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 will ask my hon. Friend to answer that when he replies to the debate. This is a debate on universities and, therefore, I have not the figure with me.

The fourth anxiety of the university world relates to the capital building programmes generally and in particular, obviously, to the effect of the deferment measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer last July. The Government, of course, regret that it was necessary to defer a number of important university projects, but the economic situation was extremely serious and we had to take stringent measures to ease the pressure on resources. We made these measures as selective as possible, not only by exempting projects in development districts but by further exemptions in a variety of special circumstances. About £10 million worth of university projects were exempted from deferment. We felt, however, that higher education could not be totally shielded from the economic pressures any more than other forms of desirable social expenditure.

There has, therefore, inevitably been some set-back in university building programmes and a loss of building starts; some £15 million worth of building which would have started in 1965–66 will not be started until 1966–67. I do not want to deny this fact or to minimise its importance. However, the building programmes which the hon. Baronet the Member for Walsall, South mentioned, and which I announced on 22nd December, have reduced the permanent loss to less than £3 million, thus fulfilling the recommendations of the Estimates Committee Report. We were able, at the same time, to assist university planning by adding a further year, 1969–70, for which a firm figure of £25 million starts have been approved. Therefore, the universities have now building programmes for at least four years in advance.

I hope that we can look in future to the programme going steadily forward every year and that the universities will accept that the postponements have not been as severe as they originally feared. In difficult circumstances for the country, from which none of us can contract out, much has been retrieved for the universities. Out of the revised programmes for 1966–67 and 1967–68 totalling £70 million the U.G.C. has decided to give priority to the provision of additional medical places to meet the urgent national need. It will also give priority to the development of the new universities, to the three technological institutions which I mentioned earlier and to those C.A.T.s—Bath, Battersea and Brunel—which are moving to new sites.

The question of building is intimately connected with the next anxiety in the university world: do the Government still accept, and will they fulfil, the Robbins targets? The answer to the first part of the question is unequivocably yes, and to the second part equally firmly yes, given, as we shall unquestionably have, the continued support of the universities themselves.

I should like to look at the figures of expansion, because they are remarkable. In 1939, the total number of university students was 50,000 and the entry 15,000. In 1960, the number of students was just under 108,000 and the entry nearly 30,000. Today, the number of students is 168,000 and last October's entry was over 52,000. This year's entry is one-seventh higher than last year's. It is 500 higher than the universities told the U.C.C.A. last May that they would be able to admit. It is in line with the recommended Robbins figure of 48,000 places for United Kingdom students. And there seems to be no doubt that the Robbins target for 1967–68 is now assured.

Taking higher education as a whole, the Robbins target of 290,000 students in October, 1965, has been exceeded by 5,000. This rapid expansion of the universities represents a remarkable achievement and all those concerned deserve enormous praise. When the Robbins Report was published in October, 1963, few people expected that the target would be reached in such a short time. It is also worth noting that this huge expansion of university students has been accompanied by a substantial recruitment of academic staff so that the current ratio of one full-time member of staff to every seven and a half full-time students is virtually the same as at the beginning of the quinquennium.

I should like to pay tribute to the development of the Universities Central Council on Admissions. This, which was barely more than an idea in 1960 is now a classic example of inter-university cooperation to achieve a socially desirable end. Few countries in the world have a more efficient and more comprehensive procedure than the U.C.C.A. computerised system, and Lord Fulton and his successor, Dr. Templeman, deserve great praise for this achievement, which is an achievement of the universities themselves.

Lastly, discussing the anxieties of the universities, one can detect an occasional but in my view quite unnecessary fear that in this age of rapid expansion Governments may begin to encroach on the basic academic freedoms of the universities to which the hon. Baronet the Member for Walsall, South referred. Let me therefore make a clear declaration of faith, which I think will be echoed in all parts of the House, that we respect and treasure the essential academic liberties as much in 1966 as we ever did before. We have surely all of us learned if we needed to, the lessons of Lysenko in Soviet Russia and McCarthyism in the United States, and we all equally want to preserve the central university tradition of freedom, heterodoxy and dissent.

