HL Deb 23 March 1972 vol 329 cc913-34

7.23 p.m.

LORD ANNAN rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether the proposals put forward by the Secretary of State for Education and Science in the Consultative Document on student union financing are still subject to consultation, and whether any other proposals will be entertained. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I find myself in the bizarre position of asking a Question to which I am quite certain I know the answer. I have never doubted for a moment the sincerity of the Secretary of State when she declared that, in issuing the Consultative Document, she was willing to consider other proposals. Perhaps this is just as well because I am bound to say that I have yet to find a friend of the solution put forward in that Document. As your Lordships know, a student union is not as at Oxford or Cambridge, simply a club and a debating society. Through the union nearly all the student clubs, societies, sports, games, entertainments and social activities get their subvention. In some urban institutions many students make little use of union facilities. In other places there is nowhere for them to relax except in the union premises. But in both cases membership has to be compulsory because there would be no way of keeping the non-members out of the bars, club rooms or off the playing fields which the other students would have paid for. That is why some well-meaning people, who want students to be free not to pay a union fee, are under a delusion. It is like saying that you buy a ticket for a cruise but you want part of your money back because you do not intend to play deck tennis. The extremist students, who at the moment are bellowing that student unions should be entirely autonomous, ought to be in favour of voluntary membership—in fact, of course, they dread it—or they ought to welcome the Consultative Document because it gives them one area of total freedom, though it is perfectly true that they will not get much money to play around in that area.

My Lords, let me come to the heart of the matter. What the Government seem to be worried most about is accountability. Are student unions improperly spending the money that they receive largely from fees financed by the taxpayer? The Government seem to think that they are, because the Consultative Document sets out an ingenious scheme for controlling the unions by changing their method of finance. It recommends that student political and cultural activities be financed largely by voluntary contributions and that all union finance should be ostentatiously put in competition with the U.G.C. block grant for teaching and research in the universities, polytechnics or colleges of further education. I do not believe that there is any need to do anything so unwise. Do the Government consider that the constitution of some student unions is too vague and lax so that expenditure can be controlled by a tiny group? If that is the case, let the Department ask the authorities of universities, polytechnics and colleges, and also the National Union of Students to meet them and draw up a model constitution.

One point that everyone dislikes about student unions is the chance that a tiny minority have of taking over the machinery of the union and, through obstructive tactics, passing motions which would never get the support of the whole body of students. Why not then write into the constitution that no decision is binding unless quorum requirements are met? Any member of the union, former as well as present students, should be entitled to demand a count to see whether the meeting is inquorate. The quorum figure, I suggest, should not be less than 5 per cent. of the total student membership. I also venture to suggest that it should be not more than 10 per cent., because if you make it more you will neglect a well known fact of political life. Students are no different from ordinary citizens, and the vast majority of ordinary citizens are uninterested for most of the time in national and local politics. In just the same way, you find in trade unions a reluctance of the membership to turn out and vote on many issues. If you go beyond 10 per cent. for a quorum figure you will turn the general meetings of the unions into more of a farce than they sometimes are and totally defeat the object of the exercise. You may ask, "Will there not still be doubt whether or not payments which have been voted by the general meeting of the union, or by its council, are ultra vires?"

My Lords, I know that there are those in another place who believe that all these problems could be solved by appointing a registrar. I can see that this idea, which appealed to the Select Committee, might seem attractive, but I think it rests on a misapprehension. It is true that a registrar could do what I have suggested that the Department of Education and Science, the universities and colleges could do; namely, frame and approve union constitutions. What a registrar could not do would be to rule on day to day payments and authorisations. That can he done only within the institution itself, and if the institution doubts whether a payment is legitimate, there should be provision within the constitution of the union for the authorities to challenge and delay the payment until arbitration takes place.

I suggest that the arbitrator should not be a registrar who is unlikely to know much about the way institutions of higher education work. What you need, it seems to me, is what is called a "point of reference"—a small group which would be appointed by the Department of Education and Science in consultation with the vice-chancellors, the local authorities and the National Union of Students. This group should arbitrate on all sorts of disputes, from increases in fees, for example, or ultra vires payments, as I mentioned.

