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 am very relieved to hear that. I hope that we can get it clearly established that the position of the last year in the 1968–69 period is in the same position as was the 1967–68 period before the right hon. Gentleman made his Christmas announcement. There is also one other factor, namely, that since we announced these programmes in 1963–64 there has been a rise in the cost of university building, estimated as being as high as £4 million. I have given these figures to the House because I think that they ought to be appreciated.

We should also recognise what these figures are going to mean to the universities and to their staffs. I accept the statement of the right hon. Gentleman that, despite the actions of the Government, we shall reach the Robbins target in 1967–68. Surely the task which faces universities is not just that of reaching a numerical target, but sustaining these numbers without sacrificing standards which they, as autonomous institutions, consider essential. I understand the feelings of the universities that they should not be penalised for the tremendous efforts which they are making.

On this point, I thought that Lord Fulton—whom I am sure we would all wish to congratulate on his recent honour —put this right in an answer he gave to the Sub-Committee. He said at Question 589: After Robbins there was an air of confidence in the universities; they thought 'Now we can expand, we shall have the money to do it.' … The universities had got into a state of mind in which they felt that if they expanded they would only be lowering their standards … I think they thought that the Robbins Report and the way in which it was received was a new kind of guarantee this was no longer going to happen … It is quite true that Lord Fulton was a little gloomy about the staff-student ratio, which has not bent at all but has stood up throughout this quinquennium. But I am bound to say that I think that Lord Fulton is right in saying that there is not the same confidence today in universities as there was when the Robbins Report appeared. If the universities are to have less money we ought to recognise the consequences, both for a more rapid degree of obsolescence in the older universities and a slowing-down in the building-up of the new ones.

I would like to say a word, first, about the new universities. At present we have the national task of building up no fewer than 20 new universities, including the colleges of advanced technology. This is not just a matter of constructing so many square feet and providing lecture rooms and communal facilities. There is also the need to attract first class academic staff. On this point I am inclined to agree with the article in the New Statesman last week, that staff and students are often attracted to what is new. But surely building programmes are very important here too?

In this context I was impressed by an answer which Sir Peter Venables gave in reply to Question 981 when he said: Until we get our expanded buildings, allowing for more and more research, you will not reinforce this salary position adequately. I was glad, also, that Sir Peter Venables made it quite clear that the C.A.T.'s should not come off too badly under the old Ministry of Education, that our stewardship of them had been good. Sir John Wolfenden also said at Question 549 that the difficulty with the C.A.T.s … is going to be in relation to hopes that they are entertaining now on the basis of development projects of their own which they have discussed in the past with the Department and the Ministry of Education … The C.A.T.s were expanding very rapidly before they came into the U.G.C. set-up. There building programmes went up from about £1 million a year at the start of this decade to the figure of £4·7 million in 1964–65.

Not only are buildings important but there is the need for adequate libraries, which are also highly important from the point of view both of capital and recurrent grants. Each new university receives an initial library grant of £175,000. We obviously need to get a balance between expenditure on libraries, including often expensive text books and periodicals, and on science equipment.

Thirdly we should not forget the problems of residence experienced by the new universities. The supply of convenient lodgings is not unlimited. I am told that the new University of Canterbury is already thinking in terms of lodgings as far away as Whitstable—not just Herne Bay, but Whitstable. When, as at Brighton, 85 per cent. of the students live in the town one has to provide a very large car park. And I do not believe, as I have said in earlier debates, that one can altogether arrest the fall in the proportion of home-based students. From all these points of view the building up of new universities is bound to be an expensive business.

But I am even more concerned with the position in the older civic universities—that is universities like Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Birmingham and London. If I have a criticism of the Sub-Committee's Report, it is that I am sorry it did not spend a little more time on these. I think that the Committee visited Birmingham, but I believe that this was the only one. These are the universities, which, more than any others, are bearing the brunt of the Robbins expansion.

What must surely worry the Secretary of State is that, with the present level of building programmes, when sufficient resources have been earmarked for bringing new universities and C.A.T.s up to a viable size, and also for technology—we are in the course of spending a total of £18½ million on Imperial College—there is going to be too little left for the older civic universities. These universities are offering some of the most important courses in the arts and fundamental science. We must not forget the continuing importance of university-orientated fundamental research, tempting though it is to concentrate in scientific debates on what the Minister of Technology is up to. But the university-orientated research is extremely important.

Also, we should not forget how much harder it is for an established university to go on moving forward. I am sure that if Lord Fulton were taking part in this debate he would wish to contrast the problem of getting Brighton to its present size and the problem, after a certain numbers of years, of advancing inch by inch at Swansea.

I have talked about the university institutions, but perhaps most important of all are the students themselves. We should remember that Robbins, if anything, under-rated the demand for full-time higher education.