Grants to Universities and Colleges (Estimates Committee's Reports)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th January 1966.

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Photo of Major Sir Henry D'Avigdor-Goldsmid Major Sir Henry D'Avigdor-Goldsmid , Walsall South 12:00 am, 26th January 1966

I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: this House takes note of the Fifth Report from the Estimates Committee in the last Session of Parliament and of the Third Special Report from the Estimates Committee, relating to Grants to Universities and Colleges. It is appropriate that I should begin by expressing my gratitude to you, Mr. Speaker, for having selected for debate today, a day which, in sporting parlance, is rather a bye-day for normal House of Commons business, a subject on which the Sub-Committee over which I had the honour to preside reported to the House at the end of the last Session.

It is 15 years since the Estimates Committee last reported on the activities on the University Grants Committee and during that time expenditure under this head has risen from only £23 million to something approaching £200 million. It is also significant that the intake this year alone into the universities is the equivalent of the entire university population of 1939. This shows the dimensions which this subject has now reached. I think that it also shows that it is probably time for the House of Commons to have another look at it.

I think it right for me to begin by expressing on my own behalf thanks for the good fortune which has enabled me now to present for the third time the Report of the Sub-Committee for debate on this Floor and at the same time to thank my colleagues on the Estimates Committee for their forbearance in allowing Sub-Committee B, of which I had the honour of being Chairman, to have this distinction.

I also wish to go on record, because this is a Report which is critical in certain ways, as being extremely grateful to the very large numbers of people from whom we were able to take evidence. In this connection, members of the University Grants Committee were outstanding, particularly that great public servant, Sir John Wolfenden, who made such a vital contribution to this work. On behalf of the Sub-Committee, it might be appropriate for me to convey to him our great sympathy in the recent tragic bereavement that he has suffered.

I should like also to thank the numbers of academic leaders of very high standing who were willing to give up a great deal of time to giving evidence to us, not only for their courtesy but for their real desire to help us in our investigation, who treated our inquiries with great frankness and showed a real willingness to see the problems with which we had to deal. Lastly, it is appropriate that I should say my own personal thanks to the members of my Sub-Committee B, whose names are on the Order Paper, for the very great support and help that they gave in the compilation of the evidence and preparation of the Report.

I should like to include in that the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton), who is the Chairman of the Estimates Committee and gave much of his time and most useful counsel. Lastly, the Clerk to the Sub-Committee did an outstanding job and it was a matter of regret to members of the Estimates Committee to hear that he is very soon to leave this place himself to take up an appointment in the educational field. We shall miss him very much. I should also say that I appreciate the presence not only of the Minister of Education and Science, but also the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science. To them I say that although we shall shortly be losing their services I contemplate that with great deal less regret than that of the Clerk.

I have to ask the House to consider not only the Fifth Report of the Estimates Committee, but also the reply made to it by the Minister, which is the Third Special Report of 8th December. On page 8 of that Report there is a note from the Estimates Committee which, I think, is worth reading aloud. The comment of the Estimates Committee on the reply of the Department is as follows: Your Committee feel bound to inform the House that in their opinion these Observations are unsatisfactory. In particular, several of the Observations ignore the reasoned arguments made by the Committee and repeat points already made in the course of the inquiry. In the view of your Committee, the answers to some of the Recommendations in the Report are not a substitute for the action which the Committee made clear is urgently needed. I feel it my duty to justify to the House these strictures which, at our instigation, the Estimates Committee was good enough to accept. Sub-Committee B of the Estimates Committee made 16 specific recommendations. In answering those 16 recommendations the Department bracketed two of the recommendations together for the purpose of answer. It therefore made 14 observations. Of these, 14 observations no fewer than 10 in the opinion of the Estimates Committee were unsatisfactory—not because they rejected the recommendation of the Committee but because, in the reply, the Department either ignored or evaded specific points the Committee had stressed or readduced arguments already presented to the Sub-Committee in evidence, arguments which the Sub-Committee had found unconvincing and had been at pains to give its reasons for rejecting. In other cases the answers seemed no substitute for the action which, the Committee felt, was urgently needed.

It is my duty to justify the Committee's strictures and this will mean dealing, if only briefly, with all the recommendations. I am conscious of the large number of hon. Members who wish to speak in this debate. I therefore propose to keep my remarks to a minimum, but I feel it proper to cover the ground. Very briefly, the University Grants Committee consists of a full-time chairman who is paid and a deputy-chairman who is part-time and a substantial number drawn from the academic profession unpaid, and it has a duty laid on it of collecting from the universities their bids for grants in aid from the Government to assess them and submit them to the Department of Education and Science.

In due course the Department then submits them to the Treasury. When the Treasury decision is made, the allocation to the U.G.C. is, of course, affected by the national resources available and the U.G.C. has the responsibility of dividing among the universities the total amount allotted and then harmonising the allotment with the original demand. Although there is one inclusive grant, it is made up of two elements. One is the recurrent grant, whose job it is to finance the day-to-day running costs of universities, and this includes salaries, maintenance costs and wages. This recurrent grant is fixed for five years, a quinquennium, subject, of course, to supplementary grants which are sometimes made in respect of alterations in academic wages, changes in rents and other matters to which I shall refer later.

The capital grant is, therefore, to provide new buildings, furniture and equipment of new buildings, the purchase of sites and properties and professional fees. The capital grant is controlled by the University Grants Committee by cost limits on buildings and building norms and the purchase of sites is subject to approval by the district valuer. That probably is sufficient background for the House to consider the specific recommendations made by my Committee and the answers we received from the Department.

The first recommendation we made was that the deputy chairman of the U.G.C. should be made a full-time appointment. The answer we received was that this was still under consideration. I remind the Minister that the Robbins Report has now been in the hands of the public for more than two years, nearly two and a half years, and it recommended two full-time deputy chairmen. I suggest that when one considers the very great pressures under which the Chairman of the University Grants Committee has to operate—the Committee described his duties as "an awesome task"—to take three years to consider whether or not there should be a full-time deputy chairman does not give any confidence that this problem will ever be dealt with.

The second recommendation of the Committee was that The timetable of the U.G.C. visitations should be rearranged so that they are spread over the whole quinquennium; two visits (if possible, of greater length) should be paid to each university. As the Minister knows, the quinquennium is the period during which the recurrent grant runs and it is fixed for the next period partly by a visitation which has to take place about 18 months before the quinquennium expires to fix the grant for the coming quinquennium.

The impression which the Committee got from the evidence was that in this last 18 months of the quinquennium the University Grants Committee was working under very great pressure indeed. It therefore made the recommendation that instead of having only one visitation, namely, at the end of the quinquennium, there should, if possible, be two in order to keep in closer contact with the university and to take decisions without being under the stress of time to such an extent.

In its observation, the Department says that it accepted that the programme of visitations should be spread on a more continuous basis and thereby enable the Committee to increase and deepen its contacts with the universities. But the Department absolutely ignored the suggestion that there should be two visitations in the course of a quinquennium.

Recommendation (iii), which deals with the financial provisions, I shall come to later. It is one of the most important parts of the whole Report and I want to deal with it at slightly greater length. I come to Recommendations (iv) and (v), which deal with the architects' division. This was singled out by the Chairman of the U.G.C. as the greatest single weakness of this structure. In Question 1916, I put to him: What do you feel are the weaknesses in your present organisation? He replied: The most pressing one is quite simply that we have not got enough professional staff—architects and quantity surveyors. It is on that side of our organisation that we are at the moment weakest. This was confirmed in the evidence of Sir Robert Matthew, Past-President of the R.I.B.A. and a former member of the U.G.C. In answer to Question 1537, he said: I happened to be a member of the U.G.C. some years ago when we persuaded them to set up a small unit, and it took a lot of persuasion even to do that. It has proved totally inadequate. They have managed to set some standards on halls of residence and even to build one building, as you know, in Reading, as a cockshy; but it has gone so slowly that things become out of date before they really get them done. This comes from a most distinguished architect, himself a former member of the U.G.C.

Finally, Sir Douglas Logan, Principal of the University of London, said that what we have found most irksome is delays in processing our building programmes. One would have thought that this was a good reason for strengthening the architects' division of the U.G.C. In fact, four new posts were authorised. A witness for the Treasury said, on Question 1776: I am very conscious that the difficulty of filling some of these posts is causing a certain amount of work, which ought to be done, not to be done. I would like to draw the attention of the Secretary of State to the urgency of this problem, and I think that in the light of that it is disappointing that all the Department could say at the time was that the Treasury had carried out a review of the architects' division and its recommendations were awaited.

The fact is that the architects' department of the U.G.C. is under strain, and it is known to be under strain, and it is known that this is a source of weakness in the organisation, and I can find nothing in the observations of the Department to show that the Department is conscious that there is a real urgency in this position.

In Recommendation (vi) we suggested that The functions of D.E.S. in relation to collecting and processing information about national needs for graduates in industry and other sectors of the economy should be enlarged. We got a really dusty answer. The Department said, very shortly, that this issue goes beyond its functions. Our view was that the functions should be extended.

In Recommendation (vii) we said: The U.G.C., D.E.S. and the Treasury should undertake urgently a review of the quinquennial system and the changes should be put into effect early in the next quinquennium. We got from the Treasury confirmation that this should be done. The answer, I think, is a remarkably poor one, namely, that that work had already begun. The quinquennial system was instituted in 1889, instituted at a time when the sums dealt with and the institutions to which they went bore no real resemblance to the situation we have to cope with today, and we would have thought this to be something which would have been almost continuously under review and on which action could be taken, in view of the extra work now going to the U.G.C.

As to Recommendation (viii), the Department simply has not seen the point we were trying to make. As I mentioned earlier, recurrent grant is supplemented by supplementary grants made from time to time in respect of unforeseen expenses which are falling on the universities between the years of the quinquennium in such matters as changes in academic salaries, and the universities having to bear a charge for rates, which have to be corrected if the universities are to do the work which they are supposed to do.

In addition, there is a sort of university cost of living index known as the Tress Index, from Professor Tress, of Bristol, and which deals with what I would describe as almost the non-academic costs of universities—the wages and salaries of non-academic staff, National Insurance, cost of books, maintenance, fuel and light. As we very well know, there has been a constant movement in the costs of all these items. The Tress Index has been accepted by the Treasury as statistically sound, and our Committee's view was that the object of it was to insulate the universities to some extent from the erosion of their means by price increases, and that at each quinquennium they could be evaluated fairly.

What happens now is that if there is such a change in the Tress Index the U.G.C. considers it. It is then passed on by the U.G.C. to the Department, which likewise considers it; and in due course the Department passes it on to the Treasury, which also considers it. So that far from this being an automatic increase to offset effects of inflation there are three separate acts of judgment on any recommendation, or any proposal, in Governmental parlance; there are three additional delays.

The Vice-Chancellors we talked to felt that if the Tress Index was accepted as statistically sound it should be used to help the universities to defray these rising costs. Our recommendation was that we should put it to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors to deal with this, and that when they consider that rises in the index justify an increase in grant it should not then be a matter for further discussion with the U.G.C., the D.E.S. and the Treasury, but that the recommendation of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors should be sufficient to activate the grant. The only reply we got to that was: The Government consider that it is one of the responsibilities of the University Grants Committee to advise them when, in the Committee's view, additional grants are required in connection with increases in costs.The comparative analysis available in future to the University Grants Committee will increase the value of this advice in this respect. But that misses the point of our recommendation, which was to try to give the index a very much more automatic effect than it has under the present régime, and, without having the regulatory effect that I have mentioned, I doubt whether it serves any useful purpose in convincing the universities that they are being protected against a rise in costs.

Recommendation (ix) dealt with our suggestion that The U.G.C. should invariably receive confirmation of the Government allocation of building starts not less than four years in advance and, as soon as possible after this has been done, the U.G.C. should make its allocation to individual universities. Then we had the trite observation that It is the Government's intention to give as long notice as possible of the amount available for capital investment. However, having made that observation the Minister is to be congratulated on the fact that he announced in a Written Answer on 22nd December the building starts that he proposed to authorise for the next four years. That fulfils our recommendation. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) will have some questions to raise on that later, if he succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker. Nevertheless, we congratulate the Minister on having taken our advice, even if he did not say so in answer to our recommendation.

Then I move to Recommendation (xiii), in which we suggest a survey of obsolescent equipment. We got a reply which indicates that a working party comprising representatives of the Treasury, the Department, the University Grants Committee and the Science Research Council has made its report, which is being examined. It goes on: The University Grants Committee's suggestion that there should be a special allocation to help those departments with obsolete equipment was considered by this Working Party and is therefore, within the scope of the present examination. The point that I would like to try to put across is that, unless one has actually got a survey of obsolescent equipment to work on, I do not see how any of the other things will function. A survey was what we asked for, and a survey is not apparently being made.

Recommendation (xiv) was that The level of students' fees should be raised to meet 20 per cent, of current university expenditure. The Department's observation is that The level of students' fees is now under examination The Minister will recall that it was one of the recommendations of the Robbins Report that the level of students' fees should be raised from 10 to 20 per cent. of university costs. I do not need to go into the arguments, but it has to be said, first of all, that it must be to the good of the universities that they should have slightly more funds on which they can depend, irrespective of the recurrent grant.

Secondly, we are giving education away very cheaply to people who come from abroad. When we send students abroad, they pay full university fees, and although we have a tradition of welcoming students to these shores, at the same time I do not think that the tradition would lose anything if the level of students' fees was raised from 10 to 20 per cent. This matter should have been under examination now for more than two and a half years, and it does not give one any confidence that a decision is to be made to be told that it is still under examination.

Recommendation (xv) is connected with the provision of computers to the universities. It is a complicated and difficult matter. It arose in our Report mainly because of the experience of London University with the Atlas computer. The university applied for a grant and was given not the £2 million it asked for, but £500,000. It then entered into a commercial transaction on its own. It financed the purchase of the computer through a bank loan, it made an arrangement with the British Petroleum Company to share the use of the computer, for which British Petroleum paid over £600,000, and the balance it proposed to work off by farming out the computer for other businesses.

What happened was that the computer had teething troubles, the commercial hirings never materialised, and London University now owes £1 million for its computer. We examined the position rather fully, and our recommendation was that any further plans for the purchase of computers which included commercial utilisation should be scrutinised very carefully indeed.

I was interested to see that the Minister made a statement in the House on 21st December indicating the programme for computers and indicating, moreover, that there was to be an expenditure of £3 million in the current year, but not making any reference to the debt of £1 million which hangs over London University in respect of the computer already purchased. In our Report we said that it looked as if, at the end of the road, London University would have received by the back door the additional £1 million which, when it had applied for it overtly, had been refused to it. I hope that the Minister will be in a position to supplement the Written Answer which he gave on 21st December and tell us how London University's £1 million fits into the £3 million to be spent this year, or whether the matter is being left in suspense despite his announcement about the computer programme.

I want to return now to the third recommendation which we made. It really boiled down to strengthening the financial divisions of the University Grants Committee by the addition of a statistician and a cost accountant. It reflected a good deal of uneasiness about current grant spendings on alterations which is shared by the University Grants Committee and the Treasury. Having reread our Report, I am bound to say that I am not convinced that the introduction of a statistician and a cost accountant will deal with these matters in a satisfactory way.

As a Committee, we were seeking some objective criterion of value for money.

