 pm, 25th June 1986

We are grateful to the official Opposition for tabling this motion, even if we are bemused by their claims in a recent leaflet: Only one party has the right package of policies to do the job. That party is Labour. One looks eagerly at what there is in the document, and all that one finds is a list of percentage changes in UGC funding. I doubt whether that will achieve all that the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) claims.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for speaking in the debate, and I particularly welcome his constructive comments on young people, women and polytechnics. It is something for which we have been waiting a long time from a Secretary of State at Elizabeth house.

Twin crises face higher education. The first is funding, and academic pay plays a large part in it, threatening recruitment and retention; one welcomed what the Secretary of State promised— that he would look into this and constructively take heed of the AUT-CVCP discussions. The UGC overall funding by redistribution involves cuts in every institution except the London Graduate Business school. I hope that that will be noted.

There is a squeeze on the unit of resource in polytechnics, which threatens 9,500 places and threatens to bring about the same cycle of mistakes as we had in 1981 in the universities.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has recognised that polytechnics are doing innovative work with new students. The staff have notably increased productivity and are teaching more students. Polytechnics have, until now, felt overlooked by the Government, even while meeting the Government's wishes on links to industry and the community.

The second crisis was touched on when the Secretary of State said that money cannot solve everything, because it is one of purpose. Those in higher education no longer feel that they are valued or respected by the Government. Many universities no longer feel a genuine involvement in the life of the communities, and there is a creeping feeling that higher education is marginal to the future of Britain, which is not helped by Governmentspeak about the sector being a drain on the economy. The danger is the creeping marginalisation of higher education.

When the Secretary of State took office he was widely welcomed in the press for his presentational skills. In his speech, he showed this on the subject of polytechnics; by acknowledging and rewarding the work that they do, he has laid a good foundation for better understanding in the maintained sector.

The twin crises are exemplified by the UGC letter, which concerns not only detailing of financial distribution, in which Scotland seemed peculiarly hard hit, but overall financial reductions. I hope that the Secretary of State will speak to the Secretary of State for Scotland to bring about the amelioration of that situation. The purpose of the reductions as expressed in the selectivity and criteria adopted by the UGC, has appeared on the scene with no explicit policy debate — it is a policy of repeat and default. The UGC has plumped for research as the guiding light, relegating teaching to a by-product or offshoot of this, threatening the dual support system and putting on one side anything worthy but non-traditional, such as part-time work or more generous provision for non-standard entrants.

Neither the arm's length principle nor direct funding seems to be working as it should. I can give two examples, of which the first is Birkbeck, which is funded at arm's length. The Government are leaving the UGC to change its full to part-time ratios, leaving Birkbeck a potential deficit that can be made up only by increasing fees by 250 per cent. Birkbeck does not fit into the UGC straitjacket. Students are already paying their own fees, when students in other universities get fees and grants paid for them. The average pre-tax income of a Birkbeck student is £8,300, making them more ordinary, from more ordinary backgrounds, than standard entrants. Despite that, the UGC formula gives a standard undergraduate half as much money again as one at Birkbeck. A Birkbeck student gets four years at half funding, as against three one-year full funding.

The Minister may say that this is a domestic, London university court matter in which the Government should not interfere. However, his Department has interfered so much in that which it had no right to interfere that it ill behoves him to say nothing and do nothing, while Birkbeck suffers. I hope that he will look into this with compassion.

The second example is the Open university which enjoys direct funding, but does not enjoy it a lot. Last year, it turned away 24,000 students —these are not statistics of doubtful validity—which is a record rate of rejection. The Open university could educate many more students at a marginal extra cost, possibly £100 or £200 a year each, because of its peculiar funding system and because fixed costs are such a high proportion of its expenditure. I ask the Secretary of State to think about that. The Open university has its friends and allies on both sides of the House, and it is not a political matter. We have a great deal to be proud of in having an Open university, which is now suffering.

Despite the restriction on student numbers, the demands for graduates is high and increasing. The Government believe, and they have shown this in the YTS, that upping an individual's skill level not only increases the chances of that person getting a job, but raises the overall rate of employment. University careers officers report this week that employers are having difficulty finding enough graduates and vacancies are 20 per cent. above those in 1985. However, the overall "output", in Governmentspeak, is down, despite the polytechnic having taken surplus from universities.

The Government should abandon the projection of demand set out in the Green Paper and plan for a reasonably constant APR and fill in spare capacity with other types, such as part-time courses, mature and non-A-level entrants.

Why have the Government decided to take students out of the benefit system and close off a whole avenue of consideration by the review, and why are the 16 to 19-yearolds excluded from it? Two hopeful directions have thereby been immediately ruled out by the Government's terms of reference. We invite the Government to look at the possibility of integration rather than compartment-talisation, to recognise the value of taking people off the dole in order to study—with the same money— and to ensure some flexibility to meet different costs which housing benefit currently provides for students.

I ask the House to look with care at the amendment to the Leader of the Opposition's motion. It states that the Government "applauds" their intention to build on these successes, particularly through further increases in participation rates for both young and mature entrants. I should like the Minister to tell the House specifically how much that will cost, how much the Government will pay towards that intention to "build on these successes" through "increases in participation."

My right hon. and hon. Friends have tabled an amendment about the 16 to 19-year-olds. The big gap in educational chances and access to higher education used to come at 11 years old, with the 11-plus. We are pleased that that no longer exists but the gap now comes, increasingly, at 16 years of age.

It is very expensive to keep a young person on at school, because not only does school cost money for the purchase of books which used to be provided, but the family loses potential money from the wage or the training allowance.

It is insane that of two options—school or dole—the dole should be financially more attractive. The fall in the number of young people staying on at school is surely a result of that. It might also be due to the attractions of YTS and its cash. There is a good case for saying that the financial disparity which attaches to each choice is adversely affecting educational participation.

The Government must set up the right structure to give young persons in education something for themselves to put into their hands. Initially it need be only a gesture. It could be child benefit paid direct to a student. Like public lending right, which the House introduced at minimal financial provision, paying young people at the age of 16, and putting such a Bill on the statute book, would pave the way to the further increases which must come.

I ask the Government to take a careful look at the options. I ask them to examine funding fees for part-timers, who are doubly disadvantaged against full-timers because they receive no grant and have to find their own fees. The Government should consider diversifying the entrance requirements to include two years of YTS. Some institutions already have special schemes. I mention in particular the black teacher trainees at the North-East London polytechnic. The Government should consider widening the requirements, which would not only increase the pool of ability, but reduce the tyranny of examinations in schools. The Government should guide the University Grants Committee towards a better ratio of money for full and part-timers.

As Christopher Ball, the chairman of the National Advisory Board and warden of Keble, has written: Our concern should not be that we might be putting at risk the quality of higher education by extending access to it … but rather that we are allowing to go to waste, undeveloped, too much inherent quality in our young people and in our adult population. An alliance Government would embrace the "new Robbins" principle advocated by the UGC and the NAB in their advice to the Government before the Green Paper that courses of higher education should be available for all those who are able to benefit from them and who wish to do so. We would do that without the qualification imposed by this Government, which renders their formal acceptance totally meaningless.

We do not believe that we are yet at the limits of useful or rewarding participation in higher education. The House will be grateful to the Secretary of State for accepting that and for giving his promise to consider a rising participation rate in higher education.