HC Deb 15 November 1939 vol 353 cc749-55

4.37 p.m.

Mr. Edmund Harvey

I beg to move, in page 3, line 2, after "behalf," to insert, "of the governing body."

I raised a point on Second Reading yesterday which the learned Attorney-General kindly promised to consider, and the words that I now propose to insert are intended to make that clear. It is important that the application should come from the authority of the University in which, by charter or otherwise, the responsibility in matters of importance is vested. It is also important, therefore, that it should be made quite clear that any application comes on behalf of the governing body of the university. It is a very simple point, and I hope very much that the Attorney-General will be willing to accept it in order to make the position clear.

4.38 p.m.

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend said that the issue raised by his Amendment is a simple one, but, unfortunately, the constitutions of our various universities are not simple, and it is on that account that I really have to recommend the Committee not to accept the Amendment, while appreciating what my hon. Friend has in mind. The London University has a court and a senate. The court, I think, deals primarily with property and finance, and the senate is primarily a statute making body, and, of course, there is a council. On the other hand, in other universities, the court is the statute-making body, and there may be a senate, and in most universities there is in the background some body like convocation or council, the latter body being composed of graduates in whom for certain purposes ultimate sovereignty presides. Therefore, the insertion of these words might create difficulties and confusion rather than simplify the procedure. I appreciate the point that is behind it, but I think that one can say quite confidently that there is no likelihood of any officer of a university or vice-principal putting forward an application except after reference to, or consultation with, or approval by, the appropriate authority in the particular university charged with the consideration of that matter. I think that one can trust those who run our universities to refer to the proper bodies, and also the new Clause to which I made passing reference on the previous Amendment may have some reference here, in that the Order-in-Council will lie on the Table and there will be a parliamentary occasion for objections to be raised if anything has been done which ought not to be done. I hope that in view of that my hon. Friend will be good enough to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Harvey

In view of the assurance of the Attorney-General, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.40 p.m.

Sir John Graham Kerr

I beg to move, in page 3, line 26, at the end, to add: (4) In respect of the Scottish universities nothing in this Section shall interfere with the right of the general councils of the universities to have all proposed ordinances and regulations submitted to them for their observations. Should His Majesty, by Order-in-Council, make any reduction of the period within which the general councils may consider and make representations on any such ordinances and regulations, it shall be lawful for the business committees of the councils to make representations on behalf of the councils. The universities form one of the most cherished institutions in Scotland and deservedly, and as regards the great criterion by which the importance of British institutions is often judged, namely, their age, they have very considerable claims. I do not suggest that they are as ancient as two of the universities of England, but they are of respectable age, and three of the four are pre-Reformation in their foundation. Although I do not assert that they are equal to English universities in age, when I tried to find out definitely what precisely is the age of the English universities I met with no success. In fact, I was reminded of that conversation which occurs in one of the classics of English literature when a young lady called Topsy was asked, "Do you know who made you?" and she replied, "Nobody as I knows on. I 'spect I growed." It seems to me that that is the case with the ancient English universities; they seemed just to grow and gradually develop, whereas in the Scottish universities there is a definite procreative act which is on historical record in the form of a definite document showing that they were pre-Reformation.

It is not merely on account of their age that we Scots cherish our universities; it is also because of the effect they have had on the development of the world and its civilisation. I cannot forget that in the university with which I was associated for many years on Clydeside in Scotland, it was from the walls of that university that emerged the great discovery that made the steam-engine a practical proposition industrially and thereby made the whole of the industrial developments of last century possible. I cannot forget that it was to that same town that the "Charlotte Dundas," the first practical steamship, pulled two 70-ton barges for a distance of nine miles against a gale of wind that stopped all traffic otherwise; and I cannot again forget that it was a professor in that university who, in Glasgow Royal Infirmary, made those discoveries that laid the foundation of the whole of modern surgery. There is not one of the old factories of the nineteenth century, not one of the steamships that plough the seas, not one of the hospitals in the world that does not constitute a monument to the work for civilisation that has emerged from that Scottish university.

These universities are strongly democratic in their constitution. The president of their governing body is elected by the undergraduates, and the general body of graduates, which we call the General Council, has important powers. It is they who elect the Chancellor. They elect the representatives in Parliament and they elect an equal number of members to the governing body to that which is elected by the teaching staff. The General Council has the right to consider any changes that are made in the management of the University, and new ordinances that are created are submitted to the General Council. Changes in existing ordinances are submitted to the General Council, and it has the right to offer its observations and advice on them. Similarly when the Secretary of State receives the report upon the statistics and the finances of the University for the year, he has to submit the account to the General Council. Thus, the General Council possesses very important powers, and the purpose of this proposed Amendment is to secure those powers.

