HC Deb 19 July 1988 vol 137 cc1027-35

Lords amendment: No. 396, in page 159, line 10, after "exercise" insert in accordance with subsection (2) below

Mr. Jackson

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 397, 399 and 400.

Mr. Jackson

It is right and proper that concern with academic freedom should have sounded like a ground base through all our debates, here and in another place, on the higher education provisions of the Bill. For it is clear that nothing could be more fundamental than freedom of opinion and of utterance, nowhere more so than in our institutions of higher education.

In the constitutional structure for higher education which has grown up here in Britain and which is now being put into statutory form in the Bill, academic freedom arises under three headings. First, there is the freedom of the academy from the power of Government. Secondly, there is the freedom of the academy from undue intervention by the funding councils. Those two aspects of academic freedom were dealt with by my right hon. Friend earlier. The third aspect is that of the freedom of individual academics from unwarranted pressure from their colleagues and seniors in their universities and colleges—the subject of this amendment.

The Government recommend the amendment on academic freedom to the House. I want to say a few words about its background. Although the Government do not accept that strict academic tenure is necessary for the protection of academic freedom, they were always conscious that the abolition of strict tenure would—reasonably—lead to questions about the security of academic freedom of inquiry and opinion. For that reason, the Government's approach has from the beginning been to seek to safeguard academic freedom in the new context of the abolition of strict tenure by strengthening the procedural protections for individuals against wrongful dismissal. That is why, in its first print, the Bill contained proposals to ensure that every institution would have an independent appeals tribunal. It is why we propose to abolish the exclusive jurisdiction of visitors, so as to provide an ultimate recourse to the courts in cases of dismissal.

Following the same line of thought, during the passage of the Bill the Government concluded that it was also necessary to provide enhanced protection for academics from pressures short of dismissal. Hence our amendment in another place to ensure that an independent grievance procedure is available. It is one of the amendments in the group that we shall be considering.

Alongside measures to establish procedural protections for the freedom of individual academics the Government entered upon a dialogue with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals about the possibility of writing into the Bill a general affirmation of Parliament's commitment to academic freedom——

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

What dialogue?

8.45 pm
Mr. Jackson

There was an extensive dialogue. There was a series of meetings involving the Lord Chancellor and myself from the Government, and a representative designated by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, to consider the issue. So it is fair and reasonable to say there was a dialogue.

Mr. Bennett

Does the Minister accept that we started with a dialogue with the deaf? It was only after a great deal of pressure that the Government really started to negotiate.

Mr. Jackson

The hon. Gentleman consistently trivialises these issues and I do not propose to respond. There was a genuine dialogue about a general commitment by Parliament to the principle of academic freedom. It must be said of that dialogue that the Government found that there were genuine intellectual problems about incorporating for the first time in law the phrase "academic freedom". Our doubts related not to the principle of academic freedom of—course not—but to the precise interpretation that might be placed on that phrase in law. The genuineness of these intellectual difficulties was fully exposed and recognised by all parties to the dialogue between the Government and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. I understand that it is in recognition of those difficulties that the amendment does not include the phrase, or rather the adjective qualifying it, because the Government saw a problem in it. However, the amendment gives a fair specification of the content of the idea of academic freedom, and on that basis the Government are more than happy to accept it.

I turn briefly to two other amendments, one concerned with the definition of redundancy, the other with a loss of tenure on promotions. On the definition of redundancy, the Government have listened carefully to the debate flowing from their proposal to enable universities to make dismissals for reasons of financial exigency. That is why the Government recommend the Lords amendment to the House.

Mr. Dalyell

I do not want to bore the House, but I want to know the Government's general attitude to people who are 50, 55 or 60, and who, in their maturity, may be the best teachers of students and undergraduates. What is the Government's attitude towards such people being used, rather than the criterion of success in restructuring being based on how many people have been declared redundant? The latter is a sad state of affairs.

