HC Deb 18 July 1988 vol 137 cc914-21

Lords amendment: No. 266, in page 102, line 4, leave out "subsection (3) below" and insert the following provisions of this section

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Robert Jackson)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

With this it will be convenient to take the following: Lords amendment No. 267, in page 102, line 6, leave out from "education" to "and" in line 8 and insert for persons over compulsory school age (including vocational, social, physical and recreational training);

Amendment (a) to the proposed Lords amendment, after 'training', insert 'and adult education'.

Amendment (b) to the proposed Lords amendment, at end add 'in association with the provision of youth service facilities'.

Lords amendment No. 268, in page 102, leave out line 1 and insert— (2A) In this Act 'further education' does not include higher education.

Amendment (a) to the Lords amendment, at end add 'but does include adult education'.

Amendments Nos. 269 to 271.

Mr. Jackson

The amendments relate to higher and further education, and the most important are those tabled by the Opposition on adult education and that tabled by the Government, which provides for statutory subcommittees of the Universities Funding Council for Scotland and Wales.

The Government were defeated in the other place on amendment No. 292, which required the UFC to establish an advisory sub-committee for Scotland. We continue to believe that such a provision is not necessary because a committee for this purpose would have been established. In view of the strength of feeling expressed in the House and the other place, we are prepared to give statutory expression to a Scottish committee and, because the arguments are similar, to a Welsh committee. That is the purpose of the Government's amendment.

At several stages during the Bill's passage it has been suggested that the Bill does not do enough for adult education and that specific references to adult education should be inserted in the Bill. The amendments now proposed to Lords amendments Nos. 267 and 268 have the same purpose. The Government do not oppose those amendments—I emphasise this most strongly—out of a feeling that adult education is not important; quite the contrary. The Government set great value by adult education. It provides many people up and down the country with enormous benefit and pleasure.

The Government recognise the value and importance of adult education, but that does not necessarily mean that there is a need to make specific mention of adult education in the Bill in the way the amendments to the Lords amendments propose. Further education is already defined to include adult education. Clause 104, as amended in the other place, defines further education as including all full-time and part-time education for persons over compulsory school age other than higher education. In this, it follows closely the 1944 Act. Further education is not defined as being only for 16 to 19-year-olds, or only for those up to the age of 21. It is for all those over the age of 16.

It has been suggested that, because there is no specific mention of adult education in the Bill, there is therefore no statutory duty on LEAs to provide adult education. That concern is misplaced. The duty which clause 104 places on LEAs is to secure the provision for their area of adequate facilities for further education as a whole. It therefore already carries within it a duty to secure adequate facilities for further education for adults. Adult education is already part of the statutory system of education, and has been since the 1944 Act.

There is a problem about definitions. Clause 104 defines what is meant by "further education" and "higher education." If we were to make specific reference to adult education in the Bill, we would first have to define it, because it would be different from further or higher education. That would get us into difficulties. At what age exactly is someone to become an adult for the purposes of these amendments? What sort of courses does adult education include? Does it include a middle-aged man on a professional, industrial and commercial updating programme course updating his skills in engineering? Does it include literacy and numeracy provision? Does it refer only to non-vocational liberal evening classes? I guess that we could find the term used in all those senses and more.

We all recognise the value of adult education, but it would be a great mistake to believe that by inserting references to adult education in the Bill in the way that these Opposition amendments suggest we would in some sense be supporting adult education. I have to say bluntly that we would not. The sort of amendments that have been proposed would do adult education no favours at all. They would only introduce confusion and divisions where none now exist. I therefore hope that they will be withdrawn.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I am grateful for the fact that the Minister was allowed to refer to Lords amendment No. 292 and amendment (c) thereto. We are glad that the Government have bowed to all the pressures to establish in statute a Welsh and a Scottish sub-committee. That is an important concession. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Before I hear too many cheers from the Opposition, especially from Scottish Members, I point out that it would have been helpful if the Minister had told us a little about Scottish loans. There must be people in Scottish universities who have four-year degrees and who are fearful that the introduction of a loans scheme will discriminate against universities that offer four-year courses in favour of those that offer three-year courses. I am sure that Scottish Members would have preferred to hear not just that there is to be a Scottish sub-committee but that there is to be a guarantee of resources for that sub-committee to allocate, especially to many of the hard-pressed universities in Scotland, and a guarantee that a student loans scheme will not discriminate against them.