The Government, like the Estimates Committee, unreservedly accept the system and the principle of the U.G.C.—the principle of the so-called "buffer-state". Under this system the U.G.C. has three essential functions. They are, first, to be the Government's general adviser on university matters, secondly, to be the counsellor and guide of the universities on national needs, and thirdly to be a grant-allocating body. The combination of these three functions in an independent committee, with practising academics among its membership, served by a professional secretariat, constitutes the U.G.C. system.

It is important to distinguish between these functions. The first two are advisory. Even so, it would no doubt be a very bold Secretary of State and a very bold university that flouted U.G.C. advice, but one must not be too formal about how this works in practice. Advice will often emerge from discussion and need not be tendered on a "take it or leave it" basis. There is one essential matter which the hon. Baronet the Member for Walsall, South mentioned on which the U.G.C. advises the Government but on which the Government specifically reserve their position. This is the total amount that can be assigned by the Government for distribution between the universities. On that the Government alone can decide after weighing the claims of the universities against all the other competing claims on our resources.

On the distribution of the total amount available, on the other hand, the U.G.C.'s advice, by long-standing convention, is invariably accepted. This is a system which this Government, like the last Government and like the Estimates Committee, wholeheartedly accept.

I turn now to the other side of the current dialogue, the fear on the part of parliamentary and public opinion that we may not be getting value for money in our large expenditure on the universities. This fear was reflected in the Third Report of the Public Accounts Committee, it was reflected in the Report of the Estimates Committee which we are discussing today, and it is reflected, perhaps, in a certain general public questioning, which I might sum up in this way, quoting an imaginary man in the street.

He might say—perhaps he does say—"£200 million is a lot of money, and, if it is to remain non-accountable, at least some university people might show a bit more readiness to adopt checks of their own instead of showing themselves lukewarm about O and M and loudly hostile to the most elementary attempts to establish cost analysis. I read reports", he might say, "not always wholly reliable, of course, about under-employed dons, about under-utilised plant, about unco-ordinated expansion and about a reluctance to cooperate with one another and with industry. So it is no wonder that I feel uneasy as a taxpayer about value for money".

That is, perhaps, partly a caricature—perhaps not—of a certain general questioning which is now going on. It all raises the question of the role of the U.G.C. in detail and the specific recommendations of the Estimates Committee, and I shall devote the rest of my speech to discussing these.

It seems to me that the essential objectives of the Government and of the U.G.C. in seeking to ensure value for money while protecting basic academic freedoms are these. First, there must be a reasonable degree of control over the spending of public money on both capital and current account. As regards capital grant, a great deal has been achieved recently in improving the control of expenditure—and I refer here to Recommendations (x-xii) of the Estimates Committee. The U.G.C. has collected comprehensive information on the accommodation likely to be available in the universities in 1967–68, and it has also undertaken a survey of university sites. This information will give it, for the first time, a complete record of both buildings and sites and so provide a firm base for future planning. Moreover, the U.G.C. is conducting a comprehensive review of its procedures for controlling expenditure on university building. This is being done as a joint exercise with my Department, and the pooling of experience has already produced valuable results in revised joint standards and cost limits for residential accommodation; and work is now well advanced in relation to the simpler types of academic building.

There is also, of course, a continuous dialogue with the universities about value for money in relation to capital grant. They have been made aware of the potentialities of industrialised building techniques. They have been brought into contact with the National Building Agency. Perhaps it is not generally realised just how rapid the advance is in this direction. Seven universities are now using or planning to use industrialised systems for halls of residence and for other buildings.

A particularly striking example is York University, which chose to use the CLASP system originally developed for school building. But the CLASP system is not entirely suitable in its present form for science and technology buildings, and the U.G.C. is, therefore, collaborating with my Department and the Bristol College of Science and Technology in what I think will be an exciting new experiment. A joint team of professionals drawn from the Department, from the U.G.C. and from the College's architects is developing modified components which will be of use not only for the college's new buildings at Bath, but also to meet the general requirements of other universities for this type of accommodation. These new components will be compatible with the CLASP system and will thus extend its range. I hope that this will set the pattern for further joint development projects.

