HL Deb 28 June 1836 vol 34 cc989-98
Viscount Melbourne

said, a number of petitions had been presented on the Universities Scotland Bill, and he would therefore propose that the House should resolve itself into a Committee pro forma on this Bill, when some alterations might be made in it; and that the Bill should be reprinted, in order to allow time for full consideration. He hoped there would be no objection to this course.

The Earl of Aberdeen

said, that this measure had created a great sensation in Scotland, not unaccompanied by considerable alarm. From the allegations of the petitions which he had seen, he thought the measure had been much misunderstood, and he believed that the intentions of those who had brought it forward, had not been properly appreciated. He looked on the present Bill as a measure for carrying into effect the recommendations made by the visitors appointed by Royal Commission some years ago, and whose Report had been on their Lordships' Table six years, without any measure having been taken to carry into effect the suggestions contained in it. These visitors were eminently entitled to the confidence of the country; they had been occupied several years in the examination of the University system in Scotland, and they finally made a Report, embracing every subject submitted to their inquiries. As he had been a member of that Commission, and concurred generally in the Report, he felt it impossible for him, in consistency and honour, to object to a Bill which professed to carry into execution the very measures he had himself recommended. The petitions complained that the Boards to be constituted by this Bill, for carrying into effect the suggestions of the Commission, were, in fact, to be the governing heads of the Universities; and they objected, very naturally, to those institutions being placed under the control of persons whom they conceived to be armed with arbitrary and despotic power. This was entirely a mistake. The Universities were to be placed under the superintendence of a University Court, framed in conformity with the suggestions of the Commission appointed by his Majesty. He had taken the liberty, on a former occasion, of suggesting to the noble Viscount the great importance of appointing such persons as Royal visitors, who should possess and deserve the confidence of the Crown, The apprehensions entertained on this head were so universal, that the petitioners seemed to expect that the Universities would be placed under the control of persons who might be Dissenters, men of any religion or no religion, or animated with the most hostile spirit towards these institutions. He did not consider it as any great stretch of candour on his part to say, that he believed those apprehensions to be unfounded. He did not mean to defend noble Lords opposite, or to express unlimited confidence in them, but he thought it impossible that they could entertain the deliberate intention of poisoning the fountains of knowledge by any such proceeding. From the declarations of the noble Viscount, he could not entertain any doubt that it was his intention that those appointments should be of such a character as was essential to their giving satisfaction. But he must say, that unreasonable and unfounded as he thought those apprehensions, he could not, with truth, declare that they were very unnatural. When the people of Scotland recollected the manner in which the Established Church Commission, issued last year, was composed, and that the noble Viscount had thought it necessary, that not only the Dissenters, but those who were opposed to the very existence of an Establishment, should be represented in it—he could not regard those apprehensions as entirely without cause; and if the noble Viscount thought that he would redeem his pledge, by appointing men to the Commission who were unfriendly to Universities, and hostile to endowments for the purposes of education, he could not admit that the noble Viscount was justified in that opinion. He thought that the practical working of the proposed measure would depend mainly on the constitution of the University Court and he could not too deeply impress this on the noble Viscount. He would only now generally describe the amendments he intended to produce in the Bill and which appeared to him, calculated to improve the Bill, and tranquillize many existing apprehensions. The first and most important amendment was rendered necessary by the entire silence of the Bill on the subject, and the general fears entertained for the security of the connexion between the Universities and Church. He proposed to introduce a clause to this effect:—"Provided that nothing in this Act shall be held to alter or affect the rights, privileges, control or superintendence at present exercised or which may lawfully be claimed to be exercised, by the Church of Scotland, the General Assembly, Synods, or Presbyteries of the Church, over any of the Universities and Colleges of Scotland." He should certainly be the last man in the House to agree to this or any other Bill which could have the effect of severing the connexion, or weakening in any way the control and influence which the Church at present possessed over the education of the country. The next amendment would be to prevent the Boards of Visitors proposed to be constituted from interfering with the details of University discipline, and to confine their functions to the distribution and management of the property and funds of the University, having regard always to the charters and foundations under which the Universities acquired and held that property. The next amendment would be to limit the right of appeal to this Court conferred by the Bill to sentences of expulsion, dismission, or suspension, in the curriculum of study pursued. By another amendment he would propose to limit the duration of the Commission of Visitation to three years, instead of five; for he could not conceive that more time could be required to accomplish all the objects of the Bill, and carry into effect the suggestions contained in the Commissioners' Report. He considered that the preamble of the Bill clearly pointed out the duties of this Board. It stated, "Whereas it is expedient that the alterations and improvements proposed in the Report, applicable to the said Universities, should be gradually carried into effect, with such modifications as may seem expedient to the visitors to be appointed for these purposes." The foundation of their proceedings should be the Report of the Commission to which he had alluded, and among the Members of which were ministers of the Church of Scotland, fully competent to give advice on the practical details of education. These were the chief amendments he thought it necessary to introduce; but he should be happy to support others, if any should be made calculated to render the Bill wholly unexceptionable. There were one or two points on which, though they had been much discussed, he would refrain from giving a decided opinion; but he must advert to that portion of the Bill which deprived the professors in some Universities of the right they possessed at present of electing to vacancies in professorships as they occurred. He believed he was not in error when he said, that this was the only provision of the Bill which rendered an Act of Parliament necessary, as the prerogative of the Crown was sufficient to carry into effect all the recommendations of the Commission with this single exception. This was a subject on which there was great difference of opinion, and he did not mean now to give any decided judgment as to whether the appointment to professorships should continue with those who now held the right, or be vested in the Crown; but it was a point well worthy of consideration. This was perhaps the only point on which the Commissioners did not specifically report their opinion, and therefore, instead of finally deciding on the abolition of the present system of patronage, he should propose that the Board of visitors should be required to make a special report on this subject, and on the practices prevailing with regard to it in each University. Whether the present custom were right or wrong, it was one deserving of the most serious inquiry. It had been suggested, that instead of the four Boards proposed by the Bill, there should be one Central Board of Visitation similar to the Commission issued by his right hon. Friend (Sir R. Peel) when Secretary of State for the Home Department. He was however, inclined to think that the separate Boards, as proposed in the Bill, would be more convenient; though, if a central Board would give more satisfaction to persons interested, he did not see why it should not be adopted. The great sensation and even disapprobation excited in all quarters by the very attempt to reform the Scotch Universities was such, that he had pleasure in stating that he had that day received a letter from a noble Lord whose absence from that House all must lament, particularly when matters connected with Scotland were under discussion, and one equally distinguished for the soundness of his judgment and the moderation of his opinions (Lord Melville, we believed), expressing his general approval of the measure. He thought it right to state this, as the noble Lord was as little disposed to put confidence in noble Lords opposite as himself. In conclusion, the noble Earl said, he should have no objection to have the Bill reported pro forma, in order to its being recommitted.