Like the Minister, I had better move on and return to amendments Nos. 266 and 267—the first to be considered in this short debate—and to adult education. It is extremely disappointing that, every time Labour Members—whether in Committee, on Report or in the other place—have argued for adult education, the Government have come out with the lame excuse that further education includes adult education. We would have had much more sympathy for the Government's view if they had talked about the necessary resources.

Because adult education and the youth service—another aspect that the Government have resisted doing anything about in the Bill—get little mention in legislation, far too many local authorities and the Government feel that it is not important to allocate resources to them. The House should spell out the fundamental importance of adult education and the youth service if we want high-quality education for all. If we want to ensure the future prosperity of this country, we must spell out to people that education should not finish at 16 or 19. We must offer the educational opportunities to them throughout their lives.

If we want Britain to be a peaceful country and a democracy, we should spell out the educational opportunities. We should accept that if we want to give people more than just a token of a vote, we must give them skills, knowledge and the ability to use information to make choices. We must encourage people to have the self-confidence to put their points of view. If we want Britain to be a democracy, good, adequate adult education for the whole community is fundamental. If we want to give people the opportunity to enjoy their leisure, we must look at the opportunities provided through good adult education.

Many hon. Members wanted to talk about the need for religious education in schools. Surely every adult has the right to think about his or her existence and to develop an understanding of the universe. The opportunity to do that should not be restricted to the fortunate few who go on to higher education; it ought to be available to everyone. We should all be able to thirst after and obtain knowledge and be able to use it. We should make it clear in the Bill that we want to give people the opportunity to enjoy good-quality adult education.

I know that many of my hon. Friends wish to put the arguments about adult education and about higher education in Scotland and Wales, so I shall conclude by suggesting to the Government that the failure to have a statutory youth service means that the money is not provided. Given that we do not provide the money, it is not surprising that we have so many disaffected young people who end up behaving destructively rather than constructively. The Government should accept that if they fail to provide the resources to channel youthful energies into useful activities, they will bear a great deal of the responsibility for that.

In this short debate, we should record our regret that the Government have not committed themselves to providing any resources. In this respect, as in so many others, the Gerbil ends up as a great evasion of Government responsibility. Opposition Members regard the Bill as a wasted opportunity. The Government have failed to address the problems of expanding education and youth opportunities. They have failed to provide resources for higher education. They should have spent far more time examining resources rather than advancing sterile arguments such as the one that we have just heard from the Minister, who suggests that the further education provisions are a simple way of including adult education and says that that is all that he has to offer the adult education lobby.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends, both here and in another place, for succeeding in forcing the Government to concede this very important principle. We in Scotland greatly welcome the setting up of a separate sub-committee of the Universities Funding Council. That is a tremendous victory, but a word of caution is needed because I fear that even a separate sub-committee in Scotland will have minimal impact without proper resources.

As recently as 28 June my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion), for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran), for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and I tabled a motion commenting on the grave threat posed to Scottish universities by Government underfunding and by a £12.5 million cut in recurrent grant since 1986. We pointed out that Scottish universities faced deficits totalling £5.5 million. In Edinburgh, the deficit is £3 million; in Aberdeen, £1 million; in Dundee, £312,000. Glasgow university has a deficit of £500,000, as does Heriot-Watt, while Stirling has a deficit of £300,000 this year.

The sad fact is that up to 500 academic posts are threatened. That has a horrific impact on the university in our capital city, which is threatened with the loss of 170 posts by the end of the decade. At Aberdeen university the situation is hardly less serious. The number of jobs threatened—academic posts alone—is 130. Across in the west of Scotland, Strathclyde university is threatened with the loss of 56 academic posts; at Dundee, 45 posts are threatened; at St. Andrew's 39 and at Stirling, 25. At Glasgow and Heriot-Watt, too, posts are severely threatened.

