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Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): Is it not outrageous that the university, which is funded by taxpayers' money, is steamrolling the decisions without any accountability to the community that will be affected and that it is not taking on board the clear expression of people who live around Seale-Hayne and in the wider south-west region? That gives grounds for somebody to call the vice-chancellor in and tell him what his job actually is.

Richard Younger-Ross: I thank my hon. Friend and I agree with his well-made points.

The professor said today that none of the money that will come from Seale-Hayne will be used to prop up the £60 million that he proposes to spend on the redevelopment of the university of Plymouth. His plans to redevelop the university are welcome and if the proposed schemes go ahead, it would be good for the south-west. I understand that he will be in place for perhaps only another five years—many in the south-west think that that is five years too many. What will happen after that if the university is in debt after spending £60 million? If money is available, I would be surprised if the governors did not asset-strip the campus site. I have no faith in the professor's assertions that the money will be ring-fenced and not used.

The university has to answer a number of questions. Who developed the financial model on which the decisions were made and who validated that? What technical expertise was contracted to advise on, for example, construction, marketing and other issues? What capital and recurrent costs and income assumptions were built into the model? What sensitivity analysis was conducted to enable the university to provide decision makers with a balanced range of scenarios on which to form a judgment? At what point in the decision cycle was a financial model made available to governors and other interested parties? What are the financial and other risks to the institution arising from the strategy? The Higher Education Funding Council obliges all universities to identify, quantify and manage risks as part of the annual cycle. I understand that the development has not been included in that. That issue should also be raised with the university.

Seale-Hayne is an excellent college. Its researchers are currently on the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council stand at the Royal show as representatives of the university of Plymouth. I want to see them there in future years, still based on the Seale-Hayne campus.

Access to rural affairs, agriculture and land use studies is important. The Daily Telegraph on 18 February this year said:

Action is required by the Government to encourage people to undertake such studies. If we lose Seale-Hayne, we lose an excellent centre and the opportunities that it provides. Perhaps we need a regulator that people can approach to examine the actions of universities and

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how they reach decisions. The Minister should ask the Department for Education and Skills to investigate the manner in which the university of Plymouth undertook the closure. One month's consultation is, to put it bluntly, a farce.

We could learn from the experience of Seale-Hayne. I hope that there is still time to save it, but if there is not, at least let us ensure that other communities and colleges are not dealt with in such a high-handed way by universities and vice-chancellors.

7.37 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing the debate. I was initially as puzzled as he was that I was requested to be the Minister at the Dispatch Box. However, we take advice on such matters from officials and I think that it was the reference to rural affairs in the debate's full title that landed it on my plate—or, to be more accurate, on the plate of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality, who unfortunately cannot be here. In a sense, it is sensible that I am here because I have some knowledge of the subject and my constituency of Exeter will be affected by the closure. As the hon. Gentleman explained, the restructuring of Plymouth university is having a serious impact on my constituency. The proposed closure of the excellent Exeter school of art and design has caused considerable concern.

Richard Younger-Ross: The Minister might not know that the vice-chancellor of the university said today that the money from the sale will go towards financing the site in Plymouth.

Mr. Bradshaw: It was always likely to be the case that if the university made any money out of the sale of the land, it would be reinvested in the university.

I expressed the concerns about the closure of the school of art and design to the university, but no matter how strongly we feel about such decisions, it must be the right principle that academic institutions are free to make the decisions that they think are in their best interests and that they are prepared to defend those decisions. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) reminded me before this debate that as a young radio reporter I interviewed her at Seale-Hayne in her capacity as an agriculture Minister about the thorny issue of badgers and TB in cattle, another issue that has landed on my plate.

I am well aware of the excellent work that Seale-Hayne does but, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge pointed out, the university of Plymouth, has made a decision about which courses to offer and where to run them in the best interests of the university as a whole. In December, the university's board of governors unanimously approved proposals that will have an impact on Seale-Hayne. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about his initial problems in getting access to the vice-chancellor. If that is the case, that is

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deplorable. Anybody in any public institution should be available to elected Members of Parliament, as we are here to make representations on our constituents' behalf. However, in the same breath, may I say that I am not sure that the extent to which the hon. Gentleman personalised the issue in tonight's debate will necessarily help or strengthen his case.

