HC Deb 20 October 1971 vol 823 cc746-801

4.18 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the provisions in the Awards (First Degree, etc. Courses) Regulations 1971 (S.I., 1971, No. 1297) relating to the Subscriptions to Students Unions and similar bodies. This item of business originally appeared on the Order Paper as a Prayer against Regulations which had been laid, but those Regulations were withdrawn during the Summer Recess and were replaced by consolidation Regulations which are the ones referred to in the Motion. The way in which our right to pray against the Regulations was preserved was by this Motion being tabled. It is a Motion to take note, and I imagine, therefore, that we have at least as wide a range in it as we should have had on a Prayer.

The point which I and a number of my hon. Friends wish to raise on this occasion concerns the use and supervision of the funds of students unions. The way in which they may be paid out of public funds is that the Regulations referred to in the Motion specify, among the matters which a local authority must cover by its grant to a student, subscriptions to clubs, membership of which is made compulsory by the university or other institution.

This has led to the universities and the other institutions of higher education making membership of students unions compulsory in order that the subscriptions to them shall be paid by the ratepayers as part of the grant. This in itself is not necessarily a matter which would cause concern, because one recognises that clubs and students unions are part of the life of a university, but some disquiet has been aroused by the way that this system has worked.

First, in order that all clubs shall be paid for in this way out of public funds, the universities have so arranged things that the students union, membership of which is compulsory, embraces in its financial arrangements the support of all university clubs, whether political or other. Membership of those clubs is free, or virtually free, to the students, and support of them comes in a grant from the students union with funds which have been paid under these Regulations.

The average level of subscription per student for this purpose to the students unions is about £11 a year. Since this applies to all university students and to many in higher education, the total sum involved is about £3 million a year. There are approximately 50 universities to which most of the money goes, so that, broadly speaking, the average sum being considered in each university is £50,000 a year, though it varies a good deal and in some cases it is over £100,000 a year.

Mr. J. Bruce-Gardyne (South Angus)

My hon. and learned Friend has quoted the figure of £3 million as the total sum involved. Will he tell the House the basis for that figure?

Mr. Bell

Yes. It is probably on the low side, because I think that it is always better to understate rather than to overstate the case. There are 228,000 university students. If the average paid for each student were £11, that would come to at least £2¼ million. I am allowing the remaining £¾ million for students at institutions of higher education, of whom there are about 200,000. but not all are covered by these arrangements, the average payment per student being £3 a year, not £11. Therefore, it would be about £3,200,000, but I am calling it about £3 million a year. As I said, for each university one is therefore thinking in terms of about £50,000 a year, though it runs up to over £100,000 for the larger universities.

The first comment to be made is that over this substantial sum of money there is absolutely no control or supervision; there is no element of accountability whatever. It goes to the students unions automatically under, one might say, the provisions of the law, and they are accountable for it to nobody. They can make such rules as they like and are accountable for those rules to nobody. It seems strange to put sums of this magnitude into the hands of young men who are having their first experience of handling money when there is no provision for scrutiny, accountability or supervision. Nevertheless, it is right to say that, generally speaking, these funds are properly applied to the kind of purposes which Parliament would have had in mind in making the arrangement. It would not be right to suggest that there is any massive misuse or misappropriation of these funds, and, in a sense, it reflects credit upon those concerned that this should be so.

Nevertheless, I must add that there are all too many instances of serious misuse of the ratepayers' money which is provided in this way. Those misuses fall into three main categories. The first is the financing of activities which cannot conceivably be called academic—I refer to political demonstrations and the like—the second is paying the fines and legal expenses of students, and the third is the favouring of Left-wing activities in political organisations. I could, from my records, give innumerable examples of these, but so much publicity has been given to them in the past that I shall confine myself to a few contemporary examples.

First, I deal with the misuse of funds by their application to purposes which plainly fall outside the academic sphere. Last year Sussex University voted £100 to support a local dustmen's strike, £60 was given to the Black Panthers, and various sums were voted to pay the fines of students convicted of public disorders. Tomorrow, at a general meeting of the Students Union at Sussex University there is a motion to amend the budget for the year to give £1,300 to outside political causes: namely, £800 to provide school milk in a primary school in Sussex and £500 to Bangla Desh. That is not for the relief of suffering in East Bengal, which would still be outside the proper use of this money but which one could understand, but for the organisation called Bangla Desh. That will be considered at a general meeting of the union at Sussex University tomorrow.

I should emphasise that I am speaking not about collections of money raised by the students from among themselves or by some activity which they would then devote to supporting dustmen's strikes or political movements in various parts of the world, but about ratepayers' money which has been levied compulsorily as part of the support of higher education.

This term Merton College, Oxford—the junior common rooms at both Oxford and Cambridge get their funds in this way from the ratepayers—has voted £80 to Upper Clyde Shipbuilders; another college, the name of which escapes me, has voted £25 to Upper Clyde Shipbuilders; and Kent University has also made a contribution to Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. All this may gladden the heart of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but it is not what the ratepayers had in mind when they paid their rate demands.

On political favouritism, unfairness in the treatment of clubs, again keeping to modern instances I cite the case at Southampton University last term where the grant to the Conservative Club was withdrawn, in reality because it had elected a president who was a member of the Monday Club, but ostensibly the reason given was that it was wrong to support from union funds a club which supported an anti-student Government—whatever that meant. That was reversed only at the end of last term, after no fewer than three general meetings of the union.

At York University there was a motion to take away the grant from the Conservative Association on the remarkable ground of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's tax cuts in his Budget. That was defeated only after long and vigorous debate. The Monday Club was in the possibly fortunate position of having no grant that could be taken away because it is refused a grant by York University on the ground of duplication with the Conservative Association. That is strange, because at the time the Conservative Association was controlled by P.E.S.T. But even stranger than that was the fact that at the same time the university union was giving six separate grants to Socialist societies and, in addition, a separate general grant to the Socialist Federation which comprised them.

In addition to those cases of clubs there were two, in a sense, more serious cases, one at a university in Wales, and one at a university in England, where a serious attempt was made to use the threat of withdrawal of union membership to prevent an undergraduate who had passed his final examination from proceeding to take his degree. The argument advanced was that since membership of the union was compulsory, someone could not be a member of the university unless he was a member of the union. Therefore, if the union took away his union membership, his membership of the university lapsed, and he could not take his degree.

Both those were attempts to prevent someone from taking a degree on political grounds, and although they failed in the end, there was a moment when, incredible as it seems, it appeared that they might succeed.

Most of these things happen not, of course, with the consent of the general body of students in the university, who have far more sense than that, but by the abuse of student union general meetings by active caucuses which requisition a general meeting and pack it. The union has a rule which requires only a small quorum. It is therefore a valid meeting, and all kinds of absurd notions can be, and are, passed, and misuses of funds, which are really scandalous, are authorised.

This is a matter which engaged the attention of the Select Committee on Education in the 1969 Session. We took a good deal of evidence about it, we reported on it, and we made a recommendation which I am sorry to say has not been implemented. It was a recommendation which, unlike some of the recommendations of that Committee, had support from both sides of the House. We said: That there are difficulties is conceded by the National Union of Students, because they themselves have recommended the acceptance of model rules by the Student Unions. We"— that is the Committee— do not think that this is sufficient. There should be a central authority with powers similar to those exercised by the Registrar of Friendly Societies over trade unions and no Student Union should be recognised for purposes of Union grant unless it is registered with, and its constitution approved by, that central authority. We regard such a provision as compatible with full Student Union autonomy. We are only concerned to provide that the limits within which that autonomy is exercised shall be properly defined and that all those who are automatically members should have adequate safeguards to ensure that their affairs are properly conducted. That is normally described as our recommendation that there should be a Registrar of Student Unions. It is only a matter of common sense that when we entrust these large annual sums of money to young men and women, who are often only 18 or 19 years old—and this is public money—there should be some kind of scrutiny.

First, their rules should make sense. For example, in a university of 5,000 members 40 or 50 should not be regarded as a quorum for a union meeting, a figure which allows it to be packed at once.

Mr. Gilbert Longden (Hertfordshire, South-West)

Would not my hon. and learned Friend agree that whatever the age of the recipient of public money there should be public scrutiny?

Mr. Bell

I agree with my hon. Friend. I was merely underlining the position by saying that when the recipients are as young and as inexperienced as these students are, the absence of public scrutiny, which one might take for granted with adults, becomes all the more absurd. It is putting temptation in the way of very young people.

The recommendation by the Select Committee has particular force when one remembers that membership of these unions is compulsory. Nobody can say that he will not be a member of a union, that he will dissociate himself from all its doings; he has to be a member. In almost every case that we examined and took evidence about we found there was no limit to the number of general meetings that could be called. In some universities they can, and do, have two or three meetings a week, and it is only a matter of going on until the sensible people who want to work are exhausted. The people who want to get their way can then call another meeting, dominate it, and make these donations and pass resolutions to misapply funds in the way that I have stated.

This matter has not been allowed to sleep. My hon. Friend who is to reply to the debate knows that many of us have been pressing him, by correspondence and in other ways, for some action to be taken. Hon. Gentlemen opposite have joined us in applying pressure, but so far nothing has been done. I hope that we shall not get lost in consultation on a subject like this. By the time one waits for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals the N.U.S., the N.U.S. in Scotland, Uncle Tom Cobley, and many other influential and important people to meet an enormous amount of time will have passed, and some universities will perhaps have disappeared into the mists of time.

There are two things that can be done to solve the problem. First, we could make membership of unions voluntary. But if we did that we would have to amend the Regulations before us because at present it is a case of "no compulsion, no money". It is like that, It is tightly linked. Money from the public is linked with compulsory membership. If membership were voluntary, they would have to pay for themselves. The first thing to do is to break that link. On principle, I think that that is the right thing to do, because the student unions ought to have to appeal to their members. If they do not produce the goods, they will not get members, and that would be a good thing.

But that would not solve the problem, because large sums of money—£50,000, £60,000 or perhaps £70,000—would still be paid from public funds each year for those who were members and took the subvention from the rates. Therefore, there ought to be proper constitutions for the unions, and proper scrutiny of their activities. Even with voluntary membership, which, as a principle, I favour, it would still be necessary to have a Registrar of Student Unions.

As the problem is so clear, and because the abuses, unfortunately, are growing and accumulating—I have referred to the issue, which is to be raised tomorrow, of providing £1,300; that is a bigger sum than we have had in the past, and they are getting bolder and more absurd—I do not think that we can sleep on this any longer. We really must have action now to stop what is a bad abuse, even though it affects only a small proportion of the total money that is obtained from the ratepayers. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to put some specific proposals before us.

