Universities (Financial Situation)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th January 1978.

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind , Edinburgh Pentlands 12:00 am, 13th January 1978

I beg to move, That this House takes note that Great Britain's universities and university staff are experiencing a grave financial crisis, believes that this crisis is seriously impairing the fulfilment of their educational and research obligations; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to ensure that the obligations imposed upon the universities are matched by the resources made available to them, and that university staff enjoy a phased elimination of the pay anomaly they have suffered since July 1975. Friday the 13th may not be considered the most auspicious date on which to raise the subject of the crisis in the universities, because it is undoubtedly the case that the universities need all the luck they can get. However, I make no apology for doing so because, remarkable though it may seem, today's debate will be the first opportunity the House has had to consider the whole question of the universities since January 1969. It is not surprising, given that remarkable circumstance, that the universities have felt somewhat neglected in recent years.

I do not claim any special knowledge on the subject of the universities, though in a previous incarnation I lectured at an African university for a short time. My special interest in the subject arises because in the city I help to represent—Edinburgh—there are two universities, and that helps to concentrate the mind wonderfully on the problems of university staff.

The motion deals particularly with the question of university finance. Although I am aware that there are many other problems facing the universities, it is clearly in this area that we are at present witnessing a crisis on the campuses of Britain's universities. There is at present a greater feeling of bitterness, cynicism and anger among university staff than at any time in the last 30 years. That bitterness and anger is directed at the Government, not because of any overt hostility to the universities on the part of the Department of Education and Science but because in the view of the universities—I believe a justified view—the Government have demonstrated in their attitude to the universities an injudicious blend of incompetence, inconsistency and indifference to the welfare of the universities compared with the halycon days when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was at the Department.

The universities are today seething with resentment, as any hon. Member knows from the representations we have received and from the unprecedented mass lobby experienced at the Palace of Westminster a few months ago. University staff are not by tradition considered one of the most militant of groups in our community, but the actions they have felt themselves re-required to resort to indicate the strength of feeling on the subject. One major cause of dispute is the position of the salaries of academic staff. It is and always has been the case that no one enters university life in order to command a high income. No one suggests that the universities are the best way of ensuring a very high standard of living. But, equally, only three or four years ago university staff compared favourably not only with other sectors of higher education but with other comparable professions in our society. In the last three or four years, however, the position of this group has sadly deteriorated.

It is somewhat ironic that the very reasonable efforts made by the staff of polytechnics and other centres of higher education to achieve parity with university staff has put the university staff at a positive disadvantage to their counterparts in the polytechnics and the other centres of higher education.

The position is just as grim if we compare the position of the universities with comparable professions in our society. A professor today earns somewhere between £2,000 and £3,000 a year less than an assistant secretary in the Civil Service, a comparable level of responsibility. A lecturer with a PhD and post-doctoral experience earns approximately £1,000 less than a principal scientific Adviser, again a deterioration which has occurred largely only in recent years.

Given these figures, it is not particularly surprising that in the last few years there has been an exodus of some of the best brains from our universities to foreign universities, to industry and to the Civil Service. There always has been—and it is desirable that there should be—the maximum of interchange between the universities here and abroad and between the universities and other walks of life. But the sadness and tragedy of the last two or three years have been that the movement has been in only one direction and that our universities have suffered as a result.

That is not particularly surprising when one considers the salary scales of university staff. A university lecturer, who will probably not get that post nowadays until he is in his late twenties, starts on a salary scale of £3,333. Compared with other positions in our society with comparable responsibilities, that is an absurdly low level. I have been given examples of university staff throughout the United Kingdom who are on a level of income that entitles them to claim rent rebate, rent allowances and free school meals for for their children—a claim that relatively few miners can make. It is worth remembering, too, that academic staff, being on a salary, cannot increase their income by overtime. Their basic salary is their take-home salary, and that, clearly, determines their position.

The problem has not been helped by the unprecedented unemployment levels in the academic world in the past year. The latest figures that I have, which are for September last year, show a total of nearly 2,000 unemployed academics on the records of the Department of Employment, which represents a 38 per cent. increase in the three months since June 1977. That figure represents also a more than doubling of the level of unemployed in the 12 months before that period. Such a high level of unemployment, at a time of grave problems over salary, provides and produces a situation of serious crisis.

