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 Christopher Woodhouse Mr Christopher Woodhouse , Oxford 12:00 am, 26th January 1966

I do not want to elaborate the point. It is a subject on which I could keep the House until 10 o'clock if provoked, but it is a fact that the mandatory rate relief that is imposed solely on Oxford and Cambridge and in respect solely of the colleges amounts to a forced contribution. In addition, as a result of revaluation, there has beer a very great reduction in the amount of rates received by the local authorities of Oxford and Cambridge from both the universities and colleges in comparison with a few years ago.

The point is the existence of the anomaly and the desirability of removing it. I have brought in the colleges at this point because, in practice, it is really impossible to distinguish between the university and the colleges in the financial context. Money passes to and fro between them. Some colleges are net creditors and some are net recipients. This two-way traffic of money makes nonsense of the constantly repeated assumptions in the evidence that the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge receive no money from the U.G.C.—that is to say, from the taxpayer.

This statement is sometimes qualified by saying that the colleges receive no money directly from the U.G.C. but that puts a heavy load on the word "direct". For instance, in recent years, the women's colleges at Oxford have received specific grants earmarked for them from the U.G.C. through the university and that puts them in principle in the same position as the colleges of the federal University of London, which no one denies are recipients of U.G.C. funds. In any case since, on average, about half the salary of a teaching fellow at an Oxford college—I am not certain about Cambridge—is paid by the university, it is playing with words to say that the colleges do not benefit from the taxpayers' money through the U.G.C. They do.

I have drawn attention to this anomaly and apologise for doing so at some length, but I was provoked by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South. However, it illustrates the main general point that the whole structure of relations between the U.G.C. and the universities needs tidying up. It is very untidy. It is vague. It is, as the sub-committee apparently found, often incomprehensible and what I would term as "fuzzy" at the edges.

About 15 years ago I met an eminent American on a delegation from the U.S. Treasury and universities. The delegation came to study the U.G.C. system in order to decide whether it could be transported to America. At the end of the investigation, this gentleman told me, the delegation concluded that it would be impossible to do so because the fundamental feature of the U.G.C. system was one which could not be established in the United States. The fundamental feature as he identified it was that everybody involved in the whole complex exercise, from the Chancellor of the Exchequer—then the responsible Minister—down through the Chairman of the U.G.C. and all the Vice-Chancellors, was a member of the Athenæum and therefore it was always possible to settle any difficult matter over a glass of port after dinner.

This "old boy network" may have worked adequately 15 or 20 years ago when there were far fewer universities. Obviously, it cannot work today with the enormous growth in the number of universities. It would be true to say that, in the last 10 years, there has been more university expansion in this country than in any previous century, let alone decade, and the U.G.C. needs modernising to confront this situation in at least two respects.

First, it needs modernisation in the definition of its scope, the range of institutions and activities for which it is to be responsible. It needs to have a clearer demarcation of its responsibilities in relation to other responsible departments or grant-giving bodies, like the D.S.I.R., the M.R.C., the A.R.C. and so on.

It also needs a clearer demarcation of the range of institutions which it is to be responsible for and which are to be on its list—the case I have cited of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge is a classic example—and not only which institutions are to be on its list but which of them it is to be in direct communication with as distinct from communication indirectly through the parent university.

For example, if the Imperial College of Science and Technology is to be in direct communication with the U.G.C.—which I understand is either the practice already or is becoming the practice—why should not the same apply to the London School of Economics and other colleges in the University of London or to the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge?

The second respect in which the U.G.C. appears to need modernising is in its staff structure and equipment. It seems at the point of becoming increasingly a bureaucracy and, if this is unavoidable, then let it at least be an efficient bureaucracy. At the moment, it is having to tackle the task of a bureaucracy but is not adequately equipped to be an efficient bureaucracy. It clearly gives a good deal of dissatisfaction to many university institutions for reasons which came out clearly in the evidence. I want to add one or two examples of this dissatisfaction from my own experience as a member of the governing body of one of the schools of London University.

When a college at the university puts in its bid for a recurrent grant, this is first discussed by that college with the university in relation to the items intended to be covered and the bid is then passed to the U.G.C., scrutinised and probably cut down. But when the reduced allocation is returned through the university to the college, no second opportunity is available to discuss again the items to be covered by the reduced grant. It is simply handed back to the recipient college on the basis of "take it or leave it". This is unsatisfactory, because if the college had known in the first place that it was to get only, say, £750,000 instead of the £1 million for which it had asked, it would probably have put in a bid for quite different items. It would not merely have cut down the list of items, but drawn up a totally different shopping list for the smaller sum.

It seems that in practice insufficient attention is given to the interplay of decisions on recurrent and capital grant, the former being on a five-year basis, of course, and the latter not. I do not know whether this is general experience, but it seems to be the case in London that it is much easier to get capital grants agreed than to get current grants agreed, but, of course, every capital grant contains some implications about recurrent expenditure and vice versa. It is no good having annual sums to pay the staff if there are no buildings in which to accommodate the staff, and similar examples can easily be multiplied.

It is for this reason that I am rather impressed—and I hope that the Minister of State will have something to say about this—by the case for what is called a rolling quinquennium, because that would enable decisions on capital and recurrent grants to be brought into rather closer relationship with each other. A university would always be able to say at least five years ahead what its recurrent budget was, as it already can about its capital budget, instead of being able to see its recurrent budget for only one, two, or three years ahead.

A reform on the lines of the rolling quinquennium might also help to deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) about the need for some provision in recurrent grants to cover obsolescence. It is certainly true that to operate the rolling quinquennium as well as other measures of reform and modernisation urged by the Sub-Committee would entail increased staff for the U.G.C. and making it more bureaucratic, but this is a trend which must simply be faced and accepted. It must also be accepted, again as the Sub-Committee urged, that the Vice-Chancellor's Committee should reorganise itself to some extent in a more efficient and practical way.

It seems to be clear that we cannot go on with the somewhat old-fashioned machinery which used to work extremely well but which is somewhat limping today. With respect to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), I do not think that this need be in any way prejudiced by the persistent arguments about academic independence and academic freedom. These are not in any danger from any measures of reform which have been put forward so far in the U.G.C. As every hon. Member will agree, there is far too much at stake simply to carry on with a somewhat antiquated machinery.

We are very much indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South and his colleagues for drawing our attention to the problems. I believe that many of the changes advocated would be welcome in the academic world, because the academic world is no longer ruled, as perhaps it once was, by the rule laid down not, I am glad to say, in my own university but in the University of Cambridge—that nothing should ever be done for the first time.