Mr. Jackson

Of course I agree that it is sad and damaging in many ways that people in their prime should no longer continue to be employed by their university. But universities must live within the means that are provided. Those means are substantial. Britain spends a higher proportion of its national product on higher education than any other west European country. Restructuring in universities has been necessary. The Government have provided substantial resources, additional to the baseline funding for the universities, to provide generous compensation for early retirement. It is fair to say that there have been no cases of compulsory redundancy in any university. All the retirements have been voluntary and with generous compensation.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The Minister must be aware of the case in Hull, which is currently the subject of considerable argument.

Mr. Jackson

The Hull case is the first concerning compulsory redundancy. How universities manage their resources is a matter for those universities, and the Government provide earmarked funds—this issue was considered earlier—to provide compensation. However, the extent and character of the redundancies are a matter for the universities.

Mr. Dalyell

I have asked three times today for a rough figure of how much has been paid out and how much is likely to be paid out for premature retirement. Is this figure available, and if it is can we have it?

Mr. Jackson

I made inquiries after the hon. Gentleman raised that at Question Time. I shall have to come back to him, as I promised then, because the precise figures are not immediately available. The current restructuring amount is £250 million, and restructuring money was provided in the early 1980s. The amounts in question are substantial, as are the amounts of compensation.

Mr. Hawkins

My hon. Friend said that it is up to the universities, including Hull, how they deal with redundancies. Is it not a matter of record that the Bill stops universities from setting up their own redundancy compensation schemes? In Committee, when I proposed that a generous redundancy scheme should be put in place for those made redundant from universities, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave a firm undertaking that, if I withdrew my amendment, he would introduce another measure to set up a generous redundancy scheme that would survive his period in office. That has not happened either in the other place or at any other stage in the Bill.

Mr. Jackson

We went seriously and with great deliberation into the question that my hon. Friend raises, and I believe that the result was fully explained to him in a letter. The problem is that it is not possible for a Secretary of State successfully to bind his successors without a statute. Therefore, it is necessary to have a statutory redundancy scheme for academics and we have concluded that this is neither justified nor necessary. It is clear that there will always be a redundancy scheme if there is a requirement for it and that the redundancy compensation will be generous. Past experience gives us every warrant to believe that this will be the case. There can be no doubt, and it is not in anybody's interest to suggest that there might be doubt, about the future availability of redundancy money when people are dismissed.

Mr. Hawkins

I am grateful for that.

Mr. Jackson

There is also an amendment concerning loss of tenure on promotions. Again, after listening to the debate, the Government recommend to the House Lords amendment No. 407, which clarifies and limits the circumstances in which strict tenure may be lost on promotion.

These amendments bring the principle of academic freedom into sharp focus. Concern for academic freedom is one of those values which constitute the common ground between the Government and the universities, to which my right hon. Friend referred earlier. In recommending these amendments, the Government are seeking to build constructively on that common ground.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

We welcome these amendments, and we welcome the fact that the Government accept them all. However, we have some reservations because the Government have not answered the fundamental question about why they were so determined to take away tenure. How much money did they expect to save? When was the money to be saved? Our debates in Committee and on Report exposed clearly that we are talking about the very long term for the repeal and revision of the statutes. We are not talking about something that will have immediate effect. The Government have never answered the question posed at the beginning: why do it? However, the amendments that the Government have accepted, either willingly or because they were forced on them, make some improvement.

The Government have managed with considerable skill the wording about academic freedom. They managed to resist for some months, then to concede, and then to have foisted on them in the other place and by the academic world the appropriate wording. Therefore, if something goes wrong in the courts, the Government will he able to blame everybody but themselves. I suspect that the Government have managed to attract the fire of many in higher education on to this amendment while they have slipped through other matters. However, having this provision in the Bill is better than leaving it out.

