HC Deb 23 July 1953 vol 518 cc746-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Conant.]

11.34 p.m.

Mr. William Wells (Walsall)

The Advisory Council on Scientific Policy started its Sixth Annual Report by saying that: The view is widely held that our economic difficulties are largely due to 'technical backwardness' in large sections of British industry, and particularly in their failure to exploit the results of scientific research. Even at this late hour, I need not apologise too much for keeping some small part of the House to consider one rather narrow and technical problem which militates, apparently to a fairly considerable extent, against the provision of adequate facilities for technological education.

The problem arises, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows, because where rather specialised courses are concerned the facilities are not complete in any one district of the country. That being so, a student who wishes to have education of a type not available in his own district has to be sent to where it exists, or local facilities have to be created. It is impossible to lay down hard-and-fast rules governing which of these two approaches is correct, because of the infinite variety of local circumstances. I suggest that there are, in general, two useful principles to apply to higher technology.

The first is that enshrined in Circullar 87 issued by the Ministry of Education in 1946, which established regional advisory councils, and suggested that higher technical education ought to be on a regional basis rather than on an area basis, or the basis of the local education authorities. The second useful approach is to consider what the student wants. Many other considerations will apply to other types of education.

I would not like to attempt to define higher technological education. One knows it when one sees it. That it is a well-known type of education is acknowledged by the Ministry of Education in Circular 255 of last year, which laid down a certain basis of grant for courses which satisfied its requirements. In recent years, instead of the concentration which was suggested by the Ministry's policy in 1946, the concentration of specialised knowledge in specialised institutions, with highly qualified specialised teachers, the stream has flowed more towards dispersal. Instead of the students having a large measure of freedom to choose the institution and course which they think will suit them best—and when they get to this stage they are fairly well-qualified and intelligent persons—there has been a tendency towards a kind of dictatorship.

The bad effects of undue dispersal of effort are not difficult to find. Instead of having what I should have thought in specialised education was desirable, a small number of very good classes, there is a tendency to have a large number of small and not such good classes with, obviously, not quite so well-qualified teachers; and consequently, in institutions which have courses of a very high standard, it becomes difficult for economic reasons to maintain them. Since 1945 the tendency towards dispersal, as I have said, seems to have gained ground.

It is necessary to take only a very few examples of the kind of difficulty which exists to see the kind of effect—very discouraging it must be—that is brought about on the mind of the student. I have an example where one local authority refused vouchers for students to attend a course in an establishment outside its own boundary, 100 or 200 yards across the county boundary, and referred students to an institution in their own area. The students went there only to find no course could be provided because the demand was insufficient, and the students were then given vouchers to attend the institution of their choice. It looks as though in this case the local authority which was asked for the vouchers tried to create a demand within its own boundaries, to justify a course in their own area, irrespective of the perfectly adequate provisions which were already made elsewhere.

Another example of which I have been given particulars concerns research, which can obviously only be developed in establishments already undertaking the most advanced type of work. In research it is fairly clear that only two things matter. The man carrying on research should go to the institution best suited for his purpose, and have the director best qualified to give him guidance, and whether he happens to live in Surrey or Kent or Middlesex, or whether the institution happens to be in Surrey or Kent or Middlesex, matters as little as whether he has blue eyes or prominent teeth.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Pickthorn)

But that may make all the difference to his life.

Mr. Wells

It may make all the difference to his life in one sense, but it will not make very much difference to his proficiency as a research worker in a particular form of technology. As to the general and private effects of blue eyes, I have no doubt that the Parliamentary Secretary is a much greater authority on that sort of thing than I am.

It would be tedious, and time does not permit me, to develop the number of examples I have been given, but there is a very serious aspect of this problem from the student's point of view. If the student is not helped by the authority, is not given the voucher by the authority of his area to go to the institution of his choice, and if he is not satisfied that he can get instruction of a similar quality except at the institution of his choice, the only line of action that remains for him is to pay for the course himself or to get some well-disposed person to pay for it for him. The gross cost in London of a course of this kind is in the nature, I believe, of £125 a year, and that an individual student should be called upon to pay a fee that is just about double that of a non-resident university fee is, I suggest, a monstrous exaction.

