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 Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , East Ham North 12:00 am, 26th January 1966

I should like to begin by agreeing with what my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) said towards the end of his speech. I do not wish to get involved in controversy about the last part of his speech and arguments concerning the Scottish Grand Committee. That is something which I try to avoid. However, just before that, my hon. Friend expressed the view that in the past the House had not debated the universities sufficiently and said that he hoped that we would debate them more often. He suggested that there should be public discussion of their rôle in society. I agree entirely with that. It is rather less than a year since we debated the universities. We have again debated them today. I hope that we shall do this from time to time.

The debate has been wide-ranging, constructive, and, on the whole, non-controversial, at least as far as England is concerned although not quite so in regard to Scotland and Wales. I thank my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland for intervening in the debate. I should hate to be in trouble with my Scottish and Welsh colleagues at the same time, but I will say something later on the issues affecting Cardiff.

A number of hon. Members have referred to the debt which the House owes to the Estimates Committee. I should certainly like to associate myself with what they said and to say to the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid), the Chairman of the Committee, and those who worked with him that they have produced a Report of tremendous value to which we shall refer over the years on the relationship of the universities to the University Grants Committee and of the University Grants Committee to the Government. We shall also refer to many of the detailed points which they have raised about the efficiency of the system.

The reception given by the Estimates Committee to my Department's original reaction to it was a bit resentful, and it obviously showed its displeasure that at that time we had not met more than a certain number of its points. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) said that he thought that it was a perfunctory rejoinder and other hon. Members described it as truculent and a brush-off, and used other words to that effect. I might fairly make the point that we were under an obligation to make an early response, and at that moment we were not ready to give a full reply on a great many points. We were giving active consideration to various matters, and we said so. My right hon. Friend's speech today has disarmed a great deal of the criticism. Certainly in the intervening weeks we have been doing a great deal of work on these points, and my right hon. Friend was able to give a very full account of progress on matters into which I need not go again.

One of the detailed points on which my right hon. Friend did not touch and which was referred to by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) arose from Recommendation No. (xiii) of the Estimates Committee concerning the very important question of equipment for the universities. The hon. Gentleman referred in particular to scientific equipment and to the degree of obsolescence. I am glad to be able to assure him that the Department, with the U.G.C., is examining what we hope will be a radical new system for the purchase of equipment for universities both in new buildings and in existing buildings which will provide a firm basis for dealing with the vexed question of obsolescence. We are pressing on fast with this. If it is introduced in the way that we hope, we shall certainly take account of the point made by the Select Committee that there is a case for considering transitional grant which may be necessary in the kind of circumstances that might emerge in the changeover. I cannot be more specific at the moment, but we are certainly working hard on it.

I should like now to refer to building deferments, of which the right hon. Member for Handsworth made a certain amount of play and to which other hon. Members have referred. Looking at the situation of the country and at the reasons for the deferments, the way in which we have dealt with the universities in our recent decision should have received a fairly warm welcome from those who are concerned in these matters.

Looking back to the situation six months ago, an economic crisis faced the country. It faced everybody. Nobody could contract out of it. Those in the universities could not contract out of it any more than anybody else. These measures were necessary and they were carried through. We appreciated that in bringing them about we caused great confusion and dismay in the universities, but this was a necessary measure of the economic situation.