HC Deb 29 July 1988 vol 138 cc811-20

11.1 am

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

It is with regret that, as a graduate of Hull university, I am raising this subject today. It is also a matter of regret for my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes). It is a duty imposed upon me by virtue of the fact that Hull university is in my constituency and that one of the characters involved in the tragedy is one of my constituents.

It has been a feature of British universities for many years that each institution is able to offer its students a wide choice of major academic disciplines. From the time of Socrates and Plato one of those major disciplines has been the study of philosophy, and it is natural to expect each university to have a philosophy department that offers teaching and research to the highest levels.

The Government's successive cuts in university funding began in 1981 and have continued, regrettably, ever since. They have taken a heavy toll of such academic traditions. Several universities have lost their philosophy departments. Most universities have lost eminent philosophers, and many degree programmes have been curtailed or closed completely.

That situation is duplicated in many other academic disciplines, particularly the humanities, but also, to some extent, in the sciences. For example, the department of earth sciences at Hull university is about to close. That has forced the University Grants Committee to undertake far-reaching national reviews of many subject areas. In all cases, that has led to departmental closures and a reduction in the choice of courses for students.

The UGC has pursued a policy of "concentration" of resources. More often than not that has worked to the detriment of smaller universities, which have lost one department after another. It has also frequently accelerated early retirement among academic staff in those departments, and for many younger staff the reviews have produced virtually enforced transfers between institutions.

Earlier this year the UGC instituted a national review of the teaching of philosophy, led by Professor Hepburn of Edinburgh university. The review committee is due to report by the end of the year. Professor Hepburn has already expressed his concern that because so many philosophers have retired early or left the country his review will suffer from a lack of "spare bodies" available for transfer between universities, which would help to facilitate the closure of some departments in order to strengthen others.

Professor Hepburn's comment is particularly ironic, since it is a philosopher who has recently become the first tenured academic in the United Kingdom to be given notice of dismissal because he has been declared compulsorily redundant. It appears that, in universities with serious financial problems the imminence of UGC reviews can place staff, particularly the older ones, in a form of double jeopardy. They are not allowed to remain in their posts and, while the review is in progress, they cannot transfer to another university.

The present case, which occurred on 30 June at Hull university, has attracted wide attention and carries grave implications for the future of contracts of employment for many academics and also for reviews of courses by UGC committees. In its action, Hull university goes even further in its attack on academic tenure than the Government have gone in the Education Reform Bill, which regrettably receives its Royal Assent today. The council of Hull university is attempting, retrospectively, to deny tenure to its existing staff.

The need for academic tenure as the most effective means of protecting academic freedom in our institutions of higher learning is recognised in all civilised countries. That is apparent from the horror and amazement with which overseas academics have reacted to the Government's proposals to abolish tenure in the United Kingdom. Academics representing professional organisations in the United States, Canada, Germany and the Scandinavian countries have filled the letter columns of the press with their anxious protests. The president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers said in The Times on 16 May that his members can see no good reason why our British colleagues should have any less protection than Canadian academics. He said that Canada found it easy to provide contracts that contain a legal definition of academic freedom—something that the Secretary of State conceded only when beaten in the other place.

The president of the American Association of University Professors went further. On 27 June Professor Julius Getman, a distinguished labour lawyer, contrasted the curtailment of academic freedom inherent in the Education Reform Bill with the extension of freedom now apparent in the Soviet Union and called tenure an important safeguard of the integrity of the academic profession. He said that it remains the best protection of the academic freedom so eloquently described by Lord Jenkins's successful amendment of the Bill. That is one of the few words of praise that I shall ever have for the Chancellor of Oxford university. He warns of a renewed brain drain that could result from the destruction of tenure and from the cavalier attitude to higher education exhibited by the British Government. He insists that neither Britain nor the global university community can easily afford the losses this entails. The Government have certainly been cavalier in their treatment of the anxieties of many of the groups that have warned of the damage that the Education Reform Bill will do, and of the organisations that represent academic staff in particular. They have even ignored the UGCs concern that the removal of tenure from staff who transfer between universities under the committee's various subject "rationalisation" schemes would seriously threaten the planned restructuring of our universities, to which the Government are supposedly committed. They were deaf to the arguments from the Association of University Teachers, which said that to remove tenure from staff when they are promoted would lead only to bitterness and frustration and would further encourage able staff to leave Britain.

