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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:29 pm on 11th February 1992.

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Photo of Mr Robert Rhodes James Mr Robert Rhodes James , Cambridge 7:29 pm, 11th February 1992

I hope that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), with whom I have much in common, will forgive me if I do not reply to his speech. This is almost certainly the last occasion on which I shall have the privilege of addressing the House of Commons. Perhaps it is appropriate that it should be on the subject of higher and further education.

We should not dwell on the past or on the disagreements that I have had with my right hon. and hon. Friends. I should like to concentrate on the Bill and on the future. Although I found myself in overwhelming agreement with the Bill as it was first introduced, certain sections of it were rightly amended by the Lords. The fact that the Lords made those amendments and that the Government will agree to them means that I shall support the Bill wholeheartedly.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State repeated the differentiation between applied and pure research. There is no differentiation between pure and applied research. How could we have found the anti-diphtheria drug, penicillin, insulin or histamine without pure research? They were the results of pure research. The genius of certain people in the past, such as Cavendish, Wellcome and others, was that they invested in pure research on the offchance that something commercial would come of it.

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State that the key problem—I admit that it is a difficult one—relates to the powers of the Secretary of State and the Government on the one hand, and to the doctrine of university autonomy on the other. I accept that the latter doctrine was carried one stage too far. Self-government and autonomy in higher education are enormously important, but the taxpayer and the Government also have some responsibilities.

When I had some responsibility for such matters, I was struck by the extraordinary variety of our institutions. I became convinced that central Government should have much great influence, but not to the detriment of the individuality and initiative of different institutions. It is a question of balance, and it is difficult. However, I believe that the Government have accepted that, and that the Bill represents the degree of that balance.

I warmly welcome the fact that so many excellent polytechnics, especially Anglia, will receive university status. I congratulate the Ministers who were principally involved in that.

Although it is not the dominant purpose of this Bill, I hope that the House will forgive me if I refer briefly to problems of finance, and especially to student finances. I cannot refer to academic salaries because I have a potential interest. The funding of higher education, and especially of its students, raises a profound problem, to which neither party has addressed itself seriously. They have produced palliatives and promises, but not answers.

Perhaps such matters should be removed from the sphere of party politics and, indeed, from Government. I am not suggesting another Robbins inquiry or another royal commission, but perhaps the Secretary of State and the Government should set up an advisory committee comprising people who understand and are deeply involved in higher education, to advise them not on tactics but on strategy and to look forward to the next five or 10 years. I am deeply concerned, for example, about the way in which we finance research. It is a question not of money but of the allocation of the money and the criteria that are used. The problem applies to all the research councils; I do not want to concentrate on any particular one. Huge sums are spent—some usefully, some not—but nobody is in a position to judge whether the money has been spent properly. I suggest that an advisory body—not the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, but one that does not have a special interest—could advise on strategy.

In the 25 years that I have served in the House, I have endeavoured to outline my concerns to it. I shall now return to academic life; to scholarship; to the love of learning for its own sake, which I believe is still the dominant purpose of higher education; to the excitement of a new generation eager to learn; to the sheer fun of education, which people sometimes forget; and to the joy of seeing one's students do well and to the sadness of sometimes seeing them not do as well as one would wish.

Education, which politicians talk about as something political, is a personal matter. It is the relationship between the teacher who wants to teach and someone who wants to learn, and it is precious. The teacher rejoices at every pupil triumph and mourns at every failure. There is a glow about the glory of true education which is impossible to describe. I wish that the House, when it stops arguing about whether Conservative policies are better than Labour or Liberal Democrat policies, would remember that the true lure of higher education is the love of learning for its own sake. Our job is to try to finance and to encourage that.