Viscount Melbourne

said, that however well founded the noble Earl might think the apprehensions entertained by the people of Scotland regarding the constitution of the Boards of Visitation, he must beg leave to remark that he could not admit the justice of the observations which he had made on the Commission appointed, in the last session of Parliament, to enquire into the state of the Church of Scotland. He thought that the clamour and invective in which many eminent members of that Church considered it decent to indulge against that Commission had been sufficiently answered by the manner in which it had discharged its duties. He must declare, that in his opinion any report they might make, any advice they might give, and any recommendations in which they might agree, would be infinitely more likely to be satisfactory to the people of Scotland and to the country, and infinitely more likely to be effectual with Parliament, than those of any Commission appointed in the exclusive manner which the noble Earl would have wished to see adopted. With respect to the authority proposed to be given to the Ministers by this Bill, he could only say that he felt no eagerness to obtain it. It was not more the measure of His Majesty's Government than of noble Lords opposite; it was founded on the Report of their Commission, and Ministers had been repeatedly taunted by them for not having brought in a Bill to carry into effect the suggestions of the Commission. If they were so likely to abuse the power conferred on them, they had at least shown no disposition to grasp at it. He would at once declare, that it was his intention to choose such men only to discharge the duty of visitors, as would he best fitted from character and authority to carry into effect the recommendations of the Commissioners. But, although it was his intention to exercise that power duly and rightly, he could not undertake to exercise it satisfactorily, because he knew too well the bitter animosities of politics, the bitter differences of religion, the illiberal feelings towards one another, the hatred and ill-opinion of every body opposed to them, that prevailed unfortunately at the present day in every part of his Majesty's dominions, and not in the least degree in that part of the country to which this measure related, to anticipate any such result.