This is a problem which raises a number of questions on which I should like the Parliamentary Secretary, if he is able, to give some indication of what the Ministry's policy in the near future is going to be. The first question is what is the policy of the Minister with regard to the question of the dispersion of courses, on the one hand, and contrasted with it the regional basis of organisation, on the other. The second point arises on the words of the Circular No. 255, which lays down the conditions under which 75 per cent. grants can be obtained, and says that amongst the desiderata which must be satisfied are satisfactory arrangements for the admission of out-county students. What are the Ministry's interpretations of the phrase "satisfactory arrangements"?

The third point I should like to ask is whether the Ministry intend to take advantage of the opportunity that appears to be presented by Section 7 (1) of the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act this year to clarify these questions either by way of Statutory Instrument or by way of administrative circular?

Whatever the answer to these questions may be, I suggest that this is a matter that clearly calls for the laying down of a firm central policy by the Ministry. One can guess at the difficulties in the way of that, but it is quite fantastic that in one authority, for example, there should be no facilities at all for the giving of vouchers for the pursuit of higher studies outside the county boundaries, and that in a county which is not well equipped in this way. The ultimate question which this matter involves is whether higher technology is a suitable matter for the control of local education authorities at all. However, discussion of that wider implication must await another occasion, and I should be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary could in his reply deal with the narrower questions I have tried to raise.

11.48 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Pickthorn)

I shall do my best in the time at my disposal to answer the questions of the hon. Member for Walsall (Mr. W. Wells). I agree that the last question he raised would be a question which it would clearly not be in order to answer upon this occasion, and if it were in order it would require a lengthy debate. However, unless he is willing to remember why that great question is inappropriate in this debate, I think his smaller questions are likely to fall out of proportion. So long as it is believed that there ought to be some kind of localism, whether it is 150 L.E.As. or whether it is 10 regions or upon any geographical basis, there must be borderline cases; there is no way round that.

So, similarly, when the hon. Gentleman talked about not being able to define technology but knowing it when he sees it, I reflected a little ruefully that I was once severely rebuked for saying that and following it with Professor Houseman's little joke about the fox terrier and the rat. I thought the hon. Gentleman was very optimistic—I will not say in supposing that every fox terrier knows a rat when he smells it, but in supposing that everybody thinks he is smelling the same kind of rat when he utters the vocable "technology." My sad experience is that no two people, and least of all the experts, use the word in the same sense in two consecutive sentences.

Of course, the Ministry is not, in any way, resiling—I think that is the word, but I am not sure of that one—from either the principle of regionalism for higher technology or the principle of letting the student have what he wants when one knows what it is and does not think it will do him too much harm. That principle is certainly accepted by Her Majesty's present advisers, even the humblest of them.

I think the best thing to do is to jump over the arguments we have had from the other side to some of the more particular questions which have been put. The intention of Circular 255 is still fully held. The words in Section 7 of the Statute are there now, but they were not there when the Circular was drafted and issued. If these words had already been upon the Statute Book, our expressions about "satisfactory arrangements for out-country students" would not have been necessary.

The effect now of the Statute, leaving out the machinery of amendment and the draftsman's necessary verbiage, is that where the other authority has consented—that is to say, the authority which is not actually providing the education-then the authority providing the further education shall be recouped, partly or wholly, as may be agreed between the two parties, or, for lack of such agreement, as may be settled by the Minister. That really answers the hon. Gentleman's point about "satisfactory arrangements." The point does not really, I hope, arise any longer, and I hope we are not going to have very much difficulty in the way of getting general reciprocity over this matter.

This branch of education is, of all subjects, perhaps the most difficult to discuss in a short time, because it consists partly of generalisations and long words, not exactly defined, and partly of an infinite mass of tiny details, and neither of these two things can be handled very quickly. I may say cursorily that there is no desire to walk away from the principle of regionalism. Moreover, we do not believe that there has been in the last three or four years the tendency of which the hon. Gentleman complains. It would take a great deal of enquiry to make sure if he is mistaken, but the best advice I can get is that his view is believed to rest upon a misapprehension. It is still the intention, as Circular 255 has made quite clear, to encourage the higher teaching, and to give a new higher rate of grant, to a strictly selected number of courses, and therefore to a small number of colleges.

