HC Deb 25 April 1968 vol 763 cc656-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper.]

11.30 p.m.

Sir Edward Boyle (Birmingham, Handsworth)

I am grateful for this opportunity tonight of raising a short debate on the subject of student grants. The House will recall that when the Prime Minister made his statement on 16th January last on the economic cuts he said: Following the next review of students awards, the increase in September will only cover half the rise in the cost of living since the last review".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th January, 1968; Vol 756, c. 1587.] When we debated education on 14th February, I commented on this decision of the Government: I must say that I am not happy about this arbitrary and unselective cut, if only for this reason, that whether one wants a more rapid or relatively less rapid rate of university expansion, higher education ought to be available to every really able student in the country, irrespective of means".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th February, 1968; Vol. 758, c. 1366–7.] It is because of that doctrine that I raise this matter tonight.

I have always believed that the general approach of the Robbins Committee was right; that competition for university entry is sufficiently hot already. In any case, whether we believe in a relatively more or less rapid rate of expansion, in either instance access to higher education should be available irrespective of means.

I fully realise that one must look at this question of student grants in relation to the educational budget as a whole, and I hope that the House will acquit me in what I say of an irresponsible approach to this matter. There were quite severe measures—in some respects they were very severe indeed—announced in January of this year and there was also, although we are not here debating it, the postponement of the raising of the school leaving age and the serious decision regarding the rate support grant.

The annual increase in educational expenditure is being cut from 6 per cent. to 3½ per cent. in real terms, and undoubtedly the effect on the schools is serious. In the present economic circumstances it would be irresponsible for my hon. Friends and I to give priority to increases in grants over other aspects and sectors of educational expenditure, however reluctant we may be to accept the 50 per cent. reduction.

Having said that, I must say how unhappy I feel about the present situation. Assuming that the suggestions which have appeared in the Press are correct, when the report that we are expecting from Professor A. J. Brown and his Committee appears, it looks as though the Secretary of State will award about an extra £25 for London students, yet my information is that hall fees alone will rise by about £39.

We should remember exactly what the problem facing students will be when they have these increased grants, which will be very considerably less than the percentage increase in the fees in halls of residence. It is for this reason that I repeat the strong request which I made to the Minister; that a special review of student grants should be undertaken in 12 months' and not in two years' time, so that the effects of the Government's action—in the light of higher residence and refectory charges, the increased cost of books and so on—can be seen and the amount of hardship assessed. We must remember the expectation of higher costs not only for halls of residence but for many other things. I mentioned books particularly, and the House knows that I have an interest to declare where anything in that field of publishing is concerned. But we must bear in mind the effects of devaluation and higher raw material costs. Many costs will be rising during the next 12 months.

My next point concerns the question of the parental contribution. We on this side of the House unreservedly welcome what I think was the last decision taken by the former Secretary of State, when he did what many of us on both sides of the House had been pressing him to do and raised the starting point of the means test scale from £700 to £900. Having been associated with a number of criticisms of the right hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Gordon Walker), I should like to say that I think his last action as Secretary of State was perhaps one of his most fortunate. Certainly we very much welcome the increase.

Even so, one has the feeling that many parents are assessed to make a contribution who either cannot afford to do so or do not do so. This causes a considerable amount of hardship and ill-feeling. I have reservations about the Government forcing parents to pay, as this would be an interference with family responsibility. But the situation here is serious. A carefully designed plan is necessary. Could not we have at the very least a system of information to parents on how that grant is made up and their part in it, so that they realise the importance of making a contribution to the student?

My third point, which I have pressed before, is that a thorough review of the whole present structure would be of considerable value, since it has grown ad hoc over the years. Just as I have always believed that there should be a regular review of the progress of the Robbins recommendations, so I think that it would be a mistake, having had the Anderson Committee reporting in the early 1960s, just to leave it there. There should be a permanent review of the whole subject.

In particular, I ask the hon. Lady to say something about the arrangements for discretionary grants and anomalies that arise from them, particularly as regards colleges of education. I was Financial Secretary to the Treasury when the arrangements were made after the Anderson Report. In those days the colleges of education contained not much more than 30,000 students. Today there are about 90,000 students in them. The whole share of higher education of the colleges of education is infinitely more significant today than it was six years ago. We badly need a review of the whole scope of the discretionary grant arrangements and the anomalies that can arise.

I do not want to take too much time, because other hon. Members would like to speak, but I should like to raise two other points. In the minds of students, serious students who are capable of putting their views on paper in a precise and articulate way, there are quite a number of other minor but irritating anomalies in the methods of paying additional sums for vacation courses and travelling expenses. Payments for vacation courses, and in the case of some authorities travelling expenses, are almost invariably made weeks or months after the expenses have been incurred. For students at universities some distance from their homes, travelling expenses can amount to as much as £30 or £40 a year. Those on courses involving a considerable amount of field work are also penalised in the same way.

Lastly, I fully understand that if a student is sent down for any reason or convicted of a criminal offence he cannot expect the payment of his grant. None of us would condone certain aspects of unruly behaviour or damage to property, but I should regard any what I would call intimidatory letters to students—as it were, the payment of grants under threat of good behaviour—as a retrograde step. I am not sure that all of us would qualify if Members of Parliament were paid in the same way.

