Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1973 Jul 9 Mo
Margaret Thatcher

HC S [Further and Higher Education (Expenditure Committee’s Report)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [859/1140-53]
Editorial comments: 2057-2128.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4533
Themes: Parliament, Higher & further education, Employment, Public spending & borrowing, Housing

8.57 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

I should like to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Neil Marten) and his colleagues of the Education and Arts Sub-Committee on their contribution to the discussion of these important issues. One thing they have shown is that the subject is very complex and that the opinions are very varied. In his own way, my hon. Friend put that by saying that there are always strongly-held opposing views and that he was not worried about offending entrenched positions in education. Having been a Minister himself, my hon. Friend knows that I must be worried about that, because if I did offend those entrenched positions, the headlines in the TES. and the THES would not be “Three cheers for the Minister,” but “Minister offends Universities” and “Minister rides roughshod over LEA's” because in the whole education world consultation is a way of life. I am dealing with a world that is articulate in pursuit of its own special interests. I must take that always into account.

I want to raise a point about the time in which my latest White Paper was made available in the Vote Office. I understand that the Press releases were embargoed until 11 a.m. and the document was not available in the Vote Office until 2.30 p.m. It should have been available simultaneously at 11 o'clock and I can only apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this was not so. If anyone got it first it should have been the House. I will endeavour to see that it does not happen again. My hon. Friend has given me one “out” —and very kindly. He pointed out that while his sub-committee was studying all these problems and taking evidence, we in the Ministry—and it is a Ministry without any cosy [column 1141]corners—were also considering the problems and virtually simultaneously published our own solutions. Not only the Department of Education and Science, but the Department of Employment was studying some of the problems, and very shortly afterwards it, too, published its solution.

In a way, my hon. Friend is accusing us of going too fast, that is, of being aware that these problems needed solutions, of coming up with our own solutions, and actually having the nerve to implement them.

The criticism that I am getting now, following the December White Paper, is that I am going too fast in trying to revise some of the institutions in higher education, that is, the colleges of education. There is no criticism that I am going too slow, but, rather, even with the limited changes that we are proposing, that I am going too fast. I think, therefore, that I need not take very seriously any criticism from the education world that we are going too slowly, since, when I receive deputations, and so on, the contrary is said.

One of the reasons why it appears that we have disagreed with more than we have is that we have our own solutions. I hope that my hon. Friend and other members of the Select Committee, having looked carefully at what I have said, will see that, time and again, we have agreed objectives. We may sometimes have found a slightly different way of achieving them, but we have shared precisely the objectives that the Committee set out.

My hon. Friend and one or two other hon. Members took a little time in showing how I disagreed with the Committee. I think that this is largely the old question of whether one sees the bottle half empty or half full. My hon. Friends are seeing it half empty and I am seeing it half full. I want to try to put the alternative case and show how much I agree, taking first the objectives on which we agree. I shall then come to two substantial points on which we disagree, and give the reasons for our disagreement—namely, on the Committee's proposal to extend the UCCA system to all advanced courses, and to establish a Higher Education Commission. [column 1142]

First, the points of agreement. On the extent of higher education provision, the Government's policy for the scale and pattern of higher education up to 1981 was fully set out in the White Papers last December, and it has been fully debated. I agree here with the Committee—I quote its own words in paragraph 34—that “the ultimate arbiter of the pattern of our higher education system (within the structure provided) is the demands made upon it by individual school leavers” — and that we should not depart from this principle in the vain hope that forecasts of manpower requirements might provide a better criterion. We are fully in agreement on that. I agree with the Committee also that this places an obligation on all concerned to provide school pupils with the best available information and guidance so that they may make their choices wisely.

In paragraph 15, the Committee's report spoke of “prolonged Ministerial silence” —this is unusual for me—and of “a feeling of uncertainty” concerning the future of higher education. The Committee was referring, of course, to the period before the White Papers of last December were published. Those White Papers declared the Government's position both on the institutional changes which we saw as necessary and on the scale of provision, and explained that we saw need for about 750,000 full-time and sandwich higher education places by 1981 to keep pace with the likely rising level of demand from qualified applicants.