The university has said that the changes may ultimately benefit the rural area in which Seale-Hayne is located. Thanks in no small part to the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman and others, as well as the strong local campaign by friends of Seale-Hayne, the university has committed itself to carrying out a feasibility study to establish a long-term future for Seale-Hayne. It has tasked the university's rural economy review group, chaired by Professor Mike Beveridge, the deputy vice-chancellor, and including several prominent key players in the south-west, to look at the future use of Seale-Hayne. The university has no plans to close the farm at the Seale-Hayne campus and will retain research facilities there.

Good innovative research is a vital aid to the Government, and I am glad to report that agricultural researchers from across the world visited the University of Plymouth Seale-Hayne campus for the first time as part of the UK Agricultural Economics Society conference in April this year. That conference was a valuable forum to discuss the increasing significance of the rural economy. One current proposal for the longer term use of Seale-Hayne is that it should become a rural centre of excellence—a training business centre for rural businesses to support and promote the rural economy of the south-west region. All parties involved in discussions—the university, the South West of England Regional Development Agency, Teignbridge district council and Devon county council—are in agreement about the general direction and long-term future use of Seale-Hayne. The proposal has been welcomed by, among others, Councillor Stuart Barker, who is chairman of the Teignbridge district council's economy committee and has described the plans as exciting and innovative. The idea is to establish a rural centre of excellence linked to the University of Plymouth's entrepreneurship programme.

Richard Younger-Ross: I accept the point made by the Minister. We all welcome the very good scheme proposed by the National Farmers Union and the RDA, but that proposal could be additional to a plan to keep undergraduates at the campus. It is a separate issue, and it should not distract us from the key issue—the removal of undergraduate students from the site.

Mr. Bradshaw: In the end, those are decisions for the university and its board of governors. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will work constructively with all the interested parties that I have mentioned in pressing for something that most people seem to agree would guarantee a good future for the college.

As I said, the proposal would support potential entrepreneurs across the region who need access to specialist expertise to help them develop their business ideas. The programme is being delivered with public

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money from the RDA as part of its three-year programme, "Knowledge Exploitation South West". That programme aims to boost the productivity and competitiveness of regional business through better exploitation of the higher education knowledge base in the south-west. The Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food included a recommendation that the Land-Based Training Association—LANTRA—and my Department should review agricultural education in full. In response to this recommendation DEFRA is carrying out a broader review of learning opportunities for rural businesses. The review will cover the provision and delivery of education and training, knowledge transfer, advice and information services, and measures to stimulate demand for learning.

The land-based colleges are a key partner in the review, and the review's project team at DEFRA has met a number of key partners and stakeholders including several land-based colleges, among them Seale-Hayne. The team has also met the National Association of Principals and Agriculture Education Officers, the organisation that represents land-based colleges, to discuss how the facilities of colleges can best serve the rural communities in which they are located. The approach being taken by the university of Plymouth in developing a rural centre of excellence at Seale-Hayne matches well the thinking of many of the organisations already consulted as to how land-based colleges can most effectively meet the needs of their local rural communities.

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I have asked the team at DEFRA to discuss with the university of Plymouth and other land-based colleges the proposals and how we can work together in our work on the learning skills and knowledge review to shape learning providers such as Seale-Hayne to the changing needs of rural areas.

The hon. Gentleman had a couple of specific questions about how decisions made by education institutions such as the university of Plymouth may be challenged. I am sorry to tell him that the Government have no locus to intervene in such decisions. As I made clear at the beginning of my speech, those decisions are made by autonomous universities and their governing bodies. There are proposals to establish an adjudicator who may have a locus to intervene in such decisions, but that will not happen until later in the year.

I hope the debate has been helpful for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. The Government are working hard to ensure that the learning needs of people in places like Teignbridge are met. As part of that work, we need to make sure that those providing education and skills are able to meet the changing needs of a dynamic rural economy, and that they can meet the needs not only of those engaged in agriculture, but of others living and working in rural areas. I hope the university of Plymouth will use Seale-Hayne to good effect and to the benefit of Teignbridge and the wider south- west in future, as its founder intended.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Eight o'clock.

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