None the less, despite their determination to end tenure as rapidly as possible, the Government stopped short of attacking the tenure granted to academics under existing contracts. Among those who called for retroactive legislation to wipe out all job security for all existing academics were several university vice-chancellors. No doubt they needed to out-Thatcher the Secretary of State and were eager to use the opportunity to restructure their institutions in their own images or that of the Prime Minister.

The vice-chancellor of Hull university, Professor William Taylor, has now persuaded Hull university council to act as if tenure never existed at Hull, despite the provisions of the charter and statutes of that university. The council decided that the staff of the department of philosophy had to be reduced by one during 1987–88 while the UGC review was taking place. The only sin that the unfortunate philosopher lecturer concerned, Mr. Edgar Page, had committed was to be 57 years old. That is a sin which some of us may yet hope to commit, and which some of us may have already committed. One wonders how Socrates or Plato would have fared if they had been teaching in the department of philosophy at Hull university in their advanced years.

Mr. Page was singled out in what is euphemistically called an academic plan designed by the vice-chancellor, who at the age of 58 is at the peak of his career. Mr. Page was told to take early retirement by the end of the current academic year or be dismissed. It would appear that the vice-chancellor has committed the same offence of being over 50.

Mr. Page made it clear that he would not consider early retirement under the threat of dismissal. Professor Taylor then persuaded Hull university council, at a special meeting hastily convened on 29 June, to authorize Mr. Page's dismissal. At a meeting of the committee of vice-chancellors and principals on 1 July, the implication of Professor Taylor's actions were not lost on his colleagues, who were all anxious to shed staff at minimal cost.

The continued decline of university funding by the Government has driven vice-chancellors to the point where they are willing to renege on binding contracts made with their staff many years ago. None of them wanted to be the first over the brink; one might even say over the cliff edge. However, many are now watching the position at Hull very closely, hoping that Hull will suffer all the damage, ignominy and shame that comes from being the first to remove tenure from existing staff while others reap the benefits of Professor Taylor's foolish and precipitate action.

Professor Taylor's action is foolish, because it is clearly quite unnecessary. While Hull university, like other universities, has had financial problems, the sacrifices of a great number of staff who have retired early since 1981 have considerably eased the problem. Under the previous vice-chancellor, Sir Roy Marshall, well over 100 academics retired early. From 1985, under Professor Taylor, the academic plan called for a further 139 staff losses, most of them academic, by 1989. At the same time, Professor Taylor is now actively recruiting new staff. Nine new professors are currently being appointed and several lectureships are being filled. More than 60 academics aged over 50 were individually targeted last year to lose their jobs under the Taylor plan because they were in subject areas which he wished to contract. Most of them retired early, though many would have preferred to stay.

Professor Taylor's hire-and-fire policy has caused great unease and bitterness among the staff at Hull. In the case of Mr. Page, it reached a logical conclusion. Mr. Page was sacked, not because Hull could not afford to keep him, but because the managerial style with which Professor Taylor expects to impress the Prime Minister demanded it. In fact, Hull university seemed to be keen to keep Mr. Page's expertise in his field of medical ethics and offered to re-employ him after compulsorily retiring him, with the proviso that he would develop money-spinning courses from which the university would pay his salary. It wanted to sack him today and re-employ him tomorrow. Mr. Page argued that he was pleased, delighted, happy, ecstatic to develop such courses, but while in his present permanent post, not on a basis where the university had transferred the cost of his salary to his pension fund and the UGC restructuring scheme.