The Bishop of Exeter

conceiving the Universities of Scotland to be an integral part of the Church of that country [No, no"], or at least to be distinctly under its discipline and control, he thought them placed in a situation which gave the Church a strong interest in their right constitution, and a right to be consulted in any organic reforms which it might be proposed to make in them. They were told that an universal and very strong excitement prevailed on this subject throughout Scotland, and he must say, that he thought those who had petitioned against it had great reason to complain of the manner in which the Bill was introduced. He sincerely believed that those who brought it in had no intention of taking an unfair advantage; but from the very peculiar time at which it was introduced, he would put it to their Lordships, if the best course would not be to refuse to go at present into Committee at all? The Bill had been first heard of in the other House, where a learned Lord had, at the commencement of March, given notice of his intention to introduce a measure similar to that now before them. The learned Lord had sent a copy of the Bill he intended to introduce to each of the Universities, and from all he received strong remonstrances against it, in consequence of which the Bill was withdrawn, and abandoned for the present session at least. It happened, as he understood, that during the month of April and part of May the election of members to the General Assembly of the Church took place; the Assembly itself met on the 20th of May, and sat, he believed, till the 30th when the commission of the Assembly took its place, a body which sat, he was informed, to complete the business that might have been left unfinished during the limited period to which the sittings of the Assembly were confined. The Commission continued till the 3d of June, and during that time the Bill attracted not the least attention. Had it been known that it was intended to renew it, it would have agitated the country from one end to the other, disturbed the tranquillity of the Assembly, and occupied, most undoubtedly, no small share in its deliberations. Now what was the subsequent history of the Bill? Most unfortunately, it happened that the very day on which the Bill was introduced, was the first on which news could be received from Scotland of the conclusion of the sittings of the Commission. Their Lordships, therefore, would not be surprised that a measure supposed to be buried in one House, but which had undergone this extraordinary resurrection in another, had excited so much alarm. He would ask the noble Viscount, if any practical inconvenience would ensue from allowing this measure to stand over till another Session? They were fast approaching the termination of the present, and it was impossible to suppose they could deal with the subject in a manner likely to be satisfactory to the feelings of the people of Scotland, in less than many weeks. Would their Lordships gravely propose to go into this measure, to examine all its details, and consider the arguments advanced in favour of it and against it, in the midst of all the enormous mass of other most portentous business now pressing on them? He really thought that nothing but absolute necessity should induce them to entertain this measure at the present period. He could not understand, since there was no imperative necessity for the measure, why it should be pressed forward against the feelings of the people of Scotland. And he begged to conclude by moving, that the Bill be committed that day six months.

