HC Deb 22 May 1957 vol 570 cc1346-53

9.40 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

I am indebted to you, Mr. Speaker, for the fatherly eye which you have cast on the progress of my speech. I was, about two and a half hours ago, endeavouring to direct the attention of the House to the universities. There was, many years ago, a learned doctor of a Spanish University who, while delivering a lecture, was arrested by his Government, which had little regard for academic freedom, and put in prison for five years. On his release, he returned to the lecture room, was greeted by his loving students, and resumed with the immortal words, "As I was saying the other day". I have but a moderate measure of his feelings at that time as I resume my speech, after two and a half hours' discussion of the affairs of London.

The point that I was making was that while we must always approach the subject of the universities with great care and respect because of the strong, century-old, tradition in this country that universities must be free from Government interference, and while universities are free from Government domination, they ought none the less to be, and, indeed, they are, responsive to the needs of the community. Indeed, it was after the eighteenth century, when Governments and political parties had given up the attempt to dominate universities for political ends, that the university system in this country began to grow and show increased variety in response to the needs of a community which was rapidly becoming industrialised and whose commerce was spread all over the world.

Most of the great provincial universities owe their existence to the events of that time, and the subjects to which they often devoted special study were those the need for which had been created by the Industrial Revolution and the spread of Britain's commerce. We may without any disregard for academic freedom, assert the principle that, while universities must be free of Government domination, they will want to show, and will show, a regard for the changing needs of the community.

The community, accordingly, has the right and duty from time to time to ask itself how far universities are performing the function of meeting its varied needs. An examination of that kind cannot be carried out casually or frivolously. Universities could not be expected to give great weight to mere expressions of opinions by Governments, nor indeed, even to expressions of opinion in Parliament. To carry weight with universities, we shall need a body of well-informed opinion to which the universities can show respect without derogation from their own dignity. For that reason, I suggest that it would be desirable at this time to initiate an inquiry into matters concerning the universities.

I do not wish to be dogmatic, but I believe that the best form that such an inquiry could take would be a Royal Commission on which would be sitting men and women, some with experience of the academic world and some with experience of the world outside, chosen for outstanding ability, so that at the end of their deliberations the universities would be faced with a careful and informed judgment to which they could, without loss of dignity, pay due attention.

Why do I suggest that, at this time, it would be desirable to hold such an inquiry? In the last generation or more, certain changes have come over the relationship between university and country, and there are today certain facts which are of pressing importance. In the first place, there is the need for an increased number of university graduates, which is not now, I believe, disputed anywhere. When that subject is mentioned, chief place is usually given to the need for an increased number of graduates in mathematics and in natural sciences.

It is, however, important to notice that the need for more graduates does not stop there. There is need for an increased number of graduates who can take part not only in work that requires knowledge of the natural sciences, but in administration, Tin commerce, and in almost every branch of human knowledge. We are becoming a more sophisticated, more complex community and we require a greater number of highly-trained people.

Secondly, the link between universities and public funds is much greater than it has been in previous generations. The number of students who are able to go to universities because a public authority makes them a grant has been steadily increasing throughout this century and is now very considerable. While we want to preserve the academic freedom of universities, we have to accept the fact that their relation to public bodies is quite different in this respect from what it was a generation or two ago.

Further, the universities have now acquired a very great influence over the whole educational process. To maintain good standards in our secondary schools, we have a recognised system of examinations. It is, in effect, the universities which set those examinations. In that way, they are made the guide and guardian of learning throughout the country. That gives the community, again, a special right to be interested in the way in which universities set about their work.

There is, further, a question, not so easy to define, but perhaps of greatest importance among all those I have mentioned. I believe the time has now come when we should ask afresh the philosophical question: what is the real purpose of a university? In the heat and pressure of modern life, there has been a great tendency to stress the vocational function of a university, to say that we must have universities and more students in them to provide so many scientists, so many teachers, and so many people who have acquired particular skills needed in a particular vocation. No doubt it is part of the duty of a university to meet that vocational need, but it has been believed in the past that it is also the duty of a university to hand on to the next generation certain standards of values and beliefs on which our civilisation rests.

Is it possible today for our universities, burdened as they are with vocational work, to do that job? How many of them, indeed, could say exactly how they define that public duty, what they regard as our cultural heritage, and in what ways they endeavour to transmit it?

I put, then, those four reasons why I think the present time is one in which it would be proper to hold an inquiry into the universities. Those four points which I have mentioned will all be points of lasting importance. We shall continue to want more graduates and have a close connection between our universities and schools and public funds for a long time ahead. They are, also, all questions which are either new or present themselves in an entirely new form since the date when there was last any full-scale inquiry into universities.

Having said that, I should now like to put to the House what I think are some of the questions with which a Royal Commission might concern itself. It would be a great impertinence for me to try to suggest what the answers to such questions might be, for the whole burden of my argument is that there are certain important questions in which the university student, the university don, the professor, and the community as a whole, are now vitally interested. lit is of concern to all of them to try to find the right answers.

Perhaps the first task is to try to define what those questions are. It seemed to me, when I thought over this matter, that if I could not make an exhaustive list of the questions to which such a Royal Commission might address itself, I could at least make a useful beginning to such a list. I would suggest then that these are some of the questions to which such a Royal Commission might address itself.

In the first place, can we form any estimate as to what proportion of our population ought to become university graduates? There are two opposite poles from which we may seek an answer to that question. We may look at the needs of teaching, industry, commerce, the professions, and say that to meet them properly we need so many graduates, or we can say that such evidence as we have from schools and elsewhere suggests that there is a certain proportion of the population who could benefit from a university education.

