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 accept that land is sometimes a problem. I will come to the question of priorities for education expenditure generally. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We must think not only of building programmes but of land, fees and equipment. I very much agree with the attitude taken in the Report about fees.

The purpose of this part of my speech has been to make two points. First, I believe that the programmes which we approved as a Government were the absolute minimum needed by the universities. And, secondly, we can all too easily forget the problem of the older civic universities which are particularly bearing the brunt of rising numbers.

I was saying that I thought that Robbins, if anything, under-rated the demand for full-time higher education. The targets were based on the assumption that 10·8 per cent. of the university age group would get two or more A levels by 1973. Even the Department's statistics for 1963 showed that this figure was already out of date. The new prediction is 13 per cent. The U.C.C.A. Report to which the Secretary of State referred—and I do not think it is out of order to refer to it since it came out officially an hour ago—suggests very strongly that as we pass the peak of the bulge pressures on universities will not lessen. This is the clear intimation of that Report. The trend is that those staying on in the sixth form will catch up the declining population in the secondary schools.

We see more and more the force—although some writers on education do not—of what is said on page 89 in Appendix One of the Robbins Report: … it is impossible to circumscribe with a formula the potentialities of the future. All this, including the Report which we are discussing, emphasises the need to consider this matter in terms of priorities in the education service. I feel, as the House well knows, that we got this utterly wrong last year. Whatever the economic situation, how can it make sense to cut back university and college building and at the same time plan to increase the indiscriminate subsidy on school milk and meals from £84 million to £99 million?

While I wholly share the view about the quality of the Department's statistics, the chapter on education in the National Plan was thin and unsatisfactory. This Report shows the need to look not just five years ahead but ideally even longer ahead and to ask ourselves this question: assuming that we shall have a specific rate of increase each year in the amount of real resources available for education, how can we get the best value for this money in the national interest?

I should like to pass to some other specific issues contained in this Fifth Report. I agree with the Sub-Committee that the Department's observations were too perfunctory in tone and substance. That is why I am glad that the Secretary of State has been more forthcoming today on a number of points. I agree with the clear indication in the Report that the University Grants Committee needs to be more professional in many of its operations; and I have no doubt that the Committee itself would agree with that. I thought that Sir John Wolfenden's evidence throughout was extremely frank and helpful.

On Recommendation (1) on the full-time deputy chairmanship, I should be inclined to feel that there was merit in the alternative suggestion which the Secretary of State made this afternoon about two part-time Deputy Chairmen. I say that for two reasons. First, anyone like myself who has spent a number of years as a Junior Minister will know that on large issues people are not prepared to accept a "no" from a number two. This must always be remembered. It would probably be true of powerful Vice-Chancellors, also.

Secondly, I agree with the Secretary of State that there is a strong case for saying that the U.G.C. should have one nonacademic Deputy Chairman who can concentrate on those activities which universities have in common with other institutions and one Deputy Chairman from the academic world who can concentrate on those activities unique to universities. The broad distinction between the sphere of influence of the two Deputy Chairmen makes sense to me.

But the Sub-Committee was surely on strong ground in complaining about the answer which it received to its recommendations regarding the architects' division. I am glad that on Recommendations (4) and (5) the Secretary of State still had an open mind and certainly did not regard the matter as closed.

It is easy to criticise the Treasury, but I felt that the Treasury's evidence was a little unsatisfactory on this point. One Treasury witness said, at Question 1704: Certainly the Treasury does its best to meet the claims of the U.G.C., but it has a great many competing claims from other departments who would certainly claim that the work for which they need staff is equally important. We have to balance the claims of government departments here and do what we can to meet all their high priority needs. This was not quite the point which my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South was on. The Treasury is the sponsoring Department for the machinery of Government, and this answer rather begged my hon. Friend's question as to whether the needs of the U.G.C. as an institution—not quite part of the Government but not right outside the Government, do not need to be looked at today, with its vastly increased scale of operations, more closely than ever before. I do not think that it met my hon. Friend's point to imply that this is just one more branch of one more Department wanting to increase its establishment, so that it should put forward its claims through its own sponsoring Department like anyone else. That is why I am glad that the Secretary of State was more forthcoming this afternoon.

