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

It is virtually the same point. I gather that my right hon. Friend is seeking additional machinery to meet the objective that the Estimates Sub-Committee had in mind.

The crux of the problem in general terms is how to marry in complete harmony the concept of academic freedom to public accountability for the £200 million invested each year—in other words, how to ensure value for money expended on our universities in part at least as an investment on which the investor, who is the taxpayer, has a right to expect a return in terms of an improved standard of living.

Some remarks have been made about the value of academic freedom and, certainly, that is a concept which very few hon. Members and few people outside would seriously challenge. The principle of what my right hon. Friend referred to as the "buffer state"—the imposition of an independent body between the politicians and the universities—is sound. The Robbins Committee investigated what took place in other countries and came to the firm conclusion that our system was the right one.

But, whilst accepting the principle, we in this House have the right and the duty to question the adequacy of the machinery which is used to translate the principle into practice and that is what the Sub-Committee tried to do. Tributes have been paid, and rightly so, to the U.G.C., to each member, both individually and collectively, and to the chairman. Those tributes are handsomely deserved and one would not want to under emphasise them.

Nevertheless, it is clear from our Report that the Chairman and all the members of the Committee are grossly overworked and that the Committee is understaffed to do the job assigned to it. In that context, I have some measure of satisfaction from the comments of my right hon. Friend on this point. The proposition that there should be two part-time Deputy Chairmen, each with a different expertise, is probably a sounder suggestion than our proposal that the Deputy-Chairman should be full time. That, plus what one would hope would be additional full-time professional staff, should, I hope, lead to a greater spread of the visitations of the U.G.C. to the universities and the separation of those visitations from the quinquennial cycle.

I think that the universities were unanimous in their liking of the quinquennial visitations. Indeed, we had complaints that the visitations were not frequent enough. I hope that might be remedied as a result of the debate and my right hon. Friend's suggestions.

On public accountability and the concept of getting value for money, I am reasonably satisfied that control of capital account is probably as good as we can devise at the moment and may well improve in the near future, but I am less happy about recurrent expenditure. I recognise that control in this respect is very difficult and comparative analysis, which my right hon. Friend said could be useful, also had its dangers.

When my right hon. Friend was speaking, I referred myself to the Scottish evidence given by Professor Swann when he was complaining about recurrent grants. In Question 1442 he was asked: On these recurrent grant matters, do you find yourselves making inquiries to find out how your costs per student in various faculties compare with those in similar departments in other universities? The answer was fairly long. Professor Swann said: The administration, of course, does give a good deal of thought to costs per student to different faculties in this university … But, even so, it is our feeling that we have suffered from perhaps being regarded historically as being able to do it on the cheap because we have large classes and lecture to large numbers and need not be given as much money as other people. We feel we have not quite had our due on this score. That was a typically Scottish comment.

In answer to the next question he went on to say: We feel we have from time immemorial been doing this more cheaply than perhaps is good for the university. Leaving aside invidious comparisons of whether this is fair or not, we feel we honestly deserve somewhat better treatment on recurrent grants than we have had. Having made that point, he went on to say that he felt that there was a danger in getting out comparative figures for different faculties in different universities.

I make the point to show that the Scottish universities believe that they have a grievance in this regard and to show that I do not want to deduce from that that the U.G.C. should get out comparative figures of this kind for each and every faculty and university and judge one against the other on the basis of those figures.

I now turn to one or two more general points. The right hon. Member for Handsworth always makes agreeable and well informed speeches. In fact, when he is speaking I always wonder why he stays in the Tory Party. He is much too decent a liberal to be there. He commented on the irony of the timing of the publication of the Report and he quoted with considerable satisfaction the last paragraph of the Report, which recommended a further large increase in the capital grant to universties at almost precisely the point when the Government were announcing capital cuts vis-à-vis the six months' moratorium.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that the Government had their education priorities all wrong. Every Opposition levels that criticism against every Government. What the priorities in education are is arguable. In the context of our present difficulties it could be argued that nursery schools and classes should have a very high priority if we want to get married women teachers back into the schools.

It could be argued that the primary schools, on which devastating reports of negligence and neglect have been produced since the last election, should be a first priority. It could be argued that, because this is the very basis of our education, every other part of the educational system ought to be secondary to it. Equally, it could be argued that the secondary schools ought to have a higher priority on the basis of the Newsom Report. I think that there is great force in each of these arguments. There will be some enthusiasts for the nursery sector, some for the primary sector, some for the secondary sector and some for the universities.

The truth is that the capital available to the universities is limited, as it is in every other field, by the overall health of the economy. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Handsworth has alleged that the universities are less happy today than when the Robbins Report was produced. I do not know what evidence he has for it. If this is so, the fault cannot be wholly flat of this Government. They were dealing with the situation inherited, and the capital cuts that were imposed were to some extent the result of that inheritance.