§ 2.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)
I beg to move,That this House, while upholding the ancient right and ritual of students to protest, deplores militancy which indulges in activities of ill-tempered, disturbance, disorder or strike; and, supports any moderate student lead which recognises and seeks to improve the advantages provided by university and further education, paid for so largely out of the taxes of the general public.Calling attention to student militancy would appear to be hardly necessary, to anyone having read the newspapers in the last week or so and of events which have taken place. We have got used to students engaging in all kinds of activity, throwing red paint at foreign visitors, pelting Ministers' cars or Ministers themselves, at times damaging cars of Shadow Ministers or hon. Members of this House; sometimes involving police in injury. Violence and ill-temper have apparently become part of the student world. Student protest used to be fun, but it is now in danger of becoming something of a fury. I think it very easy to write all this off as a series of escapades. We have got to recognise that there has been a change in student protest slightly for the worse.
It was suggested in one Sunday newspaper last week that this was not a subject which should be debated in this House—which I must say seemed rather amusing, since this House is frequently criticised if it deals with irrelevant or what appear to be irrelavant or insubstantial matters; when it decides to deal with something very much in the public mind we are then told that this is a matter only for the newspapers to look at and to write leaders about but not for us here to discuss.
I think that because it is matter of public interest it is right that we should look at it. Students have gone on the rampage throughout the world. In many countries students have always been much more violent than they have been here. We in the past have always been used to having from time to time student protests which were non-violent. We enjoyed them, and we hoped that the students enjoyed them as well. There is a danger now that we are not enjoying them any more. Things are getting a little out of hand.
1975 Most of the students at our universities—I would say the vast majority, from 90 per cent. to 95 per cent—are hardworking and conscientious. It is the minority who are seeking to create hell. I noticed the other day that a minority, apparently, according to a quotation from New Society, go through a publicity conscious exercise in going about their activities, since in an article under the heading "The Student Conflict", it said that afterthe meeting broke up"—at Essex University, where there had apparently been staged a protest—students … were phoning in their stories to the national Press to earn a few guineas each.I would not myself necessarily agree that the students were wanting to earn a few guineas. I do suggest that they were wanting to make it plain to the public at large that they were engaged in an exercise.
Exercises are justified provided that they are controlled exercises, but the trouble with the present situation is that we have got a leadership among the extremists who are, some of them, anarchists, and a great many of them Communists, and they make no bones about it. The secretary of the Communist Party, Mr. John Gollan, frequently meets with his student Communist leaders and they travel from university to university.
It has got to be recognised by the students themselves, by this House and by the public, that grants are made available to students out of the products of an ordered society, and the grants are substantial in money terms—£124 million, locally and nationally, in 1966–67. If society were to follow the practices of the extreme student leaders, then clearly the resultant disorder would be such that society would not be able to produce the money to provide the grants and the allowances for the students themselves or for the universities as a whole.
I do not want to exaggerate the problem. It is early days, I think, yet, in the gathering momentum of student revolt and turmoil. I think, because it is early days, it is right that we should discuss it, so that we can watch the situation. If it gets out of hand it may 1976 be necessary to deal with it. We cannot opt out of it. We cannot say this can advance further than it is at the moment in indiscipline, and stand aside.
To put the matter in perspective, I ask three questions. First, about what are the students protesting? Secondly, is the present method of protest all that is available to them? Thirdly, when the minority speak in violent terms for the majority, do we or do the students have to accept that? On the first question, students have always protested. Hon. Members who were students will recall engaging in protests from time to time. It is right that students should protest and, for my part, they can protest about anything; Vietnam, Rhodesia, Government cuts, against Ministers—I am all in favour of that—and even against the Prime Minister, of which I am even more in favour.
I have no objection to the target. It is a question of how they seek to hit it and whether they involve other people, seek to disrupt the general public and call in aid large numbers of police, resulting in the police, who are already busy enough, having to come out to deal with their uncontrolled behaviour. Students could be advised to listen to Ministers occasionally, and then they might discover the inadequacy of the Government's policies. In any event, I am not against loud noises or theatrical postures. If we tried to do away with student rituals, university life would be a little colourless.
