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Orders of the Day — Further and Higher Education Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:44 pm on 11th February 1992.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science 4:44 pm, 11th February 1992

I know that the hon. Gentleman follows matters relating to higher education and research closely and, if he will allow me to continue, I am sure that I shall address the point that he intends to raise.

There was an extremely animated debate in the other place about academic freedom. I know that a number of my hon. Friends would be anxious to sustain it here were that issue to be reopened. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir T. Raison) has already mentioned this matter to me, and he is by no means the only one.

I still do not believe that the Bill, as originally drafted, posed any threat to academic freedom. The clauses upon which the debate centred were technical ones designed to clarify powers that had already been given to the Government by Parliament in 1988. Nevertheless, visions were raised of future Secretaries of State, whether right wing or left wing, seeking to hire and fire lecturers, bar individual students, close courses and undertake a number of other things which, in my opinion, were never remotely raised as possibilities in the Bill. Certain matters arise when the Secretary of State must account to Parliament for the use of public moneys when, occasionally, he must seek to ensure that even a funding council uses such moneys for the purpose for which Parliament intended. The Secretary of State has to account for those moneys.

There are occasions—I do not claim that it is so in this case with my noble Friends —when academic freedom is discussed, as clinical freedom is sometimes discussed, as a subterfuge for people saying, "Do give us the money and stop asking what has gone on and how we have accounted for it." However, after a prolonged debate, the Government were defeated on that matter. I have considered the amendments and I am perfectly disposed to accept them, and I trust that they will prove adequate to allow a Secretary of State of this or any other Government to account to the House.

The hon. Member for Blackburn is entitled to enjoy the sight of the Government being defeated in another place. However, in the highly unlikely and undesirable case of the hon. Gentleman ever becoming Secretary of State for Education and Science, I am confident that he would table exactly the same clause as I did. I am sure that he would be distinctly annoyed to find that powers of accounting for public money were hacked away on the grounds of academic independence.

In this case, the Government will accept the judgment of their lordships and we will not seek to reverse their decision.