Increase of fees brings me to my next point. Increase of course affects local authorities, and the Government's proposals are meant to end the present so-called open-ended commitment which local authorities face. It is an open-ended commitment because any university is free to raise the student union fee unilaterally, and clearly that cannot be permitted to continue. But have universities in fact been raising fees unilaterally and unreasonably? How many local authorities have complained of exorbitant charges? Universities have heard of none, and some have been told by their own local authority that they certainly have not been pressing for a change. I must say frankly that the picture which the Government draw of the local authorities mouthing" No taxation without representation" is somewhat fanciful. Are we really to believe that Sir William Alexander is at this moment dressing up as a Red Indian and intending to prepare for another Boston Tea Party? I really must ask: Do we really have to abandon the principle of the local authorities' supporting their own students? Surely they would be willing to continue to do so provided that the universities agree only to raise fees in consultation with the Association of Education Committees, perhaps on the principle of a graduated rise which would be tied to rises in costs—just as the Tress-Brown Index operates for supplementary grants in U.G.C. finance. I believe that the Local Authorities Association would welcome such a scheme because they genuinely want some ammunition to use with their councillors in order to induce them to grant realistic fees in their unions, in the colleges of further education and the polytechnics and in the colleges of education; and that of course is certainly one of the goals of the National Union of Students.

The universities would have to give the A.E.C. sufficient advance notice so that the local authorities could make the necessary adjustments in their submissions to central Government for additional subventions. Indeed, this would be a positive advantage. Increases in university union finance would then occur at the same time, and be subject to the same rules, as increases in local authority colleges such as the polytechnics. Would the Secretary of State be prepared to think of this as an alternative? There are other reasons, I think, for preferring such an approach to that of the Consultative Document. The split fee proposal would kill so many of the good things that students do: their social work in the community, their support of good causes, their drama, their music clubs; it would kill amusements such as the "Saturday night hop", which is innocent—well, relatively innocent. It would also kill most games and sports, though I must confess here that I have seen a loophole in paragraph 13(iii) of the Consultative Document under which one might be able to squeeze the games and sports clubs in, and avoid their being thrown, as it were, to the mercies of the split fee financing proposals.

All the activities I have mentioned require central funding. That is why almost everyone in higher education dislikes the split fee proposal, and I very much hope it can be dropped. But I readily admit that there is the germ of a really good idea in the Document. It gives all institutions the chance to disentangle what parts of union expenditure ought to be regarded really as part of the university budget; for it may be that the Government are worried that one generation of students might impoverish future generations by selling off property—for instance, playing fields which a few student unions own; but of course most are partly in the control both of the union and of the university or the colleges. Very well then: if that is the fear of the Government, let these premises, the buildings, the recreational facilities and the maintenance of all unions, be vested in the institution and be the institution's responsibility. The vice-chancellors, I know, as a whole dislike the merging of the union fee in the block grant. If I may make my own personal contribution here, I do not dislike it nearly so much. My own colleagues and I have worked a scheme of this kind in a university college without any difficulty at all and it has worked perfectly satisfactorily, and I believe personally that student unions will lose if they are all put on a per capita basis. I well understand that this is not the accepted view and that most universities want a firm per capita grant. But I do not think the universities or the local authority institutions would object to that part of union funds being hived off as I suggested a moment ago.

May I ask another question: are the Government worried that funds will be spent improperly despite the safeguards which I have already suggested? If that were the case, why not ask the professional auditors to certify annually that the union's funds have been spent in accordance with the aims set out in the constitution? Well, even if that fails, let the Government not forget that there is recourse to the courts. The union at the London School of Economics, for example, has been very effectively constrained in its operations by court action. Recourse to the courts is expensive. It cost, I believe, one public-spirited student at Sussex University £1,000 when he challenged in the court the legality of his union's donation to the Bangladesh Relief Appeal. That is why I advocate the point-of-reference scheme.

My Lords, I do not want to be disingenuous. All is not always well with student unions. They do silly things. But you would be surprised how often they learn by their own mistakes. Student unions can fall into the hands of self-righteous, insufferable prigs, who then find themselves outflanked by a tiny number of hooligans and poor, mentally disturbed creatures. But that happens only very rarely. And when it does, of course, vice-chancellors find it difficult to cut an heroic figure, as managing directors do when the workers come out on strike or have a sit-in in a factory. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the university and further education college authorities do all that badly. How many of your Lordships know, for example, of the six weeks' sit-in that took place in the autumn at Reading University, and ended without a single concession to the militants: a situation which was most brilliantly de-fused by the Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Pitt, who is an unassuming but extremely able man, but one who does not care to hit the headlines? When one considers how very little trouble British universities have had compared with those in America or Europe or Japan, it seems to me rather odd that the Government want to interfere in this area. Cannot they trust the good sense of the authorities and the students in both sectors of higher education?

