Orders of the Day — Education (Capital Projects)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd August 1965.

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Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Middlesbrough West 12:00 am, 3rd August 1965

There must be a very strong reason for keeping you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, out of your bed at this time of the morning. My reason is that I hope it will be possible to persuade the Government to treat this matter somewhat differently from the way it has been dealt with in announcements which have been made and, I suspect, will yet be made this morning.

The strongest condemnation which can be made of the cuts in the building programmes in education are that they bear too much resemblance to the steps taken by the right hon. and learned Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd) and the right hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Brooke) in 1961 and 1962. I should like to remind the House of what the late Hugh Gaitskell had to say in the debate on 5th April, 1962, dealing with the cuts at that time. He quoted from a letter from the vice-chancellors about the cuts in the University Grants Committee grant, saying, 'Nor can it be supposed that the promise of a review next year will enable lost ground to be recovered.' Hugh Gaitskell said: I can only describe what the Government are doing in this matter as discreditable in substance, dishonourable in presentation, and deplorable in its consequences. It would at least have been a somewhat redeeming feature of the whole thing if the Government had come clean and said, 'We cannot and we will not reach even this inadequate target'; if they had said, 'Sorry, the rate of expansion must be cut. …' Brains and skill are the nation's chief assets; we have not much else. … All our prospects of higher productivity and higher prosperity depend on this. I should have thought that everyone was really agreed on that. I know the Government will plead the pay pause and speak of their economic difficulties in recent months."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th April, 1962; Vol. 657, c. 731–2.] And so he went on.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Chataway) made an important statement when he said they would prefer to see cuts in school meals and school milk rather than the capital programme of school building. One may differ about this, but certainly I would entirely accept what he says about the uncontrollability of changes in the capital expenditure programme.

On the limited point of controls on the level of activity in building Mr. C. E. D. Wooster, Director of Building Management in the Ministry of Public Building and Works, had this to say at the neutral date of 13th October last year at a conference on planning. He said: Because of the long time cycle, whatever measures have been taken by Government to regulate building investment in the past the tendency has been to produce the wrong trend at the wrong time. This is not the time to debate the full range of possible Government measures which might have been and might still be taken. We must now, I think, accept that these cuts have been made, and we must look at what the effect of these will be. How many student places will be affected? It is quite possible to say they will not affect any, for this reason, or that, impossible to equate them with a particular number of places. That ways and means will be found of adjusting accommodation in class and the coverage of teachers. But we do have to look still at the number of places affected.

The number of students in higher education was planned by the Robbins Committee to increase by 66,000 between 1964 and 1967 if there were an adequate building programme. To accommodate those students, even under great pressure, the building programme would provide an additional 10,000 places for each six months' work of construction. Therefore one can assume that a postponement of six months in the building programme will, in one way or another, have the equivalent effect of reducing the number of places in high education by 10,000 by 1967–68.

We have the saving clause in the Government's announcement that the programmes in development districts and areas of high unemployment will not be affected, but I would hazard a guess that in the higher education programme, in the university programme in particular, this will not save more than one-fifth of the projects. I take this not as a condemnation of the saving clause, but as a condemnation of the mis-location of the development of higher education in this country, that so little of the investment is in those areas where the social benefits to the surrounding community can best be felt. So the development district clause does not now very much affect the position.

Because of the record of the previous Government in cuts in university expediture, and because of these regrettable cuts in educational investment, universities might well be justified in calling down a plague on both our houses and simply fume at the Government, demanding recompense. I very much hope that this will not be the reaction of the universities, not out of any desire to protect the Government, but because of the 10,000 boys and girls whose future and whose services to the country are being threatened.

There are obviously other needs. The hon. Gentleman opposite spoke of primary school needs, and who can doubt the need for them. And the country is facing an economic crisis. But because of this crisis, there is even more need to make the best use of our resources and to safeguard the future. I devoutly hope that the reaction of the universities and of the higher education world to what will undoubtdly prove in the weeks ahead to have been a great shock to them will be to seek to rationalise the existing university organisation and methods of university government.

The Secretary of State, in his speech at Woolwich Polytechnic on 27th April of this year, which was widely reported, distinguished between the autonomous sector and the public sector of higher education. He treated as the autonomous sector the universities and colleges of advanced technology under the U.G.C. and as the public sector as those colleges under the control of the Department of Education and Science. Among the distinctions that he made was that it was desirable that a substantial part of the higher education world should be under social control responsive to social needs. This was the rôle of the public sector. But the implication that what he called the autonomous sector is not responsive to social needs is wrong. This must become the feeling in the world of the universities and C.A.Ts.

I think that the Secretary of State must now call for a far higher degree of social responsibility and a greater acceptance of this in the universities and C.A.Ts. than any Secretary of State has previously been able to assume. We had a very encouraging statement from the Chairman of the U.G.C. in this respect. Some hon. Gentlemen opposite and on this side of the House who were present at Cambridge when we explored some of the problems here were surprised at the gain which would come directly in the university world from a greater acknowledgment and greater provision for the exercise of social responsibility in the universities.

The Chairman of the University Grants Committee has described the present system as crypto-dirigist, in that we are able now to direct new development in as rational and economic a way as possible in the expansion in the universities, but we have no means of reshaping the existing activities of universities. We have the appalling situation of fragmentation in classics, modern languages, sciences, arts and technologies, grossly mismatched in students-to-staff ratios, with far too small classes in many cases, through lack of co-ordination between universities and, indeed, between technical colleges in particular areas.

It would be far more satisfactory, both from the research and teaching point of view, if, in the course of the next two years—which is the time it would take to put up the buildings which are now being deferred—the universities were to carry out a major measure of rationalisation of their existing courses.

To do this the U.G.C. will undoubtedly need to help them. It will also need to develop its own organisation. The Estimates Committee has pointed the first step on the way. It has recommended that there should be a full-time deputy-chairman. I think there might need to be three or four deputy-chairmen. Further, the organisation of responsibility in the universities can no longer be left simply to the universities themselves, with each professor having to plead his case before his own senate or court of the university, among men who, to all intents and purposes, are laymen and amateurs in the matters on which they are being asked to judge. Instead the appeal should be, in each subject, to a commitee of the peers of that particular professor in his subject, thus having, at the University Grants Committee level, an active committee in each subject area.

This would not be like the present U.G.C. technological sub-committee, which meets once a year and is totally ineffective, but a committee which is more like the medical educational sub- committee, meeting twice a week under the University Grants Committee at the moment. There is a similar need for rationalisation in the local technical colleges in certain areas. In the North-East there is no serious attempt to co-ordinate the courses between the regional colleges or, at the lower level, between the area colleges. There is a great waste of staff time as a result, and too small courses. The encouragement of students to go to certain places where scope exists for them in the course in which they want to study needs to be much more highly developed in the technical colleges.

The Secretary of State could wait for the storm of protest which will brew up in the university world and the world of higher education in the next few weeks—if he does that I would not care to be in his shoes—or he can step out and go further than any Secretary of State has yet gone, and say to the universities, "We have been forced into this desperately unsatisfactory position. What I am asking you now to do is to share the responsibility which rests upon us nevertheless to provide for the education of these 10,000 boys and girls who are threatened, and to undertake that major measure of rationalisation which is needed to employ our resources more efficiently not only for these but for the whole future of the country."