It is clear that Mr. Page's expertise is highly sought after. The University of Bradford, which has suffered as badly as Hull under the Governments cuts, was nevertheless keen that Mr. Page should be transferred to Bradford to develop new courses. Here Mr. Page became the victim of Professor Taylor's rigidity and the chaotic state of our university system which the Government have managed to create. Because of the current UGC review of provision in philosphy, no UGC-funded transfers can take place. Therefore, an immediate transfer was impossible to arrange. On the other hand, Professor Taylor insisted that Mr. Page be off the pay roll by the end of the session. There was a stalemate, or "Catch-22."

Through his Association of University Teachers representatives, Mr. Page sought to persuade Professor Taylor that no final decision should be made until after the review of the provision of philosophy at universities had been conducted by Professor Hepburn. That should be completed at the end of year. Professor Taylor would agree only to defer the implementation of an application —if such it might be called—for early retirement until that date. He insisted that Mr. Page had to sign for early retirement there and then, at the last meeting, and that the university should have total discretion whether it would accept any transfer proposal after the review. The only parliamentary parallel to that would be members of the old Irish party who, when they were elected, gave their dated application for the Chiltern Hundreds to Parnell.

Mr. Page declined Professor Taylor's proposal because it constituted a second "Catch-22". He knew that Hull, among all United Kingdom universities, operates a curious form of age discrimination. Any staff over 50 who wish to transfer can do so only if the transfer results in the full saving of the salary costs. Transfers between institutions, so vital for the UGC's restructuring plans, cannot take place on that basis if the member of staff to be transferred is over 50. That is a new academic criterion for appointments on an age basis.

A member of staff from a university normally takes eight funded students with him or her on transfer, that being the unit of currency in the UGC funding formula. Because of Mr. Page's eminence in his field, Bradford was willing to accept Mr. Page with fewer funded students, since it hoped for income-generating forces arising from the appointment of Mr. Page at Bradford. Professor Taylor's insistence that no funded student numbers could be afforded would therefore probably scupper any future transfers. There is a precedent involving not only the removal of tenure, but the transfer at an age over 50 and the removal of the UGC currency formula of funded students places with the transfer.

Professor Taylor's reasons for his actions are simple. He calculates that the UGC currently pays the full cost of early retirement of all staff who leave under approved academic plans. It therefore costs Hull university nothing to sack such staff or to pressure them to leave voluntarily, as Mr. Page's colleagues have done at Hull.

It therefore benefits Hull university to sack staff rather than to transfer them, as the latter involves the notional loss of students. It is easy to see the origins of this distorted logic in the Government's efficiency drive in the universities. It is equally clear that such a policy leads to needless conflict and serious losses of experienced academics—losses that Hull university and the rest of the country can ill-afford.

The conflict which this managerial disaster has caused in Hull and in the universities generally is considerable. Mr. Page has referred the matter to the University Visitor, the Lord President of the Council, as the civil courts are still barred to academics in such disputes. Mr. Page expects to be reinstated, and he is represented in his petition by the solicitors acting for the Association of University Teachers.

The association has also called for an effective academic boycott of Hull university until the university council decision is reversed. Already serious damage has been done to Hull's academic reputation by the Council's action. Several external examiners have resigned, at least one national conference due in Septermber has been cancelled, public lectures may need to be cancelled and several job applicants who were shortlisted have withdrawn. The boycott will be taken seriously by the many academics who are appalled at Professor Taylor's action and who recognise that their own job security is now threatened by this case. Hull academics are planning prolonged industrial action to persuade the council to change its mind.

Academics do not take such action lightly. Indeed, it is difficult in any university common room to get them all to agree on one set course of action, without the writing of half a dozen theses and about 500 footnotes. Nevertheless, they are united in their action in Hull on this matter. They are concerned at the damage that their students will suffer, but they are determined that the Governments dirty work will not be executed by hyperactive vice-chancellors, who seem unconcerned at the damage to academic standards that such heavy handed management will cause.

National officers and officials of the Association of University Teachers met the university management on 20 July in a last effort to avoid this confrontation, but Professor Taylor's position remains unchanged. It now looks as if Hull university will damage itself quite needlessly, because of a combination of managerial inflexibility and the constraints imposed by UGC reviews and Government under-funding.