Students demonstrate, and vice-chancellors do not demonstrate; but both students and vice-chancellors realise that what is at stake here is a freedom which student unions have won over many, many years. That freedom is the right to allocate as they see fit their income, within the terms of their constitution. I am sure that the Government would think it entirely proper for a student union to hire ten buses and take their supporters to cheer on their football or rugger team at an away match, provided of course that the payment was authorised according to the rules and constitution of the union. But would the Government agree that, with that proviso, it was just as proper to hire ten buses for students to go somewhere in order to demonstrate on some political or local issue? That is the crux of the matter.

Let me give the noble Lord another instance. A month or so ago the President of the National Union of Students invited the Secretary of State to lunch. He wished to put her to as little inconvenience as possible and therefore, so I am informed, he chose a restaurant just on the other side of Curzon Street. The restaurant is called the Mirabelle. What the bill for the lunch came to is shrouded in decent obscurity. But surely the noble Lord would not be so ungallant as to suggest that here was a misuse of student union funds. And surely he does not think that the time of vice-chancellors or of dons is best spent in checking such payments?

Quite often students say things and do things of which their elders disapprove. The reaction which is all too common on the part of their elders is to stop them doing it. I remember the retort made by that great Oxford don, Sir Maurice Bowra, when someone tried to persuade him to stop some Oxford undergraduates petitioning the Privy Council. He refused. "But why should they?" he was asked. "Because they are entitled to and because they want to", he replied. My Lords, Parliament has made students by law adults. By all means remind them that being adult means accepting responsibilities. But let us treat students as adults.

7.42 p.m.


My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for giving us this opportunity I think I should emphasise that I am speaking to-night not as the pro-chancellor of a university but purely in my own personal capacity. In that capacity I have been worried for a number of months that the Consultative Paper which Mrs. Thatcher issued appears to have an inbuilt bias against students. Clearly, at times, as my noble friend has admitted, some students do foolish things. Some of them are guilty of conduct which can only be condemned and regretted by those of us who believe that a university or a college, above all other institutions, should be a place where points of view can be moderately expressed, with respect for the views and feelings of others, and where reasoned argument and not direct action should be the method of winning support for a case. I can well understand the irritation that some local education authorities may feel from time to time.

I thought that the noble Lord made some most interesting and constructive proposals in that part of his speech, and I hope that they will receive from the Secretary of State for Education and Science the very serious attention they merit. I entirely agree with the noble Lord that we must be careful to retain a sense of proportion. The instances to which exception can legitimately be taken involve a minority of students. I was glad that the noble Lord emphasised this; and while we emphasise the need for proper standards, we must avoid the temptation to over-react to such student misbehaviour as exists. As the noble Lord pointed out, in some instances redress through the courts can already be obtained. I think we must keep our sense of proportion and not be misled into appearing to condemn or to penalise the whole of the student population.

It is perhaps worth reminding your Lordships that when the Southampton Union refused financial support to Right-Wing Conservative groups their action was roundly condemned by the annual conference of the National Union of Students. The words of the annual conference were memorable ones. They said: The expression of any particular opinion, no matter how unorthodox, distasteful or unpopular, should not be inhibited by physical or mental intimidation or in any other way. I am sure that that is the view of the vast majority of students throughout the universities in our country.

I am afraid that Mrs. Thatcher's proposals, in whatever limbo they may be at the moment, cannot have helped to create a climate in which a better relationship can be achieved. The Federation of Conservative Students described the proposals as "authoritarian"; the Committee of Vice-Chancellors said that the Government were preparing an overelaborate structure to deal with a system which was, with some exceptions, working well. And the Daily Mail gave us a salutary reminder. In an editorial it said: The total amount of money available to all student unions in Britain comes to about £3 million. Almost all of it is spent carefully and worthily on clubs, societies debates, recreation, catering and so on.… And only the merest trickle goes to finance political causes outside the university. That seems to me, my Lords, to put the problem into perspective. I very much hope that Mrs. Thatcher will be prepared to start all over again and that in reconsidering the Government's attitude to the student unions she will take carefully into account the views which the noble Lord, Lord Annan, has expressed to-night.

7.46 p.m.


