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National Service (University Students)

Volume 439: debated on Friday 11 July 1947

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

4.2 p.m.

I wish to raise the question of the release from the Forces of men who hold scholarships before the time at which they would otherwise be released if they waited for release in their age and service groups. The present position was stated to us by the Minister of Labour on 4th February', when he said:

"It will be open to universities to apply for the release of scholars and highly promising students in any subject who are still serving in the Forces and are in release groups one to 62."
He went on:
"Arrangements will be made for men who can be released to be made available as far as possible shortly before the beginning of the 1947–48 academic year."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th February, 1947; Vol. 432, c. 1560.]
It was understood that approved men would be released at the latest in September of this year. Frequent attempts have been made by myself and by hon. Gentlemen on all sides of the House to get that principle extended to borderline cases, and in particular to extend the age and service groups covered by the Minister's statement. The Minister has consistently refused any extension. The Ministry of Labour Gazette says, on page 186, in an article relating to students of universities:
"Special application may be made for the release of certain members of the Forces outside Groups 61 and 62 who have had a period of employment on civilian work of national importance."
With that exception, there has been, I think I am right in saying, no extension of the statement which the Minister of Labour made. Let us examine the position. Men in Group 62 will be released, under the clause in the release scheme, before the end of 1947 if they are in the Navy, so that those who are in the Navy are not covered. In the Army or Air Force they would be released—I think one may make a reasonable forecast—in January or early February of next year. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour shrugs his head —[Laughter]—I mean he shook his head, or he may have shrugged his shoulders. I regret to say that he probably did both. It appears from the statement already made that Group 61 is to be released in December. If that is so, we may take it, unless His Majesty's Government propose to slow their demobilisation scheme very much, that Group 62 will be released in January or February. I think that forecast is reasonable. Therefore, it is clear there is a gain of about four months allowed to these men.

Let us compare what happened last year, when it was open to universities to apply for students between Groups 1 and 55. They would be released by September, 1946, so that they might take part in the 1946–47 academic year. In actual fact, some men in Group 55 in the Army or the Royal Air Force have not even been released yet. In some cases they were released in June. Therefore, in so far as the same scheme applied last year, there was a gain, as it were, of nine or ten months. To pursue the argument further, it would seem, again making a reasonable forecast, that if one applied the principle which was applied last year in selecting Groups 1 to 55, one should this year select Groups between 1 and 70.

It is very difficult for any hon. Gentleman who is not in the Government to make a forecast of what group will be released in June or July next year, but it is quite clear that it will be a group substantially in advance of Group 62, and if the Government are going to implement the many promises that have been given about the release of men who were called up in 1944, 1945 and later years, it is quite clear that they have got to hurry on their release schemes. So I say again, in order to emphasise my point, that if they adopt the same principle as was adopted last year, they should extend the groups covered by this concession from Groups 1 to 62 to Group 1 to about Group 70. That is my first point. I would add that it would appear that by mid-next year, at any rate, men who will be released will have served only between two and two and a half years in the Forces, whereas now they serve slightly over three years.

I should like to give the House one or two examples of how the scheme is working at the moment—if the statement that I have read out, made by the Minister of Labour in February, is strictly applied. Three cases have been put to me. They are quite simple, and I will weary the House with them for a minute or two. The first case is that of a signalman who is a constituent of mine. He was born in July, 1926. He took his Higher Schools Certificate successfully in 1944 and was awarded a scholarship at Manchester University. He was called up in September, 1944; he is, therefore, age and service group 63. The curious thing is that a man of the same scholaristic calibre as he who was born in September, 1925—and not July, 1926—who did not get his Higher Schools Certificate exactly at the same age, but had his call-up to the Forces deferred so that he might take it at the same time as his six months younger colleague got his Higher Schools Certificate, also got a scholarship and also joined the Forces in September, 1944, and just because he is older, he is group 62, not 63, and he qualifies for early release. That seems to be preferring a man just because he is six months older and has taken six months longer to get the Higher Schools Certificate.

The second case is a young officer, a son of a holder of the Victoria Cross, born in 1926—the exact date does not matter. He got an open scholarship at Trinity, Oxford, and volunteered in August, 1944, but because he volunteered for a regiment to whose primary training establishment there was no drafting until September, he was not able to be called up until September, 1944, and therefore, instead of being group 62 he is group 63, entirely without any fault of his own. The scheme seems to be working very unfairly in his case. The third and last case is that of a leading aircraftman born in 1927—a year younger—who got a scholarship at the age of l6f to Corpus Christi, Oxford. He did one year there and then volunteered for the Royal Air Force. He, too, is not in group 62. He is in group 63 or 64, and he is also unable to come back and resume his studies.

