The New Universities of the 1960s


Anne: University of Stirling, 2007 (CC)

by Stefan Collini

Utopian Universities: A Global History of the New Campuses of the 1960s
Jill Pellew and Miles Taylor (Anthology Editors)
London, Bloomsbury, 2020. 424 pp

The most remarkable feature of the mould-breaking expansion of higher education that took place across the world in the 1960s was the foundation of some 200 entirely new universities. In most countries, growth had previously been confined largely to existing institutions or to lesser colleges of various kinds which were required to undergo a long period of tutelage and development before they could be considered for university status. But, in the 1960s, campuses were started from scratch, nearly always funded by the state, usually promising new institutional structures and innovative curriculum design, often boasting eye-catching new buildings by star architects. Examples of this phenomenon can be found across the world, especially in the countries of the former British empire, but, both at the time and since, developments in the UK attracted most attention, providing the models for what was to follow elsewhere. In the space of four years, seven new universities were opened in England: Sussex (1961), East Anglia [UEA], York (both 1963), Lancaster (1964), Essex, Kent, and Warwick (all 1965). Belatedly, and without either the brio or the funding of ‘the magnificent seven’, they were joined by the University of Stirling (1967) and the New University of Ulster (1968); the latter remains the last entirely new publicly-funded university to be established in the UK. Utopian Universities brings together twenty contributions on aspects of the new universities of the 1960s; two thirds of them concentrate on developments in the UK, with the rest addressing selected examples elsewhere, both in the former British dominions and in Europe.

It is a truism, of course, that a university is in one sense never started ‘from scratch’. For even the most ‘utopian’ planner, the past provides a storehouse of models to be emulated and pitfalls to be avoided. In the British case, the story has to begin not in 1961 but in the debates about the character and purpose of higher education that were such a feature of the late 1940s and 1950s. A recurring motif of these debates was dissection of the alleged failings of what were usually called the ‘civic’ or (after the publication of Bruce Truscot’s Red Brick in 1943) ‘redbrick’ universities: over-specialization of the curriculum, departmentalism, lack of community, absence of close contact between teachers and taught. Some remedies were attempted within the redbricks themselves in these years, notably a big expansion of halls of residence, sometimes with living quarters for one or more members of the academic staff who were to act as warden or tutor. A more radical approach was attempted by what was in effect a precursor of the ‘new’ universities, the University College of North Staffordshire, started in 1949 and chartered in 1962 as Keele University (discussed here in a notably thoughtful chapter by Miles Taylor). Its founder, the Scottish philosopher A.D. Lindsay, who had been Master of Balliol, attempted to displace the civic model altogether, designing an institution that rejected departments and single-honours degrees while also aiming to have all students and, remarkably, their teachers living on site. But Keele was a one-off, tiny and almost freakishly experimental. In the course of the 1950s, it became accepted, both in Whitehall and the University Grants Committee [UGC], that a much bigger expansion would be needed, partly to accommodate the increasing desire for tertiary education from an already growing cohort of school-leavers, partly to provide future places for the members of the post-war ‘baby boom’ as they came of age.

In accounting for the intellectual genealogy of the new institutions, it is important to recognize just how far some idealized picture of the workings of Oxford and Cambridge had underlain these critiques of redbrick universities in the first place. Grandees like Sir Walter Moberly, the first full-time chairman of the UGC and former Vice-Chancellor of Manchester, constantly harped on the great benefits of the small cross-generational communities represented by Oxbridge colleges, while nearly all of those involved in the planning of the new universities had been educated at Oxbridge and spent at least part of their careers there. It is telling that several of the features considered to be so crucial to the success of the new ventures, such as on-site residences, communal dining, and the indivisibility of intellectual and social contacts between teachers and students, were not only the kinds of thing that had been felt to be lacking in the redbricks: they had never been part of the Scottish university tradition and were even more alien to most continental European universities.

Startlingly new in some respects, the ‘plate-glass’ universities, as they were soon christened, were deeply traditional in their fundamental identities. They were overwhelmingly undergraduate institutions in their early years, with graduate education only growing very slowly. The student body was predominantly male, with gender parity not reached until the 1990s. Nearly all of them confined the curriculum to the major arts and science subjects, with no engineering, business, medicine, or even law in most cases. And they all immediately resorted to ‘invented traditions’ in terms of crests, mottoes, academic dress for graduation ceremonies, and so on (students wore gowns when taking their exams at Lancaster, the first college at Kent had a ‘high table’ in its dining hall, ‘while UEA managed to get £10,000 from the [Norwich] City Council to lay down a good wine cellar and a suitably dignified butler to go with it’). From one perspective, they could look like British versions of the more ambitious of the ‘liberal arts’ colleges in the USA. For a different comparison, one might, at a stretch, see Britain’s new universities as, in some respects, sharing something with the grammar-school culture of the period (the majority of their students were drawn from these schools). Both the new universities and the grammar-schools attempted a modest broadening of access beyond the established social elite while still remaining fiercely selective; both concentrated on the major ‘academic’ subjects rather than more directly vocational or applied courses; both believed in the importance of fostering cultural and sporting activities alongside study. Both could encourage irreverent, even mildly seditious, attitudes while at the same time embodying a deeply traditional conception of education.