Turning to Recommendation (12), it is obviously important that the Building Sub-Committee of the Vice-Chancellors' Committee should remain in close touch with the U.G.C. I like the idea in the Report that both the U.G.C. and the Vice-Chancellors' Committee should try to forge close links with the National Building Agency. The Departmental reply on this point was more satisfactory. The Department referred to the research at the Bristol College of Science and Technology on the modification of the CLASP system for technological building. I hope that this need not be strictly confined to technological building. I can think of other types of building also in which this research could be useful.

On the question of value for money, it is not always easy to persuade experienced bursars that public bodies, or those of us taking part in these debates, know their job better than they do. The bursar of university X feels that he knows how to get chairs straight from the maker at a good price and then learns that his friend at university Y has a similar line on curtain fittings. We should remember that the capital equipment grant is a stated sum of money and that universities have an incentive to be economical. But it is equally true that they may not always be good at being economical. This points to the need to increase professionalism in all those activities which universities have in common with other institutions.

That leads me to my next point. The difficulties come at the frontier between these activities and academic activities. I wish to comment briefly on the reaction to the University Grants Committee's request that university staff should declare an apportionment of their time between undergraduate teaching, post-graduate teaching and research. Like the Secretary of State, I have been a little surprised at the sharpness of this reaction because when the Robbins Report was being carried out an inquiry of this kind was made in rather more detail than has now been undertaken by the U.G.C.

Nevertheless, we want, if possible, to avoid a situation in which there is a sort of divide, with the U.G.C. on one side of the divide feeling that it is being unreasonably criticised and that the university world cannot expect to contract out of what in any other walk of life would seem to be a normal operation; while, on the other side of the divide, university staff feel equally strongly that those outside do not sufficiently realise the ways in which universities differ from all other institutions. There is a danger here of too sharp a divide in opinion. We need a bridge, and we surely have one in the Vice-Chancellors' Committee.

I am told that the working party which produced the offending forms included university registrars and finance officers and that there has been a clear understanding that the Vice-Chancellors' Committee should have the opportunity of discussing this whole exercise with the U.G.C. after a few months. I hope that when this discussion takes place, every effort will be made to restore confidence across this divide. This is particularly important at the present time, because we are clearly discussing the Sub-Committee's Report today at a time of changing and evolving relationships between this House, the Department of Education and Science, the University Grants Committee, the research councils and the universities themselves.

I was one of those lucky enough to attend the discussion at Caius College last July at the kind invitation of Sir Nevill Mott and also to some extent at the invitation of the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), to whom I am extremely grateful. I think that all of us who attended the conference felt that it was well worthwhile and would like in retrospect to say how grateful we were to Sir Nevill for his hospitality and initiative. A record of the conference has been most skilfully put together by Mr. Tudor David, now edior of The Teacher, and it is shortly to appear in "Minerva".

I hope and believe that all of us at that conference were believers in certain essentials of academic freedom—as the Robbins Report says, freedom with regard to appointments, curricula and standards, the admission of students and the balance between teaching and research. The Minister this afternoon rightly said that these are essential freedoms. They are under threat in many other parts of the world.

There is nothing like even a short visit to South Africa to make one realise how important it is to stand up firmly for these principles. I could not help thinking, when the Robbins Report reflects upon the fact that any institution that puts a closed number on a particular racial group could hardly expect to be supported from public funds, that it is a most remarkable experience to go to a country which actually enforces racial segregation in universities by law. I do not think that I should be going too far to say that Lord Robbins and his colleagues, who were not "way-out" English Left-wingers, but mostly inheritors of broadly liberal traditions in this country, would have regarded such a possibility as too horrible to contemplate unless one was actually thinking in a South African context.