Those are the individual cases that come about because of the present rule. This question of individual hardships was raised last year by the Senior Burgess for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) and the reply was that while it was realised that it might be hard on those men, if the Government started "monkeying about" with the scheme, even at that late hour, it would lead to dissatisfaction elsewhere. The objection to "tinkering about" or "monkeying about" with a scheme does not seem to me, in 1947, to be an adequate reason for inflicting unnecessary hardships on men with above the average standard of brain power and application.

So much for the individual point of view. Now let me take the national point of view. In this country at all times, and particularly now, we want these men who are gifted with more than the average brainpower and application, and who have won scholarships, circulating in the community as a positive asset, having finished their education as early as possible. If the Parliamentary Secretary will arrange the release of men between groups 62 and 70 so that they may start their academic year this October, they would then come into circulation one year earlier than if they had to wait until next year, and that would be a national economy. To those two points I would add, on the general principle, that in the discussion we had in this House on the National Service Bill, it was made clear by the Minister that it was hoped that, when the Bill passed into law and was being applied, the individual interest would at last take priority over the national interest. We quite realised that during the war the national interest and the interests of the scheme must take precedence, but now we are in a transition stage, and I ask the Minister this afternoon if he will not adapt the present scheme to fit in more with the individual interest.

I believe he will get up, when the time comes for him to reply, and will say to me, "His Majesty's Government, of course, sympathise and understand, but the universities are full and, therefore, it would be of no use if His Majesty's Government changed their rules now." I realise that there is great pressure on the universities and, of course, there are many applicants for places in the universities. That is bound to be true. It is probably true to say that if you took a thousand men away from the list of applicants for each university, they could still say they were full, but I am asking His Majesty's Government to give preference to those boys and men who have scholarships. I want to be quite open about that. I would add that in many cases the universities are full because His Majesty's Government are insisting on filling buildings in university towns with civil servants. I am told that in Cambridge today, there are 2,559 civil servants who were not there before the war, and there is so much less accommodation available. I do not want to be depressing about this, but there is that point to be considered, and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will bear that in mind if he is to answer that the universities are full.

I asked a Question in this House as to how many scholars would be affected by an extension of the rule, and the answer was that the information was not avail able. Until the information is available, I would suggest that the Minister should go ahead with the extension of the scheme on the assumption that there are not sufficient men to make it impracticable to extend it to Group 70 at least.

4.15 p.m.

I would like to give general support to the point of view which has been raised by the hon. and gallant Member for North Blackpool (Brigadier Low). We must, however, bear in mind that our first duty in allocating vacancies is to those who have qualified for class A release. They have served full time, and should get any priority that is going. On the question of scholarships, the Ministry's circular refers also to "highly promising students, "and I do not think the hon. and gallant Member would like them to be excluded. The last date for class B releases was 1st May this year, and there was a proviso in the memorandum that if there were more applicants than vacancies many would have to be refused this year. Were there more applicants than vacancies, and, if so, what group, from one to 62, did the Ministry reach?

The position of officers was referred to in the memorandum as being more serious than that of other ranks, because they were more indispensable to the Armed Forces. It seems to me they are having a raw deal in the allocation of university places. A constituent of mine happened to be in one of the groups 1 to 65, and just missed going to the university last year. He was to go this October, but he is now in Burma. Unless special steps are taken to bring him home, and other people in a similar position, they are going to miss a further period of time, which will make their studies less valuable. I hope that all who have been notified this year will be brought home in order that they can get there in time. Not only that, but I hope they will be in time to get re-equipped for university life, to shake off some of the habits learned in the Army, and to do a considerable amount of reading and preparations before going to the university.


We have a very important college in Loughborough, and I have received a large amount of correspondence on this question. I wish to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to consider the system which operated in Germany prior to 1914 under the Kaiser. They called it the "Einjähriges System" and it was an arrangement which allowed a student to serve half his time in the Armed Forces and to live in the city and continue his studies at the same time. I wonder if somehow or other such a system could not be applied to these cases so that these students could be serving their country and at the same time continuing their studies.

4.18 p.m.

A matter has been raised of very considerable importance and no one would complain at the manner in which it has been dealt with from all sides of the House. It is something which is bound to appeal to everyone of us. These young lads have their educational opportunities interrupted, and the sooner we can get them back the better it will be for them and for the country. One accepts that. However I must remind the House that the principle of release is by age and length of service. That is the general principle to which this House has subscribed, and what we are being asked to do in this case is to extend a privilege for a certain section which is denied to the average man in the Forces. In extending privileges of this sort the House must be careful about what it is doing. It must not give to the student what it denies to the collier, it must not give the professional worker that which is denied to the manual worker. I think that ought to be uppermost in the mind of everyone who takes part in this Debate.

