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 Hugh Fraser Mr Hugh Fraser , Stafford and Stone 12:00 am, 26th January 1966

Those who have the honour to serve on the Committee have welcomed the far less truculent line which the Minister took this afternoon. I hope that his bark was less bad than his bite. Certainly the reply the Committee received was staggering in the lack of going any way to meet the conclusions of the considerable labours which we carried out throughout the country.

I wish to preface my more detailed remarks by referring to what the right hon. Gentleman said when he talked about the general attitude to education in this country today. I must confess that, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle), I find a considerable degree of apprehension going round the universities as to whether or not we would succeed in achieving the Robbins targets. Also unlike the right hon. Gentleman—one always talks from the experience of very small Gallup Polls—I found that the bulk of the country is determined that Robbins should go through and be a success. Twenty years ago education was something in which the public was not generally interested; that is not true today.

We are faced today with a very great problem as to how Robbins' programme can be made effective. I refer to two points in the Report which we submitted to the House. The first has reference to obsolescence of some equipment in universities and also the fact that so pushed are the universities and the U.G.C. that some of the buildings are finished off in such a way that their maintenance costs are getting right out of measure to the actual capital construction. These facts emerge clearly from the Report and indicate a programme which is heavily under strain. That is why, like my right hon. Friend, I regret the fact that this Government have had to adjust their building programme although overall the universities for the next three years will lose only about £3 million. That has meant an adjustment of £15 million downwards in this very critical year of 1965–66. Also in this term when the universities are desperately pressed for money whether one looks at the smaller universities such as Keele or the larger universities such as Oxford, or talks to one's friends in London, one finds there is no question that there is colossal pressure on funds to carry out the Robbins plan.

I hope that when the Minister of State replies he will clear the air, if that is the right phrase to use, about the idea of the University of the Air. There is no room for a capital investment of £25 million in the next two years even if the hon. Lady the "Minister of the Nine Muses"—I do not know her exact nomenclature—is to have charge of it. It would be helpful if the Government could say this evening that the question of the University of the Air at a time when we need scores of millions more for the regular university programme is to be put aside for some time.

Many of us when we started this investigation of the U.G.C. thought that possibly the University Grants Committee was something of a fifth wheel to the coach, but the more we went forward the more we became convinced of the view expressed from both Front Benches this afternoon that it is an essential part of the education equipment of the country. I believe that to be so first because the U.G.C. should be powerful to protect the universities in the widest sense against the follies of politicians which is very important. Ministers of Education from both sides of the House are very apt to build up the exteriors of education and express it merely in square feet or numbers of students or of institutions rather than seeing that those institutions aim at true perfection in themselves.

Secondly, I believe the U.G.C. has proved an extremely effective filter of public money. As the Minister and my right hon. Friend said, there was under the D.E.S. very great progress made in colleges of advanced technology, but I think the D.E.S. was sometimes too lavish in what is allowed to go forward in those colleges. Certainly it will find it much more difficult under the U.G.C. to get money which is not properly deserved. That is why I believe the U.G.C. needs strengthening on the technical level. I am sure that even though the Minister has come some way to meet us there are still considerable distances he may have to come. The question of a rolling quinquennial should be further considered. We find that the brain drain occurs almost always in the fourth year of the quinquennial and in that year people do not know where they stand.

I ask the Minister to look at the evidence again on the technical side, first on the technical side of the architects' department and on the building side. If they were better equipped the U.G.C. could see that there are better designs and better co-ordination between universities and that we were getting better returns for money than we are today. On the statistical and planning side I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the D.E.S. has a very high reputation in the country today, but on future thinking and project thinking, of which the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, West (Dr. Bray) spoke, the U.G.C. could be better equipped to carry out this sort of research than the D.E.S. Therefore, I believe that we have to go further in giving to Sir John and his committee considerably greater technical assistance than is so far proposed.

I believe that this body as it exists is a very English solution to this problem. I think it is a body which needs strengthening to protect the universities, protect their academic freedom, and to make certain—for I believe this is the best way it can be done—that the enormous public funds which have to go into the universities over the next few years are properly protected and well spent.