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

Of course, a postponement of starts for six months would seriously affect the volume of work going on in the period following the six months; that would be bound to be the result. I was stating that there will be a catching up far more quickly than might have been feared. Of course, the deferment for six months was serious, but it was due to the economic situation in which the country found itself.

We can, I think, say that the effects of the deferments will not prevent the expansion of numbers. It will—I must be frank about this—lead to the continuation rather longer of conditions which are old, uncomfortable and inconvenient in many universities. This is something that we all regret. This is part of the price that we pay for economic failure in the past. Nevertheless, it will not lead to the denial of opportunity of university education for those who otherwise would have had it.

I turn now to the remarks which have been made about the so-called binary system. The word "binary" is rather ugly, like "comprehensive" and many other words that we use in educational discussion. If hon. Members can think of better words for some of these things, they will be doing a great public service. The argument was referred to briefly by the right hon. Member for Handsworth, it was referred to at length in a powerful speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Rhodes) and it was referred to briefly by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East is, I think, looking for precise definitions in a field where this is simply not possible. When he asks for precise definitions of one sector as against another, he is talking of dozens of different institutions in both sectors that vary one from the other, as they always will. It is not possible to talk of this as though one can define the subject logically.

What is more, assuming there is to be a sector of higher education which is autonomous and another sector of higher education which must be in the local authority field, wherever the line is drawn there will never be a precisely logical way of defining the institutions on either side of the line. When my right hon. Friend was describing his policy in his speech at Woolwich and used the words "Vocationally orientated" what he meant was that there was a tendency in the autonomous field for the emphasis to be rather on the pursuit by students of pure research studies and so forth, but, of course, there is tremendous overlap on both sides. This will always be the case.

Where I disagree with the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East is in his analysis that our policy means that somehow or other we are pursuing a policy creating differences, a policy of status differences. As he put it, we are continuing 18-plus segregation although we are against 11-plus segregation. I should say we are doing just the opposite. I claim that what would have been damaging for higher education would have been a process going on for years in which a number of institutions in the local authority world were either qualifying for the change to autonomous status, or hoping for it, or agitating for it and trying to imitate the universities. It therefore would have been a continual obsession with status, a continual emphasis on what are believed by some people to be the differences between being in the local authority world and in the autonomous sector.

This would have been bad for higher education in both sectors. Certainly it would be bad for local government and it would be bad for the local government sector of higher education. We would have been saying to local authorities, many of whom have a distinguished record in higher education, "The greater you make the success of your local institution the faster you will lose it." This would not have been a healthy influence at all. We have in this country higher education of which we can be proud both in the local authority field and the autonomous field. It is our intention to extend both. It is our hope that we can liberate higher education from the academic equivalent of a demarcation dispute. We would hope to see people giving less attention to the vexed question of what title is given to a piece of paper after they pass a course. What really matters is the quality of the work done in these institutions and the service given to the students.

It is on that note that I venture to step into the difficult controversy about the college of advanced technology in Wales. I agree with at least one remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) when he spoke of the intense interest in educational matters in the Principality. I knew this all along. Indeed, I had evidence of it when I paid a very pleasant visit for three days to South Wales a month or two ago. I am looking forward to paying another, I hope also pleasant, visit on Friday when I shall speak at the Welsh C.A.T. centenary celebration. I am looking forward to a frank and friendy exchange of views with the people there.

I beg him and my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) to face this question. What is it we are arguing about? Are we arguing about the decision not to grant the status of an independent university to the Welsh C.A.T., or about the whole future of the University of Wales? If we are arguing about the greater question—one which excites people most—the future of the University of Wales and whether it should be federalised or not, this is not a new decision on policy by the Government. We have been concerned in this matter for a long time. We were open to approaches from our hon. Friends from Welsh constituencies over several months.

The policy of my right hon. Friend found definition on 22nd September in a letter he wrote to the right hon. and learned Member for Conway (Mr. Peter Thomas) which received some publicity. In it he said that he was pointing out that the University of Wales had itself decided that it did not want to defederalise but wished to propose a number of important changes to its charter, which my right hon. Friend welcomed, and he did not propose to take any initiative to force the issue of defederalisation or to appoint a Royal Commission.

That letter received public attention and it was open to my hon. Friends to remonstrate with us on this matter if they wished to do so. Of course I should be happy, and so would my right hon. Friend, to attend a meeting of the Welsh group of the Parliamentary Labour Party to discuss this matter with them, but that was the decision which has been standing for some time. It is against that background that we need to see the other decision about the future of the Welsh C.A.T. Given the fact that for the foreseeable future the University of Wales is to continue and not to defederalise, it would make no sense at all to grant independent university status to the college of advanced technology in Cardiff. That would be to establish two universities in Wales, one ten times larger than the other. It would be to establish in Cardiff a new technological university side by side with the University College in Cardiff, which is almost three times as large as the Welsh C.A.T. The only decision we have announced is to rule out that particular solution.

If there are those who feel that in future there might be some new relationship between the college of advanced technology, the university college and the medical school, there are all kinds of possibilities on which discussions might take place and which we might be prepared to consider sympathetically. Those who want to see a solution along those lines ought to have regard to this point, that if there is to be some kind of marriage of the different institutions of higher education in Cardiff it is more likely to come about if all three have the same relationship with the University of Wales rather than that one should become independent while the other two are still in the federal structure.

I do understand that there is concern in the college and among those who are interested in it about the future of the courses, and here I should like to say most emphatically that what is envisaged here, if the Welsh C.A.T. accepts the invitation of the University of Wales to come into a federal relationship is that the Welsh C.A.T. would have separate access to the U.G.C., would have its own development plan, its own building programme; and there is no reason whatever to suppose that this process would make it less of a technological university than it otherwise would be. Indeed, we in the Government, are very concerned, and I am glad to take the opportunity to emphasise this, that the technological character of the college should continue, and particularly that the sandwich courses should continue; they are of tremendous value to the community there, and we place very great importance on them.

The relationship between the college and the University of Wales, assuming that the college will come into discussions, which we think is the right course, would be a matter of discussion between them. This Department would certainly offer its good offices to resolve any differences, and with a strongly felt and publicly stated wish that the technological character of the courses should continue.