I am grateful that the Government have agreed to make it impossible for universities to replace older staff with younger staff doing the same job merely to save money. However, we still do not know what the Government will do about students. In many earlier debates, we were told that the university funding was to be at least changed to some extent by an increasing fees element. Suddenly the Government's deliberations on student grants and fees have been snatched away from us. Up to a couple of weeks ago, Ministers were confidently briefing journalists off the record on the merits of loans.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

I never do that.

Mr. Bennett

I am sure that everybody believes the Secretary of State. It is amazing how these stories appeared in the press—presumably spontaneously.

Mr. Baker

Very creative.

Mr. Bennett

Yes. However, those reports were speculating on how the fees would be altered.

All that has been stifled and we are now told that this long-awaited and thorough review, which was to be ready for presentation to the House before the end of June, has disappeared into the mists of autumn. That leaves higher education institutions with a big question mark over whether an increased element of their funding is to come from fees, and the implications of that. It also makes us wonder how far academic freedom will be eroded because students will not be free to study the subjects that they want to study, rather than subjects that they anticipate will help them to repay their loans. We shall wish to return to this subject in many future debates.

The Government have skated quickly over the question of what pay will be available for those academics who have to sign new contracts without tenure. Logically they should be paid rather more. The Government have not told us very much about the implications of fixed contracts, which clearly are an approach for many older academics, who want them to take them up to the age at which they expect to retire. It may turn out that that proves more expensive to institutions and the Government than retaining the old powers of tenure.

I want to press the Minister about what is happening to the three review bodies on earth science, on chemistry and on physics. I am not too happy about the idea of rationalising these subjects because there are many arguments about the rounded institution. I can see some of the arguments for specialisation, although resources can be in one institution and shared by another. In the redeployment of staff there are considerable tenure implications.

When the Minister replies, I hope that he will give some assurance to those who are being persuaded to move from one department in a university to another—alternatively, attempts may be being made to persuade them to move—to assist in carrying through the rationalisation process. I hope that he will be able to tell them that their tenure will be secure. If that is not made clear, we shall run into major difficulties in persuading people to accept voluntary-move proposals. The process has gone much further in science than in chemistry and physics. I am sure that the Secretary of State and the Minister of State have received many letters from individuals on this issue.

We know that the Government place contracts for research, and I ask the Secretary of State to make it clear that with Government funded research the Government believe in the free dissemination of knowledge. In recent months it appears that the Department of Education and Science has been framing increasingly restrictive contracts. When research is carried out for it, restrictions are placed on the researchers, who may wish to ensure that the information is disseminated by providing papers at conferences or summaries of the work.

9 pm

The National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales has many contracts with the Department of Education and Science. Again, it appears that there is a growing number of restrictions set out in the contracts. If we believe in freedom of information—the Government claim that they do—it is indefensible that the Government should be restricting the free flow of information on research in education, health, social services and areas of poverty. There may be some justification for restrictions in defence contracts, but there can be no justification for restrictions to be introduced into contracts for research in education, social services and health. In paying tribute to the concept of academic freedom and the right to disseminate knowledge, it would be helpful if the Government put the concept into practice in their contracts.

With the group of amendments that we are discussing, there will be some improvement made to the Bill, even at this late stage. We welcome that. It is only a pity that the concessions have been so hard to wring from the Government. We shall be watching carefully to see how they will develop in the next few months. We shall be awaiting especially the eventual publication, we hope, of the Government's proposals for student grants, student loans and fees for academic institutions.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

I shall refer briefly to amendment No. 425, which deals with unrecognised degrees. I had the opportunity to speak to my hon. Friend the Minister about the issue some months ago. The matter was then referred to the other place, and it now appears as a Lords amendment.

There are many good reasons why bogus degrees should be limited—

Mr. Beith

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Are we not discussing Lords amendment No. 396 and the amendments which have been grouped with it, rather than a group that appears much further down the selection paper?

Madam Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is right. We are discussing amendments Nos. 396, 397, 399 and 400. I ask the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) to relate his comments to them.

