Orders of the Day — Higher Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th March 1965.

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Photo of Mr Anthony Crosland Mr Anthony Crosland , Grimsby 12:00 am, 25th March 1965

I should like to start by saying how obliged I am to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) for his kind remarks, and how glad we are to see him back in the educational field also. I think, without any disrespect to any of his colleagues, that he knows more about this subject than anyone else on the benches opposite, and, indeed as much as anyone in the House. I hope that he remains a Shadow Minister of Education for a very long time.

Listening to his speech, I found it hard to disagree with what he was saying. This was partly because he was in a rather more expansive frame of mind than he was almost exactly three years ago to this day, on 9th April, 1962, when he took part, as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, in a most notorious debate on the universities. This was at the beginning of the pay pause and in the middle of a balance of payments crisis, when the Conservatives were taking things out, to some extent, on education. The Conservative Government had just rejected the advice of the U.G.C. on the rate of university expansion and the debate very largely revolved—this is interesting in retrospect —around the question of how many university places there could be or should be in 1966–67. The then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Brooke) took part. His speech so disgusted—or so it appeared to us on the Opposition benches—Lord Eccles, who was then Minister of Education, that he walked out halfway through with an expression of fastidious distaste on his face. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth also spoke, as I say, as Financial Secretary. He said that 150,000 places for 1966–67 was the absolute maximum which we could possibly achieve. He said: In my view his represents the fastest practicable rate of university expansion, and no one conversant with our universities has ever suggested that they could be expanded at a faster rate".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th April, 1962; Vol. 657, c. 772.] That is, 150,000 for 1966–67. Mr. Gaitskell, who led for the Opposition, suggested, on the contrary, that the universities could achieve 180,000, for which he was derided in a number of speeches from the other side of the House. It is interesting that the actual figure will be over 185,000, which suggests that nobody opposite was conversant with the actual position. Since then, the right hon. Member has become an ardent expansionist which I am delighted about. No doubt he has been rebuked by the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) for his timid, reactionary and illiberal views on education. So today we see him in a very expansionist frame of mind.

The right hon. Gentleman started off with one or two general points, before coming down to particulars. He said that he would welcome a continuous review of higher education and its pattern, "Robbins in permanent session", in a phrase which, I believe, he has used in the past. I agree with this. This is partly a matter of looking at the figures of qualified school leavers which we have in the Department, and the figures in terms of national manpower needs, on which, I hope, we shall get some help from the Willis Jackson Committee and the five year plan. It is also partly a matter of major policy and on that it seems highly desirable that the House of Commons should hold periodic debates so that we can take sometimes, I hope, a collective view on the size and pattern of higher education in the future.

In this connection the right hon. Gentleman talked of the total provision and referred to the fact that in his view the Robbins targets were already out of date. He referred to the fact that the number of those with minimum qualifications already exceeds the figures given in the Robbins Report. I am very conscious of this, just as I am of the encouraging growth in the size and quality of our sixth forms. I cannot, for reasons which I will explain later, give a firm indication of our policy on this subject at the moment, but I can assure him that I view the problem from the standpoint of a committed expansionist as I think he does.

I should like to follow the example of the right hon. Gentleman and go through the different component parts of higher education one by one. I do not want to be too long because I believe we are to have four Front Bench speakers and I do not want any back bench speakers to be crowded out. First, then, the universities. Here I think we must start by paying a tribute to the universities for their magnificent response to the Robbins Report. One sometimes forgets now that when Lord Robbins was preparing his Report there were still voices—remarkably influential voices—expressing doubt whether major expansion was practicable. Other voices doubted whether if it were practicable, it was desirable. One forgets how strong the "more means worse" school was at that time, ranging from A. L. Rowse to Kingsley Amis. The enthusiasm of the universities to go forward with expansion took many people by surprise. Now this enthusiasm is being translated into practice.

