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 Geoffrey Rhodes Mr Geoffrey Rhodes , Newcastle upon Tyne East 12:00 am, 26th January 1966

I am sure the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) and the two hon. Members who have been speaking intermittently would not wish me to make any lengthy comment on what they have been saying, although like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have found this a fascinating debate. I wonder however just how far the binary policy of the Government is linked in and responsible for the particular decision taken in this case. I do not know the answer to that question and I ask it generally as a question to which I seek an answer.

I wish to say something about the whole purpose of university education, especially about the most economical use of the nation's resources devoted to it. I note from the Report of the Select Committee that expenditure on university education in grants-in-aid to universities increased from £23½ million in 1951–52 by over eightfold to an estimated £193 million in 1965–66. I also note that on page 6 of the Report it is said that these grants are to keep university development responsive to national needs. In the early part of the Report there is reference to information on national needs which might be transmitted to the U.G.C. through the Department of Education and Science and included in the terms of reference of the U.G.C. is the instruction to assist in the preparation and execution of all such plans for university development as may be required to ensure that they are fully adequate to national needs. Obviously in perhaps the most rapidly expanding, in terms of costs, public services in this country, we have a right to ask whether or not ways in which the universities are developing are ways which are responsive to the needs of the nation at the present time. I notice that in answer to Question No. 1,500 in the Report, on the U.G.C. grants system, that in addition to social needs there is considerable doubt as to whether or not adequate information is available. I do not think this satisfactory. In terms of future needs of skilled manpower and intellectual skills which may be required, I thought the Report indicated a need for considerably more research and greater interdepartmental co-operation between Government Departments. That part of the Report is one to which we should direct particular attention.

The main purpose of my intervening this evening is to ask whether in the costings of higher education, especially of university education, in the future the policy being pursued by Her Majesty's Government, to which my right hon. Friend referred as the binary system, is conducive to the most economical use of our resources. Before we answer that question we have to ask a perhaps more fundamental question: what kind of university shall we need in future? This was posed by an hon. Member who was speaking a little time ago about the position over in Wales. What kind of universities will in future give the most economical return for the very substantial investment made in them?

If we look at universities as they are at the moment, the kind of universities covered by this Report, with the rare exception of the newly-created technological universities, the up-graded C.A.T.S., we find they are universities for full-time students, mainly between 18 and 21 years of age, but in a certain number of cases—perhaps there will be a substantial number in future—continuing full-time research. They are university full-time students who in substantial measure are accommodated in very costly residential halls of various kinds. They are predominantly students taking honours degree courses. In the creation of new universities—this is revealed in the evidence reported on page 132—there is a tendency to try to establish their own status in the university world on the basis of research staffs, the basis of research papers and the basis of high academic performance at research level.

I make only one point in passing in relation to this. I sincerely hope that in pursuance of this academic status symbol of research, which is vital to a university, they will not in the same process undervalue their teaching study because it is in teaching a vast new range of undergraduates in new fields of study and varying abilities that the nation's needs will be greatest in future. Perhaps more than is right and proper a substantial number of university teachers tend to think that the universities would be more interesting if the students were not there, but the national need requires emphasis on the teacher and the teaching rôle.

In the existing universities there is a heavy concentration—to use a platonic term—on the "golden man" or "golden woman". I am not pretending that this is true of every university, but in the past there has been heavy emphasis on running courses which would provide an academic background for those who will become leaders in research in industry, commerce, law, literature and so on. If we continue to run our universities on some kind of apeing of the traditional old universities of Oxford and Cambridge that will be an élitist conception of universities completely out of line with the needs of the nation in the second half of the twentieth century.

The question I pose to my hon. Friend the Minister of State is, is the policy of Her Majesty's Government in relation to the binary system and the development of universities in future to give the best form of education not for the "golden men" of the future, for whom I think they catered admirably in the past and do at present, but to cater for what I call the "silver man". I am thinking of those who will take on middle-tier responsibilities in industrial management, people who are entering middle-tier responsibilities in local government, or, perhaps, entering executive class responsibility in the Civil Service. I am thinking of those people who are entering the rapidly expanding field of communications, broadcasting and journalism, and social work, and the rapidly expanding teaching profession in the primary and secondary sectors. I mention those categories because, fundamentally, none of those people in this country goes to university: the overwhelming majority of the people I have just categorised, if they received any systematic higher education at all, received it in the non-university sector.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will bear in mind, too, that we have late-developing adults as well as late-developing teenagers. We have a substantial number of mature men, perhaps in the twenties and thirties, who may have left school at 15, or 16 or 17, who may have got family commitments and are committed to particular jobs. These are students who can commit themselves to a systematic, highly-aimed academic course only on a part-time basis, or on a sandwich basis, or something of that kind, and they are people who are obviously wanting their higher education to be linked with the vocations which they are pursuing.