The figure was calculated upon the numbers in the age group, coupled with the projection of the numbers qualifying for A-levels, and coupled with the latest projection of the number within that number who would qualify for a place in higher education. Applying those criteria, we came to the conclusion that 750,000 places by 1981 would be required.

We shall look again at all the figures in the White Paper programme as we see how it develops over the years. I must defend my Department here. It produces one of the biggest sets of statistics to come out of any Government Department—six volumes every year. I look at them and sometimes I marvel. But one of the troubles with statistics is that by the time one has collected them from the system and analysed them, they tend to be [column 1143]out of date. We put a fairly heavy burden on all the education institutions and local authorities by our collection of statistics, but it is, as I say, one of the best sets of statistics, full of extremely interesting information.

I turn now to the second point upon which we agree, although the means of attaining the objectives may be different. I refer to manpower and employment. The policy that we are following on the provision of higher education places an obligation on us to look also to the possible employment problems of those who take advantage of it. Few would disagree with the Committee's conclusion that those who have followed a higher education course should be employed in a socially useful way and that those contemplating undertaking it should do so without unrealistic expectations of their subsequent employment opportunities. Apart from the waste of resources to which the Committee drew attention, the human problems of unfulfilled expectations demand our concern.

We accept—and here I am really speaking for my right hon. Friend M. Macmillanthe Secretary of State for Employment—the Committee's analysis of what needs to be done. There is an important need for the collection and dissemination of information, for the study and evaluation of trends and for up-to-date and effective employment services which build on this work to offer advice on education and career choices. However, since the report was prepared the Government have announced a number of initiatives to provide for this without the necessity of creating the Manpower Council and National Careers Advisory Service for Higher and Further Education that the Committee proposed.

The Employment and Training Bill, whose details were not available to the sub-committee when it prepared its report, and which we hope will be passed this Session, provides the machinery. Under the Bill the Manpower Services Commission will have a rather wider remit than the Committee's Manpower Council, and we agree with the Committee that the membership will cover employers, unions, local authorities and the professional side of education. The Commission will be responsible for planning, developing and operating employment and training services other than those [column 1144]provided by local authorities, and for co-ordinating the work of industrial training boards. Its executive functions will be carried out by an Employment Service Agency and a Training Services Agency, also proposed under the Bill. We hope that the Commission will be constituted after the Bill becomes law, perhaps by 1st January 1974; that the Training Services Agency will be brought under the Commission on 1st April 1974 or shortly afterwards; and the Employment Service Agency not before late 1974.

So much for that aspect of the matter, details of which were not available when the Committee made its report—with a wider remit—before the detailed organisation was worked out. The Bill also lays a duty on local education authorities to provide a comprehensive vocational guidance and placing service open to all in full-time education. My hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. William Shelton) referred to this point. It is the first time there has been a duty on all local authorities to have this service. The removal of the artificial barrier of the age limit of 18 years for local authority careers services will allow them to function more effectively as more and more young people take advantage of the opportunity for further and higher education.

Moreover, by placing responsibility for these employment services with those already responsible for education, the Government's proposals help to meet the sub-committee's objective of co-ordinating education and employment advice. And they have the further advantage, compared with the committees' proposal, of offering young people advice, at various stages in their education, on all the careers from which they may choose. That means going much further back in education, so that the curriculum chosen may help the pupil to choose his career later without hindering him. The advice will cover careers that may be entered straight from school—and it is right for some young people to go into a job straight from school—and also jobs not requiring qualifications. On the collection and dissemination of essential information, the Committee commented that the Department of Employment's Unit for Manpower Studies, with a staff or less than 10, could hardly tackle all the tasks they thought necessary. My hon. Friend the [column 1145]Member for Banbury pointed out that both the unit's remit and its staff have been increased, I think, to 17. He was not very pleased about that, but may I remind him of when I set a committee working on the James Report. There were eight people working full time for a year studying the subject of teacher training and by the end of the year they produced a report. If eight of them can do that I would have thought that 17 working full time would be an effective unit.

