HC Deb 02 March 1915 vol 70 cc661-70

Order for Second Reading read.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

In moving the Second Reading of this Bill, which I am sure will receive the universal assent of this House, I think it desirable to point out that in no sphere of our national life has the War produced a greater change than in our two ancient universities. I think that one or two figures will be interesting to the House in this connection. The total number of members from each university serving in the Army and at the front is approximately 6,000. The total number of undergraduates in residence at Cambridge a year ago was 3,181; it is now 1,227. The figures for Oxford are approximately the same, which means, in other words, that two-thirds of the undergraduates from the two great universities have volunteered for service, and are now serving their country in the Army.

When we consider the extent to which the flower of the youth of this country are being educated in those two universities, I think that it is a magnificent response on their part to the demand which the nation has made. I will give another figure, which, I think, will interest all university men. At Oxford, my own university, eighty-nine members of the staffs of the colleges are on active service. Out of the eighty-nine Blues, the flower of the athletic world in the year 1913–14, there are eighty on active service. Nearly all the physically fit undergraduates in residence both in Oxford and Cambridge have joined the Officers' Training Corps. Athletic pursuits in both universities are practically suspended. Many of the university buildings both in Oxford and Cambridge have been given up for military purposes. At Oxford the examination schools are used as a hospital, and officers are housed in Trinity, Balliol, Keble, Worcester, and Magdalen. Of the 1,900 Oxford undergraduates who are serving, about 500 are scholars and exhibitioners.

In Cambridge the Eastern General Hospital occupies the recreation grounds of Kings, Clare and Trinity. Trinity buildings are used for soldiers' quarters and Kings for nurses. Certain colleges in Cambridge are being utilised for Belgian and French refugees, who are being given free residence and tuition. The Vice-Chancellors of both universities have emphasised the serious spirit in which undergraduates have volunteered for active service, looking upon it as a duty for which they sacrifice, in many cases at great cost to themselves, their careers and their future, and not in any sense in the spirit of sport or adventure. The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford uses words which I would like to quote to the House:— Undergraduates serving in the Army are drawn from every class represented at this university. A large number of them are looking forward to careers in various professions, and to those a degree is necessary or highly desirable. They are the kind of men who hold most of the scholarships and exhibitions. Many of them have made very great sacrifices to join, and the spirit which animates them all, as far as I could observe—and I have had a very considerable opportunity of doing so—is patriotic in the best sense. There is hardly a sign of the light-hearted acceptance of war as a kind of sport. They seem to me to have definitely in view the seriousness of the times and the risks they run to themselves, and they are glad to run the risks at this present time. The Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge in a communication which I have received from him says:— The best of every class and type in Cambridge have joined the Army. The House will readily understand that this strange but most gratifying transformation in the whole aspect and conditions of university life has exposed both the universities as a whole and their constituent colleges to very great difficulties and pecuniary embarrassments. Some of the colleges—it is not the case with the universities, though people seem to think it is—are very well endowed. Others like my own, the college of Balliol, are inadequately endowed. As regards the bulk of them, they depend and must depend to a very large degree on fees which they receive from the undergraduates, and the same is the case with the universities. The result is that the universities as a whole and the colleges are in a state—I will not say that they are actually in a state, but they very soon will be in a state—of grave financial embarrassment, unless some legislative provision be made for their relief. And I wish to make it clear to the House that in the Bill which I am now asking it to read for the second time no appeal is made for public funds.

We are asking nothing from the State or from any outside quarter. We are simply asking that legislative permission should be given to these universities and colleges to provide for grave and absolutely unforeseen emergencies by drawing on the future. Certainly the financial situation is very serious. I may give the House one or two figures which illustrate that proposition. Taking Oxford, in Christ Church the average number of undergraduates is 220. There are now fewer than fifty in residence. In Trinity and Oriel there are only twenty-one, and at Magdalen there are only thirty. In Cambridge one very distinguished and illustrious school dropped from 256 undergraduates this time last year to forty undergraduates at the present time. These are men who have all gone one way or another to serve their country in this War.

Take another asepct of the case. In Cambridge the fees normally payable in the scientific department of the university are £26,000 a year. It is estimated that this year less than £13,000 will be paid. Other fees which usually produce £35,000 this year the university authorities estimate for no more than £15,000. The House will, therefore, see that these grave, ancient and glorious foundations, owing to the alacrity with which both the teaching staff and the undergraduates have responded to the calls of the War, are involved in serious financial straits. As I have said, we do not propose to make any appeal to public funds, but we do ask the House in these conditions to grant the universities the powers that have been taken under this Bill, which, roughly and broadly speaking, enable them to draw on the future for the necessities of the present.