Mr. Cash

It would be difficult to bring what I have to say into a discussion on amendment No. 396 and others. I have probably made my point that we are somewhat concerned about bogus degrees.

Mr. Beith

Having aided the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) with his characteristic brevity, I must first declare an interest as a lifelong member of and adviser to the Association of University Teachers. The key amendment on academic freedom was moved in another place by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. It is right that we should briefly record why it is seen as so important and why it has attracted such widespread support from all parties, including the Conservative party.

First, in another place Lord Grimond asked: What is the real mischief about tenure? [Official Report, House of Lords, 19 May 1988; Vol. 497, c. 450.] No one was successful in answering that question during the debate in another place. The main mischief is that not everyone has tenure. The unevenness of its availability is its main drawback. It has not been demonstrated that tenure would be a drawback in the restructuring that is having to take place in some of our universities. The consequences of its disappearance are already being felt, not least in the attempt to attract key people from the United States, or others who might otherwise go to the United States. Tenure is available in the United States, and it is seen to be of great importance. Against the background of the abolition of tenure, the need to assert academic freedom in some form became that much more important.

Another feature of the background of reform is the spread of redundancies. Actual redundancies and talk of them have become more widespread than at any other time during the period that I have been associated with the universities. Redundancy provisions are still not properly covered in the Bill. In one of the amendments the Lords were striking out something that the Government had put in on academic redundancy—a rather foolish provision that gave special meaning to redundancy in the case of university academic staff. The notion was that senior academic staff could be fired simply because they were more expensive than junior academic staff. That was absurd and unjust and lay behind much of the fear and anxiety felt in the universities. They were worried that that would lead to the clearing out of people who were known to be good, simply because others could be employed more cheaply at the bottom end of the scale. That was a key factor in the universities' anxiety and the Lords were right to challenge the Government on that and other aspects.

The legacy of that is that university staff consider the Bill as illustrating the Government's clear intent that many university staff should be dismissed. The Bill makes no provision for any procedure to operate or regulate declarations of redundancy. No compensation is guaranteed beyond the wholly inadequate state redundancy payment. We still do not know how Ministers intend to implement the assurances that they gave in Committee, including the undertaking that compensation regulations at least as favourable as those in being at present will be continued.

The third feature of the background which caused great anxiety in the universities is the general climate of opinion in which such a fundamental change as the abolition of tenure is seen to have taken place—a climate in which the Government's dislike of dissent is very obvious. Comment was made on that from the Conservative Benches in the other place, not least by Lord Blake, who pointed out that there was a great deal of despondency and anxiety in the universities.

I do not find it encouraging to learn that one of the commissioners appointed by the Government to the rather depressing task of going round the universities tearing out pages providing for tenure from their statute books is to be Lord Butterworth, who voted against the academic freedom amendment. That does not bode well for the exercise in which they are engaged. The Minister spoke as though the arrival in the Bill of my noble Friend's amendment was a natural culmination of an orderly process of dialogue between the Government and their many critics. In fact, it was fiercely resisted by the Government and was carried in a Division in which the Government were outnumbered, to their great annoyance and distress.

As a result, there is now in the Bill a defence of academic freedom, the need for which has been made manifest by so many of the Government's actions. Thank goodness they have realised, even at this late stage, how foolish and damaging it would have been to resist the amendment.

Mr. Walden

During the discussions and exchanges of formulae between this House and the other place, both on this subject and on funding, one might have had the impression that a treaty was being negotiated between two warring states. There has been an element of genuine concern, but also much self-serving bogus rhetoric. There is no tradition of Government intervention in universities in this country, thank God, and there is none in prospect. I welcome the fact that the Government have accepted the Lords amendment. I cannot find it in my soul to approach this matter with the pompous seriousness with which others pretend to regard it. But I am glad that it has been settled.

