Students and Universities

Commons Hansard
10 Dec 2009

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I thank the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee not only for the report before us today, but for the report by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, which he also chaired. There is no doubt that his Committee has a good reputation for holding Government to account. That is what Select Committees are about. He said that some Members might wish to go broader than his report, which I have read, and I intend to do so.

The thing about students and universities is that people need a university before they can discuss them. It is not a packed Chamber today, is it? However, the two hon. Members for Oxford constituencies-the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith)-are present. That says something about the fact that Oxford university is probably the most famous university in the world and has done tremendous things not only for Britain, but the world.

Mr. Andrew Smith: I am grateful-as too, I am sure, will be the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)-for my hon. Friend's recognition of Oxford. However, my hon. Friend must remember, when talking about universities and Oxford, to mention both of them-Oxford university, and Oxford Brookes university and its excellent work.

Mr. Martlew: But I shall try not to mention Oxford United.

I was elected MP for Carlisle in 1987. As a Cumbrian MP, I was faced with a particular challenge. More than 300 years ago, the area's application for a university was turned down because of our warlike neighbours, the Scots; it was thought inappropriate to have a university so close to the Scottish border, so it was put in Durham. People in Cumbria long took it for granted that they would not get a university, as a result of which so few of our young people actually went to university, and many of those who did, such as Lord Bragg of Wigton, Hunter Davies, Margaret Foster and Sir Brian Fender, the great educationist, did not return for many years. That meant the area was being drained of its talent, which we needed to bring prosperity.

Soon after I was selected as a candidate, I went to a lecture by the vice-chancellor of Preston polytechnic, as it was then-it is now the university of Central Lancashire. He said that north Cumbria and south-west Scotland were the most deprived areas in western Europe in terms of higher education provision. When I was elected, therefore, one of the first things that I knew that we needed to do was to provide local people with the opportunity to study for a degree without having to leave home and to encourage others to study there.

I am grateful to a good friend of mine, the noble Lord Glenamara, who was then chancellor of the university of Northumbria. Ted Short, as he was called when a Member of this House, was the Education Secretary who took the decision to locate the university in the north of England in Lancaster, not in Carlisle. As a Cumbrian, he always regretted having to do that, but I think that it was the fault of the local authority.

I worked well with Lord Glenamara, and in 1992, we opened-he kindly asked me to open it with him-the Carlisle campus of the university of Northumbria in the historic quarter next to the cathedral. That was the first time people from my area and north Cumbria could get a degree in their own constituency. And it made a difference. I remember meeting a young girl who must have been in her mid-20s with a child of about eight-obviously, she had a baby very young-who was attending the university. She had a child to look after and was thrilled that she could do a degree and become a teacher. There was great satisfaction in that example.

When Labour came to power, my area got a brand-new hospital-the first private finance initiative hospital to be built in this country. However, the old district general hospital, which was a listed building, had no use. That could have been a disaster, because listed buildings with no use are, in many ways, a menace, as I know well. However, St. Martin's college-one of the finest teaching-training colleges in Britain-which was looking to expand out of Lancaster, took over the old hospital. It is now a teacher-training section of the university of Cumbria.

We had the critical mass of facilities needed to build the university of Cumbria. My noble Friend Lord Dale Campbell-Savours, who at the time was the Member of Parliament for Workington, proposed a university of the Lakes, which in some ways was meant as a virtual university, but at the end of the day it was not successful, and a traditional university was chosen instead. However, for many years, we had had a very good art college, which became the institute of art. We pulled those things together and two years ago we were able to say, "We have a university of Cumbria". That was a magnificent day for many of us-as I said, the area had waited 300 years-and, as hon. Members can I imagine, we were rather pleased.

There is no doubt that the university has teething troubles. The buildings are spread throughout the county: it has two campuses in Carlisle; there is one in west Cumbria; another, called Newton Rigg-it used to be the old agricultural college-is out in Penrith; and there is a 115-year-old teacher-training college, Charlotte Mason college, in the Lake District at Ambleside. Those facilities were brought together, along with part of St. Martin's college in Lancaster, to create the university of Cumbria. We are well aware that we need the university if we are to attract talent and business, and to keep that talent. That has gone very well, and I am thankful to the Labour Government for that provision.

There is, however, a difficulty about the location of the headquarters, which I think, being MP for Carlisle, and because it is by far the largest city in the area, should obviously be in the city of Carlisle. That was agreed, as too-finally-was the Caldew viaduct site, which I suggested many years ago. Everything was going well until the current economic problems. We now have an £8.4 million annual deficit and the capital moneys for the headquarters might no longer be available or its provision might be stalled. I find that puzzling, because as far as I am aware there has been no cut in the higher education budget, so it is not a question of the effect of the recession. Rather, there are obviously other issues at play, and over the past month or two the local media have highlighted the problems.

I have talked about the campuses at Charlotte Mason in Ambleside and at Newton Rigg in Penrith. One of my concerns is about the talk of mothballing those campuses and moving a lot of the staff and the teachers to Lancaster-to return to the 1960s, that was when Cumbria lost out to Lancaster, which is now probably one of the top 12 universities in the country. However, the reality is that we cannot have a university of Cumbria, the majority of whose students are in Lancaster. That will undermine the whole process.

I asked the new vice-chancellor-I sympathise with him, because he has not been in post very long-to come down on Monday afternoon to discuss the situation with Cumbrian parliamentarians from both Houses. I would like to ask the Minister, who is now in his place, whether he will have time after that meeting, probably early in the new year, to meet a delegation including myself and others to discuss the matter further. Although we have made great progress, we have a problem, and we have to come through it.

I recognise that the university of Cumbria has to build its own reputation. I suspect that it might be many years before it has the reputation that Oxford has, but that is what we must try to achieve. We must try to improve the university. However, we will overcome the problem. The university has stalled, but it will continue; indeed, other great strides have been made during this time. Before 1997, we did not have any medical training whatever in Cumbria. We are now part of a medical school and are training medical students. We also have a campus of the new dental school based in Liverpool, so we have made amazing strides and we are looking forward to the future.

What I would say to those hon. Members who take universities for granted is that there are parts of this country that have been deprived for centuries. We are getting over that, but we should not lose the impetus. We should continue to strive to make higher education available to as many people as possible.

1.33 p.m.


The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): Let me begin by thanking the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for this opportunity to discuss higher education and his Committee's report. Many of us in the Chamber have had successive discussions on these matters recently-it feels like week by week. I have been a Minister for either skills or higher education for some three years now, and it is my feeling that the standard of the debate this afternoon was among the very highest. That is a reflection of the work of the hon. Gentleman's Committee, and of the real contribution that Back Benchers have made. It is also a reflection of the contributions by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson). I hope I shall be able to deal with some of the points they raised in the moments I have at the Dispatch Box, although I recognise that we have another debate this afternoon.


Mr. Martlew: My hon. Friend may be coming to this, but in my speech I asked whether I could meet him early in the new year to discuss the situation regarding the university of Cumbria. Will he deal with that before he concludes his speech?

Mr. Lammy: That is a very good way for me to end my speech. I absolutely assure my hon. Friend that I am happy to have that meeting. I recognise the historic challenges in Cumbria, and particularly his championing of the area.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB