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 Mr Anthony Crosland Mr Anthony Crosland , Grimsby 12:00 am, 26th January 1966

I should like to start by paying a tribute to the hon. Baronet the Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) for the very remarkable Report which the Committee has produced. He would be quite unsuccessful in trying to drive any wedge between Lord Bowden, on the one hand, and myself and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, on the other, because Lord Bowden showed me that letter before he sent it and I said that I agreed with every word of it.

It is a very remarkable Report indeed, extremely thorough and very enlightening. I personally learned a great deal from it, as I think that many others did. It has provoked a very fruitful and thorough debate throughout the university world. I genuinely believe—I say this with no trace of flattery—that it will be a major landmark in the continuing discussion of these extraordinarily intricate matters.

As the hon. Baronet observed, my Department made certain replies to the recommendations of the Estimates Committee and these elicited a rather stern stricture from the Committee on 8th December. I personally make no complaint of any kind about this. The fact is that the Report of the Estimates Committee came at a time when the U.G.C. and my Department were already reviewing their procedures, and the Report persuaded us to carry this review a good deal further. So when we made our observations we were not yet in a position to give the answers fully. I hope, however, that what I say this afternoon and what my hon. Friend the Minister of State will say in winding up, will satisfy the hon. Baronet and the many other members of his Committee who are here this afternoon that we have fulfilled the objectives they had in mind.

I think that this debate takes place, by chance, at an extremely suitable moment. There seems to be a wavering of confidence—some people would even say a crisis of confidence—between, on the one hand, the universities and, on the other, public, parliamentary and governmental opinion. The universities, for their part, are in a rather sensitive, and even apprehensive, frame of mind, while public opinion is unusually ready to display a certain impatience with the universities. I personally am not too disturbed about this. I think that it is an inevitable consequence of the unprecedented growth in recent years, which leads people to wonder whether a system and a relationship which was designed for a small and intimate university sector can possibly survive in the vastly expanded higher education world of today.

What I would like to do this afternoon is to take, first, the anxieties on the university side and then the anxieties on the side of parliamentary and public opinion and see what I can do to allay them. I shall try all the way through to link my comments with those of the Estimates Committee.

I want to start by discussing certain fears, or what I prefer to call misunderstandings, on the part of the universities. The first one relates to the machinery of government, which is discussed in paragraph 16 of the Report of the Estimates Committee. As the House well knows, the Robbins Committee recommended that there should be separate Ministers for education and for arts and science, the latter being made responsible for the universities. The Conservative Government did not accept this recommendation. They took the view, as had Sir Harold Shearman in his note of reservation on the Robbins Committee, that education must be considered as a single whole.

Therefore, they announced in February, 1964 that there was to be one Minister—a Secretary of State for Education and Science, with responsibility over the whole educational field—I mean the whole field in England and Wales, obviously not covering Scotland. Under him would be the single Department but with two Ministers of State and two administrative units, each headed by a Permanent Secretary. Broadly, one of these units would be responsible for the work of the old Ministry of Education and the other for universities and civil science.

Apart from adjustments relating to the creation of the Ministry of Technology, the Labour Government continued these arrangements, but adding to them responsibilities of the arts, which my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary looks after, of sport and—a particularly important responsibility which comes high in our sense of priorities—of the university of the air. However, we made one change which has caused some comment in the universities. This was the transfer of one of the two Permanent Secretaries to other duties so that a single Permanent Secretary became accounting officer for the whole Department. This was not in any sense a structural change. There remain two Ministers of State, one of whom is my hon. Friend who will be replying this evening, and who is particularly concerned with universities and science.

The grants to the universities continue to he borne on a separate Vote from the rest of the Department's expenditure. This Vote retains the special feature, referred to by the hon. baronet, relating to non- accountability of the universities. The Chairman of the U.G.C. enjoys the same access to the Secretary of State to press the claims of the universities. And final decisions on spending as between different parts of education lie, as they did before, with the Secretary of State. The fact of one or two accounting officers is entirely a matter of machinery and in no way implies that one sector or the other is more or less favoured than it otherwise would be. I hope that this explanation will finally allay any remaining anxieties in the universities on this point.

The second anxiety concerns the relationship between the universities and other parts of the higher education system. It concerns the so-called binary system. Perhaps I was rash in my Woolwich speech to philosophise about the proper shape and system of higher education as a whole. Yet we must discuss these things. I was relieved perhaps to see Sir Peter Venables say this in the current edition of the University Quarterly:Whatever reservations there may have been about the Woolwich speech of the Secretary of State"— I have to admit that there have been some— there can be little doubt that it was most timely in focusing attention on issues of far-reaching importance in higher education. However, the immediate controversy about binary has been a particularly unreal one, because nobody has ever proposed a unitary system. The Robbins Committee recognised that a great deal of higher education goes on outside the universities. Indeed, this formed part of its design for the future, since it accepted that in the main further education should remain under the control of the local authorities. Indeed, to strengthen this it recommended the creation of the C.N.A.A.—I quote the Robbins Committee— to operate for the benefit of the regional and area colleges. We have, therefore, enunciated no basic new doctrine, any more than have the Opposition. I think that there has been broad agreement on this point.

The recent argument has been about the severely practical point of whether at the present stage of development of higher education a few local authority colleges should become, or be merged in, independent universities. We decided against this, for reasons which I think have commanded widespread support on both sides of the House. It is sometimes said that, because we talk of an autonomous and a social sector of higher education, therefore we do not believe in the social responsibility of the universities. Of course we believe in it. Anybody who has observed the development in the university world over the last few years must recognise the growing sense of responsibility throughout the universities, from the oldest to the newest.

Whenever the Government, through the U.G.C., have formulated some national need—whether for more scientists and technologists, whether for an increasing number of doctors, whether for enlarging expertise in East European or Oriental Studies,—the universities have responded with wholehearted enthusiasm. In general, over recent years the initiatives of the universities themselves have become far more outward-looking, far more concerned with their environments, with society as a whole. My hon. Friend the Minister of State will give examples of the readiness of the universities to meet national needs whenever these are clearly expressed.

One last point on binary. When, after consulting the U.G.C., I decided that it would not be right to support the proposed merger between Lanchester College of Technology and Warwick University I made it absolutely clear that I did not wish in any way to discourage collaboration between the two institutions. It seems to me that such things as shared student amenities, collaboration over research projects, common access to expensive equipment and, in fact, plain, downright academic discussion, are wholly desirable.

In fact, I even made it clear to the technical college that, if it wanted to, it could look to the university for some of its degrees. And our decisions over the Schools of Architecture and of Planning in Birmingham have shown how far we are from wanting to suggest, let alone impose, rigid or divisive patterns. I want to see the greatest possible interchange between the different parts of the higher education system, and in this connection I want to say again how glad I am that the universities are responding so readily to the request to establish B.Ed. degrees with colleges of education.