I am sure that Socrates would have had scathing words to describe the harsh treatment that his fellow philosopher has received. As Professor Getman of the American Association of Professors has pointed out, Britain and the world academic community are the losers from this Governments careless stewardship of our intellectual heritage.

I should therefore like to put the following proposals to the Minister. First, he should write to all universities where subject provision is the subject of UGC decisions and review, saying that nothing should be done to prejudice those subject departments or people in post until the completion of such a review. That already meets the problems that Professor Hepburn has identified in his review of the teaching of philosophy in these islands. That would ensure that Mr. Page's position was protected until the end of the review, and the argument over tenure could then be overcome if there were a satisfactory resolution of the matter by Professor Taylor, the university council altering its decision or by a transfer to Bradford university.

Secondly, the UGC should look at the arbitrary insistence on the age limit concerning transfer between universities' staff proposed by Professor Taylor, to consider whether it is both a restraint on trade and a breach of normal good practice between universities. It is certainly an amazing decision for a university to take that the age of 50 prevents transfers between universities if one is teaching, but if one is a vice-chancellor, such as Professor Taylor, one can transfer willingly to another position as vice chancellor above that age.

Thirdly, if the Minister is not prepared to take any of those courses of action, he should write to the UGC and Hull university pointing out that Mr. Page's case is now before the University Visitor and no action should be taken by the university until the University Visitor has made a judgment on the issue.

I was lucky enough to be awarded the Adjournment debate, but it is with great sorrow that I raise this issue. I never thought that a university which had been a place of great academic freedom, which had a great reputation among universities in this country, and which has sent many of its members to grace the Benches of the House —quite amazing in number compared with the age of the university—should be the first university to deal with a member of its staff, guaranteed by contract tenure, by dismissing him in such an arbitrary and high-handed fashion because of one single error on his part—his age of 57.


Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

I declare an interest in the debate, especially relating to tenure, as, before coming to Parliament, just over a year ago, I was a lecturer at Sheffield university, and have just under two years before I may return to the university if I wish. At that time I will be almost 54, so the points that have been made about Hull's policy, if transferred to Sheffield, would affect me.

My university branch, which is the academic section of MFS, is also a body that fights to preserve tenure, as does the Association of University Teachers. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said, I studied at Hull university in the politics and philosophy departments. Part of my teaching on access courses at Sheffield university was in philosophy, and one of the last students that I taught attained a place at Hull university as an adult student to study in its philosophy department.

Tenure is not the same thing as a sinecure. There are high standards of research, publication, administration and teaching that need to be met by university lecturers to comply and continue with their contracts. Those standards are supervised by university authorities and they are seriously examined. It is a life that calls for people who have a commitment to intellectual pursuits and, who, unless they come to Parliament, normally devote their lives to such activities. The atmosphere of the market place and of the stock exchange is quite inappropriate to such a lifestyle of study. The pressures of one's peer group are also considerable in an academic institution and mean that standards are maintained collectively by members of the academic community.

It is especially typical of our enterprise culture—a culture of Philistines—that the first move against tenure is to take place in a philosophy department. Philosophy is not some esoteric activity. It is not a matter of people contemplating their intellectual navels. Modern philosophy is about the development of reasoning skills. It concerns areas such as logic, the implication of arguments and consistency between arguments. It is concerned with crucial distinctions between analytic, empirical and evaluative forms of reasoning. It investigates and, above all, questions those distinctions.

Philosophy is the antithesis of teaching by rote, by dogma and by pre-packaged building blocks of information. Unfortunately, the Government in their education plans and their attitudes towards universities advance exactly those dogmatic pre-packaged positions that philosophy asks us to question and challenge. Philosophy is needed in society generally, so that it can develop its educational skills.

Those with a philosophical bent are less likely to make dogmatic, all-or-nothing statements about the characteristics of nations, races and social classes. The making of qualified statements is easier to defend in argument than absolute claims, unless those absolute claims are in the sphere of mathematics or the physical sciences.

