§ 4.20 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, with the permission of the House, I should like now to repeat a Statement about the recommendations of the Special Report of the Public Accounts Committee on "Parliament and Control of University Expenditure" which has just been made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science in another place. It is as follows:
"As the House will recall, the Committee unanimously recommended that the Comptroller and Auditor General should be given access to the books and records of the University Grants Committee and the universities.
"The Government accept this recommendation. They share the view of the Committee that this large item of Government expenditure, which has risen over the last twenty years from £4 million per annum to well over £200 million can no longer continue to be the sole major exception to the 975 normal requirements of Parliament regarding scrutiny and report by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Accordingly I shall make it, from January 1, 1968, a condition of grant to universities that their books and records in respect of grant should be open to the inspection of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The same will apply to the books and records of the University Grants Committee. The Accounting Officer arrangements will remain as at present.
"The Government do not propose to alter the present well-tried and flexible arrangements for financing universities by the capital grants and block recurrent grants made available and distributed on the advice of an independent University Grants Committee. We shall therefore preserve the present system by which block grants are allocated to universities by the U.G.C. with the consequent freedom of discretion on the part of universities as to how they should be spent. It is no part of the Comptroller and Auditor General's duty to question policy decisions or decisions reached on academic grounds. His function is to comment and advise on the propriety, regularity and efficiency with which monies voted by Parliament are administered by those to whom they are entrusted.
"The P.A.C. recommended that steps should be taken, in consultation with the universities, to devise suitable procedural conventions and to explain to the universities what would be involved. Besides having the advice of the University Grants Committee, I have already had consultations with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Association of University Teachers. Further steps will now be taken to carry out this recommendation.
"The existence of an independent check on how the universities spend public money should serve to reassure Parliament and the public. It need not infringe the academic freedom of the universities. It does not denote any lack of confidence in the existing system whereby the University Grants Committee stands as a 'buffer' between the Government and the universities. It was in this spirit that the P.A.C.
976 made its recommendations. It is in this spirit that the Government accept them."
My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.
§ LORD ABERDARE
My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Earl the Leader of the House for repeating this important Statement on university accountability. We should all wish to consider it at much greater length, particularly in detail, when the matter has been worked out as a result of further consideration. All Parties in this country have been proud hitherto of the system that has evolved, of capital grants and recurrent block grants to universities, on the advice of the University Grants Committee, and all of us much admire the work that has been done by that Committee.
It would be disastrous if, as a result of this action, there were to spring up at universities a host of accountants who would be looking over the shoulders of university teachers and inhibiting their freedom of action. I am sure that all of us are jealous of the independence that the universities have hitherto enjoyed and would wish to see it preserved so far as possible. On the other hand, as the noble Earl has pointed out, a great deal of public money is involved and no doubt it is right that this should be subjected to a measure of supervision. But I would suggest that when a line is drawn, it is drawn with every sympathy for the universities and so as to allow every possible freedom to them.
I would ask the noble Earl one question, if I may. The Statement mentioned that consultations have already been held with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and with the Association of University Teachers. May I ask what was the outcome of these consultations and what was the attitude of the Committee and the Association to this proposal?
§ LORD BYERS
My Lords, of course there can be no objection in principle to scrutiny on the part of Parliament of expenditure of this amount. If I heard the noble Earl correctly, he referred to the Comptroller and Auditor General advising on the propriety with which monies are administered. May I take it that there is no intention of curbing the 977 freedom of universities to make their own policy decisions and that what is sought is to get value for money within the decisions which are taken by the universities themselves?
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, may I thank both noble Lords for their comments and say that the noble Lord, Lord Byers, summed up the object of these developments admirably, even better than I could have done. I agree with him and with the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, that it is essential that the full independence of the universities should be maintained. As many noble Lords know, I have been a university teacher, and so has the present Secretary of State for Education, and I think your Lordships may be assured that the full independence of the universities is as dear to the present Government as it would be to any Government in this country.
§ LORD BUTLER OF SAFFRON WALDEN
My Lords, are we to understand from the noble Earl that in future the grants made to the various universities by the University Grants Committee will not come under the control of the Comptroller and Auditor General? In the second place, I should like to thank the noble Earl for the spirit in which he has made this Statement, although I think he knows perfectly well that I gave evidence against this proposal before the Public Accounts Committee. If it can be interpreted in the spirit in which the noble Earl announced it, at least it will be better than we had hoped.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, I feel that these observations, coming from a noble Lord who has risen much higher than I in both the political and the academic worlds, are particularly acceptable. The phrase I used in the Statement says simply thatthe Comptroller and Auditor General should be given access to the books and records of the University Grants Committee and the universities.Further on the Statement says that the Secretary of State,shall make it … a condition of grant to universities that their books and records in respect of grant should be open to the inspection of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The same will apply to the books and records of the University Grants Committee.978 That is the Statement, but I should emphasise that the procedures which will be worked out will be executed in collaboration with the universities. That will be regarded as an important point in the exercise. Once again I repeat my gratitude to all noble Lords, and particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Saffron Walden.
