HL Deb 23 February 1854 vol 130 cc1124-33

My Lords, I have to ask the indulgence of your Lordships for trespassing upon your time, in order to make a short statement in connection with a question which I now wish to put to Her Majesty's Government, and which I had no intention whatever of asking until this day. Neither would your Lordships have been troubled with either the statement or the question, had not my attention been directed to a conversation which took place yesterday in another place with reference to the important subject of University Reform, the nature of which I learned from the newspapers this morning, and which is calculated to have considerable influence upon the deliberations of the meeting of Convocation, appointed to be held to-morrow. I hope your Lordships will excuse any irregularity of which I may appear to be guilty, in putting this question without having given any previous notice that it was my intention to do so, inasmuch as I was, until to-day unaware of the nature of the conversation to which I refer, and inasmuch as if I did not now put a question to the Government upon the subject, it would be impossible that that effect would be obtained in connection with the deliberations of Convocation to-morrow, by either my question or the answer of Her Majesty's Minister, which it is desirable to produce. I understand that a declaration was made in another place, yesterday, upon the part of Her Majesty's Government, that it was not their intention to advise Her Majesty to assent to the proposed petition for alterations to be made in the governing body of the Universities, which has to be submitted to Convocation to-morrow. Your Lordships must be aware that the only mode of effecting an alteration in what are called the Caroline Satutes in the Universities unless some interposition of Parliament—a course to be deprecated—were to be resorted to, is by petitioning the Crown and by asking its assent to those alterations. Now, the only means by which a petition can be presented by the Universities to the Sovereign is, in the first place, by obtaining for it the assent of the governing body, and then procuring the concurrence in its prayer of the University at large. When I speak of the University at large, your Lordships will bear in mind that Convocation includes all the members of the University, whether they be resident or non-resident, above the rank of a master of arts. Convocation consequently includes all ranks, classes, and denominations; and the expression of the opinion, therefore, of Convocation upon any particular subject, must be regarded as the expression of the sentiments of the University at large Well, shortly after the report of the Commission which had been appointed by Her Majesty to inquire into the state of the Universities appeared—I shall say nothing now with regard to the mode in which that Commission was appointed, nor with regard to the peculiar disadvantages under which the University of Oxford laboured in consequence of the exparte nature of the statements which characterised the evidence given before that Commission—but shortly after their report appeared, Her Majesty's Government announced it to be their intention not immediately to act upon that report; expressed themselves as being desirous of being informed, in the first instance, what course the Universities themselves were prepared to take in reference to the contemplated reform, and as being perfectly ready to postpone any attempt at legislation upon the subject until the opinions of the Universities with reference to it should have been ascertained. The University of Oxford did not lose any time in taking into its consideration the very important questions which had been raised by the report of the Commissioners, and in the course of last year a deputation from the Hebdomadal Board entered seriatim into the several parts of which that report was composed. Some vivâ voce evidence was taken by that deputation, but it conducted its investigation principally upon the principle of requiring written answers to written statements. By these means they had succeeded in eliciting the opinions upon the several points set forth in the report of Her Majesty's Commissioners of some of the most distinguished members of the University. They subsequently made a report to the Hebdomadal Board of their proceedings, which report contained at full length the whole of the evidence which had been adduced by means of their investigation. That report was printed on the 5th of December last, shortly before the close of term. It occupies a thick octavo volume, and in it the various subjects connected with the important question of University reform are dilated upon with great ability and great skill. On the 12th of December, an official letter, which has been since produced by the direction of Parliament, was written by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, in which it was stated that Her Majesty's Government were desirous, in the first place, of ascertaining what measures for the alteration and improvement of their present constitution the different colleges were prepared to recommend; and, in the second place, what interposition of the Legislature they deemed necessary in order to carry those measures into effect. That letter reached me about the 14th of December, and, in acknowledging its receipt, I mentioned to the Secretary for the Home Department what were my own individual opinions upon the subject, and expressed a hope that the measure about to be introduced by the Government into Parliament, in connection with University reform, would be of such a character as to give the greatest possible latitude to the free and untrammelled action of the Universities themselves, in their endeavour to remove the Obstacles which stood in the way of their improvement, and that no arbitrary enactment would be forced upon their acceptance by the Government, or any undue interference attempted to be made with reference to the internal management of their affairs. In the letter to which I refer a request was conveyed that the fullest information should be given by the Heads of the University upon the different points connected with their position and condition, as well as their recommendations with regard to the steps necessary to be taken for their contemplated reform, in order that such information may enable the Government to advise Her Majesty as to what course it was desirable to adopt upon that important question, in the month of February. The letter of the Secretary for the Home Department I received, as I before stated, on the 14th of December, just at the end of term, and I lost no time in transmitting it to the Hebdomadal Board for their consideration at their next meeting. On the 19th of December, within a week after that meeting had taken place, I had an official communication from the Hebdomadal Board with respect to the report of the Commissioners. In that communication