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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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“Well, if you knows of a better university…”

By Paul Temple

The centenary of the 1918 Armistice will have caused us all to reflect on the almost incomprehensible catastrophe of the First World War. One of its unanticipated effects – perhaps relatively minor at first, but of growing significance – was to change British higher education.

SRHE member John Taylor has published his meticulously-researched account of British universities in this period – The Impact of the First World War on British Universities: Emerging from the Shadows (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) – at exactly the right moment. Most students of British higher education are aware that the First War marked a turning point; for me, John’s most important contribution is to identify that turning point precisely: Saturday 23 November 1918, the date of almost certainly the most important single meeting in the history of British higher education. (Perhaps SRHE should hold an annual commemoration.)

It took place between Sir William McCormick, the Chairman of the Advisory Committee on University Grants (advisory to the Treasury, dating from 1906), and its influential Secretary, Alan Kidd, and a group of 32 institutional heads (representing most of the existing universities and university colleges), with the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Bonar Law) and the President of the Board of Education (Herbert Fisher). Kidd’s briefing paper for the meeting covers issues that would not look out of place in a similar document today: the scale of university expansion; the balance between science and technology and the humanities in an expanded system; how to widen access to higher education; and how to increase the number of university staff. The two groups meeting Ministers that day would in the following year form, respectively, the University Grants Committee (UGC) and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), both bodies becoming central to British higher education for the remainder of the twentieth-century.

The study of history usually involves identifying continuities and discontinuities. Continuities are certainly present in John Taylor’s account, but as he observes, the men (and of course they were all men) sitting around the table in London on that November Saturday, just 12 days after the Armistice, had no doubt that the Britain of 1918 was not the country it had been four years earlier – and that higher education needed to reflect this. As well as a new awareness about the significance of science and technology brought about by the War, Kidd’s briefing paper argued that: “There is accordingly a demand that university education should be made accessible to a much larger proportion of the population…by providing scholarships and maintenance allowances…” (134). More broadly, Taylor notes that the War had created new expectations of the state, both within government itself and in the wider country. From 1916/17, as understanding of the horrors of the Western Front grew, a view developed that there should be, as Taylor puts it, “no return to the status quo ante” (329).

What emerged from the 23 November meeting was an acceptance that a significant and continuing degree of public funding of universities was both desirable and necessary: as the Principal of the University of Edinburgh put it, “the development of the Universities, no less than their maintenance, is a national duty … and it is a national benefit” (147). The War had highlighted the links between universities and economic activity: as the Principal of Edinburgh put it in closing his speech – showing that Cardinal Newman’s mid-nineteenth-century “idea of a university” had run its course – “The Universities should be sustained and developed because they are potential creators of national wealth” (149). This must be a very early statement of this argument: can anyone point to an earlier one?

In 1914, most universities had some German members of staff, who had often spent most of their careers in Britain. In at least some cases, the university authorities tried their best to treat these colleagues humanely, even, in one case, in the face of what could have become a lynch mob outside the house of a German professor at University College Aberystwyth. While not proposing lynching, the University of Edinburgh Court hardly distinguished itself in 1914 by informing staff with German nationality that it was “desirable that [they] should resign the posts held by them in the University” (42). At Leeds, the professor of German discovered that becoming a British citizen did not protect him from being in effect run out of town, with the University reluctantly acquiescing: it did not help that the events in question coincided with the Battle of the Somme. Today, the position of staff members with foreign nationalities – the Prime Minister’s “citizens of nowhere” – has sadly once again become a live issue in British universities. May we hope for better behaviour this time around?

Future researchers on British universities during the First War period will be deeply indebted to John Taylor for his tireless work in sifting through years of university council and senate minutes and presenting to us the nuggets of gold which he has found. While most of us appreciated that important changes were brought about by that War, this book, by giving us the texts of reports, detailed accounts of decisions, and the actual words of many of the participants, brings these changes to life. Modern British higher education began in November 1918.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.