Violence is not particularly imaginative. If students cannot think of something which will draw public, Press and television attention to them without the use of violence, they are not using much thought and imagination. Students are protesting not only about national and international events but about things that concern them. In the old days, when students were called undergraduates, we looked upon the receipt of an education as something to be accepted and as part of the organisation of things. Today, in common with everyone else, including workers on the shop floor, students are concerned about the structure of their universities and the part that they have to play. They are also, of course, concerned about the grants they get, and of course many more of them are in receipt of grants.
1977 I am satisfied that students should have better representation on their university committees and disciplinary boards. This is happening, anyway, in many universities, and gradually it will happen in others. As time passes it will gather momentum. I was sorry to hear that apparently it is not happening at Oxford. I am told that the suggestion of the Hebdomadal Council was that the requests by senior and junior members of Oxford University, sent to the Queen in Privy Council, for reform were not justified. The older universities will, in due course, have to reckon with these demands for reform.
The trouble which occurred at the London School of Economics over this whole question of representation last year will be remembered by the House. In the last few weeks proposals have been put forward there for implementing many of the demands and requests made by the students. Unfortunately, however, when a meeting was held at the L.S.E. earlier, these requests for reform were flatly turned down. Although that has been rectified now, the requests were originally turned down because those who attended the meeting were ready to protest even when many of their demands had been met.
A representative of the Radical Student Alliance told me that, so far as he was concerned, representation on committees was not enough. He wanted majority control of governing bodies of universities. This is so ridiculous as to be completely unbelievable. Presumably he wanted to take over the ship, presumably equally in order to put it on the rocks.
Most students are not in that category. The National Union of Students is not in that category. It has a very good record of achievement in reform over the last few years. If unions outside and industry got many of the things that they have succeeded in getting from Ministers and university authorities they would be glad to have succeeded as the Students' Union have. The Union has worked hard to secure these advances and it has achieved a good deal of progress. This has been done by perseverence, by lobbying, by orderly protest, where orderly protest has been necessary, and by getting a good deal of moderate support.
1978 The next question vexing students is more up to date. Last year it was overseas students' grants. This year it is their own grants. I believe that a mistake was made by the Minister's right hon. Friend when he announced in advance that there was to be an automatic 50 per cent. cut. If he had said that the matter would be looked at when the recommendation was made but there would have to be a cut anyway, this would have been better than announcing a fixed figure in advance.
Apart from the grant position, students are also bothered about where the means test bites. I believe it bites far too low down the income scale. There are some students at universities who get the full grant and have it to themselves. There are others who do not get the full grant with the result that parents have to subsidise them. If parents have one, two or more children, they may not subsidise the student equal to the full grant. This causes two classes of student at university. It is a difficult problem, but it is caused because the means test is biting rather low down the scale.
So much for the grievances. As taxpayers, wage-earners and citizens, we all have grievances and we have a right to shout about them. However, we do not have the right to upset the rest of the community and cause a furore that gets out of control in order to push forward our grievances.
My final question is this: Is the present protest method all that is available? Is violence justified? Is ill-temper inevitable? Has striking got to be accepted? Is disorder something we must live with?
Our system of higher education is amongst the best in the world, and it is not justified to behave as though it were one of the worst. Educational opportunities are given on a wide scale to the advantage of the nation. It comes back to us later in our technological and organisational progress. But nobody pays taxes to send people to university just to raise hell. Therefore, it has to be recognised by the students, in the situation of a good educational system, that, even if they have grievances, they should put them in a temperate way.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Croydon, South)
I have many views about student unrest 1979 in this country with which I will deal later. However, does not the hon. Gentleman feel that it is somewhat of a contradiction to condemn student unrest in Britain while at the same time most of us congratulate the students in Eastern Europe who are responsible at the moment for a good deal of unrest in their own countries?
