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 Sir Edward Boyle Sir Edward Boyle , Birmingham Handsworth 12:00 am, 26th January 1966

I doubt very much whether universities would want to take this work on. These things must come gradually.

I was glad to hear the Secretary of State speak of the value of closer relations between institutions. But if the object of those who are for a unitary system is to say that the only thing that should really count is degree level work, and that we want to aim at a completely unitary system for degree level work, then I say that they are greatly under-rating the difficulty of making a split in our system of higher education at the point where they would make it.

I come now to make a rather less friendly reference to the Secretary of State. As he must agree, there was a certain irony about the timing of the Report we are discussing. The final paragraph of this Report says that If the Robbins target is to be achieved without prejudice to accepted standards of university education, a further large increase in the capital grant, which the Estimates Committee had been investigating, would appear to be unavoidable. What actually happened? Only two or three days after we had this Report, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his six months' moratorium on the starts of all educational capital projects other than schools, and it is now clear from the right hon. Gentleman's answer just before we adjourned for Christmas that the Government's handling of university building has been even more severe than anyone could have supposed from the Chancellor's statement.

What the Government have decided is that the universities are collectively to get a smaller capital grant over the three years ending with the financial year 1967–68 than we on this side when we were the Government, had already sanctioned in 1964. I should like to remind the House of one or two figures. Chapter 18 of the Robbins Report on the short-term emergency showed that we needed to plan for more than 20,000 extra university places by the academic year 1967–68. Incidentally, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman pointed out the rapid increase since the war both in university education and full-time higher education, and I am not sure that the figures which he gave this afternoon quite bear out the 1963 comment of the Prime Minister that "education had been the whipping boy of the stop-go economic policy". None the less, the Robbins Report made it clear that we needed a considerable number of extra university places if we were to meet the demand for places during the critical years of the bulge.

What was the reaction from the universities to this? They first said that they needed £60 million worth of additional capital grants over and above what had already been authorised if they were to cope with the extra numbers. The U.G.C. scaled down these university bids to £40 million. And the then Government, for their part, offered an extra £36 million—that is to say, an extra £15 million for projects to be started in the calendar year 1964 and an extra £21 million for the 15 months January, 1965, to April, 1966. The U.G.C. acquiesced in this offer by the Government, but made it plain that in its view the revised programmes of £48·5 million for 1964 and £54·4 million for 1965–66 were the absolute minimum which it considered essential if the universities were to meet the demand for places as estimated by the Robbins Committee.

I remember that a very strong case was also put to us that the value of work authorised to be started in the calendar year 1965 should not be less than in 1964 and that only £6 million of the £54·5 million should be held over to the first quarter of this year. That seemed reasonable, on the ground that if 1967–68 was to be the peak year of the short-term emergency, the level of starts in the calendar year 1965 was crucial if we were to get the number of people we wanted in the universities in 1967–68.

What in fact has happened? Last year, as a result of the moratorium, the value of university buildings started in 1965, far from being the same as in the calendar year 1964, was actually a little less than in the last pre-Robbins year, 1963. I leave it to the imagination of hon. Members, if anyone could have forecast such an eventuality on the morrow of the Government's acceptance of the targets in the Robbins Report, just what a storm there would have been. And over the 15-month period January, 1965, to April, 1966, instead of the programme already authorised of £54·5 million, we have had a programme of only £39·5 million.

It is true the right hon. Gentleman has announced, as he was really bound to do, a larger programme of starts for 1966–67, increased from £33½ million to £40 million, and an increase of £5 million for 1967–68. But this means that in terms of work carried out, even by 1970, the universities will still not have fully recovered from the effect of the cuts made in the building programmes which the Conservative Government had already authorised in 1964.

In any case, the right hon. Gentleman's announcement, before Christmas, was really considerably less generous than it sounded for a number of reasons. First of all, the effect of the Government's decisions must mean not just a small cut, but a substantial reduction in the value of university building work actually carried out during the crucial years 1966–67. The effect of the cut in starts in 1965 must affect the work done in the two following years.

Secondly, and more important still, when we were in office we always recognised the £25 million figure for 1967–68 as provisional and subject to review in the light of the results of the enquiry by the U.G.C. into obsolescence. Sir John Wolfenden made this quite clear when giving evidence in reply to question No. 369, he said: The present arrangement is that there is a £25 million floor, and that will be lifted if we can show cause. Much later in the inquiry at Question 1950 lie pointed out that this is exactly why the allocations for 1967–68 had not been made. He made the very sensible point that if the provisional total that had been allocated had been distributed, this could well have meant giving a university a second-priority project, whereas if it turned out that more money became available, it could then get its first priority project after all.

Sir John Wolfenden was perfectly clear that we had never reached a final figure for 1967–68. There was one thing about which I was disturbed in the right hon. Gentleman's speech. Is he saying that we must now not only accept the final figure of £30 million for 1967–68, but that we must also accept, as an absolutely final figure, £25 million for 1968–69? I hope that when the Minister of State winds up tonight he will be able to tell us that we have not got an absolutely final figure here, and that in the light of the inquiry into obsolescence it may be possible to add a little to the last year of the four-year period of which the right hon. Gentleman spoke.