4.40 p.m.

Mr. Barry Jones (Flint, East)

I do not want to take a great deal of time, but I am somewhat disappointed, although impressed, by the case made by the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell). Perhaps it might help if we noted what student unions in their entirety set out to do for their members. The first thing I would emphasise is that they have a social goal and try to provide for their members in recreational and catering matters. Second, they have cultural and sporting activities. Both these things, of course, are very much grant-aided from subscriptions. Third, in an increasingly important way, student unions represent their members internally, vis-à-vis the lecturing staff and the principal, and also externally.

Taking into account these three points, one could say that student unions make a tremendous contribution in the colleges of education, technical colleges and universities. I am aware, from my own experience and from observations, that many students live in lodgings far from the centres of the colleges and universities. Indeed, these campuses are often far flung in themselves, and the student union is in effect the only place where there can be a reasonable focus. So any measures ill-conceived and hastily taken which could seriously affect the unions could have a bad effect all along the line on the educational scene.

Much has been said about the Southampton case, which I think was wrong. It is of course notorious and I suppose that all hon. Members have condemned what happened. But I know that the National Union of Students has tried to persuade, and is still considering how it can persuade, such universities in such situations to consider the feelings not only of the House but of the whole student population and of public opinion generally.

I urge some caution here. It might be a good idea to legislate differently and not to take a crude solution to what is a very small, even minute, if ultimately proven, abuse of a generally accepted system. General pressure rather than legislation and crude approaches could be more effective.

If we follow through the arguments, we see that they might lead to a situation which we did not like. We could see the break-up of college and university communities and of the communal life of our higher education, with increasing divisions among the students themselves which would undermine progress in higher education.

There are also dangers in ill-conceived action leading to much more militant student action which hon. Members would not want, in some spheres anyway. This could be nurtured by resentment, so I offer a word of caution. Hon. Members should take great care when trying to remedy what is not necessarily a huge problem.

Fourth, if hon. Members had their way, there would be an increasing lack of communication in the colleges of education, universities and technical colleges. When I visited colleges and universities in the course of my job, I was amazed at the enormous amount of co-operation between individual student unions and the administration. The president of a student union would meet his principal or senior lecturing staff more or less every day to sort out problems. In these situations, student unions bring upon themselves enormous credit. Hon. Members might consider this co-operation and usefulness before bringing forward propositions like this.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

The hon. Member is making a very moderate speech, much of which I agree with, but would he not concede that it is because many of us applaud this splendid approach that we are so concerned that there should be a minority who abuse public funds? Does he not think that there should be some control?

Mr. Jones

I think that everyone would take that point, but in seeking to remedy such a situation, one may create a far worse one. I was directing my remarks to the international scene, where students are increasingly more important in public opinion, in making observations and in taking action in certain political situations. One of the glories of the system in this country, where student unions have a reasonable and decent status in the educational scene is that we have reasonably responsible unions. Therefore, great care should be taken in remedying such a situation as occurred at Southampton.

Finally, I would point to the tremendous contribution of the National Union of Students for well over a generation to our educational scene. I do not wish to gild the lily, but its leadership of students generally and of student unions in particular has been most praiseworthy. It has been sane, responsible and forward-looking.

The N.U.S. and the student unions have thrown up a remarkable number of leaders and administrators—Mr. Jack Straw, perhaps, certainly Mr. Trevor Fisk, who is a very able administrator and responsible leader in higher educational system, Mr. Geoffrey Martin, Mr. Gwynn Morgan, who is of considerable fame now in political life, and Mr. Fred Jarvis, who is now Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers. The list is long, but in every case we see the point proven that the student unions throw up tremendous leaders and men of great capabilities. Any action by hon. Members opposite which led to the fragmentation of organised student life could result in society and the community losing such able men.

Dare I point out to the stout men among hon. Members opposite that they themselves should remember their youth and that student unions have every right to try in their own way to take a radical approach to the problems which they see facing society?

I am glad to see the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee), in his place. He holds an honoured position in the student community. I was rather surprised, therefore, to read in The Times of 16th September of certain propositions which the hon. Gentleman put to student leaders. I cannot believe that he would wish to go along with some of the solutions which have been proposed by certain hon. Gentlemen opposite. I have too high a regard of him to think that.

One of the joys of being elected to this House is the prospect one has of observing how policies are formulated, presented and executed. I look forward to seeing how the problem which was outlined so ably by the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South is squared with what I believe to be essential, and that is the need to keep student unions together, unified and responsible.

4.51 p.m.

Mr. J. Bruce-Gardyne (South Angus)

The hon. Member for Flint, East (Mr. Barry Jones) appealed to us to recall our youth, which is always a dangerously appealing call. Some of us like to think that that time is not too far distant.

Although the hon. Gentleman made an attractive and strongly-argued case for student unions and the National Union of Students, I suggest that that is not in itself the matter which we are discuss- ing. We are concerned to decide whether these bodies should be financed out of taxpayers and ratepayers funds.

The case he made for the valuable role which student unions perform suggests that if they are so valuable for the student body as a whole, perhaps it would not be unreasonable for the student body to be asked to finance these valuable activities. That is the crux of the argument.

In his extremely cogent remarks, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) mentioned the circumstances of this debate. We thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for making this debate possible by placing this Motion on the Paper. I hope that the Under-Secretary will explain, for the benefit of those who are not well-versed in the procedures of this House, how it came about that the Order against which my hon. and learned Friend prayed as soon as it was tabled in June was then incorporated, during the Recess, into a consolidation Measure, which invalidated that Prayer before it could be debated.

Put simply, unless the Leader of the House had placed this Motion before the House today, our Prayer would have fallen without discussion. I accept that the Order to which the Prayer related was, as my hon. and learned Friend explained, intended to be limited in duration and was designed purely to put right the situation which existed following the 1970 Act.

But my hon. Friends and I are concerned precisely with the situation that was created by that Act. We had taken the precaution to ensure that there would be an opportunity to discuss this matter, and it is mystifying that the Department should have taken action, perhaps inadvertently, to render such discussion impossible. I hope that the Under-Secretary will clear up this procedural point.

I listened with great interest to the arguments of my hon. and learned Friend, who has followed these matters closely for a long time. He was a distinguished member of the Select Committee in 1969, to whose recommendations he referred. Many of us share his anxieties about some of the curious activities in which some student unions—admittedly, as the hon. Member for Flint, East rightly pointed out, this relates to a small minority of them—have become involved in recent months.

I wish to look briefly at some of the wider aspects of the issue. My concern is twofold. First, I am not at all clear that the sums currently allocated out of ratepayer and taxpayer expenditure to cover the cost of compulsory student union fees are wisely so allocated. I hope that when the Under-Secretary replies to the debate he will not take the line he took in a letter to me in the spring, in which I was told that the Government were completely neutral in this matter and that the regulation merely said that if membership of a student union was compulsory, the membership fees were a charge to the local education authority in the case of students who were in receipt of L.E.A. grants. Frankly, that is indulging in semantics.

If, for the sake of argument, it was announced that membership fees to the House of Commons Motor Club were to be a tax-deductible expense, or better still totally recoverable—but that membership of the H.O.C. Motor Club was compulsory—it would not be long before we had a Resolution making membership of the club compulsory. The one must surely follow from the other, and I do not think that my hon. Friend can creditably adopt a posture of neutrality in this matter.

Another anxiety is the fact that in many universities student unions are affiliated to the N.U.S. The hon. Member for Flint, East gave a reasonable and attractive panegyric of the N.U.S. I am not sure that we would all share his view about the qualities of all the leadership of the N.U.S. in recent years, but that is not the point.

The point is that, in cricumstances where, because of the way in which legislation is framed, membership of student unions is made compulsory, and those student unions are affiliated to the N.U.S., membership of the N.U.S. becomes obligatory. The extent of this obligatory enforcement was clearly demonstrated in the case of the group of students at Bradford University, to which my hon. and learned Friend referred.

I understand that they informed the university authorities that they wished to opt out of membership of the student union and that they were informed that membership of the union was an essential precondition for the completion of a first degree course. In other words, they could not complete the course unless they belonged to the student union. In the circumstances, nothing could be more obligatory than that.

We must bear in mind in the background to this question that it is expected that, over the next three years, the total cost to the ratepayer and taxpayer of the student population will rise to about £360 million. Put crudely, this is a tribute exacted from the vast majority of the population who do not have the benefit of university education for the advantage of the minority who do, a minority who, having received this tribute, will then be in a better position than the majority, presumably, to command higher earning power after leaving university.

There seems to be a fair amount of uncertainty about the precise element in that total constituted by contributions to fees. I agree that, in absolute terms, it is not very great. My hon. and learned Friend gave a figure of £3 million and explained how he had arrived at that. The figure which I have heard is a good deal higher than that, in the region of £8 million. This may be too high. I do not know. I gather that the Department has always argued that it could not say exactly, or, indeed, at all, how much of the total sum this figure was, it being a matter for the local education authorities. None the less, I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be able to shed some light on the matter when he answers the debate.

Whether the total be £3 million, £8 million or something in between, it must at all events be a serious question whether this is really the best way in which the money could be spent on behalf of the ratepayers and taxpayers. In my view, it could be much more usefully spent in, for instance, primary education.

The argument is advanced—it was advanced by the hon. Member for Flint, East—that if membership of student unions became voluntary, or, still more, if the right of a student in receipt of local authority grant to have his union membership fee paid for him were taken away, the unions themselves would be seriously disrupted in their activities, with the consequences which the hon. Gentleman outlined.

One must look at that argument rather carefully. I accept that in some universities there are what can genuinely be described as essential facilities provided by the student union—restaurant facilities and so on. In my view, these facilities ought to be provided by the universities themselves, as they are in so many cases, and students should not depend on the student union for provision of these essentials. Then, over and above those, there are facilities which, though desirable, are not essential. Many of these, I understand, are good profit-making operations, so I can see no good reason why they should not continue, whether the membership fees are paid or not. As for the rest, if they are sufficiently attractive, it is not unreasonable to suggest that they be financed by the students themselves.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of the desirability or otherwise of these fees being paid by the local education authorities, I turn to the other aspect of the matter which, if anything, concerns me even more, namely, the way in which, through the application of Regulations such as those we are now discussing, an effective closed shop is established in the universities, and. I submit, a closed shop of a particularly pernicious sort, since, quite apart from the situation of those students who for one reason or another object to enforced membership of student unions or, through that, to enforced membership of the N.U.S., there is the position of those students—admittedly, a small minority—who have to finance themselves at university. These people are obliged, out of their own resources or their parents' resources, to pay the fee for membership of the student union in universities at which membership is made compulsory as a result of the application of our legislation.