§ Mr. Lewis
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman speaks for himself. I do not know the situation in Eastern Europe. Therefore, I will not take sides on something which happens in a foreign country about which I am not informed.
If the students want to make progress in their own reforms they can best do it by attending their meetings and making sure that they vote. They are in no different position from many people in the trade unions. The minority turn up and the majority stay away. It is time the majority started to take an interest
In the universities, as in politics, the moderates, the people who are inclined to see both sides of the story, are very often called the soft centre, and people assume—they do in politics, though they might get a shock one day—that the soft centre is so soft that it can never stand up and impress itself on the community in the way that the two extremes do. The moderates in the universities have to show that they can be just as implacable as the extremes on either wing in making their points, and in seeking to dispel the turmoil that, can so easily boil over the top.
If I have read the Press aright during the last few weeks, it is obvious that many of the moderate leaders in our universities, many of the moderate leaders of student opinion, and many of the ordinary students, who so far have taken little interest in these matters, now subscribe to the view that although protest is right; that although it is proper that they should concern themselves with matters of public and international interest, and matters of interest within their own universities, this should be done in a way that does not upset the general public. Nor should it be done so that it leads people to assume that students as a whole are in the same category as the 2 per cent. to 5 per cent. who have recently caused such disruption.
§ 3.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)
This is the second occasion today on which we have been grateful that we have private Members' time and are able to discuss topics which do not generally come before the House but are of great importance. I regret that the hon. Member for Rutland and Stanford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) has raised this subject in this way, which calls attention to the type of militancy which we have seen recently, which has been blown up out of all proportion, which bears very little resemblance to the type of student activity which I know goes on in the university in my constituency and the university which I was happy to attend, and which also, regrettably draws attention only to the problems of university students and not to students as a whole. In my constituency I have not only a university but two training colleges, a college of technology, a college of commerce and a regional college of arts and crafts, in all of which, in our small educational circle, the students and the staff have many problems of this sort.
Attention has been drawn to the students who threw paint and to those who wrecked a car. I should like to draw attention to the students in my constituency who organised a SHELTER walk over a distance of 19 miles a fortnight ago by senior pupils from grammar schools, comprehensive schools and secondary modern schools in my constituency and throughout the City of Hull. They organised it so efficiently that they might almost have received training from the police in their provision for safety and efficiency. Above all, they showed a degree of idealism and care which represents the right attitude among university students. There is tremendous sense of service and dedication, and a wish to play a part in society and to be recognised by society as responsible people. If students wish to be regarded as responsible we, as parents, legislators and educationists, have a duty not only to the students but also to ourselves and the community to show that we accept their aspirations and are prepared to treat them as responsible individuals. This has been one of the main criticisms of our attitude towards students.
When the hon. Member said that students should enjoy their protests—almost 1981 as though it were a big game in which students indulged—I could not help thinking of the time when I went out on the streets of Hull to protest at the Suez fiasco. I did not go to enjoy it; I went to protest at what I thought was a wrong and immoral decision by the British Government. I am sure that the students who now protest about Vietnam feel the same way. I am sure that last year the students who protested about grants to overseas students—and how tremendously impressive their protest was!—they were expressing their concern and the depth of their feeling about the matter. I supported the Government in their decision on that occasion. I thought that it was the correct decision. It may still be a matter of controversy amongst us.
I want to try to set the student society in the context of our own society. The first thing that we should recognise is that the student society which has existed for the past twenty years is very different from that which existed before the war. Then, university and further education was the prerogative of a privileged minority. Many people who have enjoyed university education in recent years—as I and my brothers have been able to do—would never have been able to do so but for the developments that took place during the war under the Butler Education Act, and subsequent developments which saw the salvation of this country through a further investment in our younger people in universities and further education.
It is a very different society today. Many of the senior people in our universities and colleges were educated and brought up in a society which did not face the problems that are faced today by people who come from working-class areas, families and schools and are pitch-forked into an educational society which has accepted modes, standards and attitudes very different from their own and in some ways alien to their own, thereby necessitating their trying to achieve some sort of balance between their present values and values which they had despised and rejected in the past—on many occasions, perhaps, because they had not understood them.
