Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals

Oral Answers to Questions — Education and Science – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th February 1988.

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Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling , Edinburgh Central 12:00 am, 16th February 1988

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he last met the Committee of Vice Chancellors and of Principals; and what subjects he discussed.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson , Wantage

My right hon. Friend addressed the Committee on 30 October on matters concerned with the Government's higher education policy.

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling , Edinburgh Central

Did the Minister discuss the 20 per cent. reduction in funding for Scottish universities over the past four years, compared with a reduction of only 13 per cent. for England? Did he discuss the implications of that on the ability of universities to contract to provide courses under the new system of funding? More important, did he discuss the future viability of the four-year honours degree in Scotland, which is the envy of the academic world? What will he do about this attack on Scottish education?

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson , Wantage

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the University Grants Committee is a national organisation and it pursues a policy at arm's length from the Government. The distribution of funds between the different institutions in the United Kingdom is a matter to be determined by the University Grants Committee. Last year we increased expenditure on universities at the central level by 10 per cent., and this year it will increase by 8·2 per cent.

Photo of Mr Robert Rhodes James Mr Robert Rhodes James , Cambridge

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the proposed amendments by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State relating to higher education. Does this not show the value of consultation? Is it not nice to know that occasionally sanity can prevail?

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson , Wantage

Sanity has always prevailed. The Government listen to what is said during debates in the Standing Committee and outside, and they respond to that. We have responded with amendments to other parts of the Bill, and we are so responding in respect of the clauses that will be debated this afternoon.

Photo of Mr Paddy Ashdown Mr Paddy Ashdown , Yeovil

The amendments — details of which have not yet been announced—may deal with academic freedom. The Government claim that they are not increasing their powers, but, under the present proposals, are they not abolishing a 70-year-old convention not to intervene and replacing it with specific powers to intervene on a day-by-day basis? How can the Minister square that with the claim that the Education Reform Bill is about freedom? Is it not about the iron fist of central control? Is it not about the imposition of control on universities, which is a constitutional violation?

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson , Wantage

This is an important matter. The hon. Gentleman is offering us a travesty of the true position, which is that, with regard to the balance of power between central Government and the institutions, the proposals contained in the Education Reform Bill make no difference in substance between what is already established in the case of the UGC and what is proposed for the Universities Funding Council. There is no impact, either positive or negative, on that balance; it merely sustains the old arrangements on a new footing.

Photo of Mrs Elaine Kellett Mrs Elaine Kellett , Lancaster

Has my hon. Friend had an opportunity to discuss in Committee the subject of the money raised by the universities? Will he make it abundantly clear that universities such as the University of Lancaster, which has raised up to £3 million of its own funding, will not find my hon. Friend or any of his successors being able to dictate what they do with such money? Will that be clearly expressed in the Bill?

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson , Wantage

The University of Lancaster and all universities are to be congratulated on their successful efforts to diversify funding. It has never been the Government's intention that the universities should be held to account for the money that they have raised under their own steam. My right hon. Friend will make a statement this afternoon in which he will say that the Government intend to make that clear beyond doubt in the legislation.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett , Denton and Reddish

Does the Minister accept that there is considerable concern in all Scottish universities that have four-year degrees, in places such as Keele in England and in other colleges of higher education that have four-year degrees, that they will lose as a result of the new method of bidding for funding? Will he give a categorical assurance that the Government do not intend any of those four-year degree courses to lose out?

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson , Wantage

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the Government have no views or policy on the academic policy of institutions. The four-year degree in Scotland is to be decided by the Scottish universities and the UGC. Expenditure on students in Scotland is one third higher than the level in England and Wales. That is the extent to which we recognise the importance and value of the four-year degree in Scotland.

Photo of Mr James Hill Mr James Hill , Southampton, Test

Does my hon. Friend agree that the University of Southampton has done well in co-operating with industry on research and development? At the moment all seems calm, but people who have written to me from the university—several times—have expressed three fears. They are concerned, first, about the Secretary of State's ability to appoint the Universities Funding Council, secondly, about the interest charges on spending, and thirdly—we must kill this fear—that they will lose some of their independence.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson , Wantage

We do not believe that the proposals in the Bill compromise the independence of universities or polytechnics; rather, they enhance the independence of the polytechnics. For universities, the position is neutral as between the existing arrangements and the proposed ones. Appointments to the Universities Funding Council will be made by the Secretary of State in exactly the same way as he appoints members of the UGC now.

As regards possible interest charges and repayments, the basic principle underlying the Government's thinking is that money is provided by the Universities Funding Council to the institutions to do certain things. If it becomes apparent that the resources have been misallocated, the issue of what should be done about that will arise, and the Government are thinking seriously about it.