The Earl of Haddington

said, that the Church, the Universities, and the people of Scotland were much indebted to the right rev. Prelate, for the interest he had taken in this Bill. He was sure that the right rev. Prelate had not made his observations, or the motion with which he had concluded, with any view whatever to the prevention of any salutary measure being passed, either in this or any future Session of Parliament, in reference to national education in Scotland. He had heard, with great satisfaction, the noble Viscount state, that it was not his wish or intention to proceed with any undue haste with this Bill. He was, however, himself the more anxious for delay, because he was convinced that the more the matter was examined into, the more it would be found susceptible of such amendments as would finally allay that panic which now existed in Scotland upon this subject. He felt assured that by delay the present excitement would die away, and nothing would remain, except that feeling of distrust as to the composition of the Commission to be appointed by the Crown. That, feeling of distrust never would be. allayed, until the names of the Commissioners appeared before the House and the public. Whenever the Commission did appear, he hoped that the names of the Commissioners would satisfy the public mind. He felt assured that the noble Viscount would make the appointments with perfect fairness and impartiality. He was also satisfied that the learned Lord Advocate, who had the management of this Bill in the other House of Parliament, had no intention to do anything that could tend to injure the just influence and authority of the Church of Scotland over the national education in that country. It was, nevertheless, quite obvious, that if a Board of Commissioners should be created by Parliament, to supersede the authority of the professors in the Universities over that national education, it would occasion an interference with the present course of study established in Scotland, of which the Church of Scotland would have good reason to complain; and he never would consent to anything that could by possibility impair the just influence of the national Church of Scotland over her national Universities. With respect to the motion of the right rev. Prelate, his objection to it was, that it would stop the Bill at a stage when it might receive many improvements. He would therefore suggest to the right rev. Prelate, the propriety of withdrawing his motion, in order that the Bill might go into committee, and be made as complete as possible. His noble Friend had adverted to that power given by the Bill, which he said was the only one which required an Act of Parliament to create, namely, the power that deprived the professors of the patronage which belonged to them. But the Bill did not purport to take from the professors that patronage, it only provided for the gradual abolition of it. He owned that he did not think it a good thing that the instructors of youth should possess such patronage. But the Scotch Universities were established on royal foundation, and were endowed with royal patronage, and he thought it very questionable, whether, under those circumstances, that patronage ought to be taken from them. As at present advised, when the Bill came into Committee, he was much disposed to think he should propose to strike out the clauses relating to this part, of the subject. The noble Viscount had said, that he did not seek for this Bill—that it was not his Bill, but the Bill of the Commissioners: that it was not introduced by the present Govern- ment. Now he (Lord Haddington) begged leave to say, that "the Government never dies." It was the duty of the Secretary of State for the time being, to take up the recommendation, let the administration be whatever it might, of a Commission which had been appointed under the authority of the King. It therefore was the duty of the noble Viscount to bring forward this measure. The noble Earl concluded by expressing a hope that the Bill would be allowed to go on, and that a day might be fixed for its final discussion, subsequent to the day on which the Commission of the General Assembly should meet, which would be in the month of August.

The Bishop of Exeter, for the reasons stated by the noble Earl, begged leave to withdraw his amendment.

The Duke of Wellington

wished to remind the noble Viscount that many of the persons who had petitioned their Lordships upon this subject, were desirous of being heard by counsel against its provisions.

Viscount Melbourne

was understood to say, that the usual time for hearing counsel was before the second reading, but it was competent for their Lordships to hear counsel at any time. With respect to the time of bringing forward the Bill, he begged to say, that the delay had been solely occasioned by his illness, which prevented him from bringing it forward.

The Marquess of Bute

objected to that part of the Bill which went to deprive the professors of their patronage. He must also say, that he preferred one Board of Control to the four Boards recommended by the Bill.

The Marquess of Breadalbane

assured the right rev. Prelate, that he mistook greatly the feelings of the people of Scotland, if he supposed that they did not wish that every abuse existing in the Universities of Scotland should be uprooted; and that the discipline of those fountains and sources of knowledge should be consistent with the state and circumstances of the age in which they lived.

The Bishop of Exeter

assured the noble Marquess that he had not stated anything of the sort. On the contrary, he was fully convinced that not only the people but the Universities of Scotland were anxious that all abuses in those establishments should be removed.

The Duke of Buccleuch

did not understand the right reverend Prelate to have assumed that the feelings of the people of Scotland or of the Universities were against the removal of abuses; but that they were afraid that, in attempting to correct those abuses, many provisions might creep into the Bill, which might be prejudicial to the Universities. He had considerable apprehensions himself as to the effect which the Bill would have in that respect; at the same time, he was perfectly willing that the Bill should go into Committee, pro forma, in order that the amendments to be proposed by his noble Friend might be printed; and if the Bill should not, on the third reading, meet with the approbation of their Lordships or the country, it would then be time enough to move that the Bill should be no further proceeded with. This was not a question of politics nor of party. The only question before them was, how they could most effectually remedy the inconveniences which existed in those Universities, and remove those abuses which might impair their efficiency.

Amendment withdrawn, and the Bill went through the Committee, pro forma.