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

Well, the decision we have made is not to grant independent university status to the Welsh College of Advanced Technology. In the discussions which are about to take place I do not think my hon. Friend would want to assume that those representing the Welsh C.A.T. are a lot of rabbits. They will negotiate from strength; they can enter into negotiations on their own terms; they can refuse to accept terms. They can bargain strongly. There is no reason whatever to assume they will be browbeaten on this. Nor do we wish them to join the University of Wales by any given date. The only thing we oppose is transfer to the status of a new independent university.

Both my right hon. Friend and I would, of course, be glad to discuss with my hon. Friend, or any other hon. Members, either individually or collectively, at any time. We are very anxious to remove the irrational doubts which have crept into these discussions, and particularly to remove any possible suspicion that there is likely to be a decline of the technological courses which are available in the college.

Now I turn finally to what I think has been the main theme of this debate, and that is the rôle of the universities in our society and the need to reconcile the concepts of academic freedom and social responsibility. I do not intend to indulge in any long philosophising about this, but I do want to draw the attention of the House to a trend which is taking place, I think ever more rapidly, and which is very encouraging in the context of reconciling these two things. I think the whole House wants to reconcile the concepts of academic freedom and social responsibility and would agree that we want to reconcile them without manifesting extreme views.

What I want to refer to is simply the fact of the last few years of many new links between the universities and their local environments; links between the universities and industry, between the universities and local government, between the universities and regional planning; and a number of other trends. I think the first thing to which I should draw attention is the way in which the universities themselves have responded in recent years to views which have been expressed about the need for new courses. They have co-operated with the idea that two-thirds of new places should be in the fields of science and technology. In the colleges of advanced technology they have co-operated with public policy and co-operated with industry in the development of sandwich courses. There are some signs that one or two universities that were not colleges of advanced technology are now thinking of courses of that kind, and that would be a very healthy development where it can be worked out with local industry.

They have co-operated in providing new places in the social sciences particularly to meet specific shortages such as for town planners, for personnel managers and other categories in short supply. We have had the development in the current academic year of the two new business schools in London and Manchester.

There has been a reference to the need for more sophisticated methods of forecasting the manpower needs of our society. My right hon. Friend made reference to that earlier and to our own desire to make progress in these tech- niques and obtain better and more accurate results than those available.

What I would claim is that no one can say that the universities have failed to respond to new needs of that kind when they have been made clear to them. The examples that I have just given are clear evidence of that.

What is not so well known is the growing extent to which universities up and down the country are co-operating with industry. At the moment there are some hundreds of contracts that have been placed with universities for industrial research of one kind and another, some placed directly by firms and some by research associations in industry, in everything ranging from cracking in prestressed concrete beams to the social effects of moving a firm from one part of the country to another.

There are several large, spectacular and important projects. A year or two ago there was the development in Manchester of the Atlas computer by cooperation between Manchester University and Ferranti, and more recently with I.C.T. on the computer which is now working within the university and providing services to local industry and to the community. There has been the recent development in Leeds of the project for developing new types of gas jets, particularly in relation to the discovery of new types of gas in the North Sea and elsewhere. There has been the creation in Southampton of the Institute of Sound and Vibration which is run partly by the university, partly by industry and by the Medical Research Council and the Science Research Council, providing services to industry and local government. There has been the development in the university designate of Aston within its department of industrial administration of an advice service for small and medium-sized firms in Birmingham and the surrounding area. There has been the development of the interchange of staff between universities and industry.

Recently I have visited two universities, Warwick and the Imperial College in London, where they told me about the number of visiting professors they have who are people working in industry with the status of professors in the College.

A few weeks ago there was the annual Home Universities Conference, held this year in conjunction with the C.B.I., on co-operation of universities and industry which has led since then to the establishment of a joint working party to consider more permanent machinery for organising co-operation of this kind.

Another point is the development of co-operation between the universities and scientific research, and there is a particularly fruitful development between Birmingham University and the Radar Research Establishment at Malvern, at which the staff of either institution have a status in the other and are doing work in the other. The Council for Scientific Policy have established a working party under the chairmanship of Sir Gordon Sutherland with a view to expanding links between universities and other research bodies.

Then, again, there is the way in which universities are co-operating with the new machinery of regional planning and the regional economic planning councils which have been appointed by my right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State. If one adds them together, there are no fewer than 21 professors or lecturers in universities serving on those councils, and in three cases someone from a university is chairman of a regional council.

Then there is the whole range of projects in which universities are working on regional or local planning problems. The University of Durham is studying growth potential in the North-East. Lancaster University is studying growth potential in Cumberland, Westmorland and North Lancashire. A working group in the West Midlands is working on closer relationships between industry and higher education in that region. The University of Birmingham is working on traffic problems in the City of Birmingham, and so on.

All this has been done without any kind of edict from the Government. All this has developed not only because the universities concerned have wanted to give this public service, but because developments of this kind have been seen as healthy developments from the educational point of view. The quality of teaching, and the quality of research, is enhanced by these wider developments by widening the perspective in the work and by bringing the outside world into the universities to a greater extent.

It has been proved over and over again, and to an increasing extent, that academic freedom need have nothing to do with the ivory tower. Although this is something which has required no edict from the Government, the fact that these developments are growing is something which I am sure everyone in this House would want to encourage, and would want to see them grow further in the years ahead.

I think that it is fair to add just one other point. By their very nature, some university disciplines lend themselves to co-operation of this kind, particularly technologies and social sciences. Other disciplines do not lend themselves so readily to this kind of co-operation. When it comes to the classics, history, and so on, it is not so easy to co-operate in this way, although even in these disciplines there are new approaches which are showing a response to the changing world. One has only to look at the Parry Committee's Report on Latin-American studies to see the way in which other studies are brought into the picture.

What we all want to say is that we welcome these developments, but we equally welcome the expansion and improvement of higher education in all the disciplines, because what we are concerned with here is not merely producing a more efficient society, but with producing a society in which there is a greater flow of higher education for the sake of the individuals who will benefit from it, and because of its wider effects on society.

The Robbins Committee was right in approaching the problem of higher education from the point of view of demand, and asserting, as many people have done before, and many of us have done since, that those young people who are able to benefit from higher education, and who want to proceed to higher education, ought to be able to do so, and that the community ought to make provision for it.

We are not considering these matters only on utilitarian grounds, and there is the danger that during these debates—and I plead guilty to having done it—hon. Members concentrate overmuch on the utilitarian aspects of extending higher education. They are vital, and they need to be discussed, but we need to see them also in terms of expansion all along the line. The Government are committed to supporting the expansion of this and to the future expansion which is being planned for the years ahead. I believe that debates of this kind can only have a healthy impact on our consideration of these problems.