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15 Nov 2002 : Column 302—continued

Mr. Gardiner: I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that there is a real danger in what he proposes? It is similar to the danger that both he and I, as former academic philosophers, lived through in the 1980s, when, because of Government intervention at the time, the rate of decline in philosophy was so marked

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that if it had continued, by the turn of the century there would have been 19 academic philosophers still practising in this country.

Mr. McWalter: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I admire his expertise. What he says is true. I have mentioned a couple of examples of challenging courses that create problems for students. In the subject that both my hon. Friend and I love with a great passion—philosophy—students are regularly expected to read material written, say, in the 18th century, or to understand the variations in translation of a text written in Greek. Such requirements make students wonder whether they have the ability to cope. School studies equip people less and less effectively for that. It is vital that whatever subject people study, whether it is English literature or physics, philosophy or chemistry, it presents the challenges—the peaks—to which people need to aspire.

To show how little that is part of our culture, I shall add that I am speaking on the day when the leading obituary in The Times is that of René Thom, who was a great mathematician, the author of catastrophe theory, a great philosopher of science and the holder of the Fields prize. Most people in our society would not have a clue what the Fields prize is. It is, as even The Times had to explain today, the equivalent of the Nobel prize in mathematics. Most people do not have that basic understanding of what the summit of a scientific career might mean.

Why am I raising those points? Of course, some subjects are harder than others. As David Hume said, there is a disposition towards laziness in the human spirit that the Almighty might have sought to correct. There is a further issue involving the kind of courses and the brief around which universities might orientate themselves. Science courses, particularly in engineering, are often very high capital courses. They are extremely expensive to offer. Although there is a differential in the amount given to universities to teach science students and students taking subjects that are, shall I say, somewhat easier—such as tourism studies without the touring—a university that wants to be financially effective would be well advised not to lay on courses in heavy engineering or physics.

University after university is closing such courses—for example, chemistry at Salford. In my own little university of Hertfordshire, I have had a desperate battle to protect physics and astronomy, despite the fact that it has a nationally recognised research rating, because astronomy requires an observatory, which is difficult to maintain. The chemistry department at my little university has just shut. Civil engineering has just shut. That is under a Labour Government, who have failed to realise that there is a crisis in the core sciences.

When two Ministers gave evidence to the Science and Technology Committee recently, neither was remotely on the pace. One of them said that more students were doing science degrees than ever. He obviously did not look very closely at what they are doing. Yes, the word Xscience" occurs in more people's graduate certificates than ever, but it is sports science, computer science and so on—all sorts of science, but not the core stuff. Those

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skills, that intelligence and that understanding are vital to our country, and it is the Government's job to protect them.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): To what extent does the hon. Gentleman think that the low numbers taking science degrees reflect not only the perceived intellectual difficulty of such courses but, especially with engineering, the collapse in manufacturing and the low level of remuneration for scientists?

Mr. McWalter: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. The reason for the 18-week wait for a cervical smear at Hemel Hempstead general hospital—a scandal—is that the hospital laboratory pays people #12,000 a year for doing an extremely skilled job under difficult and pressured conditions, when one mistake can often make the headlines, but if one does the job capably for years and years there is no recognition or proper reward. We must ensure that those with scientific skills are properly honoured.

That applies throughout the system. One question that emerged from my discussions with fire brigades officers yesterday was the extent to which those who drafted the Bain report had any scientific expertise. At all levels, either people with the required expertise are unavailable, or those managing the systems do not understand that there are people around who have the understanding that would have made their deliberations more effective.

That applies to subjects such as statistics, too. In an earlier intervention I pointed out that to compare the average earnings of graduates with those of the rest is crazy. We should compare the average earnings of graduates with those of people who could have been graduates but chose not to be. I do not accept that there is necessarily any financial benefit at all from being a graduate. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did not pose the question in quite those terms. He said that there was a benefit for graduates. As a passionate advocate of university education, I agree wholeheartedly: there is enormous benefit and personal enrichment to be gained from a university course, particularly those that make great demands on one. But that is a different matter from whether there is any financial benefit, and I shall look carefully at the research that underlies any Government attempt to impose a graduate tax on the basis that graduates earn more.

It is a cultural issue that gives rise to low earnings for those with engineering and science qualifications. There is little willingness now for people to regard education as nearly as vital to the quality of life as it should be. I was talking to the Secretary of State earlier about what I call the Welsh valley culture—the sense that education is marvellous and life enriching, and that everybody should get as much of it as they can—compared with the dominant culture in our society, whereby to be educated or to be particularly a good at something is to be a nerd or a Xboff". There is almost a culture that it is acceptable to be learned only if one has made no effort. Making an effort is not regarded as de rigueur—but making an effort is vital to the process of becoming educated. It is vital that we try to rebalance the system, so it becomes

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part of the culture that it is acceptable to think, to be learned and to understand—that it is acceptable to display an understanding that others might not have.

To return to the firefighters' dispute, when I talked to my fire officers six weeks ago and used the word hyper-inflation, as far as I could see none knew what it meant. Yet the Opposition talk about how otiose courses in citizenship are. They are not otiose at all. It is fundamental to the conduct of our society that people understand the consequences of their actions, including such economic learning as might make them aware that their actions have consequences, and that those consequences have consequences as well.

I have said most of what I wanted to say as a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, and I would like to conclude with some thoughts as a Member representing a Hertfordshire seat. A dagger is pointing at the education system in our county. The office in my constituency to which I referred—which luckily was not burnt down last night in the end—is rented for #9,000 a year. The rates cost another #3,500, so the total cost is #12,500. Hon. Members will be aware that we receive slightly more than #18,000 for running our offices. They may ask why that is relevant. The fact is that in Hertfordshire, not much is left for running the photocopier, the telephones and all the rest of it, because the costs there are far greater than those in many other places. Indeed, a colleague from Glasgow told me that he provides exactly the same service as me, close to the town centre but not inside it, for #4,000. His disposable income for his office is #14,000 and mine is #6,000. How awful. However, let us bear in mind that that burden is taken on by Hertfordshire county council, too, when it tries to provide social services, education and other functions, so its disposable income is far less than that of many other authorities.

We currently have a very crude system called standard spending assessment to deal with how much it costs to provide a standard level of service to the people of a community. How much does it cost? That is a good question. It leads us to what, in the light of a recent parliamentary answer, I might call the Swindon answer—a #500 gap between the cost of laying on the services in Hertfordshire and the cost of the same services in Swindon. The local government Bill announced in the Queen's Speech implies that we are going to scrap standard spending assessment. That is well and good, as long as the system that will replace it is numerate and informed enough to be properly responsive to the needs of the people in my constituency for services that are more expensive to deliver than services in Glasgow. As it is currently drafted, that Bill is a big threat to the unit of resource that can be made available to schools in my area.

I have been critical throughout my speech. Of course, the picture that I have painted is dark, because it is the job of Members of Parliament and Back Benchers to point to what needs to be done rather than pat themselves on the back about what they have done. I know that the Government will take on board the points that have been made. When we made such points about primary schools, they took them on board and there has been a sea change in the quality of experience of primary school pupils in my constituency. I thank the Secretary of State and his predecessors for the tremendous work that they have done. I know that they can respond to arguments, and that they will respond to this one.

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