That situation seems to me to be indefensible. I put it to my hon. Friend that it cannot be defended, above all, by a Government who have themselves put the Industrial Relations Act on the Statute Book. Not even in any closed-shop factory do we have a state of affairs in which three-quarters, or nine-tenths, of the employees have their union mem- bership fees paid by the taxpayer or the ratepayer while the remainder have to find the fee out of their own pockets, and are obliged to do so. It is an utterly indefensible state of affairs.

Like other hon. Members, I have received several weighty memoranda from the National Union of Students, including a copy of the memorandum which it sent to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in August last, and another rather curious document called, "Student Unions—An Attack?", which was published earlier in the year. Both these documents seem to me at least to suggest that, whatever the authors may have gathered at university, it was not a comprehensive knowledge of English grammar.

These documents advance arguments similar to those advanced by the hon. Member for Flint, East. But they do not convince me that any of the objections which have been advanced to a system of voluntary union membership or to the ending of the present system of fees being paid by the local education authority are in any sense valid.

I hope that, as a result of the inquiry in which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is now engaged, it will be decided at the end of the day that payment of student union membership fees by local education authorities should be terminated. If my hon. Friend is not prepared to go as far as that, he really must, I submit, bring to an end the present closed-shop situation. I commend to him one suggestion which is put forward even in this document, "Student Unions—An Attack?". The authors, from the National Union of Students, say: We could also consider a proposal to allow students to opt out by instructing their L.E.A. not to pay their union fee. Very few students would be likely to resort to this, but it would meet the objections to compulsory membership. That, and with it complete liberty to opt out for those who have an obligation to finance their own university education, would, I suggest to my hon. Friend, be at least a pis-aller, if he is not prepared to go further; but I hope that he will go substantially further, for the present system must be changed in the interests of equity.

5.9 p.m.

Mr. Mark Hughes (Durham)

With the changing of the age of majority, the relationship between students and the university authorities is bound to be materially affected and difficult questions arise. We have heard it said that, at the age of 18, to ask students to have care of money is to put temptation in their way. Yet, at that age, we put temptation in their way in that we ask them to vote.

People go to universities to get a degree. Less than 15 years ago non-attendance at the altar of the college chapel was a sufficient reason to be denied the right to take the examination to obtain a degree. There are still colleges which take no part in the teaching of a student but have the right to prevent his having access to the final examination papers for reasons totally unconnected with his academic activities. There are many universities where the recording of attendance at lectures by lecturers whose lectures are not worth attending is a necessary condition for taking the examinations before a student can obtain a degree.

We should be concerned with that whole area, including membership of the organised student body, the union, which is not a union in any sense like many of the industrial unions. The student union at Durham, Newcastle, or other civic universities is not the same as the N.U.S. Each performs different functions at local, university and national level.

Membership of a college at the University of Durham is very different from membership of a college at Oxford or Cambridge. The whole area of relationships between the degree-giving authority, the financing group—the ratepayer and the taxpayer—the teachers and the students should be thoroughly reviewed. The change in the law, the change in the numbers, the change in the methods of financing, have left certain areas of university control with something like the irresponsibility of the harlot.

The university authorities are too often called upon to act irresponsibly because they are still geared, with their statutes and all the rest, to the father who foots the student's bill being responsible for his discipline and wellbeing, with the university occasionally acting in loco parentis.

That is no longer the position. The local education authorities and the State, the ratepayer and the taxpayer, are footing the bill, and neither the universities nor the colleges have yet achieved a mechanism to relate full adult rights for students as adult citizens with their position as being in statu pupillari.

In these relationships the crucial role will have to be played by student unions. To say that, because a number of them act in a foolish manner, access to finance should be removed from the body as a whole, seems to me not to move in the direction which we all require. We should give greater strength to the elbows of the moderates in the student movements. I suggest that Sussex University students got the union they deserved. If they stayed away and permitted the kind of constitution they had, they got what they deserved, and it is in their hands to correct it. Durham University's quorum is 500, and it is relatively difficult to pack a meeting which has 500 as a quorum.

It is entirely possible for student unions to get the relationship approximately right. The use of senior treasurers and so on with real powers is becoming increasingly common rather than having a figurehead as senior treasurer. Voluntary membership of such unions assumes that the facilities provided are available on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Many of the facilities provided by student unions in civic universities are not available from any other source. There is no duplication, and if students do not buy their coffee in a students' refectory run by the student unions, they cannot get it.

It may be that the solution is for the U.G.C. to finance coffee bars. I am not certain that that will necessarily achieve greater public accountability than we have now. I find from the Report of the recent Select Committee that there are areas in the financing authorities which leave great gaps in accountability, that there is concern, and that where there is a monopolistic supply of services to give students the right to opt out may not be realistic. The hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) was right to suggest that it might be necessary to alter the forms of services and facilities before student union membership could be made voluntary.

The idea that the £360 million is extracted for a minority élite, and that membership of a union is something like membership of the House of Commons motor club, is totally fraudulent and one with which the House should waste no time.

5.17 p.m.

Mr. Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)

I shall not detain the House for very long, because I wish to confine myself to only one point.

I should not like it to be thought, because my name appears on the Motion, that I would go anything like as far as my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne). I see the theoretical thread of the argument about the closed shop, about compulsory membership, and about the connection between public financing and union subscriptions, but I should take a lot of convincing, without a great deal more argument, that it would be right substantially to change that at present.

I confine myself to the issue of the Select Committee's 1969 recommendation about the setting up of a registrar or other form of public body to approve the constitutions, accounts and conduct of student unions and similar bodies. It seemed to me that the speeches of the hon. Members for Flint. East (Mr. Barry Jones) and Durham (Mr. Mark Hughes) contained nothing which could be taken as opposing that.

I come to some of the things my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus said. If the hon. Member for Flint, East meant what my hon. Friend thought when he talked about the possibility of breaking up student unions, or even more divisive action, with hasty and ill-considered measures, I can understand what my hon. Friend said. But everything the hon. Gentleman said about the admirable work which most student unions do, and about the essential nature of most of the functions they perform, makes it all the more essential that those functions should not be prejudiced by the deflection of money to purposes for which the subscriptions were not intended.

Everything the two hon. Members opposite said about the nature of, and need for, student unions makes it all the more important that they should be properly controlled in essence, by which I do not mean, nor does anyone else on this side of the House, that there should be any attempt by Government or any body to try to put the democratic control of the union into any kind of stranglehold. We are trying to see that democracy works properly and that certain elementary safeguards are imposed.

When the hon. Member for Flint, East talks of hasty and ill-considered action, I cannot think that action taken on the recommendation of a Select Committee in 1969 could be considered hasty or ill-considered if we came to a decision about it now. It is a sad reflection on Governments of both parties that no action has been taken on it yet. It cannot be suggested. for example, that the Registrar of Friendly Societies has exercised a baleful influence on the friendly society movement or has caused division amongst the ranks of those who have benefited from friendly societies.

I should add that I have had two children at universities and another is going on to one. Those who have been there have been interested in this question but they and their friends and every other moderate student I have talked to have said that it is impossible for them, the moderate majority, to cope with the kind of thing which often goes on.

I agree with the hon. Member for Durham that university students get the unions they deserve—they do. The moderate majority is prepared once or twice a year perhaps to go to a meeting and elect moderate and often completely non-political student union officers in the hope that they will run the thing properly for them for the rest of the year. But the ordinary student, who has gone to university partly to work hard to get a degree and partly—let us face it—possibly to enjoy himself, cannot make a full-time job of student union politics and go to the requisitioned special meetings once a week, which is what the militant minority continually manages to achieve in order to get its minority views adopted. The number of moderate and non-political presidents of student unions who have resigned their posts before the end of their year of office because of the pressure of minority groups, who have sought to mandate them on issues without the agreement of the majority of the students, has become alarmingly great.

With regard to the use of student money and the way in which student business is conducted, it is a necessity, when dealing with large sums of public money, as well as in the interests of the students and their unions, that there should be at least a registrar who will agree a model constitution, the question of quorums for meetings and the proper uses to which subscription money can be put. I do not believe that anyone can say that there is any sinister motive behind this or that it can hamper the proper development of student unions or the functions they perform.

It is high time that we did this. The situation has grown up gradually over the years into very big business and very big money. It was reasonable at first that there should not be a registrar or any proper form of control, but we have let things go too far. The dangers have become abundantly obvious and it is more than time we acted. I hope that my lion Friend will give an answer on this.

5.23 p.m.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

I find myself in almost entire agreement with the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude). I do not think that there is any basic conflict between him and my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mr. Barry Jones). But I think the danger in other speeches from hon. Members opposite lies in the fact that some of them would like to take a very large sledgehammer in order to crack a small nut. To try to carry this to the argument that membership of student unions should be completely voluntary raises all the difficulties that my hon. Friends the Member for Flint, East and Durham (Mr. Mark Hughes) put.

Many of the functions of the student unions are not provided elsewhere. I suspect that, if we took the view that the U.G.C. should finance certain facilities, if there were no alternative facilities, quite a large amount of the money mentioned as being contributions would be spent on building coffee bars and the rest, which are now provided by the student unions. There would be little saving of the taxpayer's money there. We have to stop the lunatic fringe element, and as one of the Members for Southampton I unreservedly condemn the action of the University of Southampton Students Union in its political discrimination and the way in which it has distributed funds.

I believe that political organisations inside universities should not get any funds from the student unions at all. They should by all means have the free use of accommodation for their meetings but it is quite wrong that the Conservative Society or the Labour Society or any other political society should obtain money. At the University of Southampton, I was Chairman of the Labour Society. We got no grant from the students union. If we wanted to raise money for our functions, we went out and did it ourselves—and it did us a lot of good to do so. If we wanted to get speakers down, we had to raise the money ourselves rather than ask the students union.