Both universities seek power to postpone the date of the determination of scholarships, in order to enable their holders to enjoy them when they return from the War. In the same "way power is needed as to suspending the statutory conditions at present enjoyed. Power is also required to enable the richer colleges to make up the deficit in tutorial fees by taking money from their endowments; but, of course, that applies only to the richer colleges. There are poorer colleges, of which my own is one, which have no surplus from their endowments to use for this purpose; and, in that view, power is taken to postpone the repayment of capital sums borrowed by the colleges, with the sanction of the Board of Agriculture, under the various Acts which apply to the matter.

I now come to the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 enables the colleges and universities to borrow not only for capital charges, but for making good any deficiency in revenue which is due to circumstances attributable directly or indirectly, to the War; and, as ancillary to that, to extend the period within which outstanding capital commitments may be repaid by such period, not exceeding ten years, as the Board of Agriculture may determine. I am sure the House will agree that that is a very reasonable and necessary provision. I come now to what is perhaps the most important provision of the Bill, from the financial point of view. At present neither the universities themselves nor their colleges can apply for a change in their Statutes without going through a long and cumbrous procedure before the Privy Council, which involves expenditure of time and money. Therefore, we ask Parliament to grant to both these universities and to the colleges special power to make emergency Statutes. They will be temporary in their duration and prompt in their action; and, under Clause 5 of the Bill, hon. Members will see the various purposes to which these emergency Statutes may be applied. They are practically emergencies to which the War has exposed the universities; and we ask power for the universities to bring those Statutes into operation without the necessity of going to the Privy Council. These temporary Statutes will be limited in their scope as well as in their duration to the emergencies created by the War. They do not involve any charge upon public money.

As an old Oxford man, with a great, undiminished, and undying devotion to my own university, which I am sure is shared equally by those on both sides of the House who represent the ancient University of Cambridge, I do ask Parliament to give us the power to meet, in the spirit in which the universities and colleges themselves have met them, the special claims and responsibilities which they have so readily acknowledged, and, without touching in any way public funds, give them this large and elastic opportunity of making good in the future the exceptional and unforseeable demands which the War has imposed upon them. I am glad to think that there are now in this House a very large number of representatives of both universities—here they represent their own constituencies—bound together by a common devotion to those ancient homes of learning, in which we have spent, perhaps, the best and most profitable years of our lives; and I am not sure I shall have the universal assent of the House of Commons in asking it to give a Second Reading to the Bill.


I am sure it will be unnecessary to support the Motion which the Prime Minister has submitted, because I am convinced that it will meet with the unanimous consent of the House of Commons. But I hope I may be allowed, on behalf of the Opposition, to say how cordially we support the proposal which the Prime Minister has made. And may I also be permitted to offer my congratulations to those two great, glorious and ancient institutions upon the fact that their case has been championed in this House by one who is not only Prime Minister of this great country, but who is one of the most distinguished sons of Oxford University, in whom, politics being entirely laid aside, all Oxford men claim a common possession, and of whom all Oxford men feel that they have abundant reason to be proud, not only for his record in that university, but for the great part he is now playing in the history of this country. It fell to my lot when Minister of Agriculture to have to deal in a small way with the finance, of the University of Oxford, and that gave me information as to the difficulties of its position. I am confident that both universities have a strong and undeniable claim upon the sympathy and support of this House at a moment like the present.

The Prime Minister was good enough to give us some figures in regard to the university men who are serving their country; may I, as one, state a case which came within my personal knowledge? As the House is aware, in the formation of the New Armies it was obvious that one of the immediate difficulties would be the provision of officers, and especially was this difficulty felt in regard to those branches of the Army in which special technical knowledge is required, and, among them, I include the Royal Artillery. It fell to the lot of the University of Oxford—I speak only for Oxford at this moment, because I have no special information in regard to Cambridge—owing to steps previously taken, to be able to send a very considerable number of young men, in the prime of life, who were ready to take their places in the batteries of the Royal Artillery and to do their work with very considerable knowledge, already acquired, of how those duties should be performed. I think we are under a very great debt to the universities for the great part they have played in the nation's history, and I must say we shall support them as they desire to be supported. I rejoice that the Prime Minister has included in this Bill the proposal in regard to Statutes. I am convinced the power to issue emergency Statutes will be a very valuable one, and it is urgently needed. I am very glad indeed that these proposals have been made, because I believe they will give relief where relief is urgently needed. I am sure that never has the House of Commons done better work than it will do in passing, at the request of the Prime Minister, a Bill which is likely so materially to help those great institutions.


