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10 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): I tabled a motion for the Adjournment to draw the House's attention to higher education, especially to the universities in Yorkshire and Humberside because, like many Members of Parliament, I have had an increasingly interesting dialogue with members of the university community throughout the region I represent, especially with those at my local university of Huddersfield. I have had discussions with not only the vice-chancellors, but staff, the Association of University Teachers and all the unions whose members work on university campuses in the nine universities in Yorkshire and Humberside. Increasingly, they drew my attention to something that I in part already knew: the dire position that universities find themselves in.

To put that in context, our university system is one of the most successful aspects of our national life. It has been enormously successful historically, and, compared with our main international competitors, our higher education provision is very successful, but society has dramatically changed over a short period of years. To show that, I need say only that, just before the last war, only about 1 per cent. of people went into higher education; in the 1960s, when I was a student at the London School of Economics, the figure was just over 3 per cent.; and today it is 30 per cent. There has been a dramatic change in higher education in a short period.

Most of that boost of change has come in the past 25 years. I am not making this a strongly party political point, but fast growth has occurred since 1979, in the period of this Government. It would be silly to deny that that expansion has taken place, but it would take place in any society, and under any Government who were faced with the challenges of global competition. Increasingly, this country has had to learn that becoming globally competitive and creating wealth successfully is achieved by the pursuit of knowledge and by turning out highly skilled, highly educated, highly trained people, who can turn their hands to the most innovative processes we know.

There has been a catastrophic decline in the demand for less skilled and unskilled people. As a small boy, I would cycle past a factory, and it would have a sign saying, "Hands wanted", as though brains need not apply. We do not see such signs at a factory gate today.

There is an emphasis on knowledge and higher education. Our university system is the keystone of a wealth-creating society that provides the highly qualified personnel who make us a competitive nation. Our universities have responded magnificently to the need for a highly educated population, the rapid expansion of students and a very fast changing university world.

There are more than 100 universities in the country, and, as I said, nine in the region of Yorkshire and Humberside. Universities dominate whole communities as they never have before. In the old days, there was one major employer in most towns and cities. These days, with the emphasis on small and medium enterprises, the main employer in most towns and cities--and in my constituency--is the university, with its enormous

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complex of buildings in the centre of the town. It is the largest source of wealth in the town, brings more money and jobs into the town, and is certainly the focus of highly qualified individuals. In Yorkshire and Humberside, one in seven professionals work in universities. That is a large number, which has an important effect on our economic, industrial and cultural life.

There are more than 100 universities, and they are enormously important to our well-being and the future of our towns, cities and regions. They are critical not only in the traditional way of providing good education, teaching, tuition and research, but increasingly in the way in which they have responded to the challenge of a proactive relationship with the local community in every sense, and have aided urban, cultural and certainly industrial regeneration. Where that relationship works well--whether in Cambridge, Warwick, Huddersfield, Leeds or Sheffield--it has produced new ideas, innovation, new jobs, new companies, and guaranteed a future for our constituents.

Anyone who has been part, as I have, of a group looking at what our country will be doing for a living in 20 or 25 years' time--in the year 2020, along the lines of the Hamish McCrea book of that name--knows that the university will become not less important or have the same importance, but will grow exponentially in significance. The future well-being of our constituents depends on that.

I said that I wanted to concentrate on universities in Yorkshire and Humberside, because there are problems for our universities. Up to now, I have told a rather good story of expansion, growth, more people undergoing higher education, partnership and the university's dominating role. The background has been a determined and increasing squeeze on resources flowing into the university sector over the past 10 years.

There is no doubt that, in that time, there has been an enormous increase in students but a very small increase in staff. The resources devoted to each student has been squeezed. I would be the last to say that there was no room for economy, and any Government would have expected economies in higher education institutions that take so much of the national cake and national wealth.

On any criteria one can mention--productivity, effort, use of available resources--the universities have performed better and more imaginatively. When I visit them, time and again I see what they have done to maintain standards and quality, not only of the students but of research and of everything else they do, at the same time as increasing the number of students. That can go on for too long.

There has been an increasing feeling in the university community that there can be no further cuts or squeezes on the resources allocated to students and staff. That is a fact. The salaries of university personnel have recently been worse than those for any other profession, even for architects.

I should have declared an interest at the outset because I am still a member of the Association of University Teachers and was a university teacher, "when"--as I sometimes tell some of my constituents, who smile wryly--"I worked for a living." I sometimes think of what has happened to university salaries since I left teaching in 1979. If one extrapolates the salary I was on then, and

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had salaries stayed at that level, university teachers would today be doing very well. The fact is that they have done very much worse.

We can go only so far before we stop getting the right quality of people coming to university, staying on into postgraduate research and then entering the teaching profession. That is the truth, and it is very worrying when one speaks to any vice-chancellor in the land about recruiting and retaining good quality graduates and entrants to the profession. The problem is growing.

The backdrop to the problem is the most recent Budget, because it represented a cut too far. The cuts announced by the Chancellor amazed everyone. I was in the Chamber for it, but I did not realise quite how deep the cuts were. Their depth became apparent in the few days after the Budget.