Further, the attitude adopted to education, as such, has changed enormously. It was once regarded almost purely and 1982 simply as a liberalising force to expand the mind, and apart from the few professions—law, medicine, and so on—people who went to universities did so for a liberal education. Now people go there wondering what sort of job they will have afterwards, and they begin to be concerned about the way in which they are taught, what is the pupil-teacher ratio, and whether their syllabuses and curricula are best suited to the type of job that they subsequently intend to take up.
The combination of vocation and liberal education has created changes in the university sphere. Hon. Members may have seen the letter that appeared in The Guardian last week about the alleged soullessness of one of our modern technical universities. But this is part and parcel of the problem of marrying the desire to liberalise the individual through his education with the recognition of society's right to a return for the capital invested in education. One of the saddest things is the talk about waste of money on students' grants and education, the failure to realise that, although no accurate profit and loss account can be drawn up at the end of the year, this money is still invested in our future and that of society, and that, as a whole, if we did not invest in invisible assets of this sort we might as well give up.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. James Griffiths) spoke earlier about loneliness caused by a breakdown of social traditions. I regret that the Church does not have the attitudes and the acceptance of a moral code in judging standards of conduct. People have their own standards, sometimes of the basest materialistic sort and sometimes of the highest idealism. If adults are influenced by different codes of conduct, so students coming from their homes and pitchforked into a new and often unnatural society face the same fears and worries about where we are going and what we shall achieve.
When one asks this question, their education is justified, because they are challenging accepted canons and trying to discover what is right and what is wrong. When their idealism sees straight choices between right and wrong and black and white instead of, as we so often regretfully discover, infinite shades of grey, they feel frustration boiling up and seek to give vent to it. We cannot have 1983 two codes of conduct—one for students and one for the rest of society. Students who behave recklessly and damage property or individuals should be treated in the same way as football crowds or street rowdies, and the idea that they are different and should be treated differently is wrong and repugnant. Students should also realise that they have their responsibilities to the rest of society, and I believe that they demonstrate this over and over again. Although one regrets some recent incidents, one must realise the generally beneficial effect of student protest and questioning and, above all, of student service for the community.
§ 3.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)
Just after I was elected, it was decided to create the University of Essex at Colchester on the border between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale). I welcomed this decision wholeheartedly and looked forward to seeing the University welded together as a great centre of learning, enriching national life and the life of my constituency. Over the years, many of my hopes have been fulfilled.
It is interesting to note among other things that the Vice-Chancellor, a highly admirable gentleman, involves himself very much in local affairs and that the Registrar of the University is also the Chairman of the Colchester Civic Society. The academic side of the university has earned itself great accolades internationally in subjects ranging from physics to sociology. We welcome all this and, therefore, it is particularly painful that over the past year or so there has been a hard core, a small minority of students, at the University of Essex who have done much to impair the hard-earned reputation that the University is getting. It is a great shame that this has happened.
I particularly regret having been involved in one of the incidents which has brought discredit to the University through, I emphasise, the action of a small minority. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhamption, South-West (Mr. Powell) went to the University to address a large meeting. After giving a very successful poetry reading earlier in the day he later addressed a large meeting attended by between 400 and 500 people, about half of whom were 1984 students. My right hon. Friend gave, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will acknowledge he does, a trenchant speech full of intellectual vigour.
I did not expect a number of the students to agree with him, but it was a pity that there was much boorishness during the speech, the shouting of obscenities, and so on. There was one amusing incident. A student who appeared to be dressed as Guy Fawkes presented us on the rostrum with what looked like a bomb. It was a grapefruit blacked over and on top a burning fuse. I understand that this student in fact always dresses in that manner and was not really dressed as Guy Fawkes, but we must most certainly allow a place for eccentrics in our universities, as in the House and elsewhere. All that was perfectly acceptable, but it was less acceptable when the fire alarms were let off at the end of the meeting. That was a stupid thing to do.