Perhaps the last straw has been the insensitive, unthinking and unsatisfactory way in which the Government as a whole, and the Department of Education and Science in particular, have handled the problem of the pay anomaly in the salaries of university staff that has existed since 1975 as a direct result of the implementation of the Government's pay policies. I shall not go into tremendous details about the pay anomaly. It is well known to the Minister and to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have received representations on this subject.

Briefly, the situation is that in 1975, at a time when, through independent arbitration, a serious and proper attempt was being made to remedy a justifiable grievance of the university staff compared with other levels of higher education, the Government's pay controls were introduced, and since then an anomaly has existed that has grown serious as the years have gone by. It is an anomaly that cannot be found in comparable terms in almost any other sector of the population.

The Government will no doubt take credit for the fact that the Minister and his colleagues have consistently admitted the existence of this anomaly, and consistently regretted that it has occurred, but the truth is that they have just as consistently refused to do anything about it. The way in which they have treated academic staff compares unfavourably with their attitude towards other sectors of the population.

We have recently been dealing with the firemen's dispute. One of the unusual features of the settlement of the firemen's claim is the Government's guarantee that if, as they have now decided, the firemen return to work, there will be no question of any pay controls frustrating the results of independent arbitration. In other words, the firemen have been given a guarantee against any future anomalies frustrating decisions of independent arbitration boards.

I pass no comment on the merits or otherwise of the guarantee given to the firemen, but it is unfair and indefensible to give firemen, or any other groups, guarantees against future anomalies while the Minister and the Department, and the Government as a whole, refuse to rectify an anomaly that has existed for three years. That is an unfair basis on any count and it is one which the Government have never been able to justify. How can they offer some groups guarantees against future anomalies whilst refusing to rectify anomalies that have existed for three years?

Another unfortunate effect of the pay control has been the refusal of the Government to accept the recommendation of the University Grants Committee that the ratio between junior and senior lecturing staff should be improved. There is no doubt that this is necessary. The UGC has recommended it, but the Government have refused to allow the recommendation to be implemented because it would interfere with their pay policy.

The effect of that is that a considerable number of university staff—in Edinburgh the number is about 30, but a similar problem applies in all British universities—who, on the basis of merit, are entitled to promotion to senior posts are being refused their legitimate promotion, with all the consequent effects upon their career prospects and level of income. This again is a direct result of the Government's unfair approach.

One might ask why the Government are being so insensitive and unfair towards university lecturers, when they are prepared to bend their policy and be flexible on aspects of their policy with other groups, such as firemen. The simple explanation—and it is well known—is that the university staff do not have what we nowadays call industrial muscle. They cannot hold the community to ransom. They cannot force the Government to act by making life difficult for everyone else.

The position was best expressed at the recent conference of the Association of University Teachers by Mr. Laurie Sapper, the general secretary, when he said "I should like to go to the Minister and say that we want 30 per cent. or else", but the trouble is that the Minister would say "Or else what?".

That is the problem. University staff cannot embarrass the community or make life difficult for the community as a whole and thereby put pressure on the Government. The Government know that and have been willing to take advantage of it. It is one of the most disgraceful aspects of the whole sorry business that the Government are prepared to take advantage of groups which cannot make life difficult for the community, whereas they are prepared to bend by giving guarantees against future anomalies to firemen and other groups who can hold the community to ransom. That is the most iniquitous part of the Government's approach to this issue.

At their most recent conference, university staff said that they were willing to accept the Government's 10 per cent guideline, albeit reluctantly, but the minimum they requested from the Government was an immediate announcement about a phased elimination of the pay anomaly. That is incorporated in the motion before the House, and I hope that that minium requirement will be acceptable to the Government.

The situation of university staff is extremely serious, and the problem of the funding of the universities is no less worrying to the community, or it ought not to be. A few years ago the universities were in a relatively comfortable position. The expansion of the post-Robbins era had created a feeling of optimism in the universities. The quinquennial system of grants was working well.