the members of the Board apologised for not entering into the entire subject as dealt with in the report, and for not being able to give any authoritative decision upon a matter so important; they conveyed to me, however, the assurance that they would take the earliest possible opportunity to take the whole question into consideration; and having transmitted to Her Majesty's Government the report of their delegates, which had not been approved of by the Board, they at the same time expressed their hope and belief that in the course of the month of January they would be enabled to procure from the different colleges all the information which the Government required. In the month of January I received official communications from the various colleges and from the Vice Chancellor of the University, in which were set forth the various plans for the modifications of their rules and system, for carrying which into effect the members of those colleges were desirous of obtaining the assistance and the co-operation of Parliament. All those communications I immediately transmitted to the Secretary for the Home Department, in order that the Government might have the earliest information on the subject to which they referred. Shortly after the Christmas recess the Hebdomadal Board met together for the consideration of that question which was the basis of everything else, and without which it was impossible to take any further steps—namely, what alteration of the constitution of the governing body in the University should be recommended to Convocation for the purpose of obtaining its approval, and should subsequently be presented to Her Majesty's Government for the purpose of obtaining, through them, the assent of the Sovereign? I think your Lordships will see that until that important question, what was to be the nature of the governing body, was decided upon by the Board, and until their decision had obtained the sanction of the Crown, it would be idle to enter into the consideration of the various questions relating to the internal management of the University itself, in the case of a body which was contemplating a material alteration in its own constitution. The decision of the Hebdomadal Board in reference to the important question of their own reform was communicated to me upon the 11th of the present month. Now, I think your Lordships will be of opinion that upon a subject so important—a subject involving changes so extensive—the Board could not have used greater despatch without having laid themselves open to the charge of undue haste and precipitation. Upon the 11th the Government received information of the conclusion at which the Hebdomadal Board had arrived, with reference to the petition which they wished to present, and that petition was forwarded to me, and duly presented upon Monday, the 13th. At that time; the consideration of the question which had been introduced by Her Majesty's Government with respect to University reform was fixed for the following Monday, the 20th; and it was considered by the Board to be a matter of very 'great importance, that, before the announcement of the Government measure, the Universities, as Universities, should be afforded an opportunity of expressing their free and unbiassed opinions with respect to the contemplated alterations. But in order to bring this subject under the notice of Convocation upon the following Friday, the 17th ultimo, it became necessary to give the petition the Hebdomadal Board recommended upon Monday, the 13th, the necessary publicity, in order that the members of Convocation might be aware that they would be called upon to deliberate upon it. The period of notice thus given was, your Lordships will observe, extremely short. Upon Monday, the 13th, before I received the copy of the petition, a member of the University, one of its most eminent professors—a gentleman with whom I have had no personal communication for the last forty years—came up to London, and held communication, in the first instance, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with whom I believe he is on terms of considerable intimacy. The object of that communication was to represent to the right hon. Gentleman how extremely short the time was which then remained to obtain the decision of Convocation, and how desirable it was that the Government measure should be postponed until their decision should have been clearly and fully pronounced. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, upon the part of Government, assented to the rev. gentleman's request for a postponement of the measure of the Government; but at the same time intimated that the Universities should not be put in a worse position, for the purpose of communicating with the Government, than that in which they then stood, in consequence of having lost the time for giving notice. The rev. gentleman said he had no power to make any stipulation with respect to the prior information to be given to Her Majesty's Ministers. But I, being desirous that no disposition to concealment, however slight, should be attributed to the Universities, took upon myself the responsibility to make a proposition to the effect that if the petition were placed in my hands, it should be forthwith presented by me to the Government—not, however, as being that upon which the University had definitively agreed, but as a petition proposed by the Hebdomadal Board and submitted by them to the notice of Convocation. Now I think it was not unreasonable that a postponement for a week of the Government measure should be asked by the Board, in order that Convocation might be summoned. That postponement, as I have already mentioned, was assented to by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and to-morrow the period of notice given for the meeting of Convocation will have expired. Now, the Vice Chancellor of Oxford called on me on the evening of Monday, the 13th. I saw him about nine o'clock on that evening, and received from him the petition, which was, upon the very next day, placed in the hands of the Secretary of State for the Home Department. On the following Thursday, upon my return home from your Lordships' House, I received a long letter from the Secretary for the Home Department, in which he informed me that Her Majesty's Government had taken into their consideration the proposed petition, and he expressed his regret that they felt it to be their duty to dissent from the scheme which the Board had framed, and that they were thus precluded from advising Her Majesty to give her consent to the propositions which it contained. I was, I confess, somewhat surprised at the announcement which was made in that letter; because, in presenting the petition of the Board to the Government, I had studiously abstained from asking them to state whether they regarded it with feelings of approval or of disapprobation—that the letter contained objections on the part of the Crown, not stated in detail, but