The swinging Sixties laid bare

Forty years ago, vice-chancellors were invited for drinks with the prime minister, Harold Wilson, who planned an inquiry into student protest. A D Harvey sifts the National Archives
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The Independent Online

As long ago as 1962, the then chief secretary to the Treasury was telling the prime minister Harold Macmillan that he was "concerned about the provision we are making for the universities. I am quite sure that earlier this year we cut them back harder than we should have done."

Whitehall files dealing with higher education during much of the last 100 years are open to public inspection at the National Archives at Kew. Those for the first part of the 20th century are concerned mainly with matters of detail. Some of the detail, in spite of the unfamiliar contexts, seems familiar enough: Leicester Municipal Technical School (ancestor of today's De Montfort University) found that participants in the Government Scheme for Higher Education of Ex-Service Students after the First World War "are decidedly inclined to unpunctuality, to snatching odd minutes for cigarette smoking, and are certainly lacking in the ordinary care necessary in handling school apparatus". During the Second World War, the vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, Sir Arnold McNair, complained that "pupils did not always go to the university which provided the best instruction in their particular subject and so their education suffered". He thought "the Modern Universities would never assume their proper position until steps were taken to deal with the creaming of the best pupils which resulted ... partly from the inherent attraction of Oxford and Cambridge, and partly from the pressure exercised by headmasters ... This affected not only the undergraduate body, but also the teaching staff".

Other aspects of higher education have changed enormously. In the 1920s, only 30 per cent of university students nationwide were women and, when the Board of Education (forerunner of today's Department for Education and Skills) brought in a State Scholarship scheme to enable pupils from state schools to attend university, it was unusually progressive in insisting that the scholarships should be allocated to males and females on a 50:50 basis. The various examination boards objected vigorously: the Oxford and Cambridge Board pointed out in 1924 that "a larger percentage of the girls recommended for scholarships would not have obtained a place in an open list", and, in 1925, claimed that the best girl in the year was on a level with the boy ranking 14 in the boys' list.

Incidentally, one of the girls who "sneaked through" before the award of grants on a 50:50 basis was rescinded in 1930, was Mary Renault, the novelist; another was Eileen Harold, who later, as headmistress of North London Collegiate School, helped to establish the tradition that the best girls' schools had better exam results than the best boys' schools.

Universities began to play a key role in debate on national policy only in the 1960s. In the correspondence with the prime minister quoted above, the chief secretary to the Treasury acknowledged that, in cutting university budgets, "we have done ourselves a fair amount of political damage. I have therefore been working on a reversal of these cuts, while seeking to avoid any dramatic, and therefore embarrassing, reversal of policy".

The establishment of a new generation of "plate-glass" (as distinct from "red-brick") universities in the 1960s contributed to the new higher profile of tertiary education. One of the issues to be settled was how much to pay the new vice-chancellors: it was found that "the figure for small universities is in the region of £4,000, and this, we think, is the figure adopted by Sussex and Norwich ... it is £400 a year more than the top of salary range for non-medical professors (£3,600) and £1,000 a year more than the average non-medical professor's salary in the small universities".

But although vice-chancellors in the 1960s were only paid a third more than mere professors (as compared with three times as much today), there were fringe benefits such as being invited to 10 Downing Street by the ex-Oxford don Harold Wilson and "sitting round the Cabinet table a late hour letting their hair down". The drinks bill for one such session, involving 22 vice-chancellors, included five bottles of port and sherry, a modest 10 bottles of wine, and four bottles of brandy, whisky, gin, and so on.

The 1960s were, of course, the era of student protest. Harold Wilson was planning some sort of high-level investigation into this at the time of his unexpected defeat in the general election of 1970. E D Wright, in charge of police matters at the Home Office, found it "ironical and rather sinister" that officials at the Department of Education and Science "were far from keen on an inquiry of any sort but were going to do their damnedest to avoid a wide-ranging inquiry". Education Department mandarins suggested a "mixed standing group" of ministers, officials and vice-chancellors, which, Wright thought, "comes nowhere near meeting the PM's wish to be able to announce the appointment of some independent body ostensibly inquiring urgently and diligently into something or other (it doesn't seem to matter what) concerned with student unrest".

In any case, Wright argued, there might be a problem with "the direct association of even junior ministers with any decisions about student behaviour or unrest ... this is the last thing HMG wants at this stage - the whole purpose of a proposal for an independent inquiry was surely to place the whole business in baulk over the next few months, and thus avoid the need for ministers to do anything other than refer to the existence of the committee." He pointed out, "It would, of course, be a help if one could discern what political mileage there is in this anyway".

One would like to know more about subsequent developments, but very little material of more recent date has so far been released by the Government, apart from files prepared for the benefit of ministers answering parliamentary questions. (Question: "Why does the University Grants Committee's grant distribution favour universities in the South East?" Answer: "It is a strange sense of geography that puts Warwick and York in the South East!")

The inside story of government's growing involvement with higher education since 1970 is still, in effect, subject to the 30-year rule. But perhaps there isn't an inside story: files so far released give a distinct impression of a preoccupation with outward appearances. A preoccup- ation that, some claim, is shared by today's university managers.