The universities themselves are also getting together to share their building experience. The Vice-Chancellors' Committee has established a building subcommittee which acts as a clearing house for the exchange of information. Since the Estimates Committee reported, discussions have already taken place between the U.G.C. and this sub-committee about the possible organisation of groups of universities for the bulk buying of industrialised building components.

Of course, a responsibility falls on the Government so to act as to make efficient planning possible. As the Estimates Committee says in Recommendation, ix, already referred to, 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 universites". We accept the spirit of this recommendation. As I told the House on 22nd December, programmes of building starts have now been authorised for four years ahead, and I hope that it will prove possible in the future to roll these programmes forward year after year. The U.G.C. has told me that the allocations for 1966–67 and 1967–68 will be notified to universities early next month. Allocations for 1968–69 and 1969–70 will be made as soon as the universities have had an opportunity to survey priorities in the light of their allocations for the first two years.

Buildings at universities come into use, on average, about two years after they are started. The programmes now approved will, therefore, in general, produce buildings which will become available for use in the years from 1968–69 to 1971–72, and this will enable the universities to sustain the level of student numbers envisaged by the Robbins Report and to prepare for the next quinquennium. I hope that on this extremely important recommendation—perhaps the most important of all—the hon. Gentleman will feel that we have met the Estimates Committee's argument.

Turning to current expenditure, it is, of course, much harder to find effective criteria for the allocation and control of recurrent grant. About half of universities' recurrent expenditure is in respect of academic salaries, which are on scales approved by the Government. A further check is provided by an agreed ratio of senior to junior staff. For the rest, the U.G.C. must rely on the effectiveness of its own comparative analysis of university expenditure and on the good sense and responsibility of the universities themselves. Here, the matter was extremely well put in paragraph 70 of the Estimates Committee's Report.

However, the Government can again help here. I refer to Recommendation vii of the Report: 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. As I said on 20th December, the Government have decided on one important improvement which will remove the uncertainty which, until now, has existed at the end of a quinquennium and which has inhibited the universities from planning effectively. We shall now make provisional allocation of recurrent grant for the first year of the next quinquennium, that is to say, the academic year 1967–68, well in advance of the final settlement for the quinquennium as a whole.

I hope to announce it towards the end of 1966. This will give universities a firm basis on which to make their plans, particularly in relation to staff recruitment, for 1967–68. Again, I hope that this goes a considerable way to meet the view of the Estimates Committee.

We shall, of course, continue to review the system to see whether we can improve it, but I think that it would be wrong to promise further early or dramatic changes. The fact is that the present arrangements have a number of advantages both for the universities and for the Exchequer. Quinquennial block grants enable the universities to plan developments well ahead and give them freedom to order their own affairs within the total resources made available. There would be no virtue in making a change if we were to lose these advantages.

I turn now to say a word, as did the hon. Member for Walsall, South, about the recent attempt of the U.G.C. to provide more meaningful comparative analyses of recurrent expenditure. The hon. Gentleman summarised the position. As the House will know, early last year the U.G.C. set up a working party, under its Deputy Chairman, Sir Harold Sanders, to review the content and layout of the returns submitted to the U.G.C. by universities. The working party had the advice of a number of university registrars and finance officers and, in addition, it had expert cost accountancy advice.

As a result of its recommendations, the chairman of the U.G.C. wrote to the Vice-Chancellors in May drawing their attention to the revised annual financial returns. The hon. Baronet has already mentioned recent correspondence in The Times about this exercise I would largely echo the comments that he made, very trenchant comments, on this correspondence. Some correspondents have suggested that the revised return is the result of unreasonable pressure by my Department on the U.G.C. This is not so. The U.G.C. was itself responsible for setting up the Sanders Working Party and for implementing its recommendations, which were made to it and not to my Department. It was the U.G.C., and not my Department, which devised the new form of financial return and then introduced it.

But, having said that, I must make it clear that, like the hon. Baronet, I welcome and support the initiative of the U.G.C. in trying to analyse and compare expenditure on similar services in different cases. Of course, there are complaints about this particular questionnaire, and that is not surprising considering that it is a first experimental effort, but Sir Harold Sanders has made it clear that the U.G.C. is well aware of the difficulties and will be very ready to consider any suggestions for improving the return.