My description of them as "silver men" may not be accepted, but they are not the kind of men who normally would have gone to university, and who, in the main, will not go to university, and the binary policy which is being pursued at the moment would preclude them from going to university in future.

My hon. Friend said in his Woolwich speech that non-university degree level courses, courses which are for part-time or sandwich students, courses which in the main are courses for communications, and, as he mentioned in his speech, the developing fields of local and public administration, are more suitable for the non-university sector. I want to ask my hon. Friend, why are they more suitable for the non-university sector? I do not accept that they are more suitable because they are not the kind of students who entered universities in the past. That is not a sufficient argument. One has to answer intrinsically—I put this earlier to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) leading for the Opposition—what is there in the nature of part-time or sandwich course study, or vocationally orientated study, or study which is done by the categories of these new occupations which we have in this country, which are rapidly expanding, which makes it unsuitable for being developed in our universities?

I say this as a person who as a student and a teacher served in both sectors of the higher education sector, at teaching university degree level, and I could never conceive in my experience what was this division between these two fields which justifies the pursuit of the binary policy at the present time. One thing is certain, that under this élitest conception of the university a very much smaller proportion of our population goes to university in this country than is true of most of the advanced economies of the world. Indeed, it is true to say that many of the advanced countries in the world today send a bigger percentage of their children to universities than we send of ours to grammar schools in this country.

When one makes that kind of statement people ask, what kind of universities are they? It is a very good question, which we should try to answer this afternoon, because a substantial amount of money is involved. My hon. Friend in his Woolwich speech said that he was not introducing any new doctrine. I would not suggest he did, but I think he was very doctrinaire in the kind of distinction he made of the university sector and of the non-university higher education sector. For example, he said the great distinction to be seen was, amongst other things, that the non-university higher education sector was vocationally orientated in a way in which universities were not. I wonder.

At the university that I went to, which was a northern provincial university, the principal faculties were law, education, medicine, dentistry and engineering. Although it may be perfectly true that the way those subjects were taught was not vocationally orientated, the whole purpose and environment of the studies was to lead to a particular occupation. Furthermore, having taught university degree students for many years in the non-university sector, I would suggest that nor is the teaching in the non-university sector, when it is at university degree level, of a vocationally orientated type. I suggest that it is a completely false distinction to make between the two sectors of higher education at degree level in this country.

Again I would suggest that it was very doctrinaire on the part of my right hon. Friend in that speech to suggest that the great new expanding field of communications, social work, public administration and even of teaching which he mentioned under the same heading, for some peculiar reason is intrinsically unsuited to the university sector when for long years medicine, law, dentistry and many other worthy fields of study have been located within the universities. I suggest that there was something radically inconsistent in trying to justify the Government's policy on that basis, and I suspect that it was rather a doctrinaire basis.

What is the nature of a university which makes it so radically different from the degree awarding institutions which are not in the university sector and which are not going to be in the university sector under the policy being pursued at present? What is going to be the distinction between those two types of higher education system. I suspect that it is going to be an academic yardstick and that the intellectual cream will go to the universities, with the near misses going, in the main, to the non-university higher education sector.

If it is an academic yardstick, what do we say about the equality of status which it is intended to achieve by that other sector? We are in grave danger of having a rather rigid division in the higher education system that will mean that at the age of 18 plus we will have a selection system as pernicious as that of the 11-plus selection. If it is good to have a comprehensive system of secondary education, it is equally good to break down these artificial status barriers that exist in our higher education system, and the binary system is completely illogical in the context of the comprehensive secondary education policy being pursued by the Government.

If we accept the argument that sandwich courses, part-time courses and vocationally orientated courses are unsuited to universities, we will have great difficulty in explaining why we have allowed the colleges of advanced technology to be brought into the university sector, because the bulk of students fall into the categories which we are told under this doctrinaire policy are unsuited for the university sector. There is no lack of logic in that for me, because I regard the upgrading of the colleges of advanced technology to university status as one of the best things that have happened to the university world for many years.