I back wholeheartedly the request of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon to take account of the recommendation of the Select Committee, of which I was a member, for some form of registrar to look at student union constitutions. If we could get a properly balanced constitution, then many of these abuses—and they are only in a minority of cases—could be stopped. If one made membership voluntary, so that only those participated who wanted to do so, one might well find an even greater danger of a lunatic fringe taking control of a student union because they would be sufficiently politically dedicated to be prepared to pay £10 subscription or whatever it might be. I would not reject entirely the argument if it were thought useful for a student to contract out in the sense that he might write to his local authority and say, "In my case I do not think you need pay the fee". I see no objection to that and I do not think that the National Union of Students has any strong objection to it or to any individual financing the fee himself. It would not be a disaster.

I plead with the Government not to abolish completely the £15 or whatever fee it is that the local authority pays and not to make membership entirely voluntary. If they do, they will destroy the whole concept of what student unions have done. A university without a student union—I am talking about the main work of a union—would be very much the poorer.

5.28 p.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Nottingham, South)

I do not think that there is any dispute on this side of the House about the fact that student unions carry out valuable functions. I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Southampton, lichen (Mr. R. C. Mitchell) has said about that. Clearly, student unions are a valuable part of university and college life. I would not disagree either with what has been said about British students. One only has to compare student methods here with some of the student methods overseas to recognise that British student politics and British student political leaders are moderate and responsible, and I think that we are fortunate in that.

But it is not enough to say that because some changes may be proposed and some changes may be under discussion which may cause controversy in student circles, therefore we should let well alone. That is not a sufficient reply to the case, because the logic would be that we in this House would not be discussing or acting upon any of the things we do discuss and act upon. I do not believe that one is opposing either students or student unions by questioning the methods by which the student unions are financed or the element of compulsion in the membership. That was the point which my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) was making.

To me, the present system is questionable on two grounds. First, it seems to me wrong in principle that students should be compelled to join a student union. In many cases they may want to but this is surely a matter for free will, a matter which is essentially up to the individual. Although it is true that most students are financed by the local authorities, a minority are self-financing in that they are financed by their parents.

It seems objectionable in principle that these students should be forced to join student unions. At this stage in the student's career his options should be left open, and I cannot see any good reason why there should be a real compulsion in these cases.

I would favour what has already been proposed from this side of the House, making membership of the student unions voluntary. If the facilities are wanted— and the facilities provided are, I recognise, recreationally, socially and culturally good, making a tremendous contribution—they will continue to be provided on a voluntary basis. This only reinforces the case for making membership voluntary. It is only another way of saying that these facilities will be used by the many because they are so good, but it still allows the few who do not want to use them the option of doing just that.

The other aspect which is important, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus, is that the bulk of the money comes from public sources, from the rates. That means that it is reasonable for the public to have and to show a close interest in how this money is spent. I find myself in agreement with all that has been said about public accountability in this respect. From the public's point of view it is reasonable for the public to say, "Very well, these facilities are good, they are, in many cases, excellent. But if that is so, the students will want to take advantage of them voluntarily and as a matter of choice." Surely it is up to the students, the public may say, to take the decision to join the student unions of their own accord and pay their own money for the advantages of so doing. I cannot see why the public should automatically pay.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Is there not a danger here that the student who comes from a better-off family, who has some money, will be able to pay and enjoy the facilities while the chap dependent on his grant may find himself in difficulty?

Mr. Fowler

That is a difficult point for me to answer in a comprehensive way. There could be difficulties of this kind, but I should have thought that in the vast majority of cases that would not be the case. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus said, there is a choice of financial priorities in education as in any other area, and it seems to me not too difficult to think of alternative ways in which this money, be it £3 million or £8 million, could be spent in education.

My hon. Friend mentioned the question of primary schools. Many of us would support what he said. If I could bring a constituency point into this, as the Minister is here, I would mention the need to bring together and unite in one building the comprehensive schools formed in this country. I would draw attention to those like the one in my constituency, which have buildings more than a mile apart. I do not think it would be particularly difficult for any of us to think of other ways of spending this money on education. I am not convinced that this is the best possible way of spending it. The situation is unsatisfactory although not disgraceful. From the point of view of both students and the public the Government should take action to correct it.

5.34 p.m.

Mr. Edward Short (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

I congratulate hon. Gentlemen opposite who had the foresight to table this Motion today. I congratulate them on putting it down at all, because there is much apprehension in colleges and universities throughout the country. The Government have been considering this for some time, but I do not expect the Minister to be able to say very much today. He threw out three proposals at Bradford on 15th September and we might expect to hear the trend of his thinking on those proposals today. I know that he has promised to consult all the bodies concerned including the students, and he will recollect that in reply to the hon. Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison) his right hon. Friend promised us on 5th August that, if possible, she would proceed in agreement with all the bodies concerned in this matter.

There were two inquiries in 1970, one conducted by the Committee of Chancellors and Principals, in the universities, the other by the D.E.S. in the public sector of higher education. It seems to me that the pressure is based on a few highly publicised but untypical incidents—out of 700 student unions. The hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) quoted a number of cases and I felt that he was scraping the bottom of the barrel. He quoted £100 being contributed to the dustmen's strike from the union at Essex. This kind of thing is surely a small price to pay for democracy in our student body.

Democracy does silly things. No doubt the Services Committee has considered some of the quite outrageous things done to the Palace of Westminster during the Recess. I regard these as highly silly things, but they have been done in accordance with our democratic machinery. I believe it wasted not £100, as with the dustmen's strike—although it surprises me that the dustmen have not gone on strike bearing in mind the mess they have to clear up here—but a great many hundreds of thousands of pounds on quite unnecessary changes.

It is important that this element of our young people should have the opportunity to train themselves in democracy. Like any other kind of training, training in democracy involves trial and error.

The hon. and learned Member spoke of students subscribing to provide milk for primary schools—

Mr. Ronald Bell

I was not criticising students who subscribed to provide milk for the primary schools, whether or not I agree with them. The point I made was that they had voted public money to that purpose, that money having been contributed by the public for other purposes.

Mr. Short

I will come to the question of compulsory membership shortly. I was also attracted to the students who provided a contribution to U.C.S. If these are the best examples the hon. and learned Gentleman can invoke, what an inadequate basis they are for the remedy he proposes! The right hon. Lady in that parliamentary reply to which I referred said: …the misuse is comparatively small…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th August, 1971; Vol. 822 c. 1820.] I agree with her. There are two categories of objection. There are, first of all, those who challenge the two bases of student union organisation, compulsory membership and State financing. There are those who accept those bases but want greater external control of student union activities, financing and structure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mr. Barry Jones) spoke of the three functions of a student union, and they are worth mentioning. The union promotes almost all social activities in colleges and universities, some of the recreational and catering facilities. Secondly, it sponsors, through its grants, a wide range of cultural and supporting activities without, in the majority of cases, any kind of discrimination. Thirdly, it represents students externally as well as internally in the universities or colleges.

All these functions are essential. Social, catering and recreational facilities are particularly important nowadays when two-thirds of students in provincial universities live in lodgings. For some years I have closely watched the lodging situation in Newcastle. I know that the Under Secretary has met a number of people from Newcastle and knows the problems. The old areas where students found their lodgings are being demolished and students must now go further afield to find their lodgings. It is now common for students at provincial universities to live in lodgings 10, 15 or 20 miles away and to travel in by bus daily. If the union were not there to provide social facilities, life would be pretty miserable for such students.

These functions are particularly important because they make student bodies into communities. I hope that it is common ground that we want to retain the community concept in universities.

I do not think that the provision of these facilities and the compulsory contributing to them by all students is any more unwarranted compulsion than a local authority providing services such as libraries, parks and museums, which people are free to use or not but for which all must pay, or indeed of all students having to pay as part of their fees for the university library which they may use or they may not, as they wish.

Another question raised by a number of hon. Members opposite is whether these facilities should not be provided by the universities and colleges themselves. I ask hon. Members who have suggested this how they would pay for them. If the university provided recreational, catering and sporting facilities, how would they be financed? They would be financed by an addition to the fee or, alternatively, by a bigger grant from the U.G.C. If they were financed from the fee, all students would have to pay. If they were financed from the U.G.C., all taxpayers would have to pay the cost.

Is it seriously suggested that any university court of senate, or whatever it is—it varies from one to the other—would run the social and recreational facilities for the large student body of 5,000 or 6,000 students in the modern provincial university? In the end, every university would have to hand it back to the students and we should be back again at square one.

Much has been said—this question was first raised by the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South—about the Southampton case, which is, perhaps, the most highly publicised of all. In April, 1971, the N.U.S., at its annual conference, deplored this. I deplored it from this Box and said that I thought that it should be reversed immediately. In the event, it has been reversed. I should have thought that this is a much better way of doing it than by legislation.

Student unions have a representative function also. I got the Clerk to the Privy Council to write a letter on 5th June, 1970, in which I insisted that universities should ensure that student members on university governing bodies were properly representative of the student body as a whole. I think all would agree with that. It is difficult to see how it could be achieved unless the union had 100 per cent. membership.

It is highly desirable that the corporate view of students should be put. I do not think that the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary could function without having the corporate view of all students made available to them on many occasions. I know that students are consulted frequently in the Department of Education and Science.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

The right hon. Gentleman has just advanced a curious proposition. He has said that it would not be possible for a corporate view to be advanced unless membership of the union remained compulsory. The right hon. Gentleman must know that in the case of the majority of universities, as the Select Committee discovered two years ago, the elections to the S.R.C.s, and so on, are participated in by a derisory proportion of the total student body. Does the right hon. Gentleman seriously suggest that the fact that membership is compulsory in this way ensures that these people are empowered to speak with full authority for the entire union?

Mr. Short

The hon. Gentleman wishes to make the participation even more derisory by having heard only the voices of those who can afford to pay the subscription; because many people would not be able to afford to pay the subscription if membership were voluntary. With voluntary membership the student community would be destroyed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East said, we should end up with very much more militant bodies.

Hon. Members will know what has happened in universities in France, Germany and Italy. I do not think that anybody here would wish that to happen in Britain. I believe that the major cause of the troubles on the Continent has been the impaired communication between student bodies and the authorities.

In Britain we have been remarkably fortunate. We may not think that we have on occasion, especially those who have been surrounded by howling bodies of students. However, over the past few years we have been remarkably fortunate. I believe that a major cause of this has been the fact that there has been a student body which was able to speak to the authorities, to hold a continual dialogue with the authorities, and to speak for all students.