As the hon. Baronet remarked, the correspondence was very barren of any suggestions for improvement. It had a rather negative tone about it, even if a number of people did not object in principle to some such idea. But the Committee of Vice-Chancellors has appointed a working party under the Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster to examine possible alternative ways of obtaining the information and will be discussing the outcome with the U.G.C.

I turn to another anxiety felt by public opinion about the universities, and that is whether they are using their plant efficiently enough. We now know for the first time, as a result of U.G.C. surveys, the full extent of university building in Britain. It will amount in 1967 to about 60 million square feet of accommodation of all kinds. Some of this, of course, is quite unsuitable; about one fifth needs money spent on it to make it suitable. Nevertheless, it represents a considerable capital investment, and at a time of acute pressure on student numbers, we must make the best use of it that we can, as we are currently trying to do in the colleges of education and the technical colleges.

This raises extraordinarily complex problems of what constitutes productivity or higher output or efficient plant utilisation in the universities. There is no agreement on these matters; the economics of higher education is still in its infancy. But some study has been given to this complicated question in the universities and elsewhere. Hon. Members may have seen articles by Carter, Bruce Williams, Blaug and others. My Department's economic adviser is now collaborating with the U.G.C. in examining the implications of a number of different organisational and procedural patterns to see which of them, if any, might be most helpful in the search for maximum productivity, for, obviously, while we must preserve the guarantees and the freedom of choice implicit in our present system, we must at the same time continuously consider how new and existing buildings can be used to maximum effect.

I pass to another question which more and more engages both university and outside opinion, and that is the growing need for some rationalisation of courses and concentration of effort. This arises especially, naturally enough, in the scientific field, where the range and cost of research are continually increasing, and, at the same time, specialisation is necessarily intensified. I had the pleasure of going a fortnight ago to a conference in Paris of Ministers of Science, and their attention was drawn in every country to the long-term problems that this creates, and to the need for each country—I quote from a report presented to the conference: to initiate long-term studies of university and research development with a view to selecting a limited number of research centres of quality, and building these up by selective financing. Such a system of 'growing-points' would safeguard against dilution of effort over a larger number of smaller, weaker units and could do much to establish strength and higher achievement in national research activity. In this country we have been moving in this direction for some time. It has been the policy of the U.G.C. and the research councils to limit the provisions of costly nuclear physics research facilities to five universities. Radio-astronomy has been developed in a big way in Manchester and Cambridge, and there is a growing tendency to develop regional centres in other kinds of research. The Flowers proposals for computer provision in the universities, now accepted by the Government, reflect the same tendency. Indeed, there must be increasing pressure towards specialisation and the creation of centres of excellence in an age when effective research requires more and more sophisticated equipment and larger and larger teams of people.

But the problem, as we are beginning to realise, goes far beyond the field of scientific research. Including the C.A.T.s, we now have 42 universities compared with only 21 in 1960 and 16 before the war. With the best will in the world, not all these 42 can have equally strong and lively departments in everything from Chinese through sociology to technology. There must be some division of effort and some degree of rationalisation—not only because we lack the resources to build up 42 equally strong departments in every single subject, but also for another reason. If every department, say, of economics, convinced of the present shortage of economists, tries to expand in ignorance of what all the other departments are doing, the present shortage will give way to glut in five years' time, and that glut will lead to an equally unco-ordinated and undesirable contraction.

So we must have some degree of coordination, consistent with the academic freedom which we rightly treasure. This is a problem which exercises many of the universities themselves, as will be known to those who attended the very remarkable conference organised by Sir Nevill Mott, in Cambridge last summer. It also exercises, as I found in Paris, all the Ministers responsible for univerisities in other countries; they are all conscious, with the growth in the number of universities, of the need to concentrate resources and to build up particular centres of excellence.

The U.G.C. is equally conscious of this need. It has advised on the concentration of the additional funds which the Government made available for technological development. It is now considering how the existing pattern of agricultural schools might be rationalised, following the Bosanquet Report. The same thinking is found in the Parry Report, with its recommendations of five centres for Latin-American studies. The U.G.C. now accepts it as one of its functions to distribute its funds selectively so as to ensure the most effective deployment of resources.