Politicians would benefit from regular acquaintance with the modern philosophical techniques of language analysis. So, for that matter, could university students and other academics. Rather than cutting back on philosophy, it should be our major intellectual growth industry. I suggest that all students should come into contact with some of the language analysis techniques of modern philosophy within foundation courses. Whichever area of study people are engaged in—history, the sciences, religion or mathematics—there is a philosophy that is appropriate for the language, the skills and the arguments that are used in those areas.

11.29 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Robert Jackson)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on raising this important and interesting subject on the Adjournment. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) on his thoughtful contribution to the debate.

I shall start by emphasising the importance of the study of philosophy. I draw the attention of the House to a speech that the Secretary of State recently made to the British Academy on the subject of the humanities. It was a speech which, unlike so many of our orations, really deserves reading, because in that speech he set out the grounds for his personal belief, and the Government's belief, in the importance of this branch of study.

Philosophy is an important intellectual discipline in its own right. It is fundamental to the higher level study of all disciplines, because the role of philosophy, as described by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East, is identifying and analysing presuppositions of all forms of knowledge.

Philosophy is, or at least ought to be, a valuable training for life and work. The achievement of intellectual coherence should lead to that coherence and integration of personality and judgment which is the highest fruit of high culture and high learning. I hope that that is a consideration that modern philosophers have well in mind. At a more mundane level, philosophy gives rise, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East said, to skills in analysis and argument which are necessary in many areas of work.

Strictly speaking, however, none of this is the Governments business, and rightly so. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, will find, and I hope he appreciates, that it is this conviction, and the constitution-al conventions associated with it, that will prevent me from giving him full satisfaction on some of the points that he has raised.

We are living in the tercentenary of the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was an event in which philosophers played an eminent part in every party and on every side. One of the chief consequences of 1688 was the replacement in Britain of a form of state associated, as we can see from the continent, with an ambitious and wide-ranging concept of the role of the state in controlling and determining the life of the arts and the intellect.

In 1688, we in Britain rejected absolutism in the political and cultural spheres, whether in the form of Catholic integralism or in the form of Protestant Faustianism. The concept of the state which prevailed in 1688, and which established the British tradition in these matters—which happily continues to reign—was that of a limited state with a limited role in relation to great institutions of civil society, not last in relation to those associated with the life of culture and of the intellect.

We have inherited, and will continue to live within, a tradition in which, apart from generalised good will and respect for the plurality of ideas, the Government have no especially strong view about philosophy and its study. Rather, in our tradition, these are matters for civil society, for our autonomous culture and especially for our autonomous institutions of higher learning.

I am arguing that responsibility for the pursuit and development of philosophical studies in Britain has been, and should remain, with the academic community and the republic of letters. The role and responsibility of the Government is rightly very limited. In essence, in this century, that role has been to levy the taxpayer to provide public support for the work of our universities and colleges. That support is not, and I hope never will be, directed by the Government in such a highly specific way as will require the Government to develop their own policy about, for example, the academic study of philosophy.

It would not be appropriate for the Government, in the light of what I am saying, to take up a position on the case of an individual such as has been raised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North. Our role is simply to provide financial support for the republic of letters on whatever scale seems appropriate and within the limits of affordability—a central matter of political argument. We do that. After the Netherlands Britain spends the highest proportion in Western Europe of national product on higher education. Conditions in our universities and colleges in terms of, for example, the staff-student ratio are among the most generous in the world.

I recognise the force of what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, is saying—that all is not well today in the study of philosophy in Britain. We recognise that. On the credit side, however, it is worth observing that the number of students who study philosophy as their main subject has risen from 1,296 in 1979 to 1,349 in 1986. The number of new entrants to philosophy courses has increased by 9.3 per cent. during the same period. That is an impressive increase.

I suppose it could be said that there is a debit side, in that the number of academics who teach philosophy has dropped from 425 in 1981–82 to about 374 in 1986. It would be fair for me to say, however, that there are probably about as many full-time philosophers practising in 1988 as there were during the whole of the 17th and 18th centuries, when Britain made her greatest contribution so far in this branch of study.