The Select Committee proposed a registrar of unions, for two reasons. The Select Committee said, first, that with compulsory membership there must be some mechanism to protect the interests of individual members. It said, second, that as public expenditure is involved safeguards must exist to ensure that student unions are properly run. I want to ask the Under Secretary, if he cares to enter this field, about the legal basis for a registrar of student unions. As I understand it, the student union is part of the mechanism in the university. The university is an autonomous body established by Royal Charter. The Royal Charter can be amended only by another Royal Charter. An amendment can be made only on a petition of the people who possess the Charter. Therefore, I think that the legal side of this would be difficult. However, that is not the point I want to make.

I believe that the constitutions of the unions give protection to the individual. A point which has not been mentioned today is that the constitutions must be approved by the governing body of the university or college and they can be amended only with the approval of the governing body of the university or college. This is a considerable safeguard. If there are defects in the constitutions of the unions, the universities themselves must bear the blame. In every case the individual has the right of appeal to the general body of the union or to the courts. So there are real protections for individuals in student unions.

As to the accounts, I have checked on this today and I find that almost all, but not quite all, are audited by professional firms of accountants. The National Union of Students has strongly recommended all student unions that this should be done. I agree at once that this is not public accountability, but it ensures that any defects in accounting are brought to light. It has been agreed by hon. Members opposite that on the whole the accounting is done satisfactorily.

The N.U.S. is prepared, as I think that the Under-Secretary knows, to discuss with the Department or with the vice-chancellors and principals alternative methods of finance provided that they do not affect the character or operation of the unions. What the National Union is not prepared to discuss is a method of finance which would amount in effect to external political control of the unions. Short of that, there is a preparedness to enter into discussions with the Department about alternative methods of finance.

I implore the Government not to start legislating in this extremely sensitive field without agreement between the students, the colleges and universities, and the Department. I believe that there is much common ground among them. I appeal to the Government not to be pushed into hasty changes by a small number of isolated cases which we all deplore and condemn.

5.50 p.m.

Mr. John E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)

I would start by saying that I am in agreement with the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) that the student union is absolutely vital in its rôle in strengthening the community of the university. It is very difficult these days for large bodies of students scattered in their residences to have a sense of community, and in so far as the student union contributes to that sense of community I welcome it.

Let me in passing welcome these consolidated Regulations—consolidated. I suspect, so that they could come into force on 1st September and be available and intelligible to the students; and perhaps that is more important than whether we should be discussing them by means of a Prayer or by this Motion today.

I welcome the other changes which have been made, particularly with regard to the lifting of the parental threshold, and some of the other improvements in the parental scales.

Turning to this question of the student unions, I should like to acknowledge the copy of the National Union of Students' memorandum to the Secretary of State—the copy circulated to us. I thought it a very fair and objective statement, although I do not necessarily agree with everything in it. I do agree, however, that it is highly desirable to lessen the gross disparity, in many cases, between university and non-university student facilities. It is, I think, a little worrying—not that it is a measure of the disparity—that we should have a difference of £11 on one side and £3 on the other. I hope that that point would be looked at very carefully.

I entirely accept the students' view that they have very important functions in respect of catering. I think the students are far better at deciding what forms of modern and inexpensive and easily accessible catering there should be than probably any more senior body, and, indeed, on student housing, I think they know better what they want than some remote and elderly committees. Quite clearly, too, they must sponsor the sporting activities of the university or college as the case may be.

It is in their third capacity, of acting as a representative body, that I share some of the anxieties, but not such extreme anxieties, which my hon. Friends have mentioned. There are only a few cases, admittedly, but I do think that sometimes the actions of the students union may not seem to the local community to be representative of the whole body of students, and I think this is a pity. We have had described to us the way in which a small militant group can get to work and operate a constitution which lacks sufficient safeguards. Likewise, where there may not be effective accounting arrangements, such as—as the righ hon. Gentleman says—in the vast majority of cases there are, we can get unfortunate incidents which have an effect wholly out of relation either to their number or their real significance. It was news to me that the college of which I am still a member made this grant in respect of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. Unless it was a down payment for a new college barge, I do not think it should have come out of the union fees fund. What I hope is that there was a quite separate voluntary fund, from which it was decided that such a gift should be made.

Mr. Maude

I think my hon. Friend should, perhaps, explain this a little more carefully. He does not mean the fund taken out of the union's subscriptions. He means a fund raised by voluntary subscription.

Mr. Hill

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, for I would not want the House to misunderstand me. What I meant was that where the students want money for a substantial charitable contribution, whether or not it is of some political significance, it should come not from the body of their subscriptions but from whatever means they choose voluntarily to get up a fund.

This has happened all through the ages. I can remember a college in need of funds having a day for the college blind. It is true that the appeal was far less closely connected with any disability than some of the donors expected, but the money was raised voluntarily, and this is the essence of the point.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

On this point, why should a student union have such different provisions from other organisations and not make a contribution for charitable purposes in the same way as other organisations make contributions from their subscriptions for charitable purposes, as, for instance, on an occasion when there is some accident and some people cannot make a living for a number of weeks? Would the hon. Member preclude students from making out of their subscriptions a reasonable contribution to such people? Why should they not?

Mr. Hill

I think that if the hon. Member had been here all the time he would have realised that we are discussing the use of the subscriptions which are specifically made by local authorities for union dues. It is on that rather narrow front that we are talking. I think that in general principle my answer would perhaps be this, that if they do make any gifts or donations from the union fees fund it should mean either that they deny themselves something else which the fees were intended to provide or else that the fees are, perhaps, rather more generous than, strictly speaking, they need be for the purposes intended.

Mr. Edward Short

Is the hon. Member aware that individual directors with perhaps only a small shareholding in a company do not hesitate to suggest that the company should make large donations to the Conservative Party and without consulting their shareholders?

Mr. Hill

I do not think that that has any relevance. Those donations come out of profits which the enterprise has made, not out of taxpayers' money, and if the shareholders do not like it they can complain.

Mr. Edward Short

The shareholders cannot complain. The money belongs to the shareholders but they have no say in the matter at all.

Mr. Hill

I do not want to engage in a private debate with the right hon. Gentleman. I am delighted if firms give subscriptions to political parties, whether the Conservative Party or not, in the hope that political parties will have more resources with which to increase research and the quality of British politics. However, may I go back—

Mr. John Mendelson

Yes, the hon. Member had better hurry on to something else.

Mr. Hill

What I was wondering was whether it would be possible so to conceive of this third function of the student union, which is the representative one, as to distinguish the activities of the student union in all fields of administration—the non-political and non-ideological, the social and catering, amenity and residential sides of their work—from debating and political activities, in the same way as the annual conference of the National Union of Students, until a few years ago limited its agenda to educational subjects. For those of us who are specially interested in education those conferences were perhaps more interesting than discussions of a wide general political range.

The non-political, non-ideological and non-debating functions of student unions might be separated, and membership of student unions with those functions might be compulsory, whereas the political activities of student unions in the sense of a debating force, might have a voluntary membership. There would be a degree of difficulty in demarcation and in deciding whether a subject should be on the agenda of one body or the other, but this is a possibility which is worth looking at. The reason why some students do not want to join a union is that they are deterred by particular opinions, often those of a minority in the total body of students, with which they do not wish to be associated. Such a separation might be useful, and I hope that the Under-Secretary in his further researches will consider it.

6.1 p.m.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

I listened carefully to the so-called debate on education at the Conservative Party annual conference, and that is why I intervene in this debate. I know the ideological inspiration of the point of view put forward by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. John E. B. Hill). I listened to the television recording of the conference debate from beginning to end, and there has probably never been a more disgusting performance than the anti-education bias of Conservative representatives in showing their distrust of students and this student generation. They did not use the tones of moderation of the Under-Secretary of State, who normally made a point of working very closely with the N.U.S. when he was in opposition, and I have no reason to think that he has not continued to do so now that he is in office. I make no charge of inconsistency, but he does not represent his party. He would not have been able to get up and say a word of praise of the student movement at that conference without being blown away by a gale of opposition, resentment and bias.

It is no good the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) shaking his head. He as little represented the opinion of the students of Cambridge on the Greek colonels' régime than the Under-Secretary would have represented his party had he admitted to a certain amount of respect for the student generation.

Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the Greek case. I, together with hon. Members from both sides of the House, happen to be a member of the Atlantic Committee for Democracy in Greece.

Mr. Mendelson

Yes indeed, and the hon. Gentleman's hypocrisy is made even more glaring when one reads the speech to which he treated this House on that occasion. He had a duty to speak for the academic community of Cambridge when this matter was debated here, but he completely failed to represent their profound convictions and deeply held views. I was in Cambridge on two occasions. I lectured at one college and spoke to a body of students. I talked to large numbers of members of the Faculty and to many students, and the hon. Gentleman completely misrepresented the profoundly held convictions of the Faculty and the student body on this matter.

We are not discussing here a narrow matter but one of considerable constitutional importance. Many speakers who showed both distrust and ignorance of academic and student life at the Conservative Party annual conference continually demanded of the Secretary of State—who was sitting on the platform and rightly ignored them in her reply—that she should introduce an industrial code of conduct for university unions. Time and again these references were made, the implication being that the Government had just done this against the trade union movement so they must now do it against the student unions as well. It is against this background that this debate must take place.

The National Union of Students in this country has built up a democratic organisation which to my certain knowledge—and I speak as a former Treasurer of the International Union of Students and a representative of the N.U.S. on that body—is more democratic than any other student organisation. One reason why our N.U.S. has been able to maintain that high tradition is that it has been free from interference by the State, and the Under-Secretary knows that very well.

In many other countries, to my regret and the regret of the N.U.S., student bodies have been continually dictated to and interfered with by State authorities. In the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and other countries that call themselves progressive, functionaries have been appointed to the student bodies, thereby making any independent life of these organisations completely impossible. In the United States, the Central Intelligence Agency, on the instruction of the American Government, sent a number of under-cover agents into American student organisations, thereby making any independent student movement in the United States impossible, and discrediting on the campuses for a long time to come any student organisation. We have been, and are today, free from that kind of interference, and I warn the hon. Gentleman that if he were to yield to the invitations pressed upon him at the Conservative Party Conference he would be doing a grave disservice to the student community and to our academic life.

My second point concerns the internal arrangements of these organisations and the hypocritical speech to which we have been treated by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South. The hon. Gentleman hurried away from my right hon. Friend's question because he had no answer. Of course he wants shareholders not to be consulted when the people who represent and run big firms make financial contributions to the Conservative Party.

Mr. John E. B. Hill

The argument is unworthy of the hon. Gentleman. Any subscriptions for political or other purposes have to be disclosed by companies. In making his great attack, will he bear in mind that he was not here during the early part of the debate, and what some of my hon. Friends have been asking is that the Under-Secretary should consider the recommendations of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Education.