The C.N.A.A., to which reference has been made, I would have thought has now been established as a major alternative to the university system. What I find very regrettable is that a number of existing academic links between universities and the non-university colleges doing advanced and degree work are being dissolved and some proposed links are being discouraged. I never thought and I doubt very much if those who are against the binary system ever thought that the whole of higher education should be transferred to the universities. But we hoped that with the expansion of the non-university higher education sector, with the higher academic standards that were coming to transform the non-university higher education sector, many of the institutions that were outside the universities would be upgraded into universities or be integrated into existing universities. The main thing is that those who were teaching in this field always felt that it was bad to have hard and fast rules and barriers placed on the concept that one kind of degree-awarding institution was radically different from another. We needed flexibility and experiment.

I think that the binary policy as being expounded at the moment is based on an oddly outmoded view of universities as relatively remote, certainly non-professional in terms of being orientated towards any particular profession, and unresponsive to social control. I do not think that that is anything but a caricature of universities, but this is the kind of caricature which was put forward in a speech not long ago to justify keeping a substantial part of the most advanced higher education in this country outside the scope of the universities.

I want to relate what I have been saying to costs, because this Report is concerned with the finance of university education. I suggest to the House that one of the things which is most wasteful about our existing universities is precisely that they are based almost exclusively on the concept of the full-time student. We put nearly £200 million a year into university education, a good deal of it for capital development, but, apart from the research which goes on—and I do not want to undervalue that—in terms of students there, and the needs of the community, for half the year a substantial part of the equipment is not used, because the universities are on vacation, and there is nothing so dead as at least three-quarters of the capital invested in them while they are on vacation.

In the main, the capital which has been sunk into these buildings is simply not being utilised in the evenings. With the development of sandwich courses, block release courses, part-time day and part-time evening courses for professional people—highly skilled, possibly late developers, but with the intellectual potential of existing undergraduates—I should have thought that it was possible to bring in these people to an increasing extent to make use of the capital which has been sunk into the universities. I think that in this sense the binary system is going to under-use the capital which has been put into this vitally important public service.

Next, I want to consider the question of the educational precinct. In Newcastle we have an educational precinct similar in terms of future development to the kind of educational precinct being developed in Manchester, and so on. What we wanted in Newcastle was to produce an integration of academic life of all kinds on that precinct within the university, within the College of Commerce, and within the Rutherford College of Technology. We imagined that this link would be closely integrated with the civic life of Newcastle, and also with the development of degree level work in the Rutherford College of Technology and in the College of Commerce. One hoped that in time the educational precinct, which will cost a great deal of money, would be the centre of a rapidly developing integrated university, and specifically that the Rutherford College of Technology would be integrated with the university. This would have done Rutherford a great deal of good, just as it would have done the university a lot of good, but, precisely because of the binary system—call it doctrinaire or what one will—such an integration is impossible.

The same kind of situation developed as a result of the policy adopted in Coventry, where it was impossible to integrate the Lanchester College with the University of Warwick. It was impossible because it was contrary to the principles of the binary system.

Earlier today my right hon. Friend said that all that the binary system meant in effect was that a certain number of mergers which might have taken place would in fact not take place, and that in general this policy had widespread support in the House. I doubt very much whether it has widespread support. I doubt very much whether many hon. Members at first realised the full implications of the binary system. I did not. It is not until it comes home to one in one's own city, where one finds that experiments which are taking place in education are suddenly thwarted by this policy, that one realises its implications.

I should not have thought that it was the most economic use of the resources of a city such as Newcastle to have running side by side the two aspects of higher education, with one set of buildings doing predominantly degree level work, perhaps for part-time day and sandwich courses and with a fair number of full-time students, who would have to go outside the precinct for their degrees and academic standards to the C.N.A.A. rather than to the university already established in the city. In terms of economic use of resources, there would be the grave danger that parallel development would not be economical, but it would be necessary because they would be separated. The higher education centre, degree-giving and doing post-graduate work, supposedly the equal of the university, on this principle will never become a university.

People tell me that there is widespread support for this. Despite resolutions which may have been passed at conferences of the A.T.T.I., it has been a bitter blow to many of the staff of these colleges, who saw the possibility of integration with the universities, because of the greatly developing advanced standards they had developed, to learn that integration is not to take place.

