HC Deb 18 November 1971 vol 826 cc607-11
3. Mr. St. John-Stevas

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she will make a statement on Government policy on student unions.

13. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she will now state her proposals on the future of student unions.

42. Sir E. Bullus

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she will now make a statement on the financing of student unions.

48. Mr. Wilkinson

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science when she now intends to publish her definitive proposals for the reform of student unions.

Mr. van Straubenzee

As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) on 11th November, my right hon. Friend has sent out to the various bodies concerned a consultative document outlining proposals to establish the financing of student unions on a new basis. They have been asked to send in their comments as soon as possible.—[Vol. 825, c. 214.]

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Is my hon. Friend aware that there are many hon. Members on this side who, although admiring the foresight and courage which the Department has shown in tackling this difficult problem of minority abuses in student unions, nevertheless feel that a registrar would be a more desirable solution? Can he assure the House that this matter will be given serious consideration?

Mr. van Straubenzee

Yes, Sir; I am well aware of the strength of feeling in certain quarters that the right way to proceed would be by a form of registrar, either combined with the new proposals or instead of them. Naturally I read my hon. Friend's powerful article in this respect in The Times on Tuesday. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have noticed that the documents says, not once, but several times, that it is consultative, and such proposals as those he has outlined are definitely still on the table.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Reinforcing what my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) said, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he is aware that many of us on this side think that the proposals now put forward might tend to increase conflict in the universities rather than bring about more harmony in universities? Has the fullest consideration been given to the proposals of the Federation of Conservative Students, the Monday Club and other bodies with considerable and increasing experience of student politics and the problems arising therefrom?

Mr. van Straubenzee

Yes, Sir, the most careful consideration is to be given to the proposals of the bodies mentioned when they reach us. I believe that this underlines the importance of issuing a consultative document first and then listening very carefully to the arguments which are based upon it.

Sir E. Bullus

Is my hon. Friend aware that a certain amount of misleading and biassed literature is being circulated by a minority of students? Will he ensure that his own proposals are widely disseminated?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I think that there has been some almost wilful misunderstanding of some of the suggestions made in the consultative paper. After all, there are in this field a large number of people who have a strong vested interest in leaving things exactly as they are.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will my hon. Friend endeavour in his reforms to make political activities in student unions self-financing, because surely what we are seeking is responsible autonomy and not, as in the third suggestion, a more paternalistic, authoritarian scheme which will tend to put college authorities on a collision course with students?

Mr. van Straubenzee

The suggestions at present put out in the consultative document would have the effect that my hon. Friend suggests, though I think that the whole House would want to avoid treating political activities in isolation. There are other activities that take place in colleges and universities. The problem which will have to be resolved is whether control should be exercised from an external body or whether it is preferable that it should be done from within the government of the university or college concerned.

Mr. Alan Williams

Is the Under-Secretary aware that this inept document has united students and staff as never before, because they realise that if the proposals are implemented, there will in future be a division between students and staff such as we have never seen before? Does the Under-Secretary realise that this will cripple the social and cultural activities of the smallest student unions, which are the vast majority of student unions?

Mr. van Straubenzee

No, Sir; I accept no such thing. In part at least, the proposals draw considerably from existing practice at the colleges of education where a very considerable number of the facilities are provided by the governing body of the college. I accept no criticism from the hon. Gentleman. One of the reasons for this discussion is that there was a technical fault in the regulations laid by his Government.

Mr. Barry Jones

Do not student unions in England and Wales make a fine contribution to further and higher education? Does not the National Union of Students provide strong and effective leadership for all its members? Finally, would it not be wrong to use this document as a witch hunt against student unions?

Mr. van Straubenzee

Yes; I think it is important to keep a sense of balance. I gladly join the hon. Gentleman in saying that in any college or university a strong student union is a very important part of the corporate life of the whole. I accept that without question. I think that the hon. Gentleman will at least give this side of the House credit for the fact that the document is drafted in very moderate terms.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

Will the Under-Secretary now admit that the real purpose of the consultative document is to emasculate the power of student unions and particularly to whittle down the number of their Left-wing activities?

Mr. van Straubenzee

No, Sir. The real problem which must be faced by the House, as in any other quarter, is that local authorities are required to make a payment in the negotiation of which they have had no part. They regard that—I think reasonably—as a form of taxation without representation.

18. Mr. Leslie Huckfield

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations she has received from the National Union of Students about her proposed changes in the administration of student unions; and what reply she has sent.

Mr. van Straubenzee

My right hon. Friend has received no formal representations from the N.U.S. on the consultative document which was issued at the beginning of this month, nor are any expected until after their forthcoming conference.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

If the hon. Gentleman really wants to encourage adulthood, maturity and financial responsibility among students—that is the kind of language that normally emanates from the benches opposite—does not he think that withdrawing from them the responsibility for running their own financial affairs is about the worst way to do it?

Mr. van Straubenzee

Even if the proposals in the consultative document were accepted as they are—I emphasise that they are of a consultative nature—they would not withdraw from students the administration and management of their financial affairs, which, I quite agree, in a very large number of cases are very much better done by them.

20. Mr. Douglas

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she will make a statement on the proposals for control of students' funds in so far as they apply specifically to Scottish universities and centres of higher education.

Mr. van Straubenzee

The proposals in the consultative document apply to all universities in Great Britain. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will shortly be issuing a separate document about the non-university sector in Scotland.

Mr. Douglas

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Does not he concede that special consideration should be given to the history of Scottish universities and the high degree of freedom that Scottish students normally have over their own affairs when he is considering any alteration in the use of students' funds on the tion in the use of students' funds on the part of Scottish universities?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I limit my answer exclusively to the universities in Scotland, for reasons that the hon. Gentleman understands. There are indeed, at least in the ancient universities of Scotland, certain practices from which we could usefully learn. Since I was fortunate enough to spend a year in one of them. I am reasonably familiar with them.