Meeting of minds off MPs' agenda

April 7, 1995

What important function is performed irregularly by David Blunkett, the shadow education secretary; hardly at all by Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman; and only on special occasions by Lord James Douglas- Hamilton, Scottish Office education minister?

The answer is: holding meetings with representatives of their local higher education institutions, according to the Parliamentary University Group.

A survey by the group found that only London University has regular talks with its local MPs.

But even in the capital, communications between politicians and universities are not always free-flowing. Peter Brooke, the former higher education minister, for instance, meets University of Westminster officials only when there are particular problems to address - and not even then, in the case of London Guildhall, which also lists him as a local MP.

Don Foster only meets with officials from the University of Bath in his constituency on an informal basis. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton pops into Edinburgh University on special occasions, and David Blunkett is an irregular visitor to his local Sheffield Hallam University.

Both politicians and institutions are to blame for poor lines of communication between them. And the result is that despite its great economic and social importance, the higher education sector is poorly represented in parliament, according to Labour MP Barry Sheerman, a founder member of the group and MP for Huddersfield. The University of Huddersfield does not figure in the survey.

"Some MPs do take their local university for granted, and they fail to see it is as important as any industrial plant of the same size. What the universities fail to see is that they are sleeping giants. They are the least powerful of all interest groups in Britain in relation to their size and importance," he said.

The Parliamentary Group is pressing for universities and MPs to hold more regular meetings and for politicians to shadow university staff to reach a better understanding of problems facing the sector.

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