§ The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Anthony Crosland)
With permission I wish to make a statement about the recommendations of the Special Report of the Public Accounts Committee on "Parliament and control of university expenditure".
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 normal requirements of Parliament regarding scrutiny and report by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Accordingly I shall make it, from 1st January, 1968, a condition of grant to the universities that their books and records in respect of grant should be open to his inspection. 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 maintain 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 moneys 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 750 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.
Mr. Speaker, 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. made its recommendations. It is in this spirit that the Government accept them.
§ Sir E. Boyle
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman three questions arising out of his very important statement, which we shall certainly wish to debate along with other aspects of higher education before the end of the year? First, the right hon. Gentleman stated that the Government have received the advice of the U.G.C. Can the Secretary of State tell the House that the statement he has made has the approval of the U.G.C.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"]—and especially of its Chairman? Secondly, the statement said in the last paragraph that the "new system need not infringe the academic freedom of universities". Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side wish to state categorically that the new arrangements must not infringe academic freedom, especially as regards freedom of admissions, freedom to decide what is taught and how ii is taught, and the freedom to appointment?
Lastly, would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the acceptability of these arrangements must depend on the fostering of mutual confidence between the universities, the Department and Parliament; and would he not also agree that if we in Parliament very properly want to have a voice in the public discussion of university policy, we must show ourselves to be responsive to university opinion, both anywhere the shoe pinches for them and over the kind of inquiries we pursue?
§ Mr. Crosland
I note and welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman would like to discuss this matter later in the year. On his first question, he must know that it is not the custom under any Government for the Government to quote the advice they have received from the U.G.C., whether collectively or from its Chairman, and I think it would be improper for me to alter that custom today. On the second point of academic freedom, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman in the interpretation which he has placed on the phrase. I do not think there is any difference between us on this question between the two sides of the House. [An HON. MEMBER: "Two and a half sides."] On the question of mutual confidence between the Government and universities, I know from some experience that it is not always easy to keep this up to the highest possible level, but I entirely agree that it is of vital importance for the Government to try to maintain it both in terms of financial decisions and in terms of making clear, as I hope my statement strongly did, how much importance the Government attach to the basic principles of academic freedom.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that hon. Members of the Public Accounts Committee will be glad that the Government have accepted the recommendations which we put forward? Does he agree that the Committee also recommended that vigorous efforts should be made to reassure the universities by the giving of a full explanation as to how the Comptroller and Auditor General actually works, and that efforts should also be made to establish conventions which manifestly would make it clear that academic freedom was neither in issue nor in jeopardy? Can we take it from his statement that the Government propose to use the five months before this decision comes into operation for the purposes the Committee recommended?
§ Mr. Crosland
In answering that, I do not know whether it would be proper for me to pay my tribute to the lucidity of the Report which the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues produced and also to the questions which were put to the very distinguished witness who came in front of them. To take the substance of the right hon. Gentleman's question, Yes, he is certainly right in saying that we 752 propose to use these five months to carry out what effectively was the second of the two recommendation of the Committee. A good deal of informal consultation has already gone on, but now I shall invite the Chairman of the U.G.C. to bring together the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Comptroller and Auditor General to give effect to those recommendations.
§ Mr. Barnett
While welcoming the Minister's statement on the Report of the Public Accounts Committee, will he make it clear to the accountancy profession that it has nothing to fear, in that the statement by the Minister does not in any way infringe upon the work of the auditors, carried out by members of the accountancy profession?
§ Mr. Crosland
I can certainly give that assurance. The P.A.C. made it very clear in its Report, and my hon. Friend contributed to this, that the task of the separate auditors of the individual universities was different in nature and did not impinge on the task of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
§ Mr. Henig
Is my right hon. Friend aware that younger members of university teaching staffs, as distinct from vice-chancellors and principals, who have not had any control over how universities spend their money, will warmly welcome these proposals? Will he also take note of the fact that there is some slight concern among university teachers that there may be a danger of some limitation on open-ended research projects of the type which do not show immediate returns? Can he give some assurance on this point?
§ Mr. Crosland
I am delighted to hear the opening remarks of my hon. Friend. As to the latter part of his remarks, if he reads the Report of the P.A.C. he will see from the assurances given by the Comptroller and Auditor General, and from the tone of the Report, that the danger which he has in mind could not possibly arise from the effect of public accountability.
§ Mr. Pardoe
Is the Secretary of State aware that we on this side of the House welcome any extension of the Parliamentary accountability of universities, except that we would view with great alarm any infringement of academic control? Can he say how he has reached the apparently 753 contradictory conclusion that this statement does not, and will not, infringe academic freedom?
§ Mr. Crosland
With respect, if the hon. Gentleman had read the Report of the P.A.C. he would have seen that the whole endeavour made was to reconcile the two principles, of public accountability and the other of maintaining the academic freedom of the universities. It went into a most lucid explanation of why in its view, which I share, these two principles could be perfectly well reconciled.
§ Mr. Luard
Arising from the question asked by the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), and in view of the very widespread apprehension there is among many circles in academic life, particularly that this move may in some way restrict academic freedom, could my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that he will do everything possible in the coming months to make perfectly clear that the kind of control envisaged relates entirely to past expenditure and not to the coming expenditure by universities? This is a source of widespread confusion among many people in universities.
§ Mr. Crosland
It is extremely important to make it clear that the recommendations of the P.A.C. have no bearing on the amount of grant which Government makes for future expenditure. As for the more general point, of course I will do everything I can, but I must say that by far the best way in which universities can reassure themselves on the subject which my hon. Friend has in mind is for them to read the Report, which is the most reassuring document there could be.
§ Mr. Jennings
The right hon. Gentleman is obviously aware of the fears about academic freedom. How far has he been able to assuage the fears of those people concerned in his discussions?
§ Mr. Crosland
I hesitate to speak on behalf of either the vice-chancellors or the Association of University Teachers, which are the two bodies that I have formally seen. I would like to think that I went a considerable way in assuaging the fears which they initially held, and I think that it is clear from general public discussion that the initial fears expressed to the Committee by a number of its witnesses have been a good deal assuaged as a result of the explanations in the last few months. I do not think that it would be safe for me to go beyond that.
§ Mr. Mendelson
While there would be agreement with the statement made by my right hon. Friend in the spirit in which he has made it, will he accept that it is quite possible, not only having read the Report of the Committee, but also having been a member of it and having listened to the original discussions with the Comptroller and Auditor-General, still to agree with some of the concern shown in university circles, particularly those directing research, that there could be a dangerous line that ought not to be blurred between accountancy and the right of universities to decide on their own free research? We do not want everything governed by accountants in this country.
§ Mr. Crosland
I accept the fact that some people in the universities share the fears which my hon. Friend has expressed. However, if one reads not merely the Report but the very detailed meetings that were held with the various witnesses, if one listens to the assurances given by the Comptroller and the Auditor General, I do not think that it is possible at the end of the day seriously to take the view that his endeavours and activities will threaten the kind of research considerations made possible.
§ Several Hon. Members rose—