It is often forgotten just how revolutionary the process of establishing the new universities was. Nearly all the existing universities in England outside Oxbridge and London had had to go through lengthy initial periods of tutelage to an established institution, usually preparing students for London external degrees. The UGC monitored the progress of ‘university colleges’, such as Leicester, Southampton, Hull and so on, over many years before they were chartered as universities and awarded degree-granting powers of their own. But the decision was taken in the late 1950s that the proposed new universities would be granted their charters and degree-awarding powers from the outset. The freedom to shape the institution that was given to the planning groups and the founding members of staff now seems extraordinary. It had its roots in the shared culture among senior academics, Whitehall mandarins, local worthies, and others in the middle- and upper-middle-class professions. The role of Sir Keith Murray, an exceptionally astute chair of the UGC over the relevant period, was crucial, as were the representatives of the Great and Good who populated the initial Academic Planning Boards and thereafter the Academic Advisory Councils (figures such as Sir Solly Zuckerman and Lord Annan clearly exercised considerable influence). A strong and well-researched chapter by Jill Pellew emphasizes both the part played by local Chief Education Officers in energizing local support for the proposed universities and the role, now largely forgotten, of private philanthropy in their earliest years. Keith Murray, in particular, was always insistent that universities needed multiple forms of support, rather than being reliant simply on a grant from the central state, but already by the 1970s the new institutions were all almost completely sustained by that one source (endowment accounted for 1% of income at all of them except Warwick – where it rose to 2%).

The founding of these seven new universities met the concerns of the previous couple of decades unevenly. For some years after 1945 there had been repeated calls for the UK to increase its number of qualified scientists and technologists. This demand was partly addressed by expanding science numbers in the civic universities, partly by the founding of ten Colleges of Advanced Technology in 1956, and partly by attempts to beef up relevant forms of training in the technical colleges. These developments took some of the pressure off the new universities in this respect, and although they all had courses in pure science in one form or another, they mostly did not, at least to begin with, offer the more applied forms. The creation of the new institutions did, of course, go some way to meet the increased demand for places, but even here their contribution was, for a long time, dwarfed by expansion in the existing universities: by 1970 the new English universities accounted for just 8.5% of the total student population. The issues they addressed most squarely were the supposed failings of the redbricks: lack of community, over-specialization, departmentalism. Although attempts to bridge the arts-science divide largely consisted of unrealized, perhaps unrealizable, good intentions, and although research in the natural sciences tended to be pursued along narrow disciplinary lines, these institutions really did succeed for a while in ‘re-drawing the map of learning’ (the phrase was coined to describe Sussex’s founding ambitions), and their imaginatively-designed courses—wide-ranging, comparative, question-driven, and sometimes collaboratively taught—generated an intellectual excitement evident in the testimony of both staff and students in the early years.

Once one gets beyond the media stereotypes and broad-brush polemical histories, the differences among the magnificent seven become at least as fascinating as their similarities. Sussex and UEA were perhaps the most successful in combining interdisciplinary aspirations with institutional innovation, while York and Kent deftly blended new thinking with more traditional structures. Those four represented the ideal of the ‘new’ universities in its purest form and all four of them displayed the clear imprint of Oxbridge. Lancaster bore some resemblance to Kent (both, like York, were collegiate), but under its maverick vice-chancellor, Charles Carter, it went in for commercially-sponsored residences and embraced a variety of more applied subjects, such as business and management studies, systems engineering, social administration, and law. Essex was in some ways the most ‘utopian’, and owed more to US models than the others, as well as being committed to a fiercely uncompromising form of modern urbanism in its design. Warwick was, from the start, something of an outlier. The other six were all built just outside attractive county or ‘cathedral’ towns: Brighton, Canterbury, Colchester, Lancaster, Norwich, York. By contrast, Warwick was initially intended to be sited in a large industrial city as ‘the University of Coventry’, only later taking the county name and being built on its greenfield campus. It had closer links with industry than the others and embraced various applied subjects sooner than most. It was in some ways nearer to the civic university model, an identity confirmed by its being the only one of the erstwhile new universities to be included in the Russell Group of ‘top’ universities when this was founded in 1994 (when the group expanded in 2012 York also joined it).

No single story can be told about the various trends that coalesced into the new universities of the 1960s. According to one’s purposes, different elements can be emphasized—demographic, political, ideological, pedagogic, and so on. As a whole, this volume is strongest on the local sources of support for the new institutions, on the variable architectural achievements of their campuses, and on student activism in the years between 1967 and 1972; it also rightly emphasizes the role of central government, both in the UK and elsewhere. But perhaps from this distance what now seems most striking about the whole episode is how it represents the high-water mark of confidence in the university as an institution of liberal education. From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, and even in some respects up till the late 1970s, the dominant consensus favoured academic autonomy, the free pursuit of scholarship and science, and the realization of not just the intellectual but the human potential of students.