Unfortunately, there was worse to ocme. After a brief pause and a Press conference, my right hon. Friend and I went to my car, which was nearby. There had been plenty of cooling-off time over anything provocative said at the meeting for we left a good half to three-quarters of an hour later. A hard core of students started to indulge in open violence, rocking my car and shouting obscenities. It was outrageous to hear anyone with a war record such as my right hon. Friend's described as a Fascist, interspersed with four-letter words. There was a noisy crash and a large, hard object descended on the bonnet of my car. I was livid; it was a new car. I was so angry that I got out of the car and it took a certain degree of self-restraint to prevent myself dealing summarily with the person who I thought, perhaps wrongly, threw the missile.
Having restrained myself I got back into the car. Six people or so were on the bonnet rocking it up and down. I revved up the car with great caution because I did not want to harm these poor misguided and stupid people. The line must be drawn here. We must allow people to be eccentric and see that in our universities, above anywhere else there is complete freedom of speech, and that views, however extreme, can be expressed without there being violence from opponents of what has been said. 1985 Whether a person is speaking for the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, the Labour Party, the Communist Party or more extreme parties, violence cannot be tolerated.
The Vice-Chancellor apologised to me about the whole matter at once, but a disturbing thing since is that a minority of the students seems to wish there to be a non-continuance of disciplinary procedures within the university. This brings me to the point raised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). I do not think that the code for students is precisely the same as for all of us, it is right that there should be an internal disciplinary code within the University. That is the view of most of those at Essex University, because it is particularly important that the right of free speech at a university should be allowed, and this must be enforced by an internal disciplinary code which must be imposed by the University over and above the criminal law.
Students must realise the harm they are doing to their institutions. I hope that moderate opinion in the universities will make itself felt and that the moderate majority will attend student meetings to ensure that this hard core of militant people—who apparently do not believe in the right of free speech for anybody but themselves—is dealt with. It is up to the universities to see, in cases where violence occurs, that strict measures are taken if such conduct is persisted in to weed out the element causing it. Violence of this type is intolerable and also the students must realise the harm that it does to the causes which they purport to espouse.
I have no doubt that disciplinary action will be taken at Essex, and I will say no more about that. I have confidence in the University's authorities and I am sure that they will do whatever is possible to see that in future this sort of thing does not happen. It must not happen in the interests of the University and the body politic.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) for raising this subject. We should take note of this problem and make our voice heard on the basis that this House and the universities will not tolerate violence. However, we wish to 1986 make it equally clear that we will do everything we can to preserve the right of peaceful protest for all, including eccentrics, and their right to disagree, in a non-violent way, and to put whatever cause trenchantly but not violently.
§ 3.37 p.m.
§ Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)
I am not sure whether the speech of the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) and remarks of that type will ever succeed in curing the evils about which he spoke.
§ Mr. Hamling
If the hon. Gentleman had spoken in those terms for 50 minutes he would still have caused more harm than good. It was a good thing that he spoke for only five minutes. Remarks of that type will never cure these evils.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) but I fear that his Motion is misconceived. I was a student 30-odd years ago, and in my days we regularly had "rags". I recall one occasion when the students at Liverpool University physically attacked George Robey, after which the same sort of speeches were made as that just made by the hon. Member for Colchester. Activities of this sort have been going on for many years, and advertising the activities of a small minority of students will not cure the problem.
We should highlight the activities of the great majority of students, who are first-rate people. I speak not only as a former student but as a teacher of students and as the father of a girl who who hopes to go to university next year. We should not take our standards of judgment from the more sensational Press. We should adopt a more objective standard. I fear that some of us tend to suffer from the old man's disease expressed in the comment "Kids are far worse now than they ever were".