I have been told that there is a clause in a draft Order-in-Council, which is proposed to follow the passage of this Bill, which safeguards those powers; but I am advised that although that clause will safeguard the powers so far as that particular Order-in-Council is concerned. there is no guarantee that that protective clause will be repeated in any subsequent Orders-in-Council that may be issued under the Act. It is on these grounds that I move the Amendment, and I express the hope that the Government will see their way to accept it.

4.49 p.m.

Mr. G. A. Morrison

I wish to support the Amendment. The purpose is to conserve, as my hon. Friend has said, the existing rights of the General Councils in the Scottish Universities. The General Council of a Scottish University may be defined as the whole body of its graduates. There are other members, such as the Chancellors and the teaching staffs, but this is the particular body where graduates find their place and may give expression to their opinions. By the University Acts the Councils have, and rightly have, their statutory place among the bodies interested in University administration. The General Council is empowered by Statute "to take into consideration any question affecting the well-being and prosperity of the University, and to make representations from time to time on such questions to the University Court, which shall consider the same and return its deliverance thereon to the Council."

It is important that the interest of graduates in their alma mater should be maintained and strengthened by every possible means.

This Bill has caused some uneasiness. As the right hon. Member who spoke from the Front Opposition Bench yesterday said, the powers asksd for are very wide, and in emergency conditions they might fall into the hands of very small committees. Graduates are afraid that under the Bill the general councils may be wiped out for the period of the war. It seems to me that it would be a calamity if the general body of graduates were deprived of the right to make repre sentations on such changes as are permitted by Clause 3. By this Amendment we seek to have it made clear that the power of the general body of graduates to make representations to the university courts, or any other bodies temporarily acting for them, is conserved. The purpose of the last part of the Amendment is this: the general councils hold only two statutory meetings a year, although they may be summoned at other times. Recognising that the need for swift action may arise at any moment, we have made the suggestion that the business committees, which usually consist of graduates residing in or near the university centres, who can be readily summoned at short notice, shall be empowered to act for the councils. I do not think there is anything in the Amendment which would cause difficulty or delay, and I have pleasure in supporting it.

4.52 p.m.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland (Mr. J. S. Reid)

The point which has been raised by my two hon. Friends who represent the Scottish Universities is one of very considerable importance. I am sure no one in this House would dissent from the tribute paid by the Senior Member to the importance of the Scottish Universities, but the matter is not quite so simple as the Amendment might suggest to one not aware of the intricacies of the constitution of our universities. Under the Universities (Scotland) Act, 1889, the general council occupies a very important position. There are, however, other bodies which also come into the picture, the senatus and the councils of other universities, which may be affected by a proposed ordinance by the court of one university, and I would suggest to my hon. Friend that it would be rather unfortunate to single out one of these interests for special mention in the Bill, because that might rather prejudice the position of the senatus or the councils of the other universities to be consulted in turn. If this House singles out one body for consultation it weakens to some extent the claims of other bodies not mentioned. I can, however, assure my hon. Friends that the claims of the general council will not be forgotten.

It appears in what was said by my hon. Friend the Senior Member for the Scottish Universities that in a Draft Order, which I have not seen, the claims of the General Council have been specifically remembered, and I can hardly suppose that, with our well known desire to follow precedent, if that does become a precedent, it will be altered without due cause. Accordingly, I would suggest, not because I have any doubt about the importance of the General Council, but rather because I think it is undesirable to mention one interest and leave out others, that this special interest should not be mentioned. I give a firm undertaking that when the draft comes to be settled by those in authority in the Government the position of the General Council will be most clearly borne in mind. It would not be proper to go beyond that assurance until the draft comes before us for approval, but I can certainly say that the claims will not be forgotten.

4.56 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I think some expression of thanks should be given to the Senior Member for the Scottish Universities for the very interesting and stimulating history he gave of universities in Scotland and the large extent to which they have been responsible for those inventions which have brought the world to its present terrible pass. It was refreshing to get an acknowledgement that, after all, we were a civilised people in this country of England, with ancient, established universities, before universities were established in Scotland. I can well understand that the claims of our ancient universities in England are that, like Topsy, they were never born but just grow'd. I was astonished at the suggestion of the hon. Member that James Watt at the moment that he experimented with his mother's kettle was a member of the University of Glasgow. I know that Scott alludes to a Douglas who, a bishop at 13 years of age "gave rude Scotland Virgil's page," but I did not know that in the eighteenth century persons were in the Scottish Universities quite so young. I hope the hon. Member has been satisfied with what the Solicitor-General has said, because I am sure that in view of the treat he gave to the Committee he is entitled not merely to our thanks but to some practical expression of it in the form of an appropriate concession.

Sir J. Graham Kerr

In view of the assurances given by the Solicitor-General, and with the consent of my hon. Friend who supported the Amendment, and the Committee, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 4 to 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.