One could not be dogmatic on either of those points. It would be no use trying to increase the number of graduates merely by entering people at universities irrespective of what their quality is, but I think there is very little doubt that there are plenty of people in the country who are not going to universities who could benefit by the instruction and the life that they would get if they were there and who could help to meet the shortage of graduates at the present time, but it would be useful if we were a little nearer a judgment of the probable approximate proportion of our population who ought to be university graduates.

We should, I think, certainly find, whatever the answer to that question, that at least we ought to have more of our population attending universities than are now doing so. Consequently it would be important—and this would be my second question— to ask, how can we remove from the path of anybody who ought to be in a university any obstacles that stand in his way? The obstacles that stand in the way at the moment, the two major ones, are finance and sex.

We ought to ask ourselves, on the question of finance, and in order to get the best results and make sure that no fit person is debarred on financial grounds from entering a university, would it be best if the grants were paid, as now, mainly from local funds or entirely from national funds? What ought to be the principles on which it is decided who can have a grant to go to a university? Ought we to leave the matter, as we do now, to each local authority to make its decision, or ought the mere decision of a university that somebody is fit to go there entitle him to a grant?

There is no need to give hurried answers to those questions, but they will require examination. We must also ask what is the proper amount of grant. My own feeling is that every student ought to expect to live frugally. He ought to realise that he is the lucky one, that at an age when most of his fellow countrymen are beginning to do laborious and sometimes not very interesting work he, although he must work hard, is to have an interesting time, and he ought to be prepared to live frugally, but he ought to have enough on which to live cheerfully, not merely sticking at his books but to be able to have a certain amount of general culture and enjoyment as well.

The other obstacle that I mentioned is sex. It is, I think, quite clear that there are many women who ought to be getting a university education, whose services we shall badly need, and who are not getting it at the moment. We must ask ourselves how that problem can be resolved.

The third of my questions is, can we be sure that the people who go to universities make the best use of their time there? It is a little disquieting to find from the inquiries held by some universities that there is a rather high failure rate—that there is what many people would consider an alarmingly high proportion of students who, starting at a university, either abandon the course or fail to take a degree. It is a little disquieting to observe that even among State scholars the failure rate is higher than what at first glance one would expect it to be. There may be a remedy for that. One cannot expect to know for certain, when a young person is 17 or 18, whether he can make a go of life at the university, and it may be that to get into a university three people who should go there, we must take the risk of sending with them one or two who should not. I think we might ask the universities to ensure that they take enough care of their students' progress when they are there. I think that the failure rate might be less if care were taken in universities, when a student appears to be neglecting his work or falling down on it, to find out why that is so and to repair the damage before it is too late.

Another question that might be asked is, what different kinds of university do we want? It is well known, of course, that Oxford and Cambridge have, and have had for a long time, a great name in education. I might perhaps take the opportunity here of asserting my belief that, of the two, Oxford is the older in time, though that is a university dispute that has long been going on. It is known that State scholars prefer, if they can, to hold their scholarships at these older universities and that a young university lecturer would be glad of an appointment by one of them. What will be the result? Do we want permanently to have two or three universities regarded as better than the rest? It may be desirable—I do not know —to put the most brilliant people in a separate university. It happens casually so far, and we do not know whether it is the best way or not.

Alternatively do we, as some have suggested, want to see Oxford and Cambridge turned into places filled only with post-graduate students? I do not know, but it has been urged by some responsible people that that might be worth examining. At any rate, the question of different kinds of university is a matter of some importance.

The last question, not I fear the last on my list but the last that time will allow me to mention, is, what is the real function of a university? I have referred to the fact that it has an obvious vocational function, and for that reason the universities inevitably, whatever the attitude of any Government, will be subject to a certain amount of outside pressure to determine in what proportion students can go there to study various subjects.

Governments and local authorities can influence that to some extent by the kind of scholarships and grants that they give. Private benefactions can also do that with gifts to the universities to study this and that subject, and will do it, because in the end universities must meet the vocational needs of the community. But we ought to consider what would be the joint effect of private and public actions in determining the proportions of students in different subjects to go to the universities.

Beyond that lies the greater function of the university which I first mentioned. There is something, hard as we find it to define, which we call our civilisation. It is composed of many factors, one of which, at any rate, is the preservation of certain standards of learning and academic integrity. It is the function of the universities to hand on that part of our civilisation. It would be worth asking ourselves whether they are doing it, how they are doing it, and whether they themselves are satisfied that the university is still fulfilling its cultural purpose.

I am indebted to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury for listening to me at the end of this varied day. He will appreciate that I could not give him time to reply if I was to say anything worth saying. I am sure that out of his affection for the universities he will give the matter consideration.

If it is not ending on too fanciful a note, I would say that the picture that we ought to have in our minds of the relation between the universities and the rest of the community is that which we see on the traditional Christmas card, of the shepherds and the Wise Men together at the manger—the workers by hand and by brain, not aloof from and suspicious of one another, but united far the glory of God and the service of mankind.

9.59 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. J. Enoch Powell)

The whole House will have been interested in the sketch given by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) of the recent developments in our universities, and of some of the problems for the future which those developments have thrown up. I do not think that we shall necessarily, because we agree with so much in the analysis, come to the conclusion that at this point of time it might be wise to set up —

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Committee Tomorrow.

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