My Lords, I think we are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for bringing this very difficult question to the attention of the House. There is no doubt that the Consultative Document has produced a great deal of anxiety. Some of it, perhaps, is of a rather hysterical and over-wrought nature, but a good deal of it is soundly based. I should like to say one thing straight away: that although I do not believe that the Document—and let us remember that it is a consultative document—gives the right answer, I do believe that it is trying to deal with a real problem and that it is not simply making a mountain out of a molehill. Student union financing may not be among the graver political issues of our time—it is hardly in the category of unemployment, inflation, Northern Ireland, or even Southern Rhodesia—but this does not mean that the problem is negligible or non-existent. As has already been indicated in this debate, it is a double problem. There is the question of the open-ended commitment of the local education authorities, and there is the quite separate question of the alleged misuse of union funds—funds which are intended for specific purposes, such as amenities, culture, sport, et cetera, but which, in admittedly few cases but cases which are unfortunately very well publicised, have been diverted to way-out political causes of one sort or another. I will not specify what they have been.

I believe that the Consultative Document made the mistake of trying to deal with these two problems by, in effect, a single solution, whereas they really should be regarded as quite separate problems requiring separate solutions. The solution contained in the Consultative Document was, as the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said ingenious. I think it was both ingenious and elegant. It removes the open-ended problem by making the greater proportion of the sum now raised through student union subscriptions a part of the general grant, and it tries to solve the misuse of funds by making a reduction for activities more appropriately financed by voluntary subscription, the latter figure to be made up by a small increase in the student maintenance grant. I must admit that although I think this is not the best way of setting about the problems, and although, as I have said, I think they need separate solutions, I did not share the feelings of outrage which so many junior and senior members of universities appeared to entertain about the proposals—proposals that did not, and do not, seem to me to be ridiculous, absurd or malevolent. The reaction of student unions, I thought, was altogether out of proportion; indeed, at times it was almost comic. One would have thought that a proposal to make certain activities the subject of voluntary financing would have appealed to those young men of advanced liberal (with a small "1") opinions who detest authority, paternalism and coercion of any kind. Not so, however. I recall one undergraduate saying to me in tones of high moral indignation, "The voluntary principle should be crushed at all costs".

Having expressed my view about this disproportionate reaction to the document, I would nevertheless express the hope that the Government will see their way to modifying some of the proposals. If I may take the two problems, beginning with misuse of funds, I entirely agree with Lord Annan that split-level financing is not the right answer, certainly not the right answer now. If the Document could have made it clear that the vast majority of student union activities would go on being financed on a compulsory basis and it was only a very tiny proportion that would be the subject of voluntary contributions, perhaps there would have been less alarm and despondency felt when the proposals were put forward. But that is not clear from the Document. Indeed the Document can be read in various ways as to what proportion would be the subject of voluntary subscription; and this seemed a threat, as Lord Annan said, to a whole number of rather worthy activities, including cultural, theatrical, artistic and sporting activities. Hence there arose this very improbable alliance which has occurred in the student world between such bodies as the boat clubs—not normally a body of men much addicted to radical causes—with the active student union politicians of the Left, and it is quite an achievement, if I may say so, for the Document, to have produced this alliance. In view of these fears, I hope that the Government will think again, even though the original proposal was perhaps not as foolish as it was made out to be.

How should we cope with the problem of the misuse of funds? I can be brief on that subject, because I find myself in complete agreement with what the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said. I am against a registrar of student unions. I think this would be an unnecessarily ponderous and provocative action at this particular moment of time. I believe it is the case that a great many of the activities which have been condemned—and, as I say, this misuse of funds has not occurred at all often—have probably been illegal anyway, but I would also agree that there are great difficulties in enforcing the law. It would be a process both expensive and extremely slow if we relied simply on getting injunctions in the courts. So my feeling on this matter would be that ground rules should be laid down, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Annan, suggested, that there should be some method of certificate of audit, if necessary. I like his idea of a point of reference; this could be worked out in more detail. I am sure that is much better than the introduction of a registrar of student unions with all the implications that this has in the perhaps rather excitable minds of students.

