Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, it is often said that Ministers are well served if they have eyes in the back of their head. If this Minister had eyes in the back of her head she would see that I was wearing the tie of the Open University. Perhaps I am not its only member in this House but I am a very proud member.

The Minister will recall two or three years ago when we had the great privilege of welcoming the Queen's Speech that I wore a special tie. It was the tie of the
14 Jun 2004 : Column 553
Royal Marines. In view of the past few days my job tonight is to strengthen ties between the Government and the part-time sector.

All is not lost. We are almost at the last knockings. I make no threat to the Government about support or otherwise for the amendment, except to say that the Minister could earn credit with a great many people if—despite the words at the top of her brief, which might say "resist"—she were to say, "I am prepared to take this back and talk to my colleagues".

The noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, has been mentioned. She has been a great stalwart and has met Ministers and argued the case. I really cannot understand why the Government are so obdurate in this matter. This nexus in the Bill is—in the parlance—part of the doctrine of unexpected consequences. I do not think that the Government or their advisers fully saw the implications of what they were doing.

I certainly applaud everything the Bill does in respect of what one might call the "orthodox university sector". I appreciate that the Government—the first government for many years—are attempting to tackle it. I understand the situation of youngsters and their parents who are faced possibly with an impost that is not welcome.

I started my degree in 1970 in the second year of the Open University. I would think that I was typical of those who left school at the age of 14 and always knew they had a degree in them but never had the chance to get it out until the Open University came along. Harold Wilson said that if he were to be remembered for anything, it should be for the Open University. Also involved were Jennie Lee, who served in this House, and Ted Short, the education Minister. I do not make a party point, except to say that of all the political parties, the Labour Party should have more pride in what the Open University stands for.

Crowther started the thinking about this and defined what the Open University was. He said that it was open to students as well as to many others. On its range of people, in my classes in Enfield there was an 85 year-old lady and uneducated people. We all were inspired by the feeling that we were being treated by the government and the people who taught us that we were worthy of nurturing—and we were nurtured.

I had the great opportunity to be the first Member of Parliament to be given a degree while he was a Member of Parliament. I am still the only Member of Parliament to get a degree while he was a Member of Parliament. Many have come into the House with a degree; many have left and got a degree. So, we are thinking of a special institution in education, but to my dear friend the Minister we are thinking of a special institution in the annals of the Labour Party and what it did.

We can ill afford to lose friends. I say that in a kindly way. We need all the friends we can get. Because of the Open University there are millions of people who are the friends of the Government and of government in general. There are millions of other potential students who I think should be taken care of.
14 Jun 2004 : Column 554

Much of what I want to say has been said very well by others. I take my advice from the Open University, just as Ministers take their advice from civil servants. I am told by the Open University that it cannot raise its fees to £3,000. Even with the proposed part-time grant of £575 per annum such study would not be affordable.

I was very impressed when the Open University said:

In other words, our undergraduate student population in England would shrink from 140,000 to 14,000. Can that be true? I do not know. The Open University has said it, so it will have to prove it. I know from conversations that Ministers doubt whether that could happen.

Let us suppose that it were true, and that the legislation had a devastating impact on the lifeblood of the Open University. It would be terrible. The Minister and her colleagues should take the opportunity to think again. Over half of Open University students are unemployed or from low or semi-skilled occupational groups—you cannot say that about the orthodox universities. The Minister has a very important job to do.

I attended a meeting at which the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, in discussing the matter, raised possible solutions. He acknowledged that the Dearing report, a very valuable publication that was the springboard for many of the recent changes to higher education, had not been able to give adequate consideration to the part-time sector. He suggested that his report had perhaps misled government into underestimating the significance of the sector and misunderstanding its needs. The noble Lord then came up with a solution so simple and inexpensive that I cannot understand why the Government are not prepared to accept it to get them off the hook. His "first-aid" solution was to acknowledge that the position of part-time students would be looked at in the review to be undertaken by HEFCE. In the mean time, he said, we ought to move towards assisting them.

What would it cost? I am told that in 2006, the gap year during which there would be trouble, it would cost £20 million. If that is the cost of the Government's saying to the Open University and the part-time education sector, "We are prepared to recognise your problems; we are prepared to give you that", that is all right. If the arrangement were to continue, after three years the sum would be £58 million per annum, of which £48 million would accrue to the Open University.

When we talk about the millions and billions involved, we are talking about how the Government can get off the hook and recognise the sagacity and wisdom of the argument. Of the 43 noble Lords who spoke at Second Reading, 19 raised the issue of part-time students. The last thing that I want to do is say that the Government have done nothing to assist part-time students; on the contrary, they have done a range
14 Jun 2004 : Column 555
of things. No doubt the Minister will be well briefed to tell us what the Government have done. However, those who manage the Open University tell me and others that that little thing remains to be done.

I hope that the Minister has been impressed by the width and the all-party nature of attempts to persuade her to change her mind. If she takes away the amendments tonight, she will have an opportunity to return at Third Reading with a solution. But I fear that, if she presses on and resists the amendment, we will become involved in the game of ping-pong. The Bill will be sent to the other end; eventually it may be accepted. I ask this Minister as I ask others: why go through the purgatory of sticking your toes in at the first opportunity in the knowledge that eventually they will have to change their mind? This is a time when statesmanship is required; I look to my noble friend on the Front Bench to demonstrate it.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, I have much pleasure in following the speech of my noble friend Lord Graham, much of which I agreed with. I was astonished that the Bill contained nothing about part-time students. I thought that perhaps I had missed the relevant words. In a whole world of universities and further education, I was astonished that there was such a gap in this important area.

The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, who is absent because of a serious accident, received part-time evening education and training as an accountant. In my engineering days I took eight years of classes, studying for national certificates of one kind and another, which led to university degrees, all during the evening. The whole point of part-time education is that it involves learning while one works. Full-time education is an alternative to working; part-time education is a combination of the two. It allows one to use one's learning in a working environment. Sometimes that can be very helpful. I was able to design a tractional horse-powered electric motor, a matter of considerable technical expertise, because of the work that I did in my student days. That is the sort of thing that happens; one should give it maximum encouragement.

Technical colleges started with George Birkbeck, who helped to introduce the London Mechanics Institute, from which the three institutions that I had the privilege of attending followed: Stockport College; Burnley Mechanics Institute, which became Burnley College; and the Royal Technical College, Salford, where I got my external degree. All those developments followed on from the understanding that a gap existed for those unable to go to university, in the days when it was a great privilege to do so. Even today, many people have the enthusiasm and commitment to study or train in the evening. Their commitment is great; one does not give up one's evenings or one's days to do such work unless one is fully committed. We should not be placing such students at a disadvantage; there should be positive support for them. I find it astonishing that we have an education Bill that gives no support to such people.
14 Jun 2004 : Column 556

There must be some understanding and appreciation of the role of part-time education; it must find its way into the Bill. There must be a means of giving such students fair access, and the institutions must be encouraged in their work for part-time students. They must not be under any disadvantage in giving whatever assistance they can to such people. I look forward to a substantial rethink by my noble friend on those important matters.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page