To do justice to the Chancellor, I do not think that he knew quite what he was doing. I have known him for a long time, and I know that he has a very positive attitude to higher education and is very interested in the university sector. I do not believe that he would consciously have done what he did in the Budget last November, but that he misunderstood what he was doing because of the way in which the facts were presented to him by civil servants and by people in the Treasury. I do not think that he would otherwise have made those cuts.

I should be grateful if, in his reply, the Minister of State will tell us whether he understood how punishing those cuts would be when the Budget was debated, whether he wanted that level of cuts to be made, or whether he fought his corner. Did he know what would happen with, for example, a 30 per cent. cut in capital spending?

There has been not only a new £657 million cut in universities' budget, but a cut of 30 per cent. in capital spending. The Chancellor suggested that that could be made up with funds from the private finance initiative. The fact is that 70 per cent. of that capital spending is used for building maintenance and minor extensions to buildings, and to buy new equipment and new technology. That expenditure is the very stuff that keeps a university running, and it is not the type of expenditure that is appropriately funded by the PFI.

Our universities are very positive about using the PFI. They have long used private finance in a range of building programmes. But the fact is that every vice-chancellor I have spoken to in Yorkshire, Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield, the Leeds metropolitan area, and--last night in the House--Hull has said that it is not an appropriate way in which to use the PFI. A catastrophe is about to happen in higher education in our country, and that is not an exaggeration.

We have reached the point where teachers can no longer teach and researchers can no longer undertake research, and put their hands on their hearts and say, "We are maintaining the traditional high-quality education of the British university system." One cannot do that without the necessary tools. One cannot even respond to requests from the Chancellor and his colleagues to use modern technology in teaching, and thus reduce the cost of teaching, because one is prohibited from buying the new technology that would deliver that modern teaching.

Overseas students provide 10 per cent. of the income of British universities. They represent an important part of every university budget--for example, they provide £6 million for Bradford university. If that money was

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lost, any of our universities would be in great trouble, and the Chancellor and the Department for Education and Employment would be deeply disturbed. The provision of higher education is subject to global competition, and those making that choice are knowledgeable. Once there is a feeling that our standards are not being maintained, those countries that send so many students here will quickly switch their choice.

I have spoken to university personnel who go around the world doing the marvellous job of selling our courses. They tell me that our tough competitors from Australia, Canada and America are telling people not to send their students to Britain because the quality of education is not as good as it used to be. I am emphatic that that quality has been maintained, but I do not believe that it will be possible to guarantee that as a result of the latest swathe of cuts.

That is why it is so important to ask the Minister to use his influence to reverse the cuts announced in the November budget. He should restore the funding dedicated to capital spending and declare that there will not be another cut next year, followed by another the year after that.

Those cuts have been announced against the backdrop of a freeze on long-term planning for higher education, because Sir Ron Dearing is not due to report until after the next election. I do not agree with my party's philosophy, because I do not believe that we can fight the general election with a significant element of our economy in cold storage. Everyone is saying that we should wait to hear what Dearing says. I think it is healthy for those in a democracy to say vigorously, Dearing or not, that we have to have an expanding, healthy and wealth-creating higher education sector. I must demur from party policy on that.

I should like to conclude by citing a few examples of what the cuts mean to the universities of Yorkshire and Humberside. The higher education institutions of Yorkshire have lost £15.2 million in real terms in their Higher Education Funding Council income for 1996-97; Bradford university has been the hardest hit with a 5.8 per cent. cut; and Leeds faces the largest cash cut of £2.91 million.

According to the economic multiplier used in the work of Professor Iain McNicol, who has calculated the impact of cuts on Scottish higher education, the combined effect of the cuts will be a loss of £27.35 million in economic output, and 749 jobs from the Yorkshire and Humberside economy. That reveals how important and disastrous those cuts will be to our local economy.

It is not only the economies of Yorkshire and Humberside that will be dramatically affected by the cuts but that of whole country. We will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. That is a nice old cliche, but we need greater investment in the university sector to boost new activities such as partnerships with the private sector and to help turn out more highly qualified undergraduates and postgraduates. That is where we will get our professionals, innovators and entrepreneurs. If we do not, we can give up against the competition, because our competitors around the world are investing vigorously in higher education.

The Minister and I both know that there are some hard choices to be made in higher education. Comparisons with Europe show that higher education does not do badly in its share of the cake, but we get the balance wrong. I would be the first to admit that the balance in Britain means that students get too much of the cake and

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institutions too little. Whichever party is in government after the next general election will have some hard choices to make about how to meet that challenge.

I suspect that it is inevitable, as night follows day, that we will adopt some sort of income-related loan scheme. When students have finished their education, are in employment and have reached a reasonable level of income, they will start to pay back what their country has invested in them.

I have tried to be honest about the challenges we must face, and I hope that the Minister will respond in an equally positive way and say that he will work with the vice-chancellors and university staff to pressure the Chancellor to draw back from the cuts that have been set in hand before it is too late.

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