As for the other problem, the open-ended commitment, I do not find myself so much in agreement with Lord Annan, because I think there is a feeling of grievance about this, certainly in certain local authorities. I was a member for several years of a local authority, but not actually of its education committee, and I heard quite a lot about this particuliar grievance in one way and another; and of course it has been exacerbated by the rare case of misuse for political purposes. A lot of people who had not thought about their commitment being open-ended started thinking about it fast when unions publicised political actions of this kind with their funds. It seems to me that the Government cannot ignore this difficulty, but I am not at all clear that the right answer is to transfer the whole thing to the U.G.C. as a competing head of expenditure along with other university needs. I was very interested to hear that Lord Annan has found this kind of thing not too difficult to cope with at University College, but, as he said, this is not the general view held by vice-chancellors and principals, or for that matter the heads of "Oxbridge" Colleges. Most of us, I think, have a certain apprehensiveness about such an arrangement and feel that it could be a tiresome source of disputation between senior and junior members.

In this respect, I agree with what the National Union of Students themselves have said in their reply to Mrs. Thatcher's Consultative Document. If it is felt that we must in future operate through the U.G.C., I should like to make a plea that it should be an earmarked grant. I fully recognise that my right honourable friend has not got the power, and should not have the power, to make any earmarked grant; it is a matter for the U.G.C. to decide itself and it is not a matter for the Department to impose. I also realise that earmarked grants are not very popular—the trend is the other way—but this I believe might be made an exception. But is it really necessary at all to transfer these payments from the local authorities?

Is it impossible to leave them there, which is certainly what the majority of universities and colleges would prefer, and to let the L.E.A.s, on a collective and national level, have the sort of say that they have in fixing maintenance grants? I would emphasise "on a collective and national level"; I am certainly not advocating that separate consideration should be given at each L.E.A. to each university that happens to be in its area on the question of union funds. That, I think, would be productive of a great deal of ill-temper and waste of time, and would be extremely unpopular and much resented by the universities. I am suggesting that it should be done on a collective and national level even if only informally; that the local authorities should have a say in the union subscriptions. I think Lord Annan would approve of that.

I will not detain your Lordships any longer. To sum up, I am against split level finance. I hope the Government will think again. I am against the registrar of student unions. I am in favour of ground rules, audit and point of reference. On the second problem, I hope that the Government may consider again whether it is not possible after all to leave financing of the student unions in the hands of the local authorities.

7.58 p.m.


My Lords, in preparation for this discussion I tried to get a copy of the Consultative Document. It was unknown in our Printed Paper Office. I went to the Commons Vote Office and it was unknown there. I failed to get it. All I know of it is the criticism that I have read in the Press and the criticism that was published by the National Union of Students, which was, fortunately, in our Printed Paper Office. I am speaking rather without the background knowledge which one should have in a debate of this sort. My feeling is that Lord Annan is right and that the Consultative Document is wrong, and it should be reconsidered. But I feel a great sympathy with poor Mrs. Thatcher, who has been most monstrously bullied over this. I think the trouble is that she is the wrong woman in the wrong place. Unfortunately, owing to tile climate of opinion in regard to women, every Government think they ought to have a woman in the Ministry. She is the woman. When they think of the job for a woman they think of education. She is a very good financier and knows more about the intricacies of social insurance than almost anyone on the Front Bench. But that is by the way. I think she has probably done the wrong thing in the wrong way, as Lord Annan pointed out.

But there is a factor we have to reckon with which really does call for some sort of restraint, possibly by audit such as has been suggested; that is, that at this moment the public image of students is extremely bad. Wherever one goes it is extremely bad. And it was not improved, of course, by the action reported in the Press of various student unions in connection with the miners' strike of supporting pickets, very obstructive pickets, and in giving large sums of money to miners to come and lecture to students unions. As an example of that, may I quote what happened to me some weeks ago when I was going out of the St. Stephen's entrance at about 7.30 p.m. and there was a very large crowd of young men and young women trying to come in?

The policeman at the door said to me, "Do you want to get out, my Lady?" And I said "Yes I do; but who is this coming in?" And in a tone of withering scorn he said, "Oh! Students." I got out, pushed my way through the students and got a taxi, and as I got into the taxi the driver looked at the students and said in the same tone of withering scorn, "Students! They want grants for their mistresses!" Of course those particular students did not want that; they were protesting against Mrs. Thatcher. But you see what the taxi-driver had in mind: a debate we had in this House some months ago, if not more than a year ago, about grants to mature students. He had got that into his head, and his remark showed what he thought about students. I meet that sort of attitude everywhere, and it was not improved by reports of student activities during the miners' strike. The point is that I think the public must be reassured by some form of audit or control which will put the image right—if by now it can be put right.