§ Mr. W. S. Hilton (Bethnal Green)
In view of the remarks of the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) about past protests always being joyous occasions, would not my hon. Friend agree that students have more ethical reasons to protest today—over, say, Vietnam—than they did in 1926, 1987 when they were strike-breaking against railwaymen.
§ Mr. Hamling
I could speak for three hours about that. When I was a student Randolph Churchill appeared in a by-election in Liverpool and the riot on that occasion would have given my hon. Friend great pleasure to see. It was comparable with the scene described by the hon. Member for Colchester.
§ Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)
Was that riot in Liverpool any worse than the near riots for which hon. Gentlemen opposite were responsible in this House in the early hours of this morning?
§ Mr. Hamling
On that I shall not dwell, I promised to speak for only three minutes.
I speak only of the young men I used to teach. They were as fine a body of young people as one would ever wish to meet. They were decent. They were honest. They were good citizens. One thinks of V.S.O. and of what was said by the hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) in our previous debate about helping the disabled and the aged. Those are the students whom we want to advertise. I wish that the Press would talk about decent things instead of a cranky minority which does not represent the student body as a whole.
§ 3.40 p.m.
§ Sir Edward Boyle (Birmingham, Handsworth)
We ought to remember that the question of student discipline—for which we are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) for raising—is not the responsibility of the House or of the hon. Lady the Minister of State. We are dealing here, in the main, with university students, and universities are self-governing, autonomous bodies. For myself, I believe that student discipline must remain primarily the responsibility of the university authorities themselves.
There is no doubt that many people have been understandably worried by the recent outbursts of student protest both here and overseas, but I also believe—and here I think that I echo all the speeches that have been made—that most people would wish to distinguish sharply between the activities of a very 1988 small minority of students and the activities of the great majority. It is the activities of a minority of a minority that get most attention, and we need to put the matter into perspective.
There is a minority, I do not deny it, of real trouble makers, but in order to get the subject into perspective, let us recall what I frankly regard as the very statesmanlike attitude which the student movement as a whole has taken in recent weeks to the issue of grants. I hope that it may be possible for us to have a short debate on that subject before the Easter Recess, but I do not intend to refer to it further now.
I recall that both the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Education and Science and I myself in the same week spoke to the students of King's College, University of London, without any undue upset, despite the fact, if I may say so, that the resources of at least one television news service were close at hand to record faithfully anything that took place.
My hon. Friend referred to red paint. I think I am right in saying that the student body of the University of Sussex has specifically dissociated itself from a recent upset there, and I have a feeling, reading the full account, that the demonstration when the Secretary of State for Defence recently visited Cambridge could, but for an accident at the last moment, have turned out to be a total flop.
In quite a different context, I wrote some months ago, and I repeat now, that there is a particularly high incidence of courage and of thoughtfulness among young people at the present time. For my own part, I would greatly prefer a society in which many students had strong feelings of commitment over such subjects as Vietnam and race relations to a society in which those issues left them quite unmoved. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) was justified in reminding us that protests can become a fashion, but can none the less be sincere.
We in this House should sometimes be bothered by the fact that a number of first-rate people at the universities, both students and faculty members, sometimes show what I regard as a disturbing sense of alienation from our political processes as we know them in this House. I took 1989 no pleasure nor, I am sure, did the hon. Lady, in the recent letter in The Times from a number of distinguished professors and lecturers.
Speaking as one who voted, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling), "reluctantly and unhappily" for the Second Reading of the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, I did not quarrel with a friend who said to me a day or two afterwards, "Surely, you must come to realise in the House of Commons that unless there are some principles whose infringement makes life not worth living life will not be worth living." I believe that to be a reasonable attitude for people to take. In other words, in our concern with student militancy let us not be uneasy at the thought of commitment among young people to a number of subjects about which there are genuinely strong feelings, and ought to be strong feelings, at present.
Where matters go wrong, and here I agree very much with my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) is when there is frankly a threat to free speech. Those who feel these commitments Should appreciate the strong resentment caused by attempts to deny a hearing to those with whom they do not agree. Of course universities should act as a ferment of ideas. We cannot set arbitrary limits to legitimate dissent, in a university but the trouble comes when there is unnecessary and unjustifiable violence to property or denial of a hearing to those with whom one does not agree.