Such cuts threaten the viability of Scottish universities and with departments such as that of the international Soviet expert, John Erickson, at Edinburgh threatened with cuts, the impact is severe. It is ironic that, having had four universities at a time when England had only two, Scotland should now be faced with such severe cuts. I welcome the creation by this amendment of the sub-committee, which will highlight and, I hope, go some way to protect Scottish universities.

11.45 pm

Today, I received a letter from a doctor in the Edinburgh school of agriculture. The letter sets out why we need a properly resourced sub-committee. It says: The treatment by the Department of Education and Science of University Staff, postgraduate students and of Universities in general, is extremely worrying. It bodes ill for the future of science-based industries in the UK … The result has been that even those of us who have strong scientific groups have very great difficulty in attracting applicants … The treatment of Universities such as Edinburgh which are successful in obtaining research grants and contracts is deplorable. The more successful we are, the more we are effectively penalised … Despite the early US lead in Biotechnology, which is in part my own area of expertise, the UK has made many notable advances. If the present disregard for science continues, we shall be unable to maintain any momentum in developing new technology etc. in this area. In the longer term, the effect on cur balance of payments and on our general science base can only be disastrous. It does not stop there. On Saturday, the principal of Edinburgh university, Sir David Smith, warned new graduates that Government plans to strip the UGC of responsibility to train doctors and to transfer them to Government health departments threatened the very basis of the training of doctors, which would become separated from the advancement of medical knowledge and research, which is a key function of universities.

The universities in Scotland, and elsewhere, have taken a hammering from the Government. The public, w ho believe in university education, have seen any faith they might have had in the Government betrayed. I began by saying that this is an important victory. Let us hope that it is not a Pyhrric victory.

Mr. Win Griffiths

Because of the shortness of time, I shall be brief, especially as the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths), who is my namesake and is also left-handed—we have a lot in common—has shown that, while we welcome the Government's response to pressure put on in this House and in the other place to have a separate sub-committee for Wales and Scotland, we feel that they are ungracious in the way that they are conceding this to us, saying that it is not necessary.

The way in which the cuts have been administered to the universities on the Celtic fringe shows, without going into details of the Welsh universities, that the reduction in funding in Wales was marginally worse than the reduction in funding in Scotland. In each of the Welsh universities there is a trail of destruction and cuts, with the prospect of 400 to 500 further job losses as a result of inadequate funding. I hope that the separate sub-committee for Wales will result in a return to extra attention being paid to the resources that are desparately needed for higher education in Wales.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I agree wholeheartedly that the amendment is welcome. However, is it not important that this sub-committee has teeth, and the resources necessary to do the job? If it is only window dressing, it will not be enough. It is important that we see a change in policy that gives the University of Wales new hope.

Mr. Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman echoes the sentiments of myself and of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South. I hope that the Government will be able to provide more funding for the universities on the Celtic fringe.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In a article sent to us by the vice-chancellors, the Minister's political friend, Professor Beloff, describes the Minister as lecturing the universities on Gibbonian slothfulness. During those lectures, did the Minister ask whether the funding councils or any sub-committee would be able to do anything to mitigate the pressure now that universities have to pay off many senior, experienced members of staff? Many of us have great reason to be grateful to often elderly teachers at universities who, under the present set-up, will have their services dispensed with. Will the funding councils be able to tackle that problem?

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Like other hon. Members for the Celtic nations—unlike the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), I refer not to the Celtic fringe, but to the Celtic nations—we welcome amendment (c) to Lords amendment No. 292 because the establishment of sub-committees of the UFC for Wales and Scotland recognises not only our distinctive cultures, histories and education systems, but the innovations and challenges that lie ahead for our universities in Wales and Scotland. We welcome that very much.

As an hon. Member who spoke on Report for a UFC for Scotland, I particularly welcome the extension of the idea to Wales. Here I wish to pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Dr. Thomas) who served as a member of the Committee and put forward a strong argument.

It was interesting to note that the Minister, in his opening remarks, said that the Government had thought that it was not necessary to write in specific sub-committees for Scotland and Wales, but they opposed it when the amendment was passed in another place. One wonders why they are now conceding. Is there a firm commitment behind the Government's concession tonight'? That is what worries me. When we talk about advisory committees, I am worried that the Government may be paying lip service to the idea of Scotland and Wales having separate organisations. For example, what would be the role of the advisory committees in the problem that now faces Dundee in its fight to retain its dental school? Would it be overruled by the UFC? Would the committee have any strength in its arguments? That particular closure was described by Principal Hamlin at the graduation ceremony last weekend as "a scandal".