I have some experience of school work. I suggest that sixth formers, when looking at the kinds of college they can go to when they leave school and knowing that there is a university sector, on the one hand, and a degree-giving institution, on the other, which can never hope under this doctrine to become a university, will tend to opt, because one cannot overlook one thousand years of history in the academic world, for the university. They will therefore tend to swell and inflate the application lists of the autonomous universities and will see the other colleges, degree giving or not, as the "secondary moderns" of the higher education system.

It is no use asserting that this attitude does not exist. I have been in sixth forms. I have taught sixth formers. I have seen some of them choose the wrong course at a university rather than the right course at a college of technology, precisely because the community, rightly or wrongly, recognises the superior academic status of a university education. It should be said that the course was more suitable in the college of advanced technology and as a teacher I should have preferred the student to go there. I cannot understand why a student going to a C.A.T. and taking a course at degree level should not at the end have the status of someone who has taken a degree at a university, except that all the traditions in this country are against it.

Reference has been made under the principle of the binary system to healthy rivalry. I think this was referred to by my right hon. Friend. I do not want to misquote him. It may have been said by somebody else who was supporting the binary system. I am not so sure in terms of the capital costs of higher education institutions that we can have economical use of our resources on the basis of healthy rivalry. There is a possibility of duplication of effort and of a non-economical use of specialised staff. It will lead to a pouring in of money at the wrong point of the higher education system.

My right hon. Friend referred to the effort which is being made in the matter of the exchange of staffs between universities and non-university institutions in the higher education sector. It would be wrong to describe it simply as a face-saving operation, but I do not think that it will have any deep roots. Until these institutions have a common system of governorship and are integrated, one will have a lower status than another. The staff know this.

I accept that teachers and assistant lecturers in colleges of technology have salary prospects equal to those of assistant lecturers in universities. However, at the senior levels this is not so. If we were pursuing the principle of equality in the non-university higher education sector, for a very minimal cost we could have awarded much more substantial increases than we did in the recent Burnham technical award to the senior staffs in colleges of advanced technology and colleges of commerce. So long as there is a substantial gap even now, and with university teachers pressing for increased salaries, I suggest that until we have as heads of departments people who are professors, and principals who are vice-chancellors, and senior lecturers and readers who are given time from teaching to devote energy to research of which they are capable, there will not be equality of status. I suggest that we will not get it on the basis of artificial distinctions made between the two sections.

There is need to abolish the rigidity that sets in beyond the age of 18. The intellectual cream from our sixth forms go to the universities, but there are a number of other people, possibly late developers in many cases and possibly university rejects—because it is a highly competitive business getting into a university nowadays—who get into the non-university sector. I have taught these people. Many of them are late developers who at the age of 20 or 21 have led me to believe that they should have gone into a university in the first place. I cannot think that the policy of maintaining a tight academic distinction between the degree-awarding universities and degree awarding non-university colleges is compatible with a radical and reformist education policy.

I have the deepest personal regard for my right hon. Friend the Minister. I think that he is one of the most radical Ministers of a most radical Government. I have regard also for the radicalism of the right hon. Member for Handsworth and it is a great regret to me that the two right hon. Gentlemen should be unified in arresting a tendency towards the integration of the new and lively technological field and the commercial college field with the universities. I find this 18-plus system of transfer to what I have said have been described as the secondary moderns of the higher education sector completely incomprehensible to me as a keen supporter of the Government's policy of abolishing the binary system at the secondary stage.

What has now been decided is radically different in many ways from the policies which were put forward and pursued by spokesmen of our party in the years before the General Election. I said during the election campaign, and I repeat, that under our policy at that time the colleges of education were to be fully integrated within the universities—and not just academically. I thought that this was a progressive policy, and if this had happened it would have considerably assisted the recruitment of teachers from the sixth forms of the grammar schools and the comprehensive schools generally. When the teaching profession is raised to full graduate status by the training colleges being increasingly integrated with the universities we shall find the recruitment problems considerably eased.

We have changed our policy from this. Although it was not the official policy there were policy statements. The general attitude was towards this flexibility and we gave a clear indication that we would create new type universities and integrate many existing higher education institutions within the universities. I had hoped that we would have seen within a decade existing institutions, in Sunderland, for example, being so treated. I do not believe that when a party is in power it should necessarily stick rigidly to policies pursued before an election. A party might well find that it had been misguided, but I find this change of policy so contrary to our attempts to break down the status harriers within the secondary system. It continues and emphasises the academic status barriers within the higher education system, and in terms of economics it does not save public money. I therefore urge my right hon. Friend to think again.