It is something which escapes the ordinary statistical approach, and I feel that the information derived from statistics, howeved intelligently compiled, cannot have greater validity than the accuracy of the facts upon which they are based. We had an extraordinary piece of evidence on the point from Mr. Parker, the auditor of Cambridge University and a highly skilled and experienced man, and I will read to the House his answer to Question 1324, because it goes down to the roots of the problem with which we were faced. He said: If my profession could be helpful to the U.G.C. and the universities behind them and to the Government in exploring ways and means of devising tests and ways and means of setting out after the event what has happened in such a way that the application of those tests could be made, there is no doubt we should be very ready as a profession to co-operate in that. What I do not think is that accountants, as accountants, would ever be good judges themselves of what has been well spent or not well spent. That seems to me to be an absolutely crucial piece of evidence, because it shows that the view of a very experienced and learned man is that the search for an objective test is not one that can be reached through the normal channels of accountancy. We have included in our Report at Appendix E what we describe as faculty costs per student. This is a thumbnail guide, and clearly it is not entirely a satisfactory one, but I was rather impressed by the evidence of Sir John Wolfenden, who, referring to the Sanders Working Party, said: I think this publication of what people nowadays are beginning to call league tables is very salutary inside the universities. In The Times recently there has been some indignant correspondence from a number of gentlemen in the academic profession who are aghast at having to divide their time between teaching and research, but in the academic world, as in the legal profession, there tend to be differences of opinion. I recall what the late Lord Justice Bowen said when members of the Bench were presenting a tribute to Queen Victoria on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee. The proposed tribute began with the words, "Conscious as we are of our shortcomings …". One of his colleagues said that he was not conscious of any shortcomings, and Lord Justice Bowen said, "I suggest that we say 'Conscious as we are of one another's shortcomings'".

I think that that applies also to the academic profession, and I was not surprised when I saw a letter from G. J. Hills, who said: I have, as usual, been disappointed by the correspondence from my outraged colleagues.I share their concern that the present essay in cost-analysis has over-simplified the problem, occasionally to the point of absurdity, but I also note the lack of alternative proposals from those who reject the present scheme. This is where we really produced something, and he has praised the attitude of this House better than anyone. He said: The danger is that their contemptuous and negative attitude will be rightly interpreted as selfish irresponsibility by those whose unpleasant task it is to apportion out this country's limited resources. The universities are not so sacred or so delicate as your correspondents suggest.They and their activities are as subject as any other branch of the state to careful scrutiny which may determine where best the public monies should be spent. The University Grants Committee questionnaire may not discover the truth but at least it is an attempt to do so. My last point is on the question of academic freedom. Universities do not submit to the Comptroller and Auditor General. As the Comptroller and Auditor General was himself dealing with these matters, we as a Committee did not consider this point. In fact, we said in paragraph 8: Your Committee … do not regard it as part of their remit to re-open this controversy. When the Public Accounts Committee reported to the House on 7th December, the hon. and learned Gentleman the Financial Secretary to the Treasury behaved with a circumspection which no doubt did great credit to his legal training, but did not show any advance whatever in the position. He said: There is no doubt that we want to see that the most up-to-date techniques of control and management are employed. This is not always an easy matter, but real progress has been made in this field, and it does not follow—like the right hon. Gentleman I do not want to pre-judge the question at all—that these things would be better achieved by making the University Grants Committee accountable to Parliament, or that they ought to be gained—if they would be so gained—by any restriction of academic freedom. He went on to say: … the House will not expect me to comment one way or the other. I do not want to give the impression either that I am slamming doors, or opening them. I wish to leave the door where it is, without specifying too precisely what that point is."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th December, 1965; Vol. 722, c. 278.] We are having a debate today during which we might try to advance from that position, and I shall stick my neck out a little further on this point. In this House we do not want to tell the universities whom to teach, or how to teach, or what to teach. This is for them, and them alone, to decide, but I do not think that if we make them accountable to the taxpayer for the taxpayers' money which they spend we will infringe any principle of academic freedom. Let them be as bold as they like in spending their own money, but let us end the pretence that the arrival on the scene of the Comptroller and Auditor General with his very limited remit is the first step to the secret police. I hope that the Minister will be able to commit himself a little further on this point than his colleague did, and with that fervent hope I should like to leave the problem with him, having expressed my own view.

I apologise for having kept the House for so long, but I should like to quote from a letter which I received from the noble Lord, Lord Bowden, who was a former Minister of State, and who is now enjoying a more congenial occupation in the academic world.