Mr. Mendelson

I am strictly confining myself to the hon. Gentleman's speech, which I heard. I have made no reference to anyone else's speech. I have referred to what the hon. Gentleman said within my hearing, and he continued the biased approach to student bodies that was rehearsed at the Conservative conference.

Sir Frederic Bennett (Torquay)

It is not just a matter of the contributions being declared to shareholders. The shareholders, since the amendment of the Companies Act by the Labour Government, have a perfect right to take objection to these subscriptions when they are made if they wish to do so. Can the hon. Gentleman suggest a similar manner in which ratepayers and taxpayers can object to the use made of their money?

Mr. Mendelson

In my part of the country often the first time a small shareholder hears about these contributions is long after they have been made. That is a fact of life, and I know the hon. Gentleman has always been able to agree with me on facts, although we may have strong differences of opinion on policy.

It would be possible to have a different arrangement for the financing of student unions, but it has been found convenient to do it in this practical way. There are certain facilities for which the student bodies should be responsible and, therefore, it has been held that a part of the money which would be contributed towards the general conduct of business should reach them in this particular way. Not only is it useful for students in student unions to have decent canteens, dances, "hops ", and what have you, but the underlying doctrine is—and has been for many years—that it is also very useful and desirable for them to take part in the great philosophical discussions throughout the country.

It is wrong for any hon. Member to suggest that somehow their activities concerning the political or philosophical matters or deeply-held convictions about current events are in some way separated and different from other activities. They are an integral part of the general activities of the student unions. It would be a sorry day if the House of Commons were to say, "We make a distinction between the general functions and duties in this respect." Let us remember that students represent the next generation. They represent the people who have to start to do the thinking for the future. It would be a most backward, reactionary step—and I never thought that I would hear it in this House—to suggest that these functions are somehow extraneous to their other functions and duties.

This was indeed a dangerous element to smuggle into a debate at the Conservative Party annual conference. Some of the representatives at that conference seemed to me to display a general bias against long-haired students. One had only to listen to those debates on radio or watch them on television to hear the tremendous applause that went up when a delegate referred to the general attitude of students One would think that they were the enemy when, in fact, many of the delegates have sons and daughters who are students.

People carefully played upon this bias and tried to confuse it with certain isolated activities which were rightly reported in the newspapers. When a Member of this House or any other member of the public has been properly invited to address a university audience and is then treated with bad conduct by another body of students who do not wish him to be heard, of course there will be general condemnation of such conduct. Of course, those of us who care about academic freedom and the freedom of discussion will immediately condemn such action and will urge action against those responsible by the university authorities and by vice-chancellors, as I myself have done in the past and will do again if such misconduct occurs. This is one matter on which there is common ground. But what some of the representatives at the Conservative Party conference did was to try to confuse this by seeking to create a general atmosphere of bias and resentment against students who hold progressive opinions.

The Under-Secretary of State well knows, as does his Secretary of State, that for every student who engages in such misconduct there are 100 students who would never take part in any such demonstration against a speaker who holds a different view—but those students may well hold progressive opinions about political matters like the Colonels' regime in Greece or the war in Vietnam. We must stand firm against the confusion on these two matters.

After all, it was the students, first in the United States on the campuses and then in this country, who were the first to demonstrate against the war in Vietnam. They knew that the United States' aims in Vietnam could be implemented only by the physical destruction of hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese. They did not have to wait for the horrors of My Lai. In saying these things, they were ahead of events, ahead of my own Government and ahead of the Opposition Front Bench, as it then was. I wish to express my profound respect for their farsightedness. They acted properly, as did the student demonstrators in the French revolution.

There will not be many hon. Members who hold the views of Lord Eldon—and it was Lord Eldon's views which were urged against students at the Conservative Party annual conference. I would ask the Government—many of whom when in opposition did not have a bad record in keeping contact with the student movement and who earned the respect of a good many of us in listening to the reasoned case of the National Union of Students—not to open the door to the introduction of a code of industrial conduct which would be the perhaps not-so-thin end of the wedge for State interference in the life of the university unions. I ask them to stand firm against any attempt by their own back benchers to move in that dangerous direction.

It is much better that free university associations, free university unions and independent student associations should have some among their members who err at times and of whose acts we disapprove than that the whole of the student body should be put in a straitjacket. I urge the Minister to reject any such suggestion as was urged upon him at his own Conservative Party conference.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)

I hope the next time the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) wishes to intervene in an education debate, he will have the courtesy to sit through the earlier part of the debate so that he knows what other speakers were trying to deal with. We are not discussing the Conservative Party conference. We are discussing a Motion on a narrower subject.

I should like to correct what he said about the Garden House Hotel affair at Cambridge. When I condemned violence at the Garden House Hotel, I am certain that I was expressing the views of the vast majority of my constituents and a considerable section of academic opinion in Cambridge among both senior and junior members. I was heavily involved at the time and I hope that my recollection of this affair will carry some weight even with the hon. Member for Penistone.

To get back to the main subject of the debate, the Government are committed to further expenditure on higher education. I strongly support this, and we all await with interest the unfolding of Government policy during the year ahead. I believe that the majority of the public support this aim, but on both sides of the House we are aware of public concern about certain aspects of higher education today and we must do all we can to allay it.

One of the causes of concern we are debating this afternoon, and I shall return to it in a moment. To digress to another cause of disquiet, I refer to the important principle of freedom of speech in the universities—perhaps the one thing to which I responded in the remarks by the hon. Member for Penistone. A number of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have had monstrous experiences in trying to address meetings at universities. I repeat today what I said at a student conference in Cambridge at the weekend. The universities, above all, have traditionally been places of free speech and tolerance, and it is vital that they should so continue, with a fair hearing being given to people who want to speak and who are invited to speak on any subject, and from whatever political point of view, provided they keep within the law. Every occasion on which a speaker is shouted down at a university is a self-inflicted wound on the reputation of students and universities and tends to prejudice public support for the expansion of higher education which we want to see.

Returning to our main subject today, large sums of public money are involved in the running of student unions and there is a need for further public reassurance. I am glad that this debate has drawn attention to the problem, but it is also important that we should keep it in perspective. I should like, in passing, to appeal to Press and television which I believe have been responsible for a great deal of distortion of affairs, and the public understanding of affairs, in our universities in the last few years.

There have been deplorable cases of abuse and of political discrimination. I do not believe there is much difference between the two sides of the House on this matter. Examples have been given of financial contributions to causes which may well be ultra vires the student unions. One moral is that we would all like to see moderate students taking a greater and more active part in the deliberations and decisions of student unions. But, as was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-upon-Avon (Mr. Maude), we know the difficulties experienced by moderate students who are at the university for other purposes and cannot always spare time to take part in these activities.

Fortunately, those cases have been few, and, against those few cases, one has to set the social, recreational and general amenities which student unions provide month by month. The main stream of the student union activities is wholly admirable and serves non-controversial purposes. They are activities which add greatly to the quality of university life. On the whole, they are well administered, and they offer considerable scope for responsibility and involvement to a fair number of students.

A few months ago, I was at Newcastle University. I was greatly impressed by what the union was doing there in the main stream of its work. Only last weekend, I met the daughter of a friend of mine who has gone up as a freshman—or "freshwoman"—to the University of East Anglia. She is living in rooms three or four miles away from the centre, and already she has appreciated the value of the everyday facilities which she gets from her student union.

I shall not go into further detail today. We have had a fairly lengthy discussion. I make just two points of constructive suggestion. The first is that there is need for some kind of more searching independent scrutiny not necessarily by a Registrar of Student Unions, as the Select Committee proposed, but something over and above what we have today. Secondly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. John E. B. Hill) suggested, it would be helpful to analyse carefully the different functions at present performed by student unions, and possibly to differentiate in our future approach between the main stream of these activities and the peripheral ones.

I do not argue for the continuation of the status quo. However, in making proposals for changes, I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will not take a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Let us introduce further safeguards which are shown to be necessary, but let us not undermine or hamper the valuable work at present done by student unions in so many of our universities and other institutions.

6.24 p.m.

Sir Frederic Bennett (Torquay)

Until the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. John Mendelson) intervened in the debate, it had not been my intention to say even a few words, for the very reason about which the hon. Gentleman was given a reproof. I, too, was not present during the earlier part of the debate. The reason for my absence was that I was imparting to some very Conservative students the view that I am about to advance. This is no new interest of mine, since I have exchanged with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary a controversial and sometimes acrimonious correspondence recently on the same subject.

I wish to pursue the point raised by the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) and supported by the hon. Member for Penistone about subscriptions, because, although it is a comparatively small matter, it is important to get the facts on the record. Following amending legislation introduced by the previous Administration, subscriptions to any source, charitable or otherwise, which are not directly connected with the business carried on by the subscriber have to be shown and subjected in due course to criticism by shareholders. It is true that, by then, the subscription will have been made. However, directors do not like being challenged on such matters at shareholders' meetings, and in fact the possibility of such a challenge has an undoubted deterrent effect. I know of no similar occasion when the unfortunate rate payers or tax payers are in a position to object, even a year later. Their only opportunity is through their Members of Parliament in a debate in this House, which is not quite the same.

The hon. Member for Penistone also referred to the Brighton conference. I do not know in what capacity he was there. However, I was there through the whole conference, and it would be a grave distortion for anyone to suggest that the whole education debate was used by a lot of elderly reactionaries to give hell to the students. Roughly 80 per cent. of the time was taken up by experienced educationists of all generations trying to obtain better conditions for the under-privileged to get improved education facilities. The other topic which has been mentioned was a small part of the proceedings. Some people thought that it was too small a part. When objections were raised to the present system of student grants, most of the speakers were members of the younger generation, students themselves. It was they who objected to what was going on. It is quite untrue to suggest that the objections came from elderly reactionaries.

Mr. John Mendelson

I have no wish to prolong this debate unnecessarily, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I listened to the conference debate from beginning to end.

Sir F. Bennett

Then clearly the hon. Gentleman was in a more privileged part of the hall than I was entitled to occupy. That shows some hope for the future course of the hon. Gentleman's political allegiance.

I feel very strongly and perhaps even more fundamentally than others of my hon. Friends who have spoken that we need to draw a distinction between not interfering with the functions of student unions and not subsidising political activities. It has been a long-standing convention in this country that the State does not subsidise the political activities of any element of our population. From the point of view of objective logic, I have never been able to see why the very small proportion of our young people who are fortunate enough to go to universities should enjoy a facility which no other section of the community enjoys.