I am confident there is no person on the staff of either university who will not be highly gratified and encouraged by the fact that the Prime Minister at a period of national stress has found time to concern himself with the higher interests of the universities, of one of which he is so distinguished an ornament. The Prime Minister has told us that the universities do not come, at any rate now, to the nation to ask for additional funds. Everybody in my university realises that the pinch of war must be suffered by people in academic positions as much, or even more, than by people who can devote themselves to more active service. The Prime Minister has stated that the object of the Bill is to adjust the funds of which the universities have at present possession, so that they may be more immediately applicable to the emergency that has arisen. There are probably few people even in my own university of Cambridge, who fully realise the narrow margin on which the finances of the university have been administered since 1878, the time of the last university Statute. The appearance of Cambridge has been transformed by vast rows of university buildings which were not there thirty years ago. I can myself vouch personally for this illustration of the way in which funds have been obtained to put up those buildings. It is the case of a man brought back to Cambridge to a university office involving advanced lectures all the year round for which a stipend of £50 per year was given. He was very glad to come, but he was surprised that the first public function in connection with his lectureship of £50 per year was to sign a paper giving an assurance association in London the first claim on that £50 as part of their security for money lent to put up university buildings. Those buildings are largely for posterity, and not for the generation which has gone to great privation in order to provide them, and as the benefit will largely accrue to posterity it is very reasonable on every score that the years for paying back the money borrowed in order to provide the buildings should be prolonged in this time of national emergency.

It is to avoid tension of this kind that Cambridge is chiefly concerned in the present Bill in order that the expenses of the provision which she has made at very large cost to the present generation for the carrying out of her mission to future generations shall be prolonged over a larger series of years. I do not doubt, and in fact no one who considers these matters can doubt, that the stress to which the universities will be subjected will last for many a year after the War has concluded. The numbers, which have been impoverished down to one-third, and which will probably in a term more come down to one-fourth or one-sixth, will not be restored for many a year. After the War is concluded it will be the duty of this country more than ever it has been before to see that the standard of British learning and science shall be maintained before the world. There are nations who profess to believe that our interests are in material things rather than in the promotion of knowledge, and it will be the duty of this nation more than ever before to see that the things of the mind will be attended to, as we hope we have helped also to success in the material prosecution of the War. It is gratifying to know that the ancient universities will be able to rely upon the country for every assistance towards carrying out their ancient mission.


I need scarcely say it is not my intention to criticise either the objects or the main provisions of this Bill, but there is one important Clause which I think might give rise to grave inconvenience as it stands. I mean Clause 8, which refers to the emergency period. There will be the greatest uncertainty as to the length of time the authorities of the university and of the colleges may have for regulating financial adjustments. As I read the Clause at present, and taking the extreme case that the War ended on 30th June, the authorities would have a period of grace, as I may call it, in which to adjust their arrangements, of six months and a day, and if the War ended on 1st July they would have over eighteen months. I suggest that the uncertainty which would thereby be occasioned might lead to very great embarrassment, and I should say it probably would be better to put into the Bill a fixed period of either twelve or fifteen months. I thought it best to raise this matter now and not to wait for the Committee stage, as probably some consultation with the university authorities may be necessary. I submit the point is an important one and I trust the Prime Minister may consider it.


I desire to mention a point which I raised on previous occasions with regard to emergency legislation. I understood the Government to express the view that, so far as possible, no permanent legislation should be enacted at this time when the House is prepared to place almost unlimited confidence in them with regard to emergency powers. In previous Acts, speaking as a layman, there was a Clause stating that the Act did not go beyond either the termination of the War or some fixed period after. I do not want to raise any technical point or difficulty, but I wish to be assured that this Bill in its provisions does not depart from the express attitude of the Government that only emergency matters and matters arising out of the crisis shall be dealt with, and that no permanent alterations are made.


indicated assent.


I accept that.


I do not doubt that emergency powers are required by the ancient universities to carry them over a time like this, but it is not on that aspect of the subject that I desire to speak. I should like to direct attention to those Clauses which give power to the universities and colleges to modify such things as the conditions of residence in the case of scholars and those coming up for degrees, and to alter the time during which scholarships may be held, and to postpone the admission to new fellowships and scholarships until the War is over. Those provisions may be effective, and I am sure that is the intention of the Prime Minister in bringing in this Bill, and they seem to me to be prepared intentionally with the object of giving full fair play to those young men, whether they are professors or undergraduates or ordinary graduates, who have gone forth to serve the Crown in the War. That is extremely desirable. I know that among many of these scholars there has been anxiety as to whether they would get their stipends during the period of absence, or whether the three or five years during which they hold their posts would be running on during the time they were wearing the King's uniform. This Bill, among other good things, makes provision for dealing with such matters. It goes with the best traditions of the universities and the patriotic homes from which these youths come, and for that reason I gladly welcome the Second Reading.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for to-morrow (Wednesday).—[Mr. Gulland.]

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