David Lodge: A novelist's lament for the golden age of universities

The Monday Interview: David Lodge, the academic and author, admits that the profligacy of higher education had to end. But the Coalition is going too far, he tells Richard Garner

Monday 28 March 2011 00:00 BST

For a picture of how university life has changed over recent decades – from the 1960s era of generous grants spread among an academic elite to the present-day reality of tuition fees bearing down on a potentially huge proportion of young people – time spent with David Lodge makes it very clear.

Lodge is the former professor of English at Birmingham University who for many years was able to combine that job with writing novels – an indication in itself of how things used to be. He retired from academic life in 1987 in order to write full-time, and next week sees the publication of his 15th novel, A Man of Parts, based on the life of HG Wells. But as Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Birmingham, he maintains a foothold in the academic world.

Now 76, Lodge published his first novel, The Picturegoers, more than half a century ago in 1960, the same year that he began teaching at Birmingham. "I think there was that sense of being rather lucky to be at a university then," he says. "There was a tremendous feeling of broadening people's horizons in the 1960s. At that stage only about five or six per cent of people went to university. It was very competitive for students to get into higher education but a sense that, once you had, there was a certain assuredness about your future." That was also true for the staff. Lodge admits that "once you had got a job at a university, it was yours for life. You had to do something extremely silly to lose it."

Contrast that with today, and the pressures facing both universities and students. And as a result of that process, Lodge says, something valuable is being lost. Under the Government's proposals, funding for teaching all university subjects bar maths, science, technology, engineering and some language courses will be gradually phased out over the next three years – with the arts and humanities having to rely on income from students through fees to support them.

Lodge's measured tones belie a firm message. "I think that's very regrettable. It's foolish to take a purely business view of university education and only think of what can directly benefit the commercial sector. That's not what university education is for. University can be that, but it should be much more than that. The arts have won us international acclaim. We get a great deal of income from the arts. We really should be supporting them.

"It's a fallacy the idea that you allow the market to decide what is done by the universities. This assumes that students know exactly what they need to be doing. It is a very, very fallacious argument that you only supply where there is demand. If you do that, many important cultural areas will disappear from what universities have to offer."

How do his former colleagues at Birmingham feel about the changes? "Older members of staff are on the whole disillusioned and most of them have taken early retirement. It is not what they signed up to do. The whole university is a bit like a business, with a huge amount of form-filling and assessment and targets. I'd have found all that extremely oppressive and destructive." But with the expansion of university education to the point where nearly half the population now go on to higher education, Lodge accepts that it cannot be provided for free to all. "If you want to give higher education to a significant proportion of the age group, you can't have the quality of life that students had in the Fifties and Sixties. You've got to accept that you can't provide it for free."

Lodge is speaking in the flat he keeps in central London, but his main home remains Birmingham, as it has been all his working life. Married, with children and grandchildren living nearby, he says he finds Birmingham less frenzied than London, and it has provided the thinly disguised backdrop to many of his books – perhaps most notably the 1975 novel that marked his breakthrough, Changing Places. A comic novel that drew on the culture clash between English academia, as embodied in the decidedly drab University of Rummidge, and the slick, go-ahead world of US universities, it established Lodge as one of the funniest and most perceptive writers of his time.

Many of the characters in Changing Places reappeared nine years later in Small World, one of two Lodge novels to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize (the other is 1988's Nice Work), and the laissez-faire attitude it portrayed among academics at a time when Margaret Thatcher was in her pomp was, Lodge thinks, unhelpful to their cause. "I think there was a sense that some people regretted the timing," he says.

Nice Work, memorably adapted for television in a series starring Haydn Gwynne and Warren Clarke, explored the role and value of academic life further in a plot that created an unlikely pairing in a feminist lecturer (played by Gwynne) and an old-school Midlands factory boss (Clarke). The story reflected the new era in which links between academia and business were being fostered. Lodge has a nice story about a hit song used in the series, "The Power of Love", by Jennifer Rush, the UK's top-selling single of 1985. Rush took against its use in a drama that she believed promoted immorality, and when the series was being marketed abroad, Lodge himself wrote to her, begging her to allow the song to remain. Rush relented, and Lodge observes that his letter must have been "one of my most influential pieces of writing". Whole scenes that would otherwise have had to be rewrritten and re-shot could remain intact.

Lodge has always drawn on his own experiences in his writing, perhaps nowhere more specifically than in his 2008 novel Deaf Sentence, whose main character is going deaf, as Lodge himself started to in his mid-40s. "I noticed it first with my students, that they were mumbling more and I couldn't hear what they were saying."

But Lodge said recently that experience was something a writer tended to use up as the years went by, which is why he has started turning for inspiration to real-life subjects – first in 2004 for Author, Author, which novelised the life of Henry James, and now in A Man of Parts. HG Wells is a figure Lodge says he identifies with to the extent that both men had lower-middle class upbringings in south-east London, and in Wells's extraordinarily prolific career as a writer and as a political activist – not to mention his extremely complicated private life – Lodge saw rich material.

I ask Lodge if he would make the same choices if he had his time over again and he says that it was important that teaching English gave him time to focus on his writing. "Not too much was demanded of you during the long summer vacations." One suspects he believes that if a modern-day university lecturer with his writing talent is hiding away at one of our universities, he or she may just find they do not quite have the time to devote to their masterpiece as he himself had. And that would be a pity.

'A Man of Parts' is published on 7 April by Harvill Secker

David Lodge: a life in brief

* Born 28 January, 1935, Brockley, south-east London

* Studied at London University and Birmingham University, where he started teaching English Literature in 1960, the same year as his first novel was published.

* Has published 15 novels and numerous works of non-fiction. Twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize

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