I have argued with the Minister and I am arguing now that there is no reason why one very small section of the community, whether it be right, left or anything else, should enjoy a subsidy from the State to carry out its political activities. I do not want to see any interference with student unions. I simply say that a division should be drawn between the normal activities of a student union and its political activities. If it wants to engage in political activities, its members should find their own money, just as anyone else has to. The principle should be applied especially to subventions and contributions made to various causes, be they anti-Communist or pro-Communist causes.

These are matters which arouse a great deal of unease among the public. It is difficult to understand why tax payers or rate payers, even indirectly, should have to subsidise political activities of which they personally do not approve.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman, but how does he square that with the vast sums which were spent on Common Market propaganda during the summer?

Sir F. Bennett

I do not dodge the issue, but I should be extending the debate unduly if I were to deal with that episode. I could express views on the expenditure of that money which the hon. Gentleman might not find unsatisfactory, but tonight is not the occasion.

In my few remarks, I have tried to indicate where the difference lies. The public is not worried so much about student unions as such. What worries the public is why, at a time of high taxation and high rates, the political activities of a very small section of our community should be subsidised by the State.

6.30 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. William van Straubenzee)

I am sure that the whole House feels indebted to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) and others of our hon. Friends who placed the Motion on the Order Paper. This has been a valuable occasion. I shall do my best to pick up all the points which have been made and to deal with them as fully as possible.

It has probably come as a surprise that the debate has taken place at this hour. We are accustomed to taking a prayer late at night. I expect that it is even better for us in the middle of the day, after an agreeable lunch. I am glad 12 right hon. and hon. Members have been able to contribute to the discussion.

I hope that the House will agree that two threads have come out of the debate. The first is that all right hon. and hon. Members, whatever view they have gone on to express, have at some point in their speeches said that they believe that student unions are "a good thing", because a centre of activity and expression inside a college or university is valuable and in this direction they perform many valuable functions. All right hon. and hon. Members, whether critical or not, have sought to make it clear that they were not taking part in a student-bashing operation.

The second thread is that, with two exceptions only—the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) and the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. John Mendelson)—all hon. Members considered that some change was necessary. The House will understand my difficulty when I ask it to reflect on the range of change which has been pressed upon me today; but, with two exceptions, I think that I have the agreement of the House that the present state of affairs is not good enough and that some change is necessary.

I must, in all honesty and friendliness, tell the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central that I did not find persuasive his analogy with the facilities provided by a local authority; for example, that a local park is provided for people whether they enjoy that local park or not. After all, the people who provide that local park do so on annual estimates which they control. There is a strict control of expenditure on local parks in every local authority. Here we are talking about something very different indeed. The hon. Member for Penistone, splendidly conservative, refused to have any thought of any change at all. I am glad to have his confirmation. I think that we did too quick a conversion job on him at the Conservative Party Conference.

Mr. John Mendelson

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the way to maintain revolutionary ideas in this country is to defend the good things which we already have, as Cromwell had to do?

Mr. van Straubenzee

Yes, I am in favour of defending the good things. Clearly the majority of hon. Members want to defend the good things. But it is to be over-conservative to defend everything and to turn one's face against any kind of change.

As I have to deal with a technical point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) I must explain how this matter arises. The House knows that nearly every full-time student living in England or Wales who is taking a first degree course, or a course comparable with a first degree course at a university or other establishment of higher education, is entitled to an award from his local authority; that the award is paid at rates and is subject to conditions which are set out in regulations, and that, with the exception of a few provisions with which we need not concern ourselves, these are not matters over which the local education authority has any jurisdiction.

A student's award is calculated by taking into account, on the one hand, his requirements and, on the other hand, his resources. His requirements include the payment of various fees and subscriptions, and include the subscription to a student union or similar body. It therefore follows that in every case covered by the relevant provision of the regulations the union subscription is paid as part of the student's award unless his resources, including his parents' contribution, are substantial.

The current provision relating to student union subscriptions is in Schedule 1 on page 8 of the Regulations. I should explain to my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus that, for reasons into which I shall go, the Government decided to table certain Amendments to the Regulations by a Statutory Instrument against which, as lie reminded us, he subsequently prayed. I thought I inferred from his speech—I hope I was not unduly suspicious—that he had a slight feeling that, finding we were being prayed against, we had ducked below the surface and come up with another Statutory Instrument to do him down. If that is what he has in mind, I can reassure him absolutely on that point. The answer was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill). Earlier this year the Government agreed certain major changes—I hope and think that they are beneficial—in the rates of student grants. There were certain major changes, for example, in parental contributions, and so on. I need not go into those. It was obviously convenient to have them in one document as soon as possible for the start of the year. That is the only reason for them being consolidated. I assure my hon. Friend that the idea of doing him in the eye did not enter into the discussions which led to consolidation. I am anxious to remove that thought.

The wording in Statutory Instrument No. 884, against which my hon. Friend prayed, is the same as that in the consolidated document, but it differs from that in the Awards Regulations of 1970 made by the previous Government, and was first introduced by us in May, 1971.

I should explain why the amended wording was introduced. The amended wording had a limited purpose. That was made clear by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science on 1st March in answer to a Question by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). It was to provide a solution to a technical problem which had arisen about the payment of student union fees at the Kingston-upon-Thames Polytechnic, and was intended to stand for a limited time only.

The first point I want to make quite clear, because there is some misunderstanding about it, is that the mere fact that these words have been translated from a single Statutory Instrument No. 884 into a consolidated Statutory Instrument No. 1297 does not mean that my right hon. Friend has in any way changed her mind on the limited nature of the Amendments which have been made.

It might be that hon. Members wonder why we did not introduce changes of substance last May. In 1960 we saw the publication of the Report of the Anderson Committee on Grants to Students, and the Government of the day acted in 1962. The Report, and the Regulations made after it, stated that payment of fees and other dues to be made on behalf of award holders attending the courses about which I am talking should include subscriptions to students' unions, amalgamated clubs, and junior common rooms, membership of which is obligatory. Those words stood until 1970 when the last Government altered them.

I had better give the quotation to make the point that follows. The quotation from the 1970 Regulations to which I am referring is: … the subscription to any one association (being a students' union, an amalgamated club or a junior common room) membership of which is obligatory by reason of any provision of the instrument regulating the conduct of the establishment. I understand, and I think that I recall this being said at the time, that the intention of the previous Administration was to avoid imposing on local education authorities a duty to pay more than one subscription in respect of any one student. Perhaps it is to the credit of the student bodies that, reading these Regulations carefully, as they did, some of them had thought up the idea of making compulsory the membership of a hall of residence, union or something of that kind, but think it was the intention of the House that in those cases only one student union subscription should be paid.

As I have said, 1971 saw us in difficulties at Kingston-upon-Thames Polytechnic. The essence of the problem was that although the membership of the polytechnic student union was thought to be automatic by virtue of the inclusion of the union fee in the sessional fee charged by the polytechnic, neither the articles of government nor the student union constitution approved under it provided for obligatory membership of the union. It followed that the powers of the Kingston local education authority to pay the subscription was defective, and that that was equally true of the powers of other local education authorities with award holders who were studying at that polytechnic.

It was understandable that that was a matter of grave concern, not only to the Kingston local education authority itself, but to the governors of the polytechnic and the students; and I think that it was a tribute to them all, and also to the National Union of Students, that it was possible to resolve the difficulty. I was told by the hon. Member for Penistone that I would be swept away in a gale if I ever, in public, made an appreciative reference to the N.U.S. I think that I am probably one of the stout Members to whom reference was made by the hon. Member for Flint, East (Mr. Barry Jones). I think that possibly my size is such that the gale will need to be of considerable strength.

Mr. John Mendelson

The hon. Gentleman normally quotes me correctly. I did not say anything about making appreciative remarks in public. I spoke about such remarks being made in the atmosphere of that anti-education debate at the hon. Gentleman's party's annual conference.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I think that the same words could have been used at the Conference. I must check my recollection, but I think it is true to say that the only time when references were made to the problem that we are discussing was when they were made by students, who themselves are in the thick of the problem, and they were certainly not made by elderly reactionaries, as was alleged.

So far, so good, but it was understandable that a number of people, including the members of the Kingston local education authority, had reservations, because they put it to us that they would have welcomed some provision in the Regulations prescribing how the amount of subscription paid as part of an award should be determined, or possibly what its level should be.

I want to draw the attention of the House—and by doing so bring it to the notice of the student bodies—the fact that had the Government been intent on doing real harm to the student body, or to student unions, that occasion would have been the point of time at which to have done it. I have concentrated upon Kingston local education authority, and upon Kingston Polytechnic, but it is probably true—though I must be careful not to assert this without checking the constitution of every polytechnic—that many others were similarly affected. It is on record that what my right hon. Friend did was to legitimise for a limited period a situation which hitherto everybody had thought existed. Had my right hon. Friend been filled with the kind of intentions suggested by the hon. Member for Penistone, that would surely have been the right time for her to have dealt with the matter in another way. That she did not is proof of the general attitude of the Government.

I think that the House should have considerable sympathy with local education authorities which make suggestions of this kind, and certainly my right hon. Friend and I have kept them very much in the forefront of our minds in the consideration that we have been giving to this matter. The amending Regulations were the result of full consultations with local authority associations, with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, and with the N.U.S., and I think that they fulfilled their immediate objectives.

It is understandable, and perfectly proper, that hon. Members on both sides should have made it abundantly clear that they want to keep this matter in perspective, but there is, nevertheless, concern about the way in which some student unions conduct their affairs. I respond most firmly to the appeal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane), and others, that the matter should be kept in perspective, but there is widespread criticism of the procedures and policies adopted by some student unions.

There is considerable resentment at the strictly political donations made by some unions out of money received on a "most favoured nation" basis, by which I mean that for all practical purposes the money is provided compulsorily to the student union. Concern has rightly been expressed here—and if it is not expressed here where should it be expressed?—at the unfair discrimination which sometimes occurs between different groups and societies within a college or university. I repeat that it is necessary to keep this matter in perspective, but nobody does the student cause any good by trying to pretend that these things do not exist.

I appreciate that such matters as this get a considerable amount of publicity. May I therefore say that to the best of my understanding and knowledge the number of cases of abuse of union funds, and certainly the number irregularities of procedure, is relatively small, especially when one takes into account the number of institutions of higher education in the country as a whole.