Incidentally, with the James Report I did a similar thing to what I am doing with my hon. Friend. I accepted all the objectives and modified some of the methods of reaching them. That committee was most pleased. I have adopted a similar approach with my hon. Friend and I hope that by the end of my speech he, too, will be most pleased. Both the unit's remit and its staff have been increased since the sub-committee reported.

There may be some misunderstanding of the unit's rôle. It does not engage in detailed forecasts of supply and demand for particular industries and occupations—and the sub-committee drew attention to the dangers of this approach—but rather studies the broad movements and features of the labour market in order to help those with particular responsibilities and more immediate concerns to make their plans.

The transition from education to employment is a complex and increasingly important matter, and the sub-committee was right to devote so much of its report to it. The Government do not propose to adopt the precise form of solution it proposed. But I hope the developments and recent initiatives that I have described constitute a sound alternative means—now well worked out and going through the House, subject to comment by the House—of achieving the same purpose.

I turn to a third point of agreement—students' residence. Like the sub-committee, the Government consider that the proportion of home-based students is too low, and they would like to see some increase. In the universities, for instance, it is only 16 per cent., compared with about 40 per cent. before the war. In advanced further education the propor[column 1146]tion of students in residence has always been much lower than in the universities, but here, too, we would like to see polytechnics and colleges doing what they can to encourage students to live at home.

It is a significant development that university application forms handled by the Universities Central Council on Admissions will in future include a new question. In relation to entry in or after 1974, this will enable universities with problems of student residence to take into account that some applicants live within daily travelling distance. At the same time, the rising numbers of students do require additional residence to be provided. We have therefore made substantial further provision for residence both in the university building programme and in the polytechnics. It has been announced previously in debates, and I do not wish to dwell upon it.

The fourth subject on which we agree with the sub-committee is student grants. We have accepted its recommendations practically lock, stock and barrel. We have taken action on its recommendation that financial responsibility for mandatory awards should be transferred from local to central government. In future, my Department will pay 90 per cent. of the cost of awards made in England and Wales under Sections 1(1) and 2(3) of the Education Act—that is, for students on first degree and comparable teacher training courses. Instead of having to find roughly 40 per cent. of the cost, the authorities will have to meet only 10 per cent. This represents a substantial financial benefit to them.

As to discretionary awards—and the relevant courses here are, generally speaking, those below degree level—there has been growing pressure for greater consistency in the treatment of students. The sub-committee concluded that local education authorities should retain their discretionary powers for these courses, and, because of their diversity in standard, length and nature, and the diversity in the financial needs of the students, I am sure that it was right. But it also recommended that my Department should issue stronger and more detailed guidance to local authorities in order to avoid undue variations in the criteria for making awards and in the rates of grant. I agree with the Committee that we must look again at this [column 1147]question. As I announced at the Association of Education Committees conference a short time ago, I am consulting the local authority associations about it.

So far I have dealt with those parts of the report on which, although we may take a different view about means, we are really agreed about ends. This leaves me with the two topics to which I referred at the outset, on which we appear to be divided on matters of substance, although I note, ironically, that the Government are not divided from the Opposition Front Bench on the matter.

I take, first, the question of admissions to advanced further education institutions. I have considered carefully the sub-committee's recommendations for a centralised admissions system for all advanced further education courses, to be modelled on the Universities' Central Council on Admissions. But while this is in the first place a matter for the institutions concerned, I must say that I see serious practical difficulties in devising machinery of this kind which would not at once impose new and severe limitations on the colleges' ability to adapt their work to the requirements of the moment—the needs of the students on the one hand or their prospective employers on the other. UCCA serves a comparatively small and homogeneous range of institutions and courses. A comparable system for advanced further education would need to cover about 2,500 advanced full-time and college-based sandwich courses in a wide range of subjects at degree and sub-degree level in more than 200 polytechnics and other colleges.

Moreover, the FE system is not only large and complex but dynamic and responsive. At present it is possible to introduce new courses, often in response to local or regional requirements, at much shorter notice than if an UCCA procedure had to be followed. For instance, a new course could be finally approved, say by CNAA, in the same calendar year as it was due to start. I should not be willing to see that valuable flexibility jeopardised.