The Estimates Committee draws our attention to another point. Are the universities sufficiently aware of national manpower needs, and are the Government sufficiently active in expressing them? In Recommendation (vi) the Committee says: The functons 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. I am in very strong sympathy with this, but in saying so I do not minimise, any more than I imagine the Committee would minimise, the formidable difficulties of forecasting in this field—difficulties that are as much conceptual as statistical. The previous Government will remember the serious errors made at different times in forecasting the demand for doctors and for scientists and technologists. We need a great deal of work still to find out what we can do efficiently in this field.

We must make it clear that we do not want to imply—I do not think that the Committee wanted to imply—that the sole criterion for the expansion of higher education should be national needs. On the contrary, these must be woven in with the Robbins principle, which I personally entirely accept, that all young persons qualified by ability and attainment to pursue a full-time course in higher education should have the opportunity to do so. However, as I say, I am in very strong sympathy with the approach of the Estimates Committee, and the Department already plays a very full part in the Government's manpower planning work.

Over the largest part of the field, that of science and technology, needs are surveyed by the Committee on Manpower Resources for Science and Technology under the chairmanship of Sir Willis Jackson. This Committee is staffed jointly by the D.E.S. and the Ministry of Technology, and reports to both Ministers. The U.G.C. is directly represented on it. It published an interim report in October, together with a report of an inquiry into post-graduate courses for engineers and technologists, and is continuing with very detailed studies.

The Willis Jackson Committee is solely concerned with scientists and technologists, but I should like to extend this sort of study, as the Estimates Committee wishes, over the whole field of highly-qualified manpower. At the moment we try to make projections and predictions for particular groups, such as teachers and doctors, but there is no machinery for surveying the wider fields of nonscientific national demand or need.

I am discussing with my right hon. Friends the First Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer what the next steps might be in formulating a wider manpower policy on these lines. If the hon. Member for Walsall, South has studied the question of manpower and seen what has happened in other countries—the United States for example—I am sure that he will not think that this is a delaying answer, for it is an extraordinarily complex problem, as the National Science Foundation in the United States, for example, has found.

I come now to the final question underlying many of the Estimates Committee's recommendations. Is the U.G.C. fully equipped in its present membership and staff to carry out the increasing demands made upon it? I deal first with the membership. The U.G.C. has itself been closely considering this question. The problem as put by the Estimates Committee is one of relieving the burden on the Chairman and bringing the Committee into more frequent contact with universities and giving it a much greater degree of expertise. The Estimates Committee rightly describes the present load on the Chairman of the U.G.C. as "awesome" and recommends, as the hon. Gentleman said, that the part-time post of Deputy Chairman should be made full time.

I am not certain that this is the best solution. We and the U.G.C. are attracted by the possible alternative of having two part-time Deputy Chairmen—one, like the present Deputy Chairman, academic, and the other non-academic with management experience. This would bring the U.G.C. further industrial or commercial experience and give greater flexibility in the organisation of work between the Chairman, the Deputy Chairmen and the officers.

As to membership, we fully accept the need for further reinforcement of the Committee in order to meet its growing responsibilities. But we should not, I think, necessarily achieve this by further increasing its membership. Size has its dangers as well as its benefits. The view of the U.G.C., which I accept, is that the present membership of 20 plus two for salary questions is about right, and that any increase would impair the Committee's effectiveness. The Estimates Committee suggested that more of the members might be full time. Surely the answer to this deficiency lies in providing more full-time staff expertise, and this is a point I should like to come to in a moment.

How, then, should we reinforce the Committee? The U.G.C. now proposes two radical changes which I believe will achieve the object we all have in mind. First, it proposes that in future the academic members of the Committee should undertake, as part of their terms of appointment, to make one-fifth of their time available for U.G.C. business and that this should be formally recognised both by the members themselves and by their universities. This will make it much easier for the Chairman to call upon the time of members for particular jobs and for members to respond to such calls without embarrassment on any side. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors has said that these arrangements would be acceptable to the universities.

