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 Willie Hamilton Mr Willie Hamilton , Fife West 12:00 am, 26th January 1966

I intervene solely because I was on the Sub-Committee which produced this Report and I was Chairman of the whole Committee. It has been a fascinating debate. The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) has reason to be proud that his Report has had very high and almost unanimous commendation from the House in every speech made so far. If there has been one omission, it has been the necessary tribute to the Clerk of the Sub-Committee, Mr. Middlemas, who, as much as the Chairman and members of the Sub-Committee and all those who gave oral and written evidence, played a very great part in producing what is a highly significant Report in the history of higher education in Britain.

The great value of our Estimates Committee Reports lies not so much in the specific recommendations which we make, which are sometimes important and sometimes less so, as in the amount of information which we can unearth from all kinds of sources, sometimes from the inside, in this case from within the educational system, and sometimes from the outside, from those I might call the consumers.

Secondly, the public debate which our Reports induce sharpens and lends value to the Reports themselves and gives added knowledge to the public mind of what we are seeking to do in higher education. Not least important, of course, is the obligation which is automatically placed on the Ministry to defend itself in its written replies to our recommendations and orally in debates of this kind.

This particular debate has ranged far wider than the strict terms of the Report and its recommendations, and no one will complain about that. It was right and proper that the opportunity should be taken to widen the debate. We have had a Welsh interlude, which reminded me very much of our Scottish Grand Committee debates, with no quarter asked or given. We had a Scottish "natural break" which was like a Sunday school party compared with the Welsh interlude, although the language used by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) was not exactly what one might expect from the church pulpit. Nevertheless, we have had these, if I may so call them, parochial interludes which did not lesson the value of the debate.

The Minister availed himself of the opportunity fairly to defend himself against the strictures, the deserved strictures, of the Committee, if I may say so, and to give us what I might call a revised version of one or two of the speeches he has been making recently and a progress report on what is happening currently in the university world. So far as I am concerned, my right hon. Friend has unconditional forgiveness for what seemed very curt and off-hand answers to our recommendations. I was very incensed by the brevity of the answers, almost a "brush-off", which were given to the Committee.

I am not sure whether all hon. Members are aware of the enormous volume of work which goes into the preparation of a Report like this. There is much travelling about the country. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hands-worth (Sir E. Boyle), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, regretted that the Sub-Committee had not visited more universities. I went to Birmingham and Edinburgh with members of Sub-Committee. I think that they went also to Sussex, and I am not sure whether there was another visit. In addition to that, of course, the evidence was spread over a period from February to May, and it was really quite an undertaking to amass all the evidence on which the Report was based. To dismiss a Report like that in a couple of hundred words is too much—more than I can stand, anyhow—and I am very glad on that account alone that we have had this debate to enable the Minister to purge himself.

My right hon. Friend dealt with some of the recommendations more fully than others, and I should like to deal with one or two on which he did not go into very much detail. First, there is the level of student fees, in Recommendation (xiv). He had very little to add to his original observation that the matter is now under examination. The Robbins Report was specific on this, and we have simply underlined what it said. There was no division of opinion in the Committee. The Estimates Committee is all-party, and while we might have our differences sometimes, on all the recommendations there was no division of opinion. This was a unanimous recommendation.

I should like to know from my right hon. Friend how soon we may expect a decision on this, and what effect increases would be likely to have on local rates. Is this being taken into account when we are reviewing the rating system? The rate burden is onerous, and getting more onerous each year, and if there is to be an increase in the rates without an attempt by the Exchequer to carry an additional part of the burden the rate problem will become that much more unbearable to the average ratepayer.

I turn to Recommendation (vi) on the national manpower needs. We had considerable debate within the Sub-committee on the importance of this point. I agree with the Minister—I think most hon. Members would—that forecasting here is extremely hazardous, and even if it were not so, the criterion of the worth of university education should not be solely and wholly national economic needs. Nevertheless, that having been said, we cannot ignore the fact that the taxpayer is making an annual investment in the universities of £200 million, and future improvements in our standards of living depend to an enormous degree on the return we shall get on that investment in terms of scientists, technologists, teachers and the rest. While it is true that we cannot judge the worth of a university in terms of numbers of scientists and technologists churned out, we must, nevertheless, be very mindful of what the universities are doing. We cannot dismiss it as of no interest.

I was, therefore, particularly glad that my hon. Friend gave us some account of the advances being made in the numbers of science and technological students, although I must add my voice to that of my hon. Friend who preceded me about what seems to be a contradiction of approach by my right hon. Friend—his attitude to the extension of the comprehensive principle at school level and his attitude to the binary system at higher education level. There seems to be a profound contradiction there which I hope he will carefully reconsider.

I was gratified also to hear my right hon. Friend say something about what the Willis Jackson Committee is doing on the question of manpower and national requirements. I understood him to say that the terms of reference of the Committee would be expanded so that it would better be able to meet the objectives which the Estimates Sub-Committee had in mind when it made this recommendation. Am I right?