The building programme is moving in accordance with the timetable of starts. The returns for last October show an 11 per cent. increase over the entries for the year before. Our target for 1967–68 is 197,000 students and we are on target. One thing I wish to stress in this connection is the enormous capital programme that this target requires, if it is to be met. I think that people do not always realise the scale of the investment programme involved. By the end of this current financial year something like £150 million worth of building work will be going on in the universities. Out of every £50 we spend in Britain on building production of all kinds—schools, hospitals, roads, housing and industry—about £1 is spent by the universities. One brick in every 50 at the moment is likely to go into a university building. And this is not the end. If we add to that the equipment, furnishings and professional services required, we find that the total capital expenditure rate on work in progress in the universities is around £230 million, which is a really vast sum.

I wish to emphasise one thing and this takes up a point mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. Even the expenditure of public money on this vast scale will meet the universities growing needs over the next few years only if we get the maximum value for every £ spent; only if the universities exploit every possible economy of large-scale planning and large-scale construction, with standardisation, and only if they make full and extensive use of every piece of available accommodation. We do not want to be put in the position of urging the teacher training colleges, for example, to over-utilise their plant while the universities under-utilise theirs. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned one or two particular points about universities. I shall answer some of them and others will be answered by my hon. Friend.

The Research Councils—yes, I remain responsible for these. On new universities I was pleased that the right hon. Gentleman endorsed the view which we have taken that for the present there should not be any new universities. Under present plans the number of universities will very soon be—the right hon. Gentleman said 41, my figure is 44—anyway, over 40 and it is clear we can get rapid expansion more quickly and more cheaply by expanding existing universities than by building completely new ones. I agree with what he said about older civic universities and the rapid expansion that they had been achieving. I will not go over the arguments; the right hon. Gentleman did so very lucidly.

One argument he did not mentioned was that there are fears among many people who would like more new univer- sities that if we do not have them we shall get to the American position of vast universities in this country. When we look at the figures we find that these fears are completely groundless. By international standards, British universities are remarkably small. There is one giant—London—with over 24,000 students but apart from that there are only three with over 9,000, Cambridge and Oxford, and Wales, which is spread over the Principality anyway. The largest group in size is between 2,000 and 3,000. If we take the 1973–74 figure of 218,000 places we can fit those figures into the number of universities we already have and still get an average university size of only 5,000 which, of course, is very much smaller than many of the most famous universities in other countries. So the idea that because of our decision we shall have a succession of Berkeleys—campuses with riots about four-letter words—as a consequence of this theory, is totally and completely groundless.

Next the right hon. Gentleman referred to the decision about SISTERS and he approved, I am happy to say, the conclusion which we had come to. He described it with typical ingenuity as "priority without sorority"—a nice phrase. At any rate, the right hon. Gentleman approved our decision, that instead of going for the nomenclature of SISTERS we should pick out three leading institutions, the Imperial College, Manchester College of Science and Technology and the University of Strathclyde for selective development.

In this connection the right hon. Gentleman also raised the question of a new technological university institute in the North-East to which I referred in the statement I made in February, and perhaps I can say a word about this. I want to stress that what the Government are examining here is not the promotion to university status of one or other of the major technical colleges in the region, but the creation of a new and, I hope, novel foundation. As a nation we produce scientists second to none, but I am less confident of our capacity to apply the discoveries of the scientists to the needs of the economy and to work them out in terms of productive technology in industry. We are all asking ourselves, can we find a successful way of harnessing the brains and resources of the world of learning and industry to bring into existence, by a close collaborative effort, the educational extension which in the words of the Robbins Report could experiment boldly, unfettered by existing affiliations either with universities or with further education". As a Government we shall be planning during the next few months the next stages in the economic, social and educational advance that we have initiated. We shall have to weigh such a project against many other important enterprises. Since the cost of building and running a really high quality institution is likely to be considerable, we shall naturally be influenced by the size of any contribution that industry has it in mind to make. It is too early to say where in the North-East such an institution might be located. That is a question on which I should want to have the advice of the University Grants Committee.