At a less advanced level it must not be presumed that it is always wise to meet needs for more teaching by increasing numbers at existing well-established institutions. It is naturally the case that a person thinking of studying this or that topic up to a more or less advanced level begins by thinking that he would soonest do it at the place he has most often heard favourably connected with the subject, in conversation and otherwise. That is perfectly proper. There is a certain degree of fashion in it which is inevitable; there is a certain amount of prestige value and of actual intrinsic value. But it does not follow that that should always be the deciding factor.

Nearly all the major technical colleges are making full use—that is to say, full use within the hours of convenience, not in the sense that they are doing it on a three-shift basis for 24 hours of the day—of their accommodation. To provide for greater numbers here would require additional building as certainly, and I think one could say as much, as to do it by starting new colleges or increasing small colleges elsewhere.

Higher technology apart, the technical colleges must be mainly concerned with day and evening students whose time for study is exactly and rigidly limited by their time for work and travel. When, therefore, we are considering the advisability of maintaining the regional tendency in the higher technological studies, we have to balance that not only against the advisability but against the strict necessity of time being spent on travel by people who are part-time students day or evening.

The Ministry has therefore encouraged the expansion of studies in local centres where it is clear that that can be justified by estimates of local demand. These have almost always begun by being what are rather horribly called "feeder institutions" to the more established colleges already serving the region. And it has been policy for a long time, and still is, to develop the strong regional colleges for the more advanced work and to encourage the feeder institutions to send on their students for their more advanced courses. But naturally sometimes, maybe by their excellence, maybe by shifts of population, maybe by developments of highly centralised industry in one centre of population or another, one or more of these feeder institutions by one or more of these means will grow itself into something like a major college. That can and does happen, so that quite a considerable amount of more or less advanced work, but not the highest work, done in technical colleges is being done at such colleges without their doing any damage to the major, to the regional, the normative and superior colleges, which the hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned to defend.

Wherever more technical or technological education is required, it is always necessary to balance these two sorts of considerations, and each time, of course, it is natural that the mature institutions should wish—ambition being the last infirmity of noble institutions—to undertake still more expansion and elevation; and it is equally natural and proper that in the area where the demand is growing, and where there is a consciousness in the local authority of their capacity to provide the technical, and indeed some of the technological, work, there should be an ambition to do so.

To balance these competing claims my right hon. Friend has had, and has now, and does fully use, the help of the Regional Advisory Councils and the Regional Academic Boards, which were quite few in the old days, but which since 1946, I think, have been developed to cover the whole country. She has that help; she has also the help and advice of inspectors, and she has thus a check against excessive "empire building"—I do not mean to be condemnatory at all. No Higher National Certificate course, even if it is part-time, and no plain National Certificate course can be started without her consent; nor again any course which involves new building, whether an entirely new building or additions to existing buildings. Therefore, it is not possible for this tendency, of which the hon. Gentleman is more conscious than my advisers think accurate, just to ramp ahead like a tropical forest without our noticing what has happened.

I have indicated sufficiently the ways in which my right hon. Friend does endeavour—and I think without complacency one can say, on the whole, with success—to avoid the overlapping or supererogatory provision of courses by localities near each other, a danger of which Circular No. 87, as long ago as 1946, was fully concious.

It is a mistake, in our judgment, to think that the increase of courses, either in number, quality, or both, or in the number of pupils attending them, at the newer colleges, is necessarily at all damaging to the older and grander colleges. Nearly every major metropolitan college is very short indeed of accommodation, and the numbers attending its less elevated courses can be considerably reduced without doing it any harm, and indeed doing it good in the sense of enabling it to improve its existing curriculum, both on paper and effectively, and to develop and add to it.

The hon. Gentleman really may be quite sure that there is no one more certain than those responsible in the Ministry both of the importance of technical, and particularly technological, development, and of the vital part which research plays in that. Really I am sure nobody could be more conscious than we are in those respects, and in suitable cases new building is being and will be undertaken with this purpose, for instance, in Northampton College.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Thursday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Four Minutes past Twelve o'Clock a.m.