The peak of this confidence was reached in the years between 1961 and 1967. The new universities still had warm local support. Relations, both internal and external, had not yet been scarred by clashes over student protests (which challenged some of the assumptions of the liberal founders). Money was available for continued expansion. The new institutions were still small, almost cosily so; Sussex, the largest in this period, only grew to 3,000 students by the late 1960s. This meant that the ideal of a community of teachers and taught could still have some everyday embodiment. The project of breaking down disciplinary boundaries and banishing departmental parochialism still seemed on course to be realized. Universities were not yet subject to pressures towards directly vocational or applied studies—indeed, Anthony Crosland’s announcement of the binary principle in 1965, establishing the parallel polytechnic sector, indirectly had the effect of allowing universities to concentrate on their traditional purposes. To class these universities as ‘utopian’ may create a misleading impression, one which emphasizes the political and counter-cultural trends for which ‘the sixties’ are now remembered. Focusing on the ideals of their founders, rooted as they were in the 1940s and 1950s or even earlier, it may be more accurate to see these institutions as notably self-assured expressions of a well-established belief in the value of scholarship and science in forming, not round pegs for the round holes of the employment market, but capable, reflective, informed citizens.

In any collective volume, the chapters are bound to be of variable quality. In the present case, the general standard is high, though contributors seem to have been allowed a good deal of freedom in deciding what to cover. The best chapters—such as Allen Warren’s on York, or Marion McClintock’s on Lancaster, or, especially, Krishan Kumar’s on Kent—are those which combine the insights of long-serving insiders with an analytical historical frame. (The merits of the chapters on Keele and on philanthropy have already been mentioned.) Several other chapters tend either to stick close to the familiar official accounts or to be idiosyncratically selective (some of the latter, such as Carolyn Steedman’s discussion of E.P. Thompson and social history at Warwick, can be fascinating in their own right).

Jai Pandya: Arts Faculty (JNU), 2008 (CC)

In principle, it is a great merit of this collection that it attempts to cover some of the parallel developments elsewhere in the world, with chapters on California, Canada, Australia, India, France, and West Germany, together with an excellent overview chapter by Miles Taylor on the British Commonwealth as a whole (which incidentally brings out the importance not just of Oxbridge in general but of Balliol philosophy tutors and former students in particular). In practice, one or two of these chapters take a rather parochial or high-handed approach to their topic, making impossible any kind of comparison with the British example on matters such as curriculum, teaching methods, academic governance, and so on (the informative chapters on Australia by Hannah Forsyth and West Germany by Stefan Paulus are the most helpful for this purpose). One thing that does emerge from these accounts is the importance of the UK example, and especially of Sussex, as standard-bearer for the whole new university movement. From the Chinese University of Hong Kong to Simon Fraser University in British Columbia to Flinders University in Adelaide to Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Sussex was an explicit source of inspiration (which makes it even more of a pity that it is poorly served by the chapter ostensibly devoted to it).

Overall, the volume is a brave stab at doing justice to the informing ideals of the new universities, but the story it has to tell is unmistakably a story of defeat. In every case, the creative curricula and the innovative institutional structures that flourished in the 1960s and into the 1970s became victims of the chill winds of the 1980s and 1990s. Most reverted to some version of the single-subject honours degree; most restored departments; most set up business schools, as well as coming to teach law, engineering, and social work. Governance became less and less democratic, moving towards having a ‘senior management team’ answerable to a largely external Court or Council, bypassing Academic Senates; staff-student ratios plummeted and with them went some of the more innovative forms of teaching; any idea of a residential community of teachers and taught was soon abandoned. By the opening decades of the 21st century, several of these supposedly ‘utopian’ institutions looked like lesser, sometimes slightly dispirited, versions of the old civics.

Above all, they became much, much bigger, and it may be the enormous expansion of the higher education system as a whole that finally engulfed the ideas of the founding generation. So much of the thinking which inspired the new universities was premised on having institutions of what now seems an unfeasibly modest size: this was the precondition of community, liveable scale, close contacts between students and teachers, and—important if now unpopular—a highly selective intake (for a brief period, Sussex and York were receiving around 20 applications for every undergraduate place). It may be that another aspect of the resemblance to grammar schools is evident here: for good democratic reasons, comprehensive schools have replaced grammar schools (and secondary moderns) in most parts of the country, and something may have been lost thereby as well as much gained. Similarly, the huge expansion of universities has allowed large swathes of the population to benefit from some kind of higher education, an emphatically positive form of democratic enfranchisement. However, this expansion, when allied to other social and ideological changes, has meant a turn to universities being more and more regarded as competitors in a market, aiming to please their consumer-students, while increasingly, though not yet exclusively, functioning as service centres for the economy. There is now less room for the ideals which the new universities went a long way to actualizing in the 1960s. This useful if uneven volume provides abundant material for reflection on what has been gained and lost in this transformation.

About the Author

Stefan Collini is Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature.  After degrees at Cambridge and Yale, he taught at the University of Sussex before moving to a post in the Faculty in 1986.  He is a Fellow of the British Academy, a frequent contributor to The London Review of Books The Times Literary SupplementThe Guardian, The Nation, and other periodicals, and an occasional broadcaster.

Publication Rights

Review first published at Reviews in History. Republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) license.

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