8.2 p.m.


My Lords, although the student unions have recently been the subject of a good deal of public discussion, this is, I think, the first opportunity this House has had to discuss this question since my right honourable friend issued her Consultative Document last November. I am sure, therefore, that the whole House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, a member, after all, of the Vice-Chancellors' Committee, for giving us the opportunity for this discussion.

My Lords, because the student community is, I am afraid, sometimes inclined to underestimate the degree of irritation which is caused when, as the public see it, they occasionally misuse, or do not properly control, the funds entrusted to them, or countenance perhaps irregularities of procedure, I think it is all the more important as the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, pointed out to keep the matter in perspective and to keep in mind the valuable work which the unions do.

The noble Lord, Lord Annan and my noble friend Lord Blake are both heads of colleges. I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, has bowled me out. I am not sure of his position at the moment in the university world. I seem to remember that he was a distinguished president of one particular students' union back in 1933 at the University of Oxford. And all of them would support me, I think, when I hold that academic communities would not be worthy of the name if the only contact they had were simply the formal teaching between those who are taught and those who teach. Higher education surely needs to provide an undergraduate with a much wider range of experiences; opportunities for enjoying the society of other people, opportunities for argument and debate, opportunities perhaps for community service, the chance to profit from cultural and recreational societies, outlets for sport and drama. In all these areas student unions, and the societies and clubs which they support, have an important role to play.

The union has also a vital function of a quite different kind: it represents the students in their dealings with the government of their university or college and with the teaching staff. I believe that these points are widely recognised in this House and it has certainly been borne in upon us this evening by the expert advice we have been given. Noble Lords who have spoken have gone out of their way to acknowledge that we are discussing an essential part of the college community. I simply state this to emphasise that my right honourable friend shares this view and that whatever changes may be decided upon will be introduced against the background of the Government's wish to see student unions flourish and develop.

In seeking to provide a framework for the development of unions we have to recognise that the financial and administrative arrangements which we have inherited grew up somewhat haphazardly from a time when there were fewer students, fewer establishments of higher education and when, quite frankly, the sums of public money spent in this respect were a great deal smaller. If, on the other hand, we look to the future, we can foresee a need to improve the facilities for students, particularly in the local authority sector where they often fall short—I admit it quite openly—of what is provided in the universities. The pattern then would be likely, I suggest, to be one of growing expenditure throughout our diverse range of institutions to which student unions are attached. In these circumstances, it would be surprising if an examination of the present arrangements showed them to be satisfactory, and quite unnecessary of any change in all respects.

In fact, my Lords, I suggest that signs of strain in the arrangements have been visible for some time. After all, the report of the Select Committee back in 1969 recommended that any disparities in student union financing between universities and local authority institutions should be abolished, and that minimum standards of facilities should be established. This raising of standards involves, of course, both capital and recurrent finance. On the capital side I think it is fair to remind your Lordships that my right honourable friend announced last November generous increases in the further education building programme. And at the same time as the building programme, new standards for use in the planning of these establishments were notified to local authorities stressing the need to provide adequate communal facilities for staff and for students. So I think I can reasonably claim that student unions can expect to benefit from the improvement of facilities in the further education sector as a whole.

However, it is recurrent expenditure that mainly concerns us this evening. Here the problem was not only that there has been an enormous variation in the size of the union fee. The local authorities have also found that many union fees—and not always those that were the lowest—were increasing sharply. The authorities were obliged to pay these fees even though they had no control over the rate of increase. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, perfectly fairly asked "was it really so that there were those sharp increases? Would the Government inform him?" Well, my Lords, I am afraid that I am not an expert on this sector of education, but I seem to call to mind one example where there was a rise of over 50 per cent. in a union fee. Maybe it was very much needed, but I would call this a sharp rise. It was, I think, a £7 rise. If rises in union fees are triennial it is in the nature of things that they are bound to be reasonably sharp, and the answer to another remark of the noble Lord's is that I am certainly not aware that all this has commended itself to the Association of Education Committees. It was for these reasons that the factual inquiry into student union financing was instituted in 1970 by the Department of Education and Science, in consultation with the local authorities, and by the Vice-Chancellors' Committee.