The present position has been correctly stated. It is that for students who are scholarship holders, or, in the opinion of the university, are highly promising, are given a Class B release, for the purpose of returning to the educational institution. This privilege which is given to them is denied to almost everyone else. We have a small scheme of Class B release for miners and for certain people in the electrical plant industry. For everyone else Class B release has been abolished. The conditions for Class B release in the case of scholarship holders and highly promising students is that they must be in groups 1 to 62. If they are within those groups they are entitled to be nominated by the university; are passed by the Ministry of Labour to the appropriate Service Departments, and if their nomination goes through, they will be brought back to this country in time to take up their studies. This assurance, which was asked for by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) can be given. "The undertaking is that they will be brought back in time to undertake their studies.

A point was also brought up in regard: to men who, in addition to not less than a year's military service, have done certain national service since the age of 18, and whose two periods combined was more than three years. They are also entitled to nomination for release in Class B, Those are the present arrangements. On the whole they are working very well. We arrived at the conclusion that we could not go beyond group 62 on the advice of the Vice-Chancellors of the Universities of this country, who, after all, are the people best qualified to know what is the capacity of the universities. We must not release in Class B above a number which would have the effect of keeping out men who had been released in Class A. That is the main consideration. We must not release, in Class B, a single man who would keep out of a university a man who has already been released in Class A and who is entitled to go to a university. I think that that will be accepted generally.

So we reach the position that groups 1 to 62 contain sufficient students who have scholarships or who are of a highly promising character to fill all the available vacancies in the universities. That is the advice we are given by people who, I presume, know what the university capacity is. If the argument is put forward that there is more capacity available even now, surely the answer is that there are already in this country men who have been released in Class A who so far have been unable to get into universities.

Not with scholarships, but men who have gone privately and are entitled to continue their education. They should not be kept out. Their studies were interrupted because of the war, and we should see that they get a fair chance of taking up their position in their fair turn, and not give a preference to men, not only for release, but for going into a university.

On the question of accommodation in Cambridge, I would say that there are a lot of civil servants there, but special buildings were put up during the war to accommodate them. There are no civil servants in Cambridge who keep out students from Cambridge University. That is the information which has been given to me—that places in the university have not been decreased by the existence of this large number of civil servants in Cambridge. I must accept the information as it is given to me. The joint university board which consists of all these Vice-Chancellors should know all the circumstances, and their judgment usually is pretty sound. They have arrived at the conclusion that we dare not go above Group 62.

Do these Vice-Chancellors know how many men there are with scholarships in Groups 63 to 70? If they do, I suggest that the Parliamentary Secretary ought to have known and, if they do not, that is a very vital factor affecting their decision.

I presume that they are bound to know all the scholarships that have been awarded. I should have thought that they were the very people, who by and large, have a hand in awarding the scholarships.

They know how many scholarships are awarded each year. They should be in a position to estimate very closely the number who are in the Forces. They certainly know the number who have gone into the universities. I should have thought it was a very simple arithmetical calculation for them to arrive at the number who would want to go into the universities, who held scholarships, and who would want release under this special Class B arrangement. The next point was with regard to the three cases that were mentioned. I was rather interested. In the first case, the young man is in Group 63. The hon. and gallant Gentleman complained about the fact that he is in Group 63, because he is six months younger than the other fellow. But surely the principle of age and length of service was approved in this House. Because a man is older than another, greater weight is given to his service in the Armed Forces.

I did not complain that he was in Group 63. I complained that he was not able to go to university. That was my complaint.

I rather thought that the complaint was that he was not being released before his turn. His turn is decided by his age and his service. That, surely, has been the generally accepted principle. I will agree readily that because this line is drawn tightly it has an unfortunate effect upon some students. I have had applications from hon. Members on both sides of the House asking for the release of men who, were they either a month younger or had they joined two days earlier, would have been in Group 62. But they are in Group 63 and no matter where we draw the line there is that difficulty.

If there was room in the universities for these men and their release would not prejudice the opportunities of men who had already been released under Class A, there would be no case for resisting the suggestion put forward by the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I assure him, however, that the best advice we have been able to get is that if we extend these groups any further we shall be creating the anomolous situation where a Class A man is kept out by a Class B man. Unfortunately, I cannot give an assurance even now that every scholarship holder and every highly promising student in Groups 1 to 62 can have a place in the universities this year. Unless I could give that assurance it would be wrong for me to say that a man in Group 63 should have a chance over a man in Group 62. I feel very sympathetic towards this problem. Someone very close to me was affected in exactly the same way. I have seen the human side of this problem.

I assure the House that we are doing what we think is right and fair by all the students concerned and by all those men who have played their part in the Services. We hope that this situation will clear up in 1948 and 1949. When the National Service Bill comes into operation in 1949 we hope that the places will be there so that the interests of the students will rank with, it not supersede, the interests of the State in regard to military service. With this assurance, I hope the House will accept the view the Government are doing all that can be done and all that can be expected.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Four o'Clock.