§ LORD CHORLEY
My Lords, I think that my noble friend overlooked the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, the spokesman for the Conservative Opposition, asked him a question, which he did not answer, about the reactions of the Vice-Chancellors' Committee and of the Association of University Teachers to this proposal. It ought to be made clear to your Lordships that the Universities are very worried about this and that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the University Teachers' Association, which speaks for the vast majority of university teachers, are very much afraid that the inevitable result of this will be some curtailment of the independence of British universities, which has been one of our proudest heritages.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, I am sorry that I did not answer the question put to me. It is not usual on these occasions, as noble Lords and former Ministers are aware, to disclose the advice which is given by the university bodies concerned. Therefore, I do not feel at liberty to say what they are now saying, or what I believe them to be saying, to the Government. In fact, certain evidence was given on behalf of the universities which has been published, and that is within the knowledge of the House. As regards the university bodies of whose views I am informed, I think it would be wrong to say that they are refusing to acquiesce or, indeed, are actively opposing this.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
My Lords, may I first of all announce that I have an interest in this matter as the treasurer and finance committee chairman of one of the new universities. Can my noble friend tell me how he reconciles two expressions that he used: first, that the universities will retain full independence; and, secondly, that the propriety of any expenditure that they incur will be subject to comment by the Auditor General. Does he not feel that the whole effect 979 of this will inhibit universities, and particularly the academic bodies, from embarking on projects which involve some courage and boldness, but at the same time involve some risk?
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, I really do beg noble Lords to dispel these fears. When I was a university tutor, which I was for a good many years, the only fear we had of the Government was that they would send an inspector who would find out what we were doing with the money. There is no question of that under these proposals. I do not think that any university tutors, if there be any in the House, need be worried about that possibility. There is no danger to academic freedom in this. If noble Lords do not want to take it from me particularly, let them look at the names of those on the Public Accounts Committee, among whom Mr. Boyd-Carpenter, an old Treasury Minister of the Conservative Party, is perhaps the best known. I do not think that we need fear any sort of creeping socialism about this, or any threat to academic freedom of any kind.
§ LORD WYNNE-JONES
My Lords, I think my noble friend the Leader of the House misunderstands the nature of the criticism on behalf of universities of this sort of control. It is not the fear that a single tutor in a university may be directed as to how he is to do his teaching. It is rather that the overall policy of the university may be affected: in other words, the way in which a university may look forward to its development in the future. This, I think, is a much more serious matter, and I do not think my noble friend dealt with this.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, I realise that no words of mine are going to dispel in a few magical moments any academic fears. I should like to repeat something I have already said, and to say one other thing that perhaps I should have said. I repeat that this official, the Comptroller and Auditor General, will have no say in policy. I have said that once, but I say it again. Therefore, if noble Lords will look at this Statement closely, they will see that policy cannot be affected, whether high policy or small policy.
There is one other point which I should perhaps make in reply to the 980 noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, who asked me whether independence was really going to be possible at all once the Comptroller and Auditor General was allowed to look into the way this money is spent. The universities have hitherto been an exception. When grants-in-aid represent the major source of economy of an organisation, this is an automatic procedure. As I say, the universities have hitherto been an exception. No one can seriously argue that all the other bodies that have been inspected in this way have had their freedom interfered with. The universities have enjoyed a special privilege in the past, but this all-Party body of Members of Parliament, bearing in mind this tremendous increase of £4 million to £200 million in the taxpayers' money that goes to universities, and the fact that 70 per cent. of the current expenditure and 90 per cent. of the capital expenditure comes from the taxpayer, has come to the conclusion that this change must be made.
§ LORD ANNAN
My Lords, is my noble friend the Leader of the House aware that, while it is true that the majority of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, and the A.U.T., are probably opposed to and have given evidence against this, nevertheless there is a minority that has always understood that this was on the cards, and that probably in the course of time, owing to increased expenditure, it was bound to come. I think that some of us, while regarding it not with enthusiasm, feel very much like Gibbon did when as a young man he was forbidden by his father to marry, and he said:I sighed as a lover, but I obeyed as a son.We in the universities shall, of course, obey, and do all we can to co-operate. But we sigh, because it will inevitably mean that we shall have to have some extra finance officers at a time when we are hoping to make appointments for people to teach research. But so long as this is carried out in the spirit in which the Leader of the House has indicated—and the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has given such warm and graceful support to this Statement—and that is the spirit in which the Public Accounts Committee will operate, it may 981 be that in the course of time some of the fears will be allayed.
§ THE EARL OF LONGFORD
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who speaks with such high authority on academic matters. His reference to Gibbon conjures up a small classical tag, one of the few left to me, and I simply say to him: O! si sic omnia.