I think also of the threat to Aberdeen university, which serves my region of Grampian, where six departments and 150 academic jobs are under threat. What would be the role of an advisory committee representing Scottish interests? We do not want to see ourselves, either in Scotland or Wales, being placed in a subsidiary position whereby lip service is paid to the idea of consultation and advice, but numerical strength overrules that at the end of the day.

The Government must make it clear that this is more than a concession in the context of listening to what one or two people might say, ensuring that the sub-committees in Scotland and Wales have genuine strength and can argue the case for their universities on a geographical, research and development, cultural, historic and educational basis. They must not be dismissed as being peripheral; they must reflect the demand for national recognition.

It has always seemed strange to me that the universities in Scotland have been separated from the rest of the education system. We firmly believe that they should be integrated. Until such time as we can achieve that, I wish to hear a clear commitment from the Government tonight that advisory does not mean dismissive, but means that strength will be given to our representatives to ensure that the well-being of our universities is safeguarded.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Those of my colleagues who have managed to catch your eye in this short debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have laid great stress on the fact that there is no point in the Government's claiming that they intended to make a concession, which was then forced on them in another place following a debate which began in this House, if the bodies set up for Scotland and Wales are denied the ability to exercise their functions due to lack of finance.

With all due respect to my colleagues in Wales, I believe that in Scotland the differences in the university system are so great as to require a full and clear statement from the Minister today that due regard will be given to the special features of the Scottish system. In all the discussions that Labour Members in Scotland have had with the University Grants Committee it has come over loud and clear that the UGC does not appreciate the significant difference in the four-year courses of Scottish universities. Unless the Minister makes a clear statement today that he recognises that and will ensure that it is taken on board by the UGC, the special advisory council for Scotland will not mean a great deal.

My hon. Friends have referred to the severe cuts suffered by Scottish universities, especially Stirling, Aberdeen and Dundee. I am sure that if my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) had managed to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he would have made it clear that Aberdeen university will continue to face difficulties unless the UGC and the Minister accept the plans that it has submitted. Dundee university in my constituency is also anxiously waiting to hear whether its plans will be accepted by the UGC so that it can start to plan not just for the year ahead but beyond that into the 1990s.

This has been a useful debate, but unless the Minister makes it clear that the proposed bodies will not be merely advisory but will be supported by real powers, the concessions will not mean much to universities in Scotland and Wales.

Mr. Jackson

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) made much of resources for adult education. Local education authority spending on adult education has been rising steadily. On the national level, the Government have shown a strong commitment.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

How much?

Mr. Jackson

We are spending directly almost £30 million this financial year in support of initiatives for updating and for the adult unemployed. Our plans for next year include specific grant for expenditure by English local authorities totalling nearly £6 million for the expansion of educational guidance services for adults, for adult literacy schemes and for open learning opportunities. The hon. Gentleman confuses words in a Bill with the reality that resources are being provided on an extensive scale. We do not defer to the hon. Gentleman in any way in our commitment to adult education.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths


Mr. Jackson

I have no time to give way. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for something further on that.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) mentioned an article in which my noble Friend Lord Beloff referred to "Gibbonian slothfulness". I found the adjective strange in that context as Gibbon was certainly not slothful. He completed "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire".

The Universities Funding Council and the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council will have to live within the means that are provided. Those means will be generous. Britain spends a higher proportion of its national product on education than any other western European country. The institutions that will come under the umbrella of the funding councils will have to live within the means that are provided. Hon. Members have mentioned the funding councils and the sub-committees for Scotland and Wales. I am grateful to the Opposition for the congratulations that they offered to the Government for our graceful concession about the establishment of the sub-committees. We always accepted that they would be set up.

It being Twelve o'clock MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to the Order [18 July] to put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Lords amendment No. 266 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 292 disagreed to.

Amendment (c) made to the Bill in lieu of the Lords amendment last disagreed to, in page 191, line 23, at end insert—