We were also agreed at the conference that there must be, to use the rather happy phrase of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. Chataway), "public dialogue" regarding the universities, and that this House will want to take part in that dialogue. We in this House must be concerned not merely with student numbers, with the universities' share of total educational resources, with the machinery for determining university salaries—a very important point in itself—and with the many important issues contained in the Estimates Sub-Committee's Report.

I suggest that we as a House cannot disregard, either, the ways in which the universities impinge upon the rest of the education service: for example, what Mr. Peterson, speaking at the conference, would call the "blithe indifference to distorted school curricula" or what I would call, rather more cautiously, the effect of university entrance requirements on sixth form studies and on the trend towards early specialisation. Whatever one calls it, this is a subject which we cannot simply disregard and forget about in the House of Commons.

If, however, we are to debate the universities more frequently in the House of Commons, the work not just of the Secretary of State, but also of the Universities Branch of the Department of Education and Science, will grow more important. I regret a little that the Sub-Committee, in its excellent Report, did not probe this one aspect just a little more.

The Department's evidence given by the Under-Secretary concerned was extremely interesting as far as it went. In answer to Question 1747, Mr. Carswell said, in effect, that the single most important job of the Universities Branch was to brief the Secretary of State to see that he was well informed when it was a matter of deciding the level of resources that the universities should receive. He put it very well when he said: The U.G.C. must have some point in the government machine to which it comes and through which its detailed allocations and demands are channelled. The U.G.C. itself holds no money and has no finance officer of its own. We are, in effect, the U.G.C.'s finance officer. That was a good answer on a crucial part of the work of the Universities Branch.

The same official went on to say, a few questions later, that the U.G.C. are the Government's professional advisers on university matters. I was very glad that he went on to say, in answer to Question 1762, that of course, the Minister can call on advice in relation to the whole educational system. His educational advisers from other parts of the Ministry might well have a contribution to make to any substantial change in university policy. This was one of the arguments that were strongly urged in favour of transferring this work from the Treasury to the Ministry. Equally, it is one of the strongest arguments for the Secretary of State covering the whole educational field, from the primary school to research work at the university. Despite what has been said by some people, I am sure that there is an unanswerable case for having one Secretary of State. The right hon. Gentleman usefully was able to point out this afternoon that it had been decided to have only one accounting officer, and that this was purely a matter of machinery and in itself involved no change of policy.

One more matter which I should have liked to see emerge in evidence is the importance of a good working relationship between the Department's bureaucracy and the U.G.C. bureaucracy. I do not suggest that this does not apply now, but it is very important. I referred to this is a passage quoted verbatim in the "Minerva" Report. I said: It is the departmental officials, the University Branch, who actually brief the Secretary of State for day-to-day purposes. I think the important thing is that they should not come to be thought of by the universities as people who are just there to brief the Secretary of State with the U.G.C. point of view. They should be to some extent creative thinkers on their own account, like the rest of the administrative class. In using those words, I was thinking precisely of the point that they will be in touch with the rest of the Department and so will see the university in its relation to the whole of the rest of the education system.

Coming on to the U.G.C. itself, surely the value of the U.G.C. system, to which the Secretary of State rightly paid tribute this afternoon, was very well put by Sir Eric Ashby at the same conference when he said that the secret of the success of the British university system lay in the fact that it maximised the degrees of freedom of the universities to come to a decision and minimised the ability of other people to circumscribe this freedom. I would add that it has never been the job of the Chairman of the U.G.C.—it is not his job today, as Sir John would be the first to insist—to be a sort of director-general of universities. That is not his function at all. We want, however, to help the U.G.C., and this is the purpose of the Report that we are debating, to carry out its functions more professionally.