The quinquennial system which enabled the universities to plan ahead, knowing their likely income has disappeared, and today we see that the universities are being forced to make major restrictions not only in fringe matters but in some of the essential services that enable universities to do their job properly. It has been bad enough for the older universities that have had reserves on which to fall back. They have seen their reserves almost exhausted as a result of the curbs on their activities by the Government. The more recently established universities have had to witness the most serious problem of all.

I said that what had happened had had a serious effect on the vital workings of the universities. We see this in various ways. Many universities, including my own in Edinburgh, have had to cut off the heating of buildings at 4.30 p.m. or 5 p.m. and at weekends to try to economise. The practical effect of this is that students and staff who have required university libraries to continue their work, or have required the use of equipment to continue their research have been unable to do so in the evenings and at weekends. They are debarred from continuing the important work that they are doing.

We have seen, too, in the matter of library provision some of the most severe cuts that the universities have had to witness. There has been a severe restriction on the books available in the libraries. While it might or might not be argued that libraries are a luxury for the rest of the community, no one would doubt that they are the very lifeblood and tools of the trade of the universities.

The same is true of research. There has been a severe restriction on the ability of the universities to continue with existing research, and certainly to initiate any new research. This is because of the problems facing the various research councils. It might be helpful if I quote briefly from the annual report of one or two universities.

Hull University said: The economies which can be achieved in the remaining quarter … are limited if the university is to continue to exist—some books must be bought for the library, some consumable materials must be provided for Departments, and some heating must be provided for our buildings, which must also have a minimum of maintenance. Thus the main brunt of economies has now to fall on the recruitment of staff. Kent University says: … last year 30 established academic posts were left vacant because we could not afford to fill them. Nor was there any immediate prospect of further building for teaching or residence … the accounts show that … the main recurrent account was in balance and there was no overspending. Southampton University says: Much of our laboratory equipment is now nearing the end of its useful life, but the equipment grant is insufficient to enable us to replace it … The standstill on new buildings and the freezing of staff vacancies have meant that we, like other universities, have had to cut back on our planned expansion and at a time when student applications have never been higher, both in quantity and quality, this has lamentable consequences. For the next few years it will be more difficult for school-leavers to obtain higher education than at any time since the end of the War. This is a matter of considerable concern to the universities and should be to the nation. I may add that it should be to the present Government. But that is their record towards the universities.

We all accept that there has been a necessity for major cuts in public expenditure, and I do not suggest that somehow the universities should or could have been exempted from the necessary cuts required because of the Government's disastrous handling of our economy. But the most discreditable aspect of this whole sorry story is that the Government have been seeking to take some credit for increasing student numbers—for increasing the total student intake into our universities at the very same time that they have been refusing the resources needed by the universities to help them meet this new requirement. The Government have been trying to get literally the best of both worlds, bringing pressure on the universities to increase their student intake while withholding from them the appropriate resources which would enable them to deal with such an increase.

This is why my motion argues specifically that the resources available to the universities should be equivalent to the obligations imposed on them. There are various ways in which that can be achieved. It seems to me to be a matter of elementary desirability that it should be the criterion applied by the Government in seeking to impose new obligations on the universities.

Doubtless there will be some, perhaps in this House but certainly in the country, who will view the privations of the universities with a certain equanimity. There is still the popular misconception that university work is concentrated on the teaching of Sanskrit, the study of metaphysics or the interpretation of the works of Jane Austen. I do not cast any reflection on the desirability of these examples—the life of the community as a whole would be far poorer if all such subjects were to be eliminated from our universities—but, important as they are, they constitute, as most people realise, only a relatively minute proportion of the total work.

The vital importance of our universities can be justified quite simply. Quite apart from the esoteric or more intellectual subjects with which they deal, although those subjects are vital to the intellectual life of the nation, the universities also make a vital and continuing contribution to the life of our economic society, to the life of industry and commerce throughout the United Kingdom.

It has been estimated—it can be only an estimate—that the financial contribution made by universities to industry and commerce is about £350 million a year. I will explain how that figure can be justified. For example, whereas industry pays, directly or through compulsory contributions, to the industrial training boards for the education of its skilled or semi-skilled work force, it makes hardly any contribution to the training of its most highly skilled people, the training of whom depends almost entirely on work done in the universities and other sectors of higher education.