The next point mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman in connection with universities was the shortage of applicants for science and technology places. This, as hon. Members know, has been causing a good deal of discussion in the newspapers in the last few months. I think there is some case for concern, but I also think we should get the matter into perspective. First, the fact that the universities admitted 1,500 fewer students in science and technology does not mean that there is a decline in the number of university entrants in these fields. The number of entrants in pure and applied science last October was 15,827. That was an increase of 7·1 per cent. over the previous year and 16·9 per cent. over 1961.

The fact is that the universities are making extra places available more rapidly than the supply of suitable candidates is coming forward. In some ways this is, of course, a tribute to the universities. Then again—the famour 1,500 empty places, so-called—does not mean that the number of science specialists among those who may expect to be considered for university entrance is decreasing. It is true that the percentage of the A level passes which were in science and mathematics did fall from 55 per cent. in 1959 to 51 per cent. in 1963. But—and this is much more important in the context of university places—of all those with two or more A level passes, the number in science and mathematics seems to have been fairly constant at some 45 per cent. That, of course, is a percentage of a continuously rising total. The picture is, therefore, perhaps not quite so black as it seems. Nevertheless, we clearly must know a great deal more about this matter and the Council for Scientific Policy has invited one of its members, Professor Dainton, Professor of Chemistry at Leeds University, to undertake an inquiry into the supply of candidates for the universities in science and technology.

One of the first tasks will be to analyse the statistical evidence bearing on the choice of course in science and technology by eligible candidates. I am putting the services of my Department at the disposal of Professor Dainton, although inevitably an inquiry of this magnitude must take some considerable time to carry out. Meanwhile, I hope I can reassure hon. Members that many things are being done to improve the situation in the schools. For example, we are now taking serious steps to attract more recruits from both universities and training colleges into science teaching. We are also giving special priority to the needs of science within the school building programme.

My Department has itself sponsored research projects in the teaching of science and mathematics and we are co-operating with that great enterprise, the Nuffield Foundation, which has decided to devote £½ million to this. Also, the Schools Council has begun a major study of 6th form curricula and examinations and recently held its first conference at Nottingham University for the purpose of bringing together industrialists, educationists and others to discuss the 6th form teaching of science. So a great deal is going on to prevent the muliplier effects to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

Like the right hon. Gentleman, I will say a brief word about colleges of advanced technology. As he said, this debate takes place as these colleges stand on the threshold of university status. From 1st April they come under the aegis of the university grants system. I want to make it clear, as the right hon. Gentleman did, that this change of status should not, in our view, mean any dilution of the technological status of these institutions.

The Robbins Committee, when recommending that they should achieve university status, stressed this and added, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, that it would be appropriate for it to be recognised in their titles and charters. This should not, of course, inhibit them from developing work in pure science as well as social studies, but technology and the application of science to economic needs should remain the core of their work. It is in this spirit that the Government, like the former Government, have welcomed the development of the colleges. I was glad to note that the first of the new draft charters to be submitted is for one of them to be called the Loughborough University of Technology.

One of the most important characteristics of the C.A.T.s has been their development of sandwich courses involving alternate periods in college and industry with the whole course planned as a single scheme of study. There have been suggestions that when the C.A.T.s become universities they will scrap or modify these courses. I, like the right hon. Gentleman and the University Grants Committee, hope and intend that they will do no such thing. We attach the greatest importance to sandwich courses and we would like to see them extended wherever appropriate, including some even in the older universities.

I am glad to say that discussions with the C.A.T.s have shown that they are enthusiastic about expanding and developing these courses. In doing so they will get the utmost encouragement from the Government. We do not want the C.A.T.s to become pale reflections of nineteenth century Oxford and Cambridge or apologising for themselves because they are not precisely like the older universities.