objecting to the plan generally. I sat up to a late hour on Thursday evening, for the purpose of making as fully and as speedily as possible a communication to the Board, and that communication I despatched early upon the following morning, and also wrote in my own name a short answer to the letter of the Secretary fur the Home Department. On Friday last the question was again taken into consideration by the Board, and some amendments in the form of the petition were introduced; but it became necessary to promulgate that petition on Friday, for the purpose of giving due notice to Convocation that they would be required to deliberate upon it. The Hebdomadal Board, therefore, had received, their Lordships would observe, the information of the dissent of the Government to their proposition, without any intimation as to the views which they themselves entertained upon the subject of University reform. On Friday the Board were obliged to promulgate their petition, and the result was, that not I being able, in consequence of the shortness of time, to withdraw the notice which they had already given for the meeting of Convocation, they had to promulgate their petition without being able to introduce into it, as it originally was intended, any material alteration. It had been proposed to make one or two changes in the petition, and also to divide the subjects with which it dealt into two or three different heads, in order that the various questions might come as far as possible in a separate shape under the notice of Convocation, and that they might be able to pass their opinion upon the merits of the plan on their own independent sense of what was best for the interests of the University, and unbiassed by the assent or dissent of the Government. That object is now frustrated. Her Majesty's Government had thought fit to intimate their dissent in the first instance to the propositions which had emanated from the Board, and their intention in the next place to proceed with their own measure, without giving Convocation any power to do that which they admitted it was desirable they should do—namely, to submit to the consideration of the Legislature a scheme of their own. I think it would not have been too much to expect that Her Majesty's Government, when they intimated their dissent to the proposals of the Board, should have stated what course it was in their opinion advisable that the Board should take, and which, if they did take, they would obtain the assent of the Government. Such a mode of dealing with the question would, at all events, have preserved to that body the appearance of independent action; but the present position of the question was this: the petition of the Board will be submitted to Convocation to-morrow, with the knowledge upon their part that they have no power whatsoever to make any alterations in it; that they can merely say aye or no; not with a knowledge of what the Government desired, but with the knowledge that, whatever they might agree to would not receive the assent of the Government. Now, my Lords, I contend that that is not the fair way of putting the question before the University, or of obtaining the independent judgment of the University upon it. I do not suppose that such has been the object of the Government; but certainly no course could have been taken which would have been more effective for rendering it impossible for the University to agree upon a petition for any scheme of reform, and thus for enabling the Government to say that, as the University could not agree, it had become necessary for the Government themselves to prepare a measure. Had it not been for the announcement which has been made by the Government, I should have been quite content to leave the question in the state in which it stands. The Hebdomadal Board have made known what they are about to propose; the Convocation would have been asked whether they assent to it; the petition would have been decided upon by the independent voice of Convocation, and it would then have rested with the Crown to decide whether it will assent to the petition or not. At all events, we should have had the independent opinion of the University, and Parliament and the Government would have been free to act upon that opinion. But the course which has been taken renders it necessary that I should put a question to the noble Earl at the head of the Government. The University, I believe, has not been slow in their desire to meet the wishes of the Government, and they have afforded to the Government every information which it was possible for them to give, both with regard to the University and the colleges. That information with regard to the colleges the Government has been in possession of for nearly a month; and they have also been informed that the main object of the University is to obtain a permissive power to alter the Carolian statutes. As the Government have thought fit to dissent from the proposal which is about to be made to Convocation, and by anticipation to condemn the scheme; I am entitled to ask if the Government will undertake, before giving publicity to their own scheme for any alteration of the statutes of the University, to make an official communication to the University, so that the University may, in an official and recognised manner, take such proposal into consideration, in order to see how far it will, in their opinion, conduce to the benefit of the University; or will they leave it to the University to learn, for the first time, from the reports of what takes place in Parliament, what the scheme of the Government is for the regulation of the future government of the University, and for effecting a change in all the institutions, habits, and mode of government of that body? Is the noble Earl prepared to state that, having disapproved of the measure which has been submitted to them in the first instance, the Government will communicate to the University, previously to bringing it before Parliament, the mea- sure which, in their opinion, should be introduced to effect these great changes?


, who was almost inaudible, was understood to state that he could not undertake to promise that Her Majesty's Government would officially communicate to the Hebdomadal Board before submitting to Parliament the measure upon which they might finally agree with respect to the Universities. As at present advised, it was certainly not their intention to make such a communication of that measure to the Universities. Anything in the nature of deliberation was out of the question in Convocation, which had no power to do more than say "yes" or "no" to the propositions of the Hebdomadal Board—except, indeed, that any gentleman might, if he wished, make a Latin speech; and the only additional information which the Government would have obtained by waiting until after the proceedings in Convocation, would therefore have been whether that body assented to or dissented from the propositions of the Board.