I do not think the Minister of State will be surprised when I mention that I personally regret the remark made by the Secretary of State referring to a taxpayers' revolt. I regret it for two reasons. First, it would be entirely wrong to try to reach any conclusions over the complicated question of university finance, of which maintenance grants for students constitutes only a part, on the basis of recent publicity and recent events. The other point, let us face it, is that there are many expressions of what I can only call of illiberal opinion. I find it hard to say anything, particularly as an ex-Minister, which would encourage or exacerbate liberal opinion.
We have had a useful debate and the House should be grateful to my hon. 1990 Friend both for the subject he raised and for the speech he made. Having made a stricture which I felt I ought to make on the Secretary of State, I have no doubt at all that we shall have a speech in a rather different tone from the hon. Lady. I am looking forward to listening to it.
§ 3.48 p.m.
§ Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)
By the grace of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, I am left a minute in which to speak. I shall do my best to keep to the promise that I made. I shall refer only to the concluding words of the Motion.
We are all grateful to the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) for giving us the chance to speak on a very important topic. Though it is strictly within the control of and one of the functions of the universities themselves, it is, nevertheless, a matter of public concern. But I think it unfortunate that the hon. Member, in concluding his Motion, should refer to the fact that the fees of students arepaid for so largely out of the taxes of the general public.We want these students. We want them in the universities because we need doctors, teachers, scientists and techno logists. These are our needs as a society. Therefore, we are doing our best to get these needs satisfied for our own interest and our own welfare as a society by getting as many students into the universities as possible. It is for the purpose of getting the students that we make fee paying no longer what it used to be, a burden, but something which eases the student's path towards acquiring the qualifications and degrees that will enable him to meet the needs which we as a society have. With that I say "thank you" to my hon. Friend.
§ 3.49 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mrs. Shirley Williams)
I thank the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis), both for introducing the debate and for doing so in a moderate and tolerant speech. I thought I detected a trace of vicarious pleasure when he referred to Ministerial targets. He may one day come to regret having done so. Apart 1991 from that, I thought that his speech was a very good-natured one.
I turn briefly to one or two of the remarks which have been made. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we are dealing not only with a minority, but with one which has been to some extent recognised by the majority of students as not to be assisting their cause. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) referred to Sussex. I might refer also to the recent case in Manchester where again the majority of the Students Union, as in Edinburgh, clearly dissociated themselves from the work of a small minority.
In this context I want to quote a statement by the Chairman of the N.U.S.:All British students belong to the world's most effective educational system and a much higher percentage of them prefer to discuss education itself than to talk politics.I turn to what nevertheless are the causes of student unrest at this time. One of these, as the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford said, is concerned with the question of student representation. This, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, is not a matter in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Department can directly intervene. Nevertheless, the spirit of our approach to this has been marked by the way in which the Privy Council was asked to deal with the charters for the technological universities, in which specific requirements were made with respect to staff-student consulation and for a hearing for students threatened with expulsion or suspension, and by the approach which has been adopted to the polytechnics and colleges of education with regard to student matters.
The Department and the Secretary of State have over a number of years made it clear that they support responsible student consultation with those who are responsible for the running of the universities. I believe that this is something which, as the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford said, is likely to develop a good deal over the next few years.
Secondly, there is concern about autonomy or relative independence for the students' union. Again, it is our view that, on the whole, university and other authorities are well advised to allow the maximum autonomy which is possible 1992 within the limits of having to run an institution.
I think that the third cause of unrest at present relates to grants. I cannot say much about this, but I want to make this point. The National Union of Students has, I think, approached the question of grants in a responsible way. It has endeavoured to put forward reasoned arguments about ways in which it wants the grants structure to be changed. It has even, under protest, accepted that it will do this within the scope of the present necessary savings.