In reiterating the importance of the requests I have made, and particularly my request for a special review in 12 months, I would say that we in the House should pay tribute—and I hope that it is less embarrassing and less damaging to do it now—to the quite outstanding moderation and successful statesmanship of student leadership during recent weeks and months. All of us in the House would wish to pay tribute to what has been a very responsible discussion of this matter by student organisations. We must look at this question in the context of the whole educational budget. If there must be reductions in educational expenditure and priorities, none of us would suggest that the students can opt out altogether. None the less, it is equally important to remember that we do not want students to suffer hardship and that many essentials to student life are going up in price, and we have a responsibility, having set before the people of this country and the younger generation the ideal of the expansion of higher education, to ensure that students receive a level of grants reasonable on which to live during their period in a university or some other college.

I have raised this matter in order to express some concern which is felt on both sides of the House and to hope that the hon. Lady can promise us that we shall have the review which I regard as essential so that we can assess the effects of the Government's action, bearing in mind the results of higher residential and refectory charges and the increased cost of books and thus ensure that no unreasonable hardship is caused to students, the overwhelming majority of whom wish to work hard and make the best possible success of their courses.

11.43 p.m.

Mr. Peter M. Jackson (The High Peak)

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) for giving me the opportunity briefly to raise one matter. I wish to direct attention to a news item which appeared in The Guardian of 24th April. It was a report from the correspondent in Manchester stating that about 25 students who participated in the recent demonstration in Manchester were having their conduct reviewed by the university authorities with a view to disciplinary action. The matter is merely under review. No decision has yet been taken by the university authorities. I very much hope that they will not proceed.

Nevertheless, they have, prior to taking a decision, sent out a letter to the local authorities of the students concerned, the terms of which disturb me. The letter states: We feel that your Authority might have a justifiable grievance if a full grant were made available when possible proceedings were pending". I draw attention to the qualification—"possible proceedings were pending".

I very much regret having to draw my hon. Friend's attention to the response by local authorities which received this letter. Some of them acted in a fair way, noted it and indicated that they proposed to take no further action. Others have written letters which I can only regard as intimidatory. I will not read all the letters I have, but I should like to draw my hon. Friend's attention to one written by the Director of Education of the County Borough of Blackburn. It says: In addition I must also point out that any further involvement… again it underline the word "involvement" by you in disturbances of this nature will necessitate immediate consideration being given to the withdrawal of financial support at present being given by the Committee. The letter does not say "if the student is accused or convicted of a misdemeanour" but "if the student is involved in any way in a demonstration" and it comes to the notice of the County Borough of Blackburn it will then consider withdrawing the grant. I hope other hon. Members share my view that this letter is a form of intimidation which I feel should be repudiated. I hope that my hon. Friend will indicate that this letter is not supported by the Ministry.

11.46 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mrs. Shirley Williams)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingharn, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) for raising this subject on the Adjournment. He fairly said that he recognised that the share of the educational budget going to universities was substantial and that at a time when cuts were being made in other aspects of education, not least those concerned with less privileged children, one had to expect cuts even at university level.

It is fair to say that the present grant system had a recent birth. It dates back only to 1962 and since that time there has been a sharp increase in the overall cost of student awards. It is worth mentioning that whereas in 1963–64 the total value of all student awards was £71.3 million, in 1967–68 it had jumped to £129.6 million and next year, after the Brown recommendations are carried out, it is expected that the total sum will be £155.4 million. That is an increase of 118 per cent. over only five years.

It is a matter of regret both for my right hon. Friend and myself that there should have been any reduction in the increases proposed by the Brown Committee. I should say in relation to what the right hon. Gentleman said about students' hostel charges that the charges likely to be made in September were taken into account by the Brown Committee which made inquiries of all universities concerned in this matter. Consequently the increases in grant proposed by Brown reflect the effects of this information. With regard to the particular point about London it is correct that there has been a rather larger increase in the charges at London than at other universities. One reason is that London was attempting to bring in the increase at the same time as the review of awards takes place. Consequently, there has been a sharp jump in London because the last increases were made at the time of the last student awards review. This does not make the position any more fortunate but it goes some way to explain the jump from the low cost and meets the point put forward by the National Union of Students.

With regard to questions about changes which can be made in the grant system, this is a reduction by half of the increases as a result of the Brown Committee's study.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about parental contributions. Not only has there been an increase from £700 to £900 in the starting point, which goes further than any increase in the cost of living would suggest was necessary, but there is to be a reduction in the contribution made by those parents with a residual income of not more than £1,100. This will be compensated by a higher contribution from parents with a higher income.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that his points about supplementary awards, vacation grants, grants for dependants and the position of mature students with two homes are being studied. Supplementary awards will be paid in full.

