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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:34 pm on 11th February 1992.

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Photo of Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas , Meirionnydd Nant Conwy 8:34 pm, 11th February 1992

I will not follow the hon. Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) on the Leicestershire question, but I am sure that the Secretary of State will, indeed, make his visit before the election.

I should like to remark on the particularly moving speech of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Sir R. Rhodes James). He said that he was returning to learning for its own sake and for the love of learning. I am certain that his contribution, as with the contribution of many other scholars, is not learning for its own sake because that learning also enriches language and the whole community. It has always been a pleasure to have him in the House during education debates. I hope that he reads the tributes to him from this side of the House as well as from his own side.

I shall deal with the aspects of the Bill that concern my favourite Department of state, the Welsh Office. The Bill represents the latest and final step in the devolution of education policy and administration to the Welsh Office. We now have in place a fully devolved education system. Last year training was devolved and now we have the further education funding council for Wales and the higher education funding council for Wales. I was pleased at the appointment of Professor John Andrews as the joint chief executive of both councils. We look forward to the appointment and functioning of the shadow council.

The official Opposition criticised the FE changes as a form of centralisation. Even from the Welsh perspective it can be argued that to transfer the 30 FE colleges to a body that is accountable to the Welsh Office rather than to have them as part of local government is a form of centralisation. I do not share that view. I see this as creating opportunity for a relatively small-scale system to be treated as one system for planning purposes. Nevertheless, I share some of the concerns expressed about the effect of that on the adult education component. Again, my experience of the FE sector is that already FE colleges are taking funding from different agencies, not least from the training and enterprise councils and, previously, the Manpower Services Commission, where we had many of the most effective innovations in higher education.

In particular, I welcome the commitment in schedule 2 to Welsh medium teaching and to Welsh language literacy. The further education funding council will certainly want to pursue the work that has already been undertaken by the Welsh adult education committee and the Welsh Language Education Development Committee.

It is high time that in classifying education policy we moved away from these artificial distinctions between secondary education, further education, higher education and adult and continuing education. I came to the House from adult education via higher education and for me life is all about education. Education must necessarily include training. I was supportive of the earlier parts of the Secretary of State's speech in which he mentioned the need to develop an education system that was life-long based and able to tackle the present social changes. This provides us with an opportunity for greater co-operation between the TECs, the training component of education, and the further education sector.

I welcome the higher education funding council for Wales. On this occasion I am wearing one version of the university of Wales tie—not the version favoured by the Leader of the Opposition because it is important that we should display diversity.

I am pleased to see the university of Wales being devolved and I certainly do not share the concerns expressed by some in the universities that the devolution of the university to the Welsh Office will give rise to problems in the internal structure of colleges, or the assertion that every higher education institution in Wales should come into some kind of relationship with the university. I believe that there was a strong argument before the devolution that it was important to maintain the university of Wales as a federal institution. If there are arguments now for maintaining the federal structure, they have to be won by that federal structure proving that it is the best way of providing common services to constituent institutions. We have to look not just to the university but to the other institutions of higher education in Wales. They are all now equal partners. There may be an argument, in that context, for moving away from a strong federal structure, as that would tend to dominate the rest of our education within Wales.

The old argument that it is a national university and therefore a national institution and thus needs to be maintained is not one that I would pursue. After all, the Welsh Office is our prime national institution and now it is in charge of our funding. Soon the autonomous council will be administering that funding on the basis of objective standards, and there is not a case, in my view, for a duplication of allocation between the funding council and a joint university structure.

I am also pleased to see reference in the Bill to the position of the Open University. My reading of clause 62(b) is that both funding councils will be able to fund the OU, which means that in the context of Wales the OU can receive additional funding for its operation within Wales. I speak as a former part-time member of its staff in Wales. The OU will be able to receive funding from the higher education funding council of Wales to augment its activities there.

I also have concern, of course, about the position of a college in my own constituency, also an institution in which I once taught. It is important that we have a guaranteed role for such institutions within our reorganised HE and FE sector.

I want to make certain that when we debate the Bill in detail we shall be able to do something about research funding in Wales. Many of us are concerned that, over the years, the UFC, although it has its own scheme for the allocation of research funding, has not sufficiently looked to the distribution within the nations and regions of the United Kingdom of its research funding. I hope that there will be a sufficient funding base for the new funding councils and that they will he able to look at the need for a broad profile of research throughout the higher education institutions which they fund.

When we consider the Bill in Committee we shall need to look in detail at the representation on both the equality body and the funding councils. The major consumers of education are its users and its student body. It is very important that we follow some of the debates that are already taking place in the other place about representation of the student body on the higher education structures.

The Bill represents a positive move forward in the structuring of Welsh education. I cannot share some of the concerns expressed in various parts of the House, certainly as far as Wales is concerned. My anxiety has always been, ever since I came into the House, to see the development of a strong, autonomous education system within Wales. My first Second Reading speech was on education, when I called for a comprehensive over-16 education system in Wales. I was at that time trying to persuade the then Labour Government that it should introduce such a system. I find myself making what I assume is my last speech in a Second Reading debate on education congratulating a Conservative Government on having done just that.