I assure the House that my Department is looking most carefully at these representations, not least at those concerning the parental contribution, the means test and the question of mature students and the balance between widows, divorced and separated persons, on the one side, and married women, on the other.
Thus, students are also concerned about charges made in hostels. They have, again responsibly, put forward suggestions for hostels of a more austere type, for hostels where students do some of the work and assist in their running. These, again, are all responsible suggestions of the kind which deserve careful consideration.
However, when all this has been said, there remains a core of student protest which is not summed up in what I have said so far. Part of it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) pointed out, is due to a profound questioning of society itself. It was Disraeli who said—hon. Members opposite will forgive me for quoting one of their predecessors—Youth is a blunder; Manhood a struggle; Old Age a regretand who also said:I have been ever of the opinion that revolutions are not to be evaded.This is, in a sense, a form of revolution—one which, as has been pointed out, has swept the world from Cambridge to Cracow and from Berkeley to Berlin. It lies partly in the broadening of education itself, in the fact that higher education in particular no longer draws from a group which shares common standards and values and which is, to a great extent, homogeneous. When we have introduced a more democratic 1993 system of higher education, much flows from it in terms of the questioning of society itself.
The unrest stems also from something else—for which the House will have some sympathy—the sense that some issues are out of the control of students and, for that matter, of elected politicians. I am thinking of issues concerning scientific advance, technology, the development of new societies, and, of course, the arms race.
Yet what is clear from the nature of student protests is that no system offers them an ideal solution, not the system in the Soviet Union, not the system in Poland, not the system in India, not the system in Britain, not the system in West Germany, not the system in the United States. It is fair to say that students are questioning every system put before them.
I shall try to distinguish between two types of protest. One type, as some of my hon. Friends have pointed out, is of the essence of a democratic society, the protest which questions the presuppositions of that society and questions its values yet is always seeking in a sense to make it more genuinely democratic. This is a type of protest which all of us, be we targets of it or be we not, must accept. But there is something else to be said. Students must be very careful—this is particularly true of the small minority—not to destroy the system which enables the questioning itself to take place. It is not enough to be in favour of protests however violent they become, which are along the lines which we ourselves support, and yet be utterly against any protests along lines which other people support politically, however violent they may become. We cannot, on the one side, condone violence from the Left Wing because we have sympathy for it and, on the other, be unwilling to condone violence from the extreme Right Wing because we lack sympathy for them.
So the line which is drawn is the line between dialogue, peaceful protest, demonstration and conversation, behind which the great bulk of our students stand, and on the other side, as the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) fairly pointed out, protest which tips into violence and chaos which can be used by those who would wish to destroy the very 1994 freedom students themselves want to enjoy.
I believe that much of what we are seeing flows directly from decisions which we ourselves have made about the shape and nature of higher education. We should make a grave mistake if we did not recognise that in the future development of our higher education we shall see not less, but more, argument, discussion and protest. But, provided that we and the students and the responsible student bodies, recognise the distinction which I and other hon. and right hon. Members have tried to draw, we can benefit immensely from the questioning attitude of students without risking the possibility of the destruction of all that they themselves are educated to value most.
§ 3.58 p.m.
§ Mr. W. S. Hilton (Bethnal Green)
A great deal of student protest has been noted in the newspapers. It is primarily from the newspapers that we draw our information, as does the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis). It is often said that the newspapers tend to highlight the dramatic or the morbid. It would, therefore, be regrettable if we fell into the same pitfall today and took the decision which I understand to be the hon. Gentleman's purpose, directing it, as he himself said, at about 2 per cent. or 3 per cent. of students who are involved in the demonstrations.
If I thought that in all the organised or unorganised mechanisms of our democracy today only 2 or 3 per cent. of people involved really deserved censure, I should be a proud man. I should say that democracy was working. I should not think it right to occupy the time of the House of Commons with a pedantic Motion calling for a vote. I thought that the hon. Gentleman himself rather "let his slip show" when at one point he blamed the disturbances on Communists or anarchists.
§ It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.