I make it clear that this is the subject of consultation with local authorities. We hope to be able to announce a number of other changes which may affect the position of students in a particularly vulnerable position. This again is something I cannot tell the House any more about tonight, because it, too, is the subject of consultations with the local authorities.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of when a review might take place. I share his view that, because of the reductions which have been announced with regard to the Brown Committee's findings, this review might take place at a more rapid interval than the three-year interval which has been in operation since 1962. But I cannot give an unconditional commitment of this kind because it will depend very much upon the economic situation. When that situation allows an early review, my right hon. Friend and I will be willing to consider that possibility.

With regard to the point about discretionary grants, I am aware that this creates a number of difficulties. In February, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Gordon Walker), then the Secretary of State, announced that post-graduate grants were being considered for transfer to central Government. This matter is now being considered by an inter-Departmental working group and we shall make an announcement as soon as it has finished its work.

With regard to discretionary grants in further education—a fast growing sector—only in 1962 did Parliament decide that, because these courses were so different in type, length and kind, it would be impossible to lay down formal commitments for local education authorities. The Department has advised local education authorities not to treat these awards in very different ways but as far as possible to follow the same standards in making awards of this kind, in particular where illness or something of that kind intervenes. In terms of the 1962 Act, the Department cannot go further than that, since the powers were clearly left with the local authorities.

It is fair to say that many students do not realise that they can claim grant for any travelling expenses over £12 a year incurred by them, and I use this occasion to advise them to approach their authorities on this matter and also on matters where hardship may arise during the vacation, where again local authorities can make supplementary allowances.

With regard to the point about the parental contribution, I share the right hon. Gentleman's feeling that it is important that parents should realise that the parental contribution is not asked for as a form of pocket money but as an essential part of what is a grant closely related to fees and maintenance costs of universities, colleges of education, etc. We are trying to do all we can to bring home to parents the crucial element that their contribution comprises.

We should like to be able to say that we could do without the parental contribution, and this feeling is strongly held by the N.U.S. but at present the contribution amounts to £27 million and it is estimated that next year it will be £30 million, even allowing for the changes which have been made, and it would be impossible for me to say at present that the Department could pick up a cheque of that size. But I take this occasion to use the House of Commons to suggest to parents that their contribution is an essential part of the grant system. Even though 97 per cent. of students get some form of award, nearly half depend upon some parental contribution. There is no doubt that students who do not get this contribution may be in hardship—indeed, they are in some cases—and we will, as I have said, endeavour to find ways in which we can bring this fact personally home to parents.

I echo the view of the right hon. Gentleman and of my hon. Friend about the attitude of student organisations during what is for them a critical period. It compares extremely favourably with the position which student organisations in some other countries have taken, and they have consistently recognised that, where they can use constitutional channels, they will try to do so. In paying tribute to them, it is worth saying that they have tried to strengthen rather than weaken the democratic system and as such they have shown a rare degree of statesmanship.

I turn to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson). In the case of Manchester, two students have been suspended for their share in the demonstrations against my right hon. Friend the Member for Leyton, the then Secretary of State. I understand that a number of students subsequently indicated that they shared responsibility for the demonstration. The university, however, made it clear to them that it did not wish to take further action beyond that taken to suspend the two students. As a result, the students were informed that no further action would be taken unless they made it clear that they wished to be regarded as equally culpable with the two students. So far the students have not replied to this request from the university, so it is not clear whether they take the view that they were equally culpable. There is some likelihood that they will not reply until term begins.

My understanding, although I am not aware of the position in Blackburn, is that in no case is grant being suspended. In one case the grant will be paid only for the beginning of next term, but there is no question of grant being suspended until the position is known. Nor will grant be lost until the position is clear in regard to the students. The legal requirement on local authorities is that they should not pay grant if a student is absent without permission of the university or is not permitted to attend a course. Local education authorities are permitted to withhold grant but only after consultation with the academic authorities.

In response to the direct question asked by my hon. Friend, I would deprecate any attempt by an award-making body, be it local authoritiy, Department of Education or a body making postgraduate awards, to go beyond this and to suggest that students should behave differently from other citizens although they are obviously required to observe university discipline. My hon. Friend will not expect me to comment further on the particular case he raised because I have not seen the correspondence and it would not be proper to do so.

In regard to the difficult question of increases in hostel charges and other forms of charge to students, we are aware that the position was very different between one university and another. We are in consultation with the University Grants Committee about increases which seem substantial and I understand that the universities are looking as closely as possible into expenditure which might be saved to avoid substantial increases in hostel charges. The point has often been made by the National Union of Students that economies might be made by looking closely at the way in which hostels are administered. This in the end is a matter for the universities themselves. I have reason to believe that they are considering it very carefully and a further attempt will be made to meet the position where there is any possibility of making economies.

I recognise the difficulty in regard to the cost of books following devaluation, particularly books from America. This has been taken into consideration by the Brown Committee. Further consideration will be given to students studying abroad including those who are affected by devaluation.

I again thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. I wish that I could have gone further, because it is a matter which arouses great and genuine feeling. It is fair to say that, despite all this, we retain a system of grants and awards which goes well beyond anything which exists in any other country. Although there is yet far to go, it opens the doors of universities to students whose parents could not afford to pay the fees and maintenance grants and we would not wish to see that system changed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Twelve o'clock.