HC Deb 21 May 1953 vol 515 cc2389-98

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Sir Herbert Butcher.]

10.9 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)

On New Year's night, after the Hogmanay festivities I made my way to London airport, and within six hours I was in the Middle East. In that most fascinating land I met many people, and had many conversations. One which did stick in my mind was that which I had one day on an oilfield by the Persian Gulf, in Kuwait. I was speaking to an American engineer in charge of the Kuwait oilfield, who hailed from Dallas in Texas, and he said to me something in this fashion, "You can build jet planes in Britain, but why on earth cannot you send us some technologists to help us in this task of winning oil in the Middle East. Last year your output in the U.K. of petroleum engineers was only five, whereas in the University of Oklahoma alone in the States we turned out something like 300 petroleum engineers."

Tonight I want to speak for a short time about our technologists and our production of scientists. Because of our geography, our climate and our population, we must export competitively or, I take it, expire in the fight for world markets. We can come to only two conclusions. First, we must change the pattern of our industry, and secondly, we must be much more efficient. In other words, we must turn out many more technologists and scientists. Our position in this respect today is woefully weak, and I should like, without wearying the House, to quote some figures to show our output of technologists per 10,000 of population, for our backwardness in this field is startling.

Compared with other European counties, Britain, with 403 technologists per 10,000, shows up badly against Switzerland with 9.68, Denmark—not even, if I may say so, a highly industrialised country—with 7.3, Sweden with 6.29, and Federal Germany with 5.05. The Swiss are training about 800 foreign students a year; at Zurich and other institutes 800 students a year are becoming qualified, and one can see the effect of this on the pull of the Swiss in world markets.

We must find these scientists. Where are we to get them? Paragraph 20 of the Fifth Annual Report of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy says: We understand from the Ministry of Education that the technical colleges"— I ask the House to note that— could be geared to increase their output of scientists within a comparatively short time provided the employers will encourage an additional flow of their apprentices to these technical colleges. But we can only get future scientists if we have science teachers in the sixth forms of secondary schools, and here the outlook is bleak and grave indeed. A short while ago the Association of Headmasters made a survey, in which they state that many six forms at girls' secondary schools had no science teachers, and that over the whole field one-fifth of these teachers were not qualified. Perhaps I might be allowed to give an example of my own. In 1951, at the University of Oxford there were 51 honours graduates in the honours school of chemistry. Not one of those 51 went into teaching.

This is a sorry position. The cause of the wastage is quite obvious. Industry has much more money and can attract these university men with larger salaries. Yet it is not just a question of money. There is a much bigger question, because all the professions are competing for a limited pool of intelligence. If the doctors are given a Danckwerts award there will be more doctors and fewer engineers. If higher salaries and wages are paid to civil servants, we get more civil servants and fewer university teachers.

So it goes on, this insane, giddy pursuit for this limited quantity of what I would term the nation's intelligence. Industry always wins. In my city of Coventry, Courtald's, who can declare profits of £20 million, can tempt honours engineers into their factory, and the Coventry Technical College, with only the limited finances of the public corporation, will lose. Hence we have the sad prospect of what has been and still is the greatest Empire in the world being perhaps financed in the future by American capital and staffed perhaps with German or Swiss technologists, which is a sorry thought.

What are the Government doing about this? Last year they issued Circular 255 in which they said that certain courses and certain technical colleges would qualify for 75 per cent. grant as opposed to the 60 per cent. grant in the past. It stated: To qualify for a special rate of grant … a course will have to fit industrial needs and the national pattern for technological education. Staffing, space and equipment, too, in the college will have to be suitable. In many colleges the way in which they qualify for this grant is to me somewhat puzzling, because I have taught in technical colleges in the Midlands and it seems to me that the provincial college which is accepted by the University of London for the engineering degree has to qualify with fairly strict standards of accommodation, teaching staff and equipment.

Secondly, last year there was talk about elevating some colleges to a university status. We had many energetic protagonists in this House fighting their prospective constituency claims. Loughborough College, Manchester College and others were putting forward their claims. I was too modest to canvass for my college of technology at Rugby, which perhaps for its size has turned out more university degree students than any other college in the country, thanks to the help and cooperation of the two big works of the British Thomson-Houston and English Electric Company.

The Government finally came down for the Imperial College of Science and I want to say here and now that informed opinion inside the teaching profession think that the elevation of one particular constituency college in such a large University of London is merely nibbling at this vast problem of getting 3,000 or 4,000 or more scientists or technologists in the future in our national economy.

I want to quote the Journal of the Association of Teachers in Technical Institutes. That is only one journal of many which I could quote which comes down heavily against them. It says that this is completely inadequate, and that Believing that all the available resources of the country should be mobilised for the purpose of increasing productivity, we do not cavil at this project, but we fail to see how it follows logically from the policy set out by the Chancellor. In other words, it is inadequate and does not go any distance along the road in this particular connection.

The Government have had a bias towards universities in this matter, and they seem to think that if this question of technical education is left in the hands of the University Grants Committee all will be well. I, for my part, think that the University Grants Committee have a slight bias in this matter, and I think that they are also somewhat ignorant of the conditions of our technical colleges, the teaching work being done and the number of students which they turn out at the highest level.

I want to quote the opinion of the head of one of our largest technical colleges— the College of Technology in Birmingham. Speaking of students of technical colleges who have passed their degrees as compared with university graduates who obviously are qualified but have mainly got their experience on the floor of the shops in the summer vacation, he said this: In my many contacts with industry in the Birmingham area, I have been told times without number that the technical college trained men are preferred for a wide range of technological work in industry, particularly in the design, development and manufacturing sides of industry. My own experience in industry and as a university lecturer before entering the technical college field has led me to support this view. We shall have to widen the scope of the work in the technical colleges by giving them far better facilities, paying lecturers more, and so on. We need to use the major technical colleges much more than we have done, and the Ministry of Education would be well advised to set up a technological advisory committee consisting of local educational authorities, heads of technical colleges and members of the technical branch of the Ministry of Education to advise the Government in this field.

Circular 255 has done a good deal, but it has not gone far enough. The important thing is to develop a few technical colleges, strip the elementary work from them, and, as they grow, give them more and more freedom from local educational authorities. The major technical colleges are the only source for increasing quickly our output of skilled scientists and technologists.

10.23 p.m.

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

I am glad to be able to agree with some of the things that the hoc Gentleman has said and I shall begin by referring to those, then to one or two with which I disagree, and then, so far as time allows, I shall try to go through a more or less continuous argument which I hope will do something to answer his more general argument.

I was a little surprised to hear about a university which produced 600 petroleum engineers in a year. I do not challenge his figures. The hon. Gentleman may be right. If so, it shows how difficult it is to compare these things. What is the definition of a complete and finished petroleum engineer? It is a remarkable university that produces 600 such people.

I was glad to hear, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will tell his right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), that he believes this country must export or die. I do not know that I was glad to hear him say—although I congratulate him on saying it, because it is a thing which sometimes people believe and have not the courage to say—that there is only a limited pool of intelligence with which to run this, the greatest Empire in the world. There we saw the hon. Gentleman with the sword of courage in his hand.

I do not think he need mind as much as he was inclined to mind—even though it turns out to be true—that the greatest Empire in the world, while remaining ours, has to be developed on American capital. It is fair for us all to remember that the capital equipping of the United States was run more on the London capital market than on any other capital market right up to 1914. Indeed, it was the intimacy that was engendered between the City and Pierpont Morgan which came very near to saving us more than once. These, however, are not things about which it is my official business to know, and I would not dare to mention them if anybody was going to speak after me.

I do not think the hon. Gentleman was quite fair in being surprised that not many colleges have qualified under Circular 255. I will return to that later, because the truth is that there has not been yet very much time for colleges to obtain grants or promises of grants under Circular 255. I do not think that any meagreness in the results so far an-nounceable arises from the failure on the part of the colleges to qualify, in any sense of that word.

I am always antagonised and suspicious when anybody, even coming from so comparatively an educated part of the globe surface as Rugby, tells me that "informed opinion thinks." I never agree with whatever it is that informed opinion thinks, and I do not know how people find out how informed opinion thinks. But we were told that informed opinion thinks that the development of the Imperial College at South Kensington is merely nibbling at the thing. But it is to double its capacity. It is going up from about 1,500 to about 3,000, so that there will be something like 1,500 more people being produced as a result.

Again, this is not a matter for which I am responsible. The hon. Gentleman has some difficulties in the matter, because almost every time he puts his gun to his shoulder he thinks he is aiming at me but what he is aiming at is somebody at the Treasury. I am also in a difficulty, because if I hit him back with the wrong hand then I should be in trouble with the Treasury, too. I do not think it fair to describe that increase as nibbling, nor to attribute it to any bias the Government have in favour of univer- sities; nor do I think it fair to say that we could do all the things the hon. Gentleman would wish to see done if we were prepared to spend the money.

It is not only a question of being prepared to spend money; it is not a question of money in the main. One of the most difficult things in talking about education is that the keener the people are on education the more apt they are to forget that education, like all good things, such as ripe oak timber, cannot be increased very fast. If we believe education is enormously important, then we cannot believe that educators can be produced very fast; and unless the number of educators is increased the amount of education cannot be increased.