It may not be very large, but I suggest to the House that there is a principle involved here. It is what restraint should be observed, or, indeed, what restraint should be imposed, when democratically elected student bodies have at their disposal considerable sums of money which come from the pockets of ratepayers and taxpayers, and come in a way which, so far as I know, with possibly one exception, does not apply to any other head of expenditure in a university or college?

Obviously, the first consideration is that the student unions must act within the limits of their constitutions. Generally speaking, the right hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central, was right when he said that the constitution of the union and any amendments to it had to be approved by the college or university authorities, but it seems to me that in too many cases there is a tendency on the part of those authorities to consider their responsibilities discharged once the constitution has been approved. It would be very encouraging if they felt a continuing responsibility, if not a formal then at least a moral responsibility, for seeing that the principles of the constitution were not breached. An idea of that kind would be among those to be considered in any change which we might wish to see.

Obviously, the general body of students, too, has a very big share of responsibility. I am not always sympathetic with students who complain about the result of a particular vote on this or that—at least, not in a properly corporate union—but who go to meetings only infrequently. If a student does not take part and does not attend, he ought not to complain.

Finally, I think that all members of the academic community, the governing body, the staff and the students, have a corporate and common interest in fostering a vigorous and responsible student organisation. Reference has been made to the very impressive and quietly written memorandum on this matter—membership and financing of student unions—issued by the National Union of Students. If my memory does not serve me wrongly, I have a feeling that the right hon. Gentleman drew extensively from it to set out, very fairly, the reasons why student unions exist. I accept entirely the social and some of the recreational facilities within the university or college which it is the purpose of the student union to provide. I accept that it is the focus for activity by the student body as a whole and that it has certain other important, sometimes representational, functions.

As I have said, I think that the whole House will accept that a properly organised student union is an integral part of the academic community and has an essential part to play. This was certainly reflected in what has come to be known as the concordat between the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and the local authorities, issued jointly with the N.U.S. in 1968.

It is absolutely understandable, however—and there are people in the student body who do not always give this sufficient importance—that the organisation and financing of student unions should be of particular concern to the local education authorities. After all, a large part of the costs of students' fees and maintenance, including the cost of union subscriptions, falls on them.

I sometimes detect a resentment that the L.E.A.s should be concerned in this matter, but it is a resentment which I frankly reject. Outside the universities themselves it is the L.E.A.s who mainly provide and maintain the institutions of higher education. In the university sector they have been concerned for some time because union subscriptions have undoubtedly been increasing sharply, and the L.E.A.s find themselves committed to a growing expenditure over which, as I have explained, they have no effective control. In the university sector, therefore, they are faced with an automatic income presented to the unions at a pre-determined level.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South referred to provision for students in the non-university sector. He was absolutely right, but as we succeed—as we certainly shall—in improving the provision for students at, say, the polytechnics, so, frankly, will the pressure for an increase in the student union fees increase. Therefore, we are dealing not with a diminishing factor, but with a factor which, if anything, is likely to increase.

I absolutely understand that the L.E.A.s, with their growing commitments in many sectors, including the rapidly growing sector of higher education, should be anxious and watchful about this head of expenditure.

Mr. John Mendelson

The hon. Gentleman has just used a formulation which might be interpreted rather dangerously. He said that he could understand the resentment of some members of local authorities who have to pay these contributions without an automatic control over what happened afterwards. Surely they cannot expect any automatic control. A local education authority is constituted to support students for their educational activities, for instance, for their study of philosophy. A local authority cannot expect because it has paid the grant to have any automatic control over what is done in the learned institutions concerned. That must be left to the governing body of the institution.

Mr. van Straubenzee

The hon. Gentleman has slightly misunderstood what I said. I hope that he will take it at its face value when I say that I should not want to see, and I do not think that any hon. Member speaking in the debate would want to see, detailed supervision over academic matters in either the university or the non-university sector. But the point which the hon. Gentleman has to meet and which he has not met—and that is rare for him—is that this is the one heading of expenditure—I can think of possibly one other—in which, in both the university sector and the non-university sector, expenditure is imposed on the award-paying L.E.A. without its going through some form of further scrutiny.

In the non-university sector, the polytechnics, for example, the annual estimates will rightly be approved by the maintaining L.E.A.s. As things stand, if the governors certify that a sum is the right sum for the union subscription, that ends the argument. The hon. Gentleman must realise that what he is seeking to perpetuate is a position of privilege which is not accorded to any other head of expenditure, and it is that to which we have to direct our attention. There is no student bashing in saying that. It is merely searching for one way or another of bringing to this problem some such financial disciplines as are applied to every other head of expenditure, whether in the university or the non university sector.

Mention has been made of Questions answered from time to time by my right hon. Friend when she has clearly indicated that we have been studying these matters closely. I thought that my hon. and learned Friend was a shade critical of the time the study has taken. I do not apologise for the amount of time.

First, and I have not heard this reflected in the debate so far, the matter is complex in three aspects. The student unions themselves exhibit in miniature that enormous variety of structure which is such a remarkable characteristic of our system of higher education as a whole. One of the things which has come out of the inquiry which the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, the local authorities and ourselves in partnership have instituted is that there is an infinite variety of provision through a wide range of college and universities.

Secondly, a considerable number of bodies have an important interest in the future of student unions and we have to try to frame proposals which, so far as possible, will meet their differing requirements. Thirdly, we thought it right closely to examine all the different proposals which have poured in upon us. I think that in a short time I have read every one from whatever source and whatever part of the political spectrum.

I do not know whether hon. Members have noticed—perhaps they have not had time—that on Monday of this week, in a Written Answer to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall), who, as the House knows, has taken a considerable interest in this matter, my right hon. Friend said that she would shortly be sending a memorandum outlining some proposals to the interested parties, and the interested parties will of course include our partners in this matter, the local authorities, who have a leading part to play and a leading commitment, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and the National Union of Students. I must ask the indulgence of the House if I do not outline the particular proposals in the memorandum. I cannot do that, because it will be in the form of a consultative document on which, before reaching decisions, it is essential to obtain the views of the bodies concerned.

The right hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to say that the National Union of Students, for example, has made clear its willingness to discuss these matters. I am sure that I can also rely upon the other bodies concerned to examine the proposals constructively. But as they will also be matters of public concern, my right hon. Friend is proposing, as she said on Monday, to make them public at the same time, so that public points of view and the views of hon. Members can also be brought to bear.

There is a large number of different possibilities. There is, for example, that which has been pressed upon me, of total voluntary membership. It is only fair to those of my hon. Friends who have put this point to make it clear that as I understand them what they are arguing for is that the student himself should control the same sum which was previously sent forward for him compulsorily, and that he would make the decision as to whether or not he spent it on a subscription or whatever—I see one of my hon. Friends showing disagreement.

Clearly this is a subdivision of that concept; and there is eminent respectability for the concept of a registrar. Not only did it emerge from a Select Committee on which I myself served but the concept of a registrar was first introduced by students, at the time for a different purpose, to form a body to which they could appeal over the university and college authorities. I realise that the Committee clothed the idea, but it is worth recalling that it came from the student side.

Sir F. Bennett

Would my hon. Friend at least accept that a substantial body of opinion does not want to interfere with the structure of the present student unions but only wants control to go to the point at which the funds, whatever they are, to whatever student body they go, are not used to subsidise political activity?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I am obliged: I did not do justice to this very important third possibility. Indeed, I venture to float a fourth, which, as I understood the debate, would seek to divide those expenditures which are common to all students and might well vary radically from university to university and which are at the disposal of all, from the strictly political activities of the union. Or it might be that that principle could be extended towards the position of the student not merely in political matters but in some of the cultural and other activities which are a worthwhile part of the corporate life of the university.

Mr. John Mendelson

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves this proposal of a registrar, which I believe would seriously interfere with the necessary independence of the university, he should not now try to use the proposal from a few students for what many at the time regarded as misguided reasons, because they wanted to interfere with university independence by means of an appeal to the State or somewhere else, and clothe that proposal, hairbrained as it was, with the introduction of the registrar concept for different purposes. Both would be equally wrong and an equal interference with university independence.

Mr. van Straubenzee

The respectability of the student union registrar concept comes not from those who originally introduced it but from the imprimatur given to it with the full authority of a Select Committee presided over with great skill by a distinguished Member of the hon. Member's own party and including Members of widely differing viewpoints in both parties. Indeed, when one considers the breadth of political outlook on that Select Committee, it is remarkable that, on this point at least, there was unanimity. It is not to be shrugged aside. I simply made the point of how the idea first arose.

Fundamentally, the point at issue in this question is the proper balance between freedom and responsibility. Four parties are principally concerned—the students; the governors or, in the case of university, government, and the staff of the colleges; the local authorities; and, of course, the Government.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

I detect that my hon. Friend is coming to a conclusion, so I should like to be more sure than I am that he has hoisted on board in his consideration of the various propositions advanced in this debate the real dubiety which must remain about the desirability of a closed shop system in the universities, where a small minority of students are obliged to finance that closed shop out of their own resources, although they may not use the facilities.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I think that my hon. Friend will also agree that, in differing ways, all three of the proposals so far canvassed in this interesting debate get at what I understand is a deeply held anxiety by some students, the smallness of whose number makes them no less important. Clearly, total voluntary membership emphatically does. Clearly, if they had the right of appeal to a registrar, this would arm them as they are not armed at present.

Third, some of my hon. Friends argued that the compulsory provision was directed towards those things which are communal matters for all students and did not refer to those matters over which an adult might well be expected to make his own decisions. This would also make a fundamental change in the compulsory nature of student unions. But I give my hon. Friend this absolute assurance, that the strength of feeling of some students on the compulsory nature of their membership has been, in his phrase, well and truly hoisted on board.

I was saying that I thought that, fundamentally, the point at issue was to keep a balance between freedom and responsibility. It is natural and understandable that the students want the greatest possible freedom of action for their organisation and the security of financial support for all those activities which give point, life and indeed colour to a university or college.

I would agree that student union facilities need adequate and secure support. What I am saying is that I am far less sure that we are going about that support in the right way. That is why I have tried to draw attention to the announcement that my right hon. Friend will shortly issue this memorandum

In the consideration and consultations which will then follow, I believe that, not for the first time, the discussions in this House will be of very great value.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of the provisions in the Awards (First Degree, etc. Courses) Regulations 1971 (S.I., 1971, No. 1297) relating to the subscriptions to Students Unions and similar bodies.