The training of engineers, physicists, chemists and all the other groups so vital to the wellbeing of industry is undertaken almost exclusively by the universities and other higher education establishments. Industry itself pays only a small contribution in the form of sponsored studentships. However, the cost of this education has been valued at about £100 million a year. In other words, in effect the universities and other higher education establishments subsidise industry by doing work which would otherwise have to be carried out by industry.

The same goes for research. That resource, directly related to industry and commerce, has been valued conservatively at about £250 million a year. In 1976 alone, over 500 inventions as a result of university research were notified to the National Research Development Corporation as being of industrial or commercial significance. I therefore emphasise that the wellbeing of the nation and the prospects for our industrial recovery depend, at least to some extent, on the ability of the universities to continue not only their academic work but also the vital education, training and research that they give to industry and the community as a whole.

I have spoken of the United Kingdom universities as a whole. I have not made specific reference to the position of Scottish universities. There is continuing debate on whether control of the Scottish universities should be devolved to the Scottish Assembly. I do not wish to concentrate on that topic now because it is not in the terms of the motion. But, among the many hundreds of representations which I have received from academic staff throughout Scotland and at public meetings, and which I have seen in many publications, I am not aware of one that has argued that the problems of finance facing the universities would in Scotland be in any way improved by removing their control from the University Grants Committee or the Department of Education and Science. There is nothing institutional about this problem.

While there may be other arguments for devolving the universities to the Assembly, nothing that I have seen or that has been said to me by any members of the staff of Scottish universities indicates that point of view. If the Government have taken one popular decision in this Parliament which has been welcomed by the universities, it has been to refuse to allow the universities to be devolved, retaining them as a United Kingdom responsibility.

In conclusion, I put five proposals to the Government as being a necessary course of action that they should undertake to support if they wish to be fair and reasonable.

First, there has to be an immediate or at least very early announcement of the phased elimination of the anomaly that has existed as a direct result of Government policy since July 1975. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity, the first debate on universities in nine years, to make such an announcement. The rectification of an anomaly which the Government themselves admit to be unfair and undesirable, and which has had harmful consequences, would be greatly welcomed in university circles. I hope that the Minister will be positive in his reply on that aspect.

Secondly, there is a strong case for a general review of the position of academic staff salaries comparable with other sectors of higher education and other comparable professions. It is important to establish the relative value of the universities' contribution through their staff, so that we do not get a recurrence of the great resentment felt at present.

Thirdly, there is a strong case for the restoration of the quinquennial system for financing. I wish to see it restored in an improved fashion—on a rolling-forward basis which would enable there to be more flexibility than in the past, and enable the universities to plan their future research with some knowledge of future development.

Fourthly, I believe that the Government should ensure that the obligations, particularly in respect to student numbers, imposed upon the universities, are matched by the resources available to them. It is clearly iniquitous that the universities should come under two corresponding sets of pressures which are mutually incompatible as a direct result of Government policy.

Finally, I believe—this point is not directed so much to the Government as to industry—that industry should consider its responsibilities, and consider whether a larger contribution by industry not merely to the training of its skilled and semi-skilled work force but to the training of the most highly skilled people who work in industry—engineers, scientists, physicists and so forth—is not overdue.

We are all anxious to preserve the independence of the universities. Already a very high proportion of their revenue comes directly from Government. This is unsatisfactory, for if the independence of the universities is to be retained, it is important that they should have alternative sources of revenue, and one of the main areas from which this could come would be industry itself. At the moment the direct contribution of industry is very small and is only a fraction of the return which it gets from the universities which helps it to prosper. I hope, therefore, that industry will take note of the debate and improve its contribution.

I hope that the debate will be helpful, because I believe that the universities' success is a vital part of the recovery of the nation as a whole. I believe that the Government have been retrograde and indifferent to the problems facing the universities, but I hope that the worst is now over and that, the matter having been brought to the attention of the Government—not simply by hon. Members on both sides of the House but by the universities themselves, in an unprecedented fashion—the future policy of the Government will bear more relevance to the very real needs and crisis presently facing our universities.