At the same time as the quite small, but nevertheless significant, reduction in the number of staff who are teaching philosophy, accompanied by a substantial increase in the number of students of philosophy—what in industry would be regarded as an improvement in efficiency—there has been a weakening in the processes of academic renewal. This is the most important problem. There has been a steady rise in the average age of our academic philosophers, and there have been few opportunities for new entrants to bring new blood and, perhaps, we hope, new ideas to the study of the subject.

There has been a tendency, from which I do not think the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North escaped, to approach this problem mainly in terms of blaming. There are those who say, and I think that the hon. Gentleman said it, that the problem would never have arisen if the Government had poured in the money—taxpayers' money—to keep everything going at its highest possible level to enable people to recruit their successors at the highest possible level.

I have to reply, quite smartly, that resources have always been limited—even when the hon. Gentleman supported a Government of his own persuasion. I have already demonstrated that resources continue to be generously provided, but the central point of my speech is that matters remain as they always have been. It is the responsibility of the academic community to sustain and carry forward the disciplines it professes, of which it is the custodian and with which it has been charged.

In short, responsibility for the effective management of the resources that are available for higher study cannot be evaded. It is not for me, a member of the Government, to specify the measures of which more effective management will consist. These matters are the responsibility of our autonomous, self-governing and self-directing academic institutions.

I should like to say something about some of the features which, happily, are emerging and to which the hon. Gentleman referred. First, there is a recognition that the more effective stewardship of the public resources provided for scholarship require a reduction in the job protections that have built up excessively—notably during the 1960s, when too little regard was paid to these matters.

I must say in response to the hon. Gentleman's quotations of overseas critics of our abolition of strict academic tenure—I say it charitably—that they struck me as typically ill-informed. Recognition of the need to reduce the level of job protections is reflected in the Education Reform Act, as I think I may now call it. It is this morning that Her Majesty signs it or, rather, I believe, taps it with a wand saying, "La Reine le veult." That need is also reflected in the policies that are now being pursued by universities and colleges, which are seeking greater flexibility. They are reviewing the quality of their academic staff. I hope the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting that that is not a relevant consideration. They are also reviewing their priorities in teaching and research.

I should like to offer my congratulations to the University of Hull and its vice-chancellor on the determined and effective way in which they are attempting to tackle their problems.

A second feature of this more effective stewardship by the academic community has been the recognition that the health of certain branches of study depends not only on institutional pluralism and initiative—these are important considerations, to which I fear the hon. Gentleman's proposals pay too little regard—but on such features as the size of academic departments, or what might be called their critical mass, their relationship with other departments, and the condition of a branch of study when viewed in a national perspective. That is the basis of the series of subject reviews that have been launched by the University Grants Committee. Those reviews are being carried out by the academic community, as is appropriate to the philosophy that I have set out, and they aim at the nationwide redeployment of resources between institutions, to enhance the overall quality of our national contributions to each subject.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North told the House that it had recently been decided that philosophy should be the subject of one of the reviews. It was set up in March under the chairmanship of Professor Hepburn of the University of Edinburgh. The House and the Government will want to wish Professor Hepburn and his colleagues well in their sensitive and important task. We look forward to their considered conclusions.

It has sometimes been said that the Government have an exclusively utilitarian and materialistic approach to higher education. There was more than a hint of that in the speeches of the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, North and for Derbyshire, North-East. That accusation is often associated with a good deal of muddled thinking. Do those who make that accusation think that considerations of utility and return on investment should have no place in the Government's thinking about how to make best use of taxpayers' money?

If it is accepted that such considerations are appropriate and relevant, on what principles would those who assail us propose to establish a balance between the values of utility and other values that we all agree to be important? As one who has tried to think as deeply as I can about these matters, I do not believe that our critics could do better than we have done, but I have an interest in making that assertion. Perhaps the most convincing statement that I can make in the Government's defence is that for my part I should be happy to remit the question to the highest court of philosophy.