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 Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian 12:00 am, 26th January 1966

As a member of the Public Accounts Committee I have some notion of the sheer work involved in preparing this sort of Report. It is up to some of us to say "Thank you" to the members of the Estimates Committee for the amount of hard work they have done on behalf of the House. What strikes one, on reading through the Report, is the extraordinarily high quality of the work done by members and officials of the University Grants Committee. Clearly, they are dedicated people who, whatever the faults may be in the system, and whatever the shortage of staff may be, make it work pretty well.

Take, for example, the evidence referred to by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) from the University of Edinburgh and from Mr. Stewart. In addition to what the hon. Gentleman quoted, perhaps I may quote from the answer to Question 1427: On buildings in particular there has been a great increase in the amount of liaison, and only a week ago the Factorial Secretary received a good many people from the building side of the Grants Committee. Again, Professor Swann, in answer to Question 1431, said this: In general on the building side, I think it is felt that the contact is fairly intimate. In answer to Question 1433 Mr. Stewart said: Members of the Committee do visit individual professors or groups of departments, a practice which has been increasing in recent years. All this is on the good side. I know that there are grave shortcomings, particularly in relation to the shortage of staff. One witness implied that he had trawled the service and advertised outside, with lamentably small success. It is true that bad buildings in fact make the requirement of staff greater and that with good buildings the same results can be obtained from perhaps a less favourable student-staff ratio.

I welcomed what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had to tell us about CLASP at York, and in particular his statement that seven universities are now taking seriously industrialised building techniques. The hon. Member for Twickenham was somewhat critical on this score, but those of us who have been the guests of Eric James in York and who have seen CLASP have the highest admiration for the work that is being done there. I personally, from what I saw on admittedly only a two-day visit, would not share the reservations about which the hon. Gentleman spoke.

All of us must agree, I think, with the Secretary of State's comments on the way in which the universities have given a social response to the needs of government. We must agree with him again when he talked about their outward-looking initiatives and their readiness to meet national needs when these are expressed. I welcome, too, what he said about bulk-buying.

I subscribe to the theory which the Secretary of State called the "buffer-state theory of the U.G.C.". Those of us who organised the Caius meeting would very much welcome the Peer Group technique and also welcome the fact that it operates inside the University Grants Committee itself. One would assume that it has money to disburse—obviously, this would be necessary if the Peer Subject Group is to have the rationalisation effect which is claimed for it. I would argue that this announcement of the Secretary of State's looks after the problems of the mechanism of shrinkage in universities and also the mechanism of expansion, about which Bondi, Flowers, Sir Nevill Mott and I have been in correspondence with the Secretary of State.

Just as we are against small universities—I hope that we do not have any more small universities starting in perhaps the next 20 years—we also, I think, are against small university departments. The Secretary of State spoke about the "small, weaker elements", and this constitutes a very real problem. We give welcome to the concept of "centres of excellence". Particularly, we welcome the sub-committees made up of U.G.C. members, and of co-opted members with the specialist professional expertise.

I think from what my right hon. Friend said that he does not merely intend them to be expert advisory committees. He was rather explicit as to their function, that they would, in fact, as subject groups make visitations to university departments, though I would hope that there will be perhaps not too many visitations, because it is important that the subject groups attract the services of really top class people in their profession who can command the respect of, say, young physicists and young economists.

Presumably, they have a considerable power of decision, including the power of decision to close down a department on the retirement of a professor. Again, it presumably will be up to the chairmen of these committees to establish a nationwide case for their particular subject. The subject committee is mostly, as I understand it—perhaps I can be corrected by the Minister of State when he winds up, if I have misunderstood this—to decide and not merely to advise; perhaps in this country we have a surfeit of advisory committees. The subject committee, too, presumably will be able to pave the way for the U.G.C. when it perhaps makes a later visitation on a particular knotty problem.

Having subscribed to the buffer-state theory of the U.G.C., I recollect that there was a McCarthy period in the United States—in many ways the most advanced country in the world—and that for American universities it was an extremely chastening experience. In British history, fortunately, we have been free from this sort of thing. Nevertheless, if it can happen to the United States, the lesson for many of us is that it would be a good thing to keep the universities separate, as we have done.

What it seems to me is important is the establishment of confidence between the universities, on the one hand, and the public and their representatives, on the other, especially when public expenditure on universities has mounted to about £200 million a year.

If I refer in some detail to the present fierce controversy surrounding the actions of the University of Glasgow, it is because it illustrates what can happen when there is a crisis of confidence, to borrow a phrase from the Secretary of State, between the university and the community, when, in fact, a sense of trust has been destroyed; because the so-called "affair of the banned students" really does constitute a crisis of confidence in the University of Glasgow.

I have given a great deal of thought to the propositions that I am now putting forward. It looks—I repeat, it looks—as if the university authorities in Glasgow, angered by malicious, odious and disgusting notes, using vile and filthy language, left by a student or students for an elderly employee, and conscious perhaps of an unsavoury reputation acquired by previous student representative councils, decided to clamp down on all the students concerned. In parenthesis, I say that I would be quite happy to see whoever wrote these notes imprisoned, treated as a teenage thug, given tough corrective punishment. In all this controversy I have never condoned this gruesomely unkind action.

But it looks—I repeat, it looks—as if at least two or more students have been found guilty when, in fact, they are innocent. It looks as if their careers, academic and post-graduation, have been seriously and wrongly damaged. It looks as if charges to the effect that certain students took inadequate steps would have been too nebulous to convince any court of law. It looks as if charges of taking inadequate steps against students who went to the police and to the university authorities are grotesque.