From the student's point of view too, though I recognise that the Committee heard other views expressed by the NUS, I should have thought it a serious disadvantage to lose or curtail the advisory work of the colleges which the present [column 1148]system of direct application offers. Young people are helped by personal guidance at the polytechnic or college to choose wisely from the range of courses available. During the summer months the Department's further education information services makes up-to-date information on vacancies available to would-be students who have not yet been accepted for a course.

I understand that the Committee heard extensive evidence on the excellence of these arrangements. I had thought of making reference to the service but as time is moving on I shall not do so. I shall move on to the subject which my hon. Friends are anxious to hear about—namely the financing and administration of higher education—upon which the two Front Benches appear to be agreed.

The Committee considered that—

“an overall plan is necessary for the efficient distribution of the resources available for higher education, and that this will only prove possible under a unified system of financial provision.”

The Committee therefore proposed—

“the creation of a Higher Education Commission to have overall responsibility for advising the Minister on the administration and financing of the whole higher education sector, and for its planning and co-ordination.”

If the Higher Education Commission is to be, as the Committee propose, a transformed University Grants Committee, it would have to have executive as well as advisory functions. If those functions were to be exercisable over the whole of higher education the commission would be concerned with over 500 institutions. As I understand it, the UGC would be abolished and the rôle and powers of local education authorities substantially affected. Indeed, the powers of local education authorities over a large part of the higher education sector would be removed totally.

The Committee appears to have been disappointed that I have not been able to accept immediately its far-reaching proposals. Even if I did not have substantial reservations about the Committee's far-reaching proposals, it would not be possible for a Government to accept such proposals without the most careful and prolonged consultation with the other parties concerned, whose interests are so vitally affected. Such information as I [column 1149]have leads me to think that they, too, have substantial reservations.

For example, a similar resolution was put before the Association of Education Committees Conference a few days ago. It did not get much support either from Labour or Conservative controlled local education authorities. They did not want all the higher education institutions removed from them. If I were to say now that I accepted my hon. Friend's or the sub-committee's recommendations I should be in boiling water tomorrow and my hon. Friends would be bombarded with protests from their own local authorities and to some extent from the University Grants Committee and perhaps other sectors of higher education.

I do not believe that the Committee is justified in its criticism that the present arrangements inhibit efficient long-term planning The long-term strategy for the development of higher education has been outlined by the Government for 10 years in education White Papers. It is believed that the strategy can be implemented within the framework of existing financial arrangements. Long-term strategy, linked with the available resources, is the Government's responsibility. We have shown that we are ready and have the means to discharge that responsibility. I shall be mentioning later what is being done to forge a closer working relationship between the Department and all those concerned in the local authority sector of higher education.

On the universities side, quinquennial arrangements already exist. The security of a settlement for five years provides a firm basis for budgeting and planning. The universities know where they stand, and the arrangement is highly valued by them and the UGC alike. My hon. Friend says that, although the UGC and the universities like it, I must change it.

Mr. Marten

We do not like it.

Mrs. Thatcher

My hon. Friend says that I must deliberately change something which the education service likes because he and his Committee do not like it. I am going some way to meet him.

In the Government's view, the disadvantage to which the Committee drew particular attention—namely, that the [column 1150]length of time for which future financial provision is assured diminishes continuously as the quinquennium progresses—is substantially met when the Government are prepared to declare a long-term strategy. Nevertheless, we are always ready to look at the possibility of improvements, and I propose to examine with the universities and the UGC the merits and limitations of the quinquennial system alongside those of a rolling five-year programme. But it would be a perverse Secretary of State who said “Because the universities and the UGC like it and it suits them, I shall change it” . If there is a need for change, we shall consider the matter with them.

The Committee made extensive comments about extravagant co-ordination and apparent duplication. First, apparent duplication is by no means necessarily evidence of extravagance. May I give an example? It may be more economical to provide, say, particular library facilities or a particular course for which there is substantial demand in more than one place in a city. Remembering the future size of our higher education institutions, I believe that the provision of common facilities for, say, a university with 10,000 students and a polytechnic with perhaps 6,000 students can lead to diseconomies of scale as well as physical congestion.