The problem became acute early in 1971 when the Kingston Local Education Authority found that the regulations relating to the payment of the student union fee, as applied in the Polytechnic at Kingston-upon-Thames, were defective in that, owing to a technical fault in the Awards Regulations, neither Kingston nor, so far as was known, any other local education authority, had power to pay the union fee for the award-holders at that Polytechnic. The essence of the difficulty as I understand it was this. The payment of the union subscription as part of the student's award was dependent on union membership being obligatory. The regulations then current referred to, membership which is obligatory by reason of any provision of the instrument regulating the conduct of the establishment". But the trouble was that in the case of Kingston Polytechnic neither the articles of government nor the students' union constitutions approved under it provided for obligatory membership of the union. It is likely that this defect applied to a very considerable number of institutions—though we cannot be sure how many. My right honourable friend decided that it would be wrong to make any fundamental changes without due time for consideration and consultation, and what she therefore did was simply to amend the regulations to restore the pre-Kingston situation—if I may put it that way. However, at that time a number of people expressed reservations to her about the system which these regulations embodied, and my right honourable friend felt hound to undertake that the amendment would stand for a limited time only and that, meanwhile, she would re-examine the whole question. In November of last year, she made good that undertaking by publishing her Consultative Document on the financing of student unions, in which she made certain proposals for changes.

My Lords, I apologise for wearying the House with rather a long catalogue of events, but I do so to show that the Consultative Document (which has been in the Printed Paper Office since last night; and I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Stocks, that when she looked it was not there) was produced by my right honourable friend to meet what the noble Lord, Lord Blake, referred to in his speech as "a real problem". The main purpose in issuing that document was, and is, I assure your Lordships, to seek the views of all the bodies within the education service concerned with student unions. Before Christmas my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State had a round of preliminary discussions with the local authority associations, the vice-chancellors and the National Union of Students. Just recently he has had a second round of meetings with representatives of the local authority associations and the vice-chancellors, and he has had discussions with some of the professional organisations concerned with higher education. A great number of letters have been received—several hundred in fact—and several memoranda have been submitted. My right honourable friend has always stressed that she would prefer to proceed by agreement, if she can, and in order to allow ample time for these talks she responded to the representations of the local authorities and the vice-chancellors by agreeing to defer the introduction of any changes in student union financing until the academic year 1973–74.

I think it is fair to say that in the course of our consultations my right honourable friend and my honourable friend have come up against two sets of problems of different kinds. On the one hand, there is the point which has been identified certainly by the three noble Lords who have spoken, the problem of the way in which the unions are financed. It has been put very strongly to my right honourable friend that it is wrong that the academic authorities and the students should between them fix a student union fee which it is then mandatory upon the local education authorities—who have no say in the matter—to pay. On the other hand, there is a good deal of concern, both in this House and among the public at large (and I would echo what has been said this evening from all parts of the House) about the way in which some student unions—and it is a very small minority—conduct their affairs.

Your Lordships do not need me to remind you of the kind of thing to which I am referring: donations from union funds to causes which have seemed to have nothing to do with the purposes for which those funds were, from public monies, provided; instances of irregularities of procedure; sometimes a lack of respect for the right of the individuals and the minorities whose opinions do not accord with the majority. As I have said, I believe these faults to be relatively uncommon, but unfortunately none of us can deny that they do sometimes occur. Some of the unions also need to pay more attention to the keeping of proper accounts. All of us have to recognise that where public money is concerned absolute propriety is the expectation, and that "it does not happen often" is not a sufficient defence.

These, then, are the sorts of issues on which we have been exercising our minds for some time, and which the House has been examining this evening. I am sure that your Lordships will gather from what I have been saying—at, I am afraid, too great length—that my answer to both parts of the noble Lord's Question is most certainly, Yes. My right honourable friend is ready to consider views or suggestions arising on the Consultative Document, or any alternative proposals which would deal effectively with the defects of the present system of financing student unions. My right honourable friend intends to look very carefully at all the options before a decision is taken. I am sure that she will read this debate very closely indeed. In view of that assurance I hope your Lordships will excuse me if I do not reply in detail to all the points that have been raised. Clearly, if I were to do this I should run precisely the risk of anticipating what might be decided finally.