It is, I think, true that in certain ways the U.G.C. must play a more positive rôle in future quinquennia. The Secretary of State referred to the Bosanquet Report and to the fact that there are more schools of agriculture than there should be. He also spoke about the need to concentrate resources and to rationalise the provision of costly equipment. I also feel that this House will ask for more information about the universities. I agree with what was said at Cambridge about this both by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, West (Dr. Bray) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby).

I do not believe that any of these developments need infringe the basic principle of academic freedom: that is to say, the more frank recognition of a creative rôle for the Department in its Universities Branch, the importance of close relationships at official level between the Department and the U.G.C. and a more positive rôle in certain respects for the U.G.C. These things seem to me to be perfectly consistent with the maintenance of the essential academic freedoms, to which the Secretary of State and I have paid tribute today.

One other set of bodies which has not been mentioned and which I mention only briefly are the research councils, which are the only major sources of public money besides the U.G.C. and local education authority grants to the universities. I am glad that the Sub-Committee considered at some length the question whether research council grants are in danger of distorting the pattern of research. It is, of course, true that a research council can continue a grant into a second quinquennium even if the U.G.C. does not give the project priority. The research council can keep the grant going as one which it would like to support.

On that point there was, I thought, a very good answer on the rationale of this by Mr. Walker at Question 810, when he said: The University Grants Committee provides for university education and general support of universities. It is provided under circumstances which leaves the universities free to decide how they will spend it. In the case of funds from D.S.I.R., a research grant, for example, is given to support work which is deemed to be of scientific merit, not because of the contribution it will necessarily make to education and the general running of the university. This distinction is a fair one and I regard this as a right situation. In other words, the research councils are to some extent trustees for the interests of the outside world to see that there is an outside body which can put up particular projects to universities that they believe will be of value. My opinion is, on the whole, in favour, even today, of a little more openness in some respects of the universities to the outside world. I should like Government Departments, for example, to have rather more opportunity of putting up research projects that could prove to be of value.

Finally—I come to this only because it is the logical order—there are the universities themselves with their three great functions. There is, first, their teaching function. The Robbins Report in this regard was a document of historic importance in our national history. Surely, the desire to increase the proportion of the university age group enjoying full-time higher education from 6 per cent. to at least 16 per cent. over a single generation was a right and worthy endeavour. It was a right endeavour from the point of view of the young people themselves concerned and from the viewpoint also of our whole society, because I like the idea of many more trained minds and a wider consensus of discussion of values and institutions in our society. Surely this is right.

As I ventured to say at a recent meeting, it is not enough simply to make the general statement that in a democracy everybody counts. What we want is many more people counting for distinctly more than they do. This is why I believe that the expansion of higher education is vital.

Do not let us forget that this applies to postgraduate as well as undergraduate teaching. It also is important to remember that the least able and fortunate will gain from this expansion. People sometimes used to say that the Robbins Report was dependent upon accepting the Newsom Report. There is a sense in which it is much more true to say that the Newsom objectives are dependent upon our going right ahead with Robbins.

Secondly, there is the importance of research at the universities—fundamental research no less than applied research, a subject on which Sir Peter Medawar recently gave such a memorable and right-minded lecture; and also universities spreading out into new branches of learning and new subjects, particularly perhaps in the social sciences.

I welcome the fact that so much work has been done, irrespective of whether one agrees with or likes the results, on the sociological aspect of education, and the subjects of crime and of sentencing. One thinks of the enormous ways in which our knowledge of society today is greater than it was ten or even five years ago as a result of university work. Speaking for myself, I find in Opposition that a great many people at the universities are only too ready to share their discoveries and, perhaps, their tentative ideas with those of us in this House if we like to discuss them and ask for them.

Last, but by no means least, there is the ferment of discussion at the universities and the degree and intensity of intellectual life in those institutions, quite apart from their strictly research or teaching functions. It is my belief that this degree of intensity of intellectual life, and this ferment of discussion in our universities, was never more needed in our British society than it is today.