Secondly, the opportunities for economies through the sharing of facilities are not unlimited. Fewer than half of the universities and polytechnics are near each other, and each of these types of institution is likely to be large enough to require and use efficiently its own provision of general facilities. But I accept that opportunities for economies arise in the provision of specialised facilities. Here there is ample evidence of co-operation between institutions across the binary line.

I have a series of examples, but I give only one because of time. At Newcastle there has been very close collaboration between the university and the polytechnic in several ways, including joint operation of a closed circuit television service, joint planning of specialist libraries, the interchange of specialist teachers for parts of certain courses, and, involving other institutions in the area, a multi-access computer. [column 1151]

I would refer to an aspect of the Committee's proposals which caused both surprise and concern. As I understand the Committee's intention, no new course could be started in any university or other higher education institution without the approval of the commission, which would also take over the awarding of degrees and care for academic standards now entrusted to the CNAA. To concentrate these powers over academic matters in the hands of a body already charged with the control of resources and the monitoring of costs as between one institution and another throughout the whole higher education sector is quite incompatible with the principles of academic freedom on which our present arrangements are founded and from which I believe it would be unwise to depart. Given that a committee had this function in mind for the commission, I simply do not see how at the same time, the commission's rôle could be described as purely advisory.

Although the Government, I hope understandably, are unable to accept the proposal for such a commission, I am far from saying that nothing needs changing. One or two of my hon. Friends tend to give that impression. That is not the impression which the White Paper gives. The White Paper indicated the Government's intention to assimilate the great majority of colleges of education much more closely with the rest of further and higher education. The local education authorities have since been asked to develop plans for the future of higher education in their area to provide the additional numbers required by the White Paper policy up to 1981. The problems that this poses in some areas will prove complicated, but the opportunity now exists to develop, over a period of time, an institutional structure better suited to future needs. The local authorities will be submitting their proposals to my Department and we shall be able to consider them from all points of view—local, regional and national.

In this respect I am being urged to go more slowly and not as quickly as I can on the changes that I propose to make. While these changes are taking place we are also considering how the new structure of institutions might best be administered and controlled. We shall not sheer away from change, if necessary, but to [column 1152]this end we are already studying, with the new local authorities' higher education committee, a number of key issues. These include their own rôle and that of the authorities whom they represent, in any new system; what part the present pooling arrangements should play in future; how the constitution and tasks of the existing regional advisory councils for further education might be adapted to the new situation that we are now creating; and how these councils should fit in with the new regional committees for teacher education, which the White Paper envisages to take over the present area training organisations' co-ordinating functions in relation to teacher education.

We are embarked on a considerable programme of expansion and reform and the Government have given the necessary strategic lead. On the first three subjects that I have discussed, I believe that the Government's aims and objectives correspond to a considerable extent with the views and intentions of the Committee. I hope that by this time my hon. Friend will think so too.

As to the last topic—the financing and administration of higher education—we are all facing a complex problem. Far from being complacent, the Government are embarked on a series of major changes. Although they cannot divest themselves of their responsibility for determining long-term objectives, because of their concern with the availability of resources, they have not determined ends unaware of the views of all the partners in the education service and are pursuing the means to those ends in consultation with those partners. The steps that are being taken may be substantially different from those the Committee recommended, but I hope they will appreciate the very real difficulties that I have pointed out in their proposals and will be prepared to look again at the advantages that I believe can be gained from the Government's less radical, perhaps less ambitious, but wholly realistic intentions.

Mr. Moyle

Will the right hon. Lady say something about the Russell Report?

Mrs. Thatcher

The Russell Report was not dealt with in the report that we are now debating. I thought it wise to answer that report, but we have not started consultations, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. We are trying to [column 1153]analyse the report, which took four years to produce and was published on the 27th March. Before beginning the consultations we should like to have some idea of the practicalities of the situation and be able to consult again on a realistic and practical basis.