It looks as if the procedure adopted by the University of Glasgow Court is contrary to basic natural justice and that, in particular, the students were not told of the charges against them. It looks as if they had no opportunity to defend themselves. It looks as if the procedure in the university was so slothful that by the standards of Glasgow 1965 the Dickensian circumlocution office was a pretty efficient set of lawyers.

Against the background of young men's future being at stake, the protracted correspondence between Mr. Andrew Heron, the lawyer acting on behalf of certain of the students, and the Clerk of the Senate makes appalling reading. It looks—I repeat, it looks—as if an appeal court consisting of distinguished men, including a Fellow of the Royal Society, found one or more of the students not guilty and that their unanimous decision was overturned by a squalid fixing operation by the Vice-Chancellor and the Clerk of the Senate.

It looks—I repeat, it looks—as if the authorities of the famous and ancient University of Glasgow, having made a serious mistake in the first place, for which I personally would not condemn them in public, have sunk deeper and deeper into the bog of evasion, smokescreen and silence by trying to cover up the original error when the world would have thought the more of them for admitting that they were wrong.

Yes, I want the universities to remain independent, but the universities, in turn, must understand that as the fastest growing sector of public expenditure there is at least an unwritten two-way contract, that if they are to be uniquely free of public control they must not only keep their house in order, but they must be seen to keep their house in order, because as of now the reputation of the great University of Glasgow is spattered in mud.

There is the mud of gossip of a corrupt and vicious line of Students' Representative Councils. There is the mud of gossip of students using S.R.C. money for improper purposes. There is the mud of gossip of members of the Senate kowtowing to an autocratic Vice-Chancellor who, like a caliph of ancient Baghdad, has in his hands the future of their departments and research students. There is the mud of gossip of a Vice-Chancellor circulating rumour by innuendo among the staff that the real trouble among the banned students was financial argy-bargy with S.R.C. funds, which, incidentally, casts something of a slur on the chartered accountants who examined the S.R.C. books.

There is the mud of gossip about the allegedly vindictive contents of a letter of 9th July from the Clerk of Senate to the Scottish Council for the Training of Teachers and the Principal of Jordanhill Training College, alleging that the former president of the Students' Representative Council was unfit to look after young people while the case was still sub-judice; I repeat, while the case was still sub-judice. There is the mud of gossip of a Vice-Chancellor and Clerk of Senate being allowed to manipulate the law administered by the university to save their own faces.

I regret to tell the House that in the view of many of my constituents and those concerned on the fringes of the academic world of Scotland—and by virtue of the remarkable public service done by the Press on this issue—the great University of Glasgow at this moment lies in the sewer. And if the universities think that in this sort of situation all they need do is to refuse to give explanations, the case for public control, which I do not like and to which I do not subscribe, has to become a serious possibility.

Let the House of Commons say to the Vice-Chancellor, the Clerk of Senate, members of Senate and members of the Court of the University of Glasgow, "If you can justify your actions you would do well to come out in the open and do so" and I for my part, such as it is, would be the first to acknowledge it in public if they prove that they have done right over these past very difficult months. But, on the other hand, we say to them, "If you remain aloof as to the past and if perhaps you know in your heart of hearts that you have created a serious injustice, Scotland will think the more of you if you 'come clean' and admit that you have been wrong, offering the students whom you may have wronged a chance to start again on their honours degrees, repaying legal expenses, and publicly restoring the good name of those students."

To re-establish confidence, we must have a full and frank picture of what has taken place. In the light of an exclusive interview that the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow gave to the Glasgow Herald, I would say to Sir Charles Wilson that good intentions in the future are not enough. If this appeal is ignored some of us are pledged to fight and fight on, month after month, and year after year by every means open to a politician until justice is seen to be done. We will bring to the notice of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors the behaviour of their own Chairman in his own university. We will seek to have an interview with Sir John Wolfenden and we will urge that the U.G.C. make a token, say £5, withdrawal of grant from the University of Glasgow.

So far, I have advised those who have approached me against taking the Vice- Chancellor and Clerk of Senate of the University of Glasgow to the High Court. I have advised against this because I do not relish the spectacle of a famous university in a monumental court case, but there are those, with the financial resources to conduct a long and arduous court case, who are beginning to take a different view in the absence of a full statement from the University. Alternatively—and this is a specific question to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland—I would ask the hon. Lady to tell us whether the students are entitled to legal aid and under what circumstances there is a ceiling. This is a question of which I have given my hon. Friend prior notice.

If this case has become a cause it is because unless one has the understanding that the universities will keep their own house in order and behave honestly and openly towards the community, the really wonderful British set-up of universities independent of Government is to be jeopardised. This is not, in my view, a party controversy, because last night I welcomed the opportunity of mentioning the affair to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle). After outlining the position in the briefest terms I suggested that he might care to get his own information from his own sources, and to this he willingly assented. When the right hon. Gentleman himself talks about "openness on the part of universities", as he did in his speech today, it seems to me that this is extremely relevant to the Glasgow affair.

Finally, there is the general question of university discipline. There are certain offences which, by their nature, are university offences, for example, cheating in examinations. On the other hand, are not there a whole range of offences in which university students ought to face the same civil courts and police action as their contemporaries? If students commit crimes of malice and of vandalism why should not they be treated as any other hooligans among their contemporaries? This is a deep issue which arises at the present time.