The function of the university

After all the sentiment of recent days, I hope normal service can now be resumed. Here is something interesting.

I am not the only person moving out and throwing things away. Last week I came upon a fifty-page booklet which had been discarded by one of my colleagues, I don’t know who. It was entitled:


With a title like that, how could I resist?

It was the report of a conference held on 9 November 1972 at Imperial College, London, convened jointly by the CVCP and the AUT. That is itself quite remarkable given the present climate. But all the abbreviations have changed, and I should start with a dictionary.

  • CVCP: now Universities UK (UUK), the people who run British universities
  • AUT: now UCU, the lecturers’ union
  • NUS: still NUS, the students’ union
  • UGC: now HEFCE, the funding body
  • ABRC: still ABRC, the umbrella body for the research councils (I think)
  • SRC: now EPSRC, one of the research councils (concerned with science and engineering)

The morning session was about research, introduced by Professor H. J. Perkin, vice-president of the AUT, with set-piece speeches from Sir Robert Aitken, Deputy Chairman, UGC; Professor Sir Frederick Dainton, Chairman, ABRC; and Professor Hermann Bondi, Chief Scientific Adviser, Ministry of Defence, followed by comments from the floor and replies from the speakers. In the afternoon, the discussion of teaching followed a similar pattern, with Professor Asa Briggs, Vice-Chancellor, University of Sussex, introducing, and speeches from Professor J. P. Corbett (Bradford) and Professor A. Bolton (Heriot-Watt).

In the opening words, Professor Perkin said,

The object of the Conference was to consider research and teaching with particular regard to their support and future development, the interactions between them and the respective parts they played in a university’s activities.

I am not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of what was said. What struck me most on reading the document is the extent to which political correctness has subsequently become a force in our lives. The records of the speeches and discussion are remarkably candid. Here are a few examples.

Professor Bolton, after discussing the scandalous practices in planning that led to the Ronan Point disaster, re-wrote words of G. K. Chesterton:

And they that rule the SRC in solemn conclave met,
Alas, alas, for science they have no graves as yet.

Immediately afterwards, he quotes from the report into the disaster:

We think it would do much for the improvement of system building if the disaster at Ronan Point were to engage the interest of a wider range of engineers,

which he glosses as “all engineering would benefit if proper research involving discussion and publication of the normal university kind took place”. This is an interesting point: one of the things that universities have to offer is their tradition of enquiry, questioning, experiment, and (most of all) openness. He remarks on several recent disasters involving box girder bridges, while the much earlier box girder bridges at Conway and the Menai Straits are still standing: “They did not fail, perhaps, because the engineer Fairbairn went to Hodgkinson, a university professor, and together they had done some research on scale models and by theory.”

An example more jarring to modern ears was given by Professor Dainton. A recent shift in Government policy had transferred a considerable amount of money (20 million pounds, worth a lot more today) from the research councils to Government departments, who would use it to commission their own research. The blow to universities was softened by a Government statement that they expected that much of this research would be commissioned from universities, and a promise to allow a period of stability before any further long-term cuts were made. Professor Dainton said,

If events showed optimism to be justified, then celebration would be in order; if the pessimists were proved right, … he could only console the Conference with the Chinese proverb: “If rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it”.

(Before you become too outraged by this, ask yourself whether it is legitimate to describe the damage done to universities by short-sighted Government funding decisions as metaphorical rape of the universities.)

Professor Bondi contrasted the management structure of industrial concerns and government departments (with considerable stress on review, and a separation of those doing the work from those reviewing it) with universities (in which “the vice-chancellor’s chief, indeed constitutionally only, adviser on, for example, clinical botany was the professor of clinical botany”). He advocated the newly-mooted principle that university staff should spend some time in the Civil Service, without detriment to their university careers.

Many (but not all) of the people who spoke and commented were of the view that research and teaching are inseparable functions of universities, each informing the other. There were many aspects of this, which I don’t need to describe in detail. However, the opposing view existed, and was acknowledged by the speakers (and supported by some comments from the floor). Professor Corbett felt the need to introduce his talk with the words

he had been told that the title “Universities as teaching institutions” had been chosen because it was a challenging title—even a provocative one. This had surprised him. How could “Universities as teaching institutions”. a platitudinous phrase if ever there was one, be challenging, let alone provocative? This seemed only possible if to some people in the community teaching was still viewed as a secondary—because a second-rate—activity.

There was some dissension between those who thought that the standard of university teaching could be improved by proper instruction, and those who thought that good teachers are born and not made and attempts to improve the standard must fail. Nobody, it seemed, had the foresight to see what would grow out of this debate: the dreaded PGCAP, put on by educators with no subject-specific knowledge and wedded to an ideology of “learning by discovery”, which puts an intolerable burden on new academic staff today. I once read that someone (perhaps it was René Thom) had added a third line to the well-known “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”, namely “Those who can’t teach, teach the teachers”.

Other striking messages are there to be read. For example, a conference jointly sponsored by the people who run the universities and those who teach in them: the message is that, back them, we were on the same side, and the “us and them” mentality didn’t really exist. Back in those halcyon days, the vice-chancellor’s salary was probably not very much more than that of the professors. The purpose of the organisation was clear to all, and disagreements about how to achieve it were secondary. Representatives of the NUS were there as well, and even after the student unrest of the 1960s they seem not to have been alienated. Their representative welcomed the seriousness with which teaching standards were being treated.

But to me, there is one single message from this conference which outweighs all others. It is contained in the title. The function of the university, in 1972, was teaching and research. While the great and good argued over how this was best done, nobody denied the principle itself. How things have changed!

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
This entry was posted in history, maybe politics, teaching and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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