Secondly, the U.G.C. has decided to extend the system of expert advisory subcommittees and panels on which it already relies to a considerable extent. In addition to the existing standing subcommittees there will, in future, be subject-groups covering the entire range of academic subjects, both arts and sciences. It also proposes to extend the use of small ad hoc panels or study groups to examine particular problems.

These new sub-committees and groups will consist jointly of Committee members and outside experts. This will increase the number of people concerned with the work of the U.G.C., without adding to the membership of the Committee itself and it will ensure that the assessment of university developments and the formulation of guidance to the universities, while becoming more purposeful, will continue to be through a "judgment by peers". I believe this to be a most significant concept which will be further developed under the new arrangements. These arrangements are already under way and I hope that they will lead to a major improvement.

There is one other change which I should like to mention. The Estimates Committee recommended that the timetable of the U.G.C. visitations should be spread over the whole quinquennium. The increased call which the Committee will now have on its members, and the introduction of a full range of subject sub-committees and panels, will make this possible and the visitations can now be largely divorced from the quinquennial cycle.

Lastly, the Estimates Committee also made a series of recommendations about the staffing of the U.G.C. We all—the U.G.C., my Department and the Treasury —accept the need for proper staffing to match the continuing increase in the range and complexity of the Committee's responsibilities. The growth of the secretariat is proof of this.

In January, 1953, the staff numbered 22. In the next 10 years it doubled, and since 1963 has more than doubled again. The authorised complement is now 116 compared with 106 at the time that the Estimates Committee reported and this includes an increase of two—an architect and an engineer—in the Architects' Branch following the review carried out by the Treasury, as suggested by the Estimates Committee. There may still be one or two points where some further strengthening will be required, especially to take account of the changes in the Committee structure, but, by and large, I believe, as does the U.G.C., that, once existing vacancies are filled, the staff will be well equipped to deal with its present responsibilities.

The hon. Gentleman referred to specific recommendations by the Estimates Committee for two particular posts, apart from the architect and engineer I have mentioned—that of a full-time statistician for the Finance Division and a full-time cost accountant. The essential thing is to make sure that this professional advice is fully available to the U.G.C. while also ensuring that scarce professional talents—and all these talents are desperately scarce —are used in such a way as to make the maximum use of their skill.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, inside the Civil Service it is rare for professional staff to be deployed individually or in twos or threes in particular administrative branches. Normally, professional advice is provided as a central service available to all branches of a Department. So the U.G.C. can and does call on any of the specialist services in my Department. It does so all the time.

For example—to take up the point about statistics—the U.G.C. already has a statistician on the staff who works in the closest co-operation with the Statistics Branch of my Deparment, which is almost certainly the outstanding branch in the whole of Whitehall. I have gone into the Statistics Branch carefully and I am certain that nothing more needs to be done in that respect. The same is true of the cost accountancy and of the Architects' and Building Branch. The two sets of services must be considered as a single whole and so considered they now meet, I believe, the requirements of the Estimates Committee.

The major part of the credit for the changes must go to the U.G.C. and especially the Chairman, Sir John Wolfenden. I was glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to him, quite rightly, as a great public servant. Burdened by his "awesome" load and recently bereaved, as the hon. Gentleman said, Sir John never losses his humour or vitality or his incredible capacity for work. If any one man deserves praise for the successful maintenance of the "buffer state" principle, it is surely Sir John. For this principle of the "buffer state" is now accepted almost everywhere.

There may be a few extremists in the universities—one of them indeed expressed such a view in an article in the Listener a week or two ago—who still resent the intrusion of the outside world. There may still be a few extremists in the outside world who resent the independence of the universities. But the huge majority of us in every party have confidence in the present system and confidence in the U.G.C. to administer it.

Of course, the system will and must change and adapt to changing needs and changing circumstances. The subject groups I have described themselves represent a major adaptation on the part of the U.G.C. But it will adapt within the framework of two principles.

On the one hand, we must reassure the universities that we believe profoundly in their freedom and in their expansion. On the other hand, we must reassure the taxpayer and Parliamentary opinion that the nation receives full value for this large expenditure. I hope that what I have said this afternoon will help to reassure both parties to this vital and fruitful partnership.