May I end by briefly picking up a few of the points which your Lordships have made, and attempting an answer in each case. The noble Lord, Lord Blake, recognised that the present open-ended commitment of the local education authorities is one of the gravest objections to the present system of financing. I would reply to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, "Yes, this is something which the Government believe fair-minded people cannot absolutely ignore." For this reason I welcome Lord Annan's suggestion that local authorities might be associated in some way with the fixing of the student union fee. Certainly the Government are prepared to consider this or any other suggestion arising on the Consultative Document. Like my noble friend, and like the noble Lord, Lord Annan, I foresee certain practical difficulties if this suggestion were to mean consultation with the authorities about changes in the subscription of each individual union throughout the higher education system. The exact process of consultation would need to be worked out, and I am sure the House will agree that it would he necessary to know what the local authorities themselves thought about this proposal.

I also appreciate the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, about the constitutions of student unions. This concern is also reflected in the Bill introduced in another place for the appointment of a Registrar. I think it is worth recalling that one of the effects of the proposals in the Consultative Document would be to encourage university and college authorities to re-examine the constitutions and rules of produre of individual unions to see whether any changes are needed or should be introduced. My right honourable friend will take note of the noble Lord's suggestion, and see what measure of agreement exists among the various interests concerned on ways and means of giving advice and guidance on union constitutions. But, at the same time, must we not recognise that the final responsibility for approving union constitutions rests at this moment with the authorities of the university or college concerned?

I also listened with great interest to what the noble Lord said about a central point (I think he referred to it as a "point of reference") to which matters of doubt or difficulty arising at a particular student union could be referred. As the noble Lord will realise, this proposal—perhaps of all proposals—raises large issues not only for the Government but for our partners in the education service. I am sure that they will have views on this far-reaching suggestion; and while our discussions with them are still in progress the noble Lord will perhaps acquit me of any discourtesy if I say that it is best not to comment any further on the suggestion, which the Government have certainly taken on board.

Your Lordships will know that the proposal for a Registrar of Student Unions is at present the subject of a Private Member's Bill introduced in another place. My right honourable friend has always made it clear that she has an open mind on the appointment of a Registrar, and for that reason she included this proposal in the Consultative Document. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, said, I think, that the proposal for a Registrar rested on a misapprehension. That is as may be; but, as I see it, a Registrar would be primarily concerned with the constitutions and operations of student unions. He would not, as I understand it, be directly involved in the system of financing the unions. But, my Lords, if the Registrar is to be effective, he must have some method whereby his decisions can be enforced, and this I think is a point which certainly needs further consideration. I would therefore pose the question: can we devise simple and practical sanctions to enable a Registrar to enforce his decisions?

A further point made by the noble Lord, Lord Annan, was the suggestion that student union accommodation should be vested in the parent institution. As the noble Lord said, the premises of a student union are usually in the same ownership as the educational institution to which it is attached. Universities and colleges may subsidise their unions by providing maintenance and services free or below cost. Indeed, as the inquiry into student union financing revealed, unions are supported in a variety of ways, and the pattern varies enormously. We shall be glad to consider any proposals that emerge from the current consultations for changing or improving the present system of support.

Before I finish, may I say just a word on earmarking? Like the noble Lord, Lord Blake, I also listened with interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said about the earmarking of grants. Of course distribution of total grants at universities is, as my noble friend said, a matter for the University Grants Committee whose general allocations are, as we know, in the form of block grants. It is only exceptionally that part of the total university allocation is earmarked. Therefore, my reply this evening must be that not only will the Government read carefully what the noble Lord has said, but so, I imagine, will the University Grants Committee, who will bear in mind the sort of considerations the noble Lord has raised.

I listened with great care to what my noble friend, as well as Lord Annan, and the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, said about "split-financing". There was, and is, a feeling that in principle it is no bad thing to put a little extra money into the student's pocket to spend as he or she chooses, and not always as the union decides. But strong representations have been made, not least by my noble friend this evening, to the effect that if this is done students may not in practice support the same range of activities as unions do now. I assure the House that we shall give very careful thought to these representations.

May I end by giving an indication of the timetable as the Government see it now? In this matter of timing, we have to balance two considerations. On the one hand, this is a complex matter affecting an integral part of our higher education system; and it is also, I realise, a controversial matter on which many divergent points of view have been expressed. It is important therefore that the consultations should be as wide-ranging and as thorough as possible. On the other hand, no one would wish the present period of uncertainty to be prolonged any further than it needs to be, and if changes are to be made we and our partners in the education service will need some time to put in hand the necessary arrangements. My right honourable friend therefore believes that it would be in the best interests of everyone concerned to reach a situation this summer where decisions can be made, and she intends to work towards that end.