I have a simple but important point to make, which is that the university tom-toms have been spreading it abroad that academic freedom in this country is under threat from Thatcherism—all the low level journalism that we are used to from Opposition Members. That is the image that is being given, and unfortunately we have to take it seriously. If I may presume to give the Government a small piece of advice, it is that they should do their utmost to ensure that all the relevant organs carry a faithful report of the Government's decision so that it reaches universities in other countries. It is important that they should have a correct view of the facts.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) did not seem to understand the reasons for reconsidering academic tenure. Let me make two suggestions to him. The hon. Gentleman should talk to vice-chancellors who, in private—I keep stressing that because it is my personal experience—would tell him, as they told me, that they want it to go in its present form. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman should talk to young academics in their early 20s who are trying——

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walden

No, because I have little time and I want to leave time for the Under-Secretary of State to reply.

The hon. Gentleman should talk to young academics who are trying to get on in their particular sphere. They will tell him frankly that there are people who were recruited, perhaps too hastily, in the 1960s, who may not be of premier quality, to put it mildly, and who have jobs for life, who are not good at their jobs, and are not distinguished. They are preventing young blood getting up in the academic profession. That is one of the contributory factors to the brain drain. It is not talked about much in public by the universities because it is inconvenient to speak of it. It goes against the accepted flow of the rhetoric.

I know, and universities, vice-chancellors and young academics know, that that is a serious problem. So by doing what the Government are doing on tenure, we shall encourage young blood in this country. Some of it will stay here rather than go abroad to escape from the weight of the dead-beat intellectuals above them, who do exist.

Mr. Dalyell

I cannot know what some vice-chancellors say in private, but other vice-chancellors in public express considerable concern. Those are their public statements.

I should like to ask the Minister directly: did he agree with his hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), who is a serious man and an ex-Minister, in his remarks about bogus rhetoric? Is that the view of Ministers of what happened in the House of Lords, because it is certainly not the view of a great many other people? Furthermore, with the abolition of tenure, I should like to ask the direct question: has any estimate been done, following the change in tenure, of the likelihood of even more academics, often the best academics, going to what they see as the lusher and more secure pastures of the United States? That question is echoed by the Minister's hon. Friends. The House would like to know what studies have been done or estimates made in the Department. That is a factual question.

Has any estimate been made in the Department of the effect on small university departments? It is a matter of considerable dismay to Scottish Members of Parliament that John Erickson's department, the department of defence in Edinburgh, should perforce have reached that situation.

I should like to express my deep concern about elderly academics—no, academics over 50—finding that they no longer have places in universities. Often those are the people who take the most trouble over students who are potential teachers. There is an acute problem. David Gow says in The Guardian: A £20 million campaign to recruit more teachers of shortage subjects like maths and physics is running into problems, Mr. Bob Dunn, the schools minister, admitted yesterday. The same is said in The Independent: Secondary heads and industrialists estimated a shortage of 4,000 mathematics teachers by 1995, and 2,300 physics teachers. He said there were also shortages, likely to worsen, in modern foreign languages, computing, and craft design and technology.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

My hon. Friend should finish soon. The Minister has to finish at 9.15 pm.

Mr. Dalyell

Right. Education states: the three organisations say that, taking an optimistic view, the country will be short of 4,141 maths teachers"—

Mr. Bennett

Sit down.

Mr. Dalyell

The Engineering Council—[Interruption.] I am being serenaded by my Front Bench, so I shall sit down.

Mr. Jackson

I shall do my best to answer all those points. The most important question has been why we should abolish tenure. The simple reason is that strict tenure makes it difficult for the managements of universities to manage their institutions rationally. There is a marked correlation between the presence of strict tenure and the number of staff on short-term contracts, because it is only by putting staff on short-term contracts that they can accommodate the pressures. We must make it easier for university administrations to run their establishments rationally. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) is entirely right. If there is a problem with the brain drain——

It being a quarter past Nine o'clock, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to the Order [18 July], to put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Lords amendment No. 396 agreed to.

MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER then proceeded to put the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Lords amendments Nos. 397 to 437 agreed to, one with Special Entry.

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