We do not want any kind of convincing or urging to believe in the urgency of the problem of producing technologists. Perhaps I may define "technology" because that word is used in very many different senses, and even sometimes the word "technology" is used in a sense not compatible with the word "technologist." I take it that the hon. Gentleman means by "technologist" someone who, as a result of his aptness and education, has a grasp and understanding of the fundamental principles of science, and at the same time is able and inclined to apply that understanding to practical problems, and who is trained to the level of a first university degree. That is what I claim technology to mean in this connection, and I assume that that is something like what the hon. Gentleman meant.

There has been very considerable expansion in that regard, but I am not complacent or suggesting that it is nearly enough. The number of people getting Ordinary National Certificates in 1938 was not very much more than 3,000, and in 1951 it was over 11,000. I am not claiming any credit for this, still less enjoying any complacency. Higher National Certificates numbered not much over 1,100 in 1938, and in 1951 more than 5,500. To take the number of students getting degrees in universities which may be called technological, the number was under 13,000 in 1938, and it was nearly 28,000 in 1951. To be quite fair, I must say that the increase has not gone on like that. Nevertheless, there has been a great deal of increase, and it is no use our under-estimating the amount of increase there has been. Nor should we underrate our own achievements in this matter, or our present standards.

I do not see that it matters very much if we do sometimes make use of foreign technologists. Both Unilever and Shell —I do not wish to advertise them— clearly got great advantage to themselves and gave great advantage to the public by a combination of English technology with Dutch and American technology.

If I had to answer for the nature and habitual functions of technical colleges, I would say, and I think the House would agree, that they have been essentially local. It is highly desirable that their local virtues and values should remain. Some of them, besides providing mainly for local education, and mainly for education at the craftsman level, or supercraftsman level, but not the technological level—and I am not using the word "level" to indicate any merit in the light of eternity—some of them, perhaps something like 30 out of something like 200, have developed more advanced work, and may be said to be producing technologists, but when they have done so, they have done it, so to speak, by blossoming on the branch of a tree which has been a local tree, with its roots in local soil. That remains true even when the technological part of the college's activities have reached, intellectually and academically, university standard, and. industrially, national importance

I wish to make some reference to what the hon. Gentleman said about grammar school teachers. We are fully conscious indeed of the difficulties and dangers about that, but the situation is not, in some respects, as bad as is often made out. First of all, the quantitative shortage is often exaggerated. It is not so much that there are not enough teachers with scientific and mathematical qualifications to take on the forms that ought to be taken, as that the teachers are getting old, and that the "quality" men, the better men among the younger generation, find other things to do. That is one modification of the usual—I will not say "grouse"—regret in these matters. Another is that there have been slight signs of improvement in the last year or so. We think that the thing has got a little better.

About what ought to be done next in this connection, I do not honestly think that any Government will find it possible very quickly, or even perhaps for a longer time, to do anything very direct and very effective. We cannot draft people into being grammar school science teachers. I do not think anybody would want that. The hon. Gentleman gave us a very interesting and, I thought, wholly convincing lecture on economics of the pure Adam Smith kind—supply and demand, and all that. If you put up more money for acid drops there will be more acid drops; if you put up more money for bull's eyes there will be more bull's eyes. I have a great deal of sympathy with that kind of line of approach, but there are great difficulties about it in this connection.

I think it might happen in the long run. It is quite true that if we do not export we shall starve. When the starvation gets really near we may have to say that we must have more people teaching physics in grammar schools and therefore we will pay teachers of physics 50 per cent. more than we will pay teachers of anything else. But I have not heard anybody say that we have got to the point where it ought to be done; I have not heard anybody make any such suggestion.

I think plainly that such a suggestion, if it became absolutely irresistible, would be an evil, however much it was a necessary evil. So I think we must put off that as long as we can and hope that the Burnham Committee has given, and will give, us enough margin by way of special responsibility posts and so on to see that something in the right direction is done. Much more than that I do not believe anybody could promise to do very quickly.

Now I come back to what I gathered to be the hon. Gentleman's main desideratum—if we may bandy the learned languages—and that was the extension of technical colleges. My right hon. Friend's Circular 255 was intended to encourage the development of what is called advanced technology in selected technical colleges and in selected courses at technical colleges. The grant has been put up from 60 per cent. to 75 per cent. The Minister's policy in this connection must be one not of trial and error, but of trial and the avoidance of error or the keeping of error down to the minimum.

Our present hope is that colleges with courses which attract the maximum, the advanced rate, of grant will develop more and more into institutions for technological work only. We do not set any limit to the distance which they may go in that direction nor to the pace at which they may go. As that happens, no doubt other colleges will tend to concentrate upon the needs of the local craftsmen—the technical rather than the technological.

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

Adjourned at Twenty-one Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.