Utopian Universities

On 23 and 24 October 2014 the Institute of Historical Research in London held a fifty-year retrospective of the Universities founded in England during the 1960s. These tended to be newly-built institutions, often on the edge of a city, which aspired to offer a different experience to students (architecturally, academically, and socially) compared with the ancient and red-brick universities. The focus of the papers was on seven Universities in particular, namely Essex, Lancaster, Sussex, University of East Anglia, University College Kent, Warwick and York, but Keele was also frequently referenced during the event as the ‘pioneer’ of the 1940s which inspired other foundations. These universities were at the time expressions of unprecedented idealism about what higher education could achieve, backed up by the Robbins Report of 1963 (idealism which could not last and was stopped in its tracks in the 1980s).
‘Campus visions’ addressed the architectural legacy of the new Universities. Collectively they comprised some of the most exciting architectural commissions of the 1960s and typically resulted in brutalist concrete and plate-glass designs which aimed to compel certain types of behaviour; walkways were constructed, for example, to ensure that students must meet. Interestingly Keele was often referenced at the time as an example of what not to do, and yet the eclectic style of our own campus has weathered rather better, I think, than some of the later 1960s constructions.

Ziggurat brutalism at the University of East Anglia
The ‘utopian’ universities also strove to offer new ‘maps of learning’ for students, and here Keele was again mentioned, given its dual-honours curriculum promoted by Lord Lindsay. The universities were aiming to widen the intellectual diet of undergraduates by breaking out of the traditional single-honours mould. At Sussex, for example, subjects were taken within different ‘Schools’ that would strongly influence the content of a degree; History taken in the School of European Studies would look rather different to one taken in the School of American Studies, for example.
Student radicalism at the new institutions was partly spurred by debates around the national lowering of the voting age and of adult majority to 18. This was only agreed in 1969 and took effect in 1970, which meant that throughout the 1960s, bizarrely, Universities were acting in loco parentis towards their students. Radicalism was fostered at institutions which were relatively physically isolated from their surrounding populations and where the breaking down of intellectual boundaries inspired notable student engagement and activism. Considerable attention was directed at student action at Essex in 1968 and 1974; however, in a sobering turn of events, student radicalism in the past which may have been deeply deprecated by University management at the time is now being incorporated into institutional histories with a very positive slant (as a quaint anecdote from history); see Keele’s own video wall for one example of this labelled ‘History and Legends’.
Keele supplied a positive model for civic engagement, given Lindsay’s intention that a four-year degree (a multi-disciplinary foundation year followed by three years of dual honours) would constitute training in ethical citizenship. His ambition was backed up by the role of the Workers Educational Association and the support of self-motivated adult learners in North Staffordshire in establishing the University. Elsewhere professional fundraisers were employed and local authorities, charities and other bodies invested heavily in some of the new institutions at first: but climates of opinion tended to change and support cooled. Warwick was the most successful University, raising £2.75 million by 1967 to fund the Warwick Arts Centre (which has remained a very popular arts venue to the present). There was not much reflection, however, on the role of students in or on communities. Predecessors to twenty-first century volunteers were not represented in the papers.
The conference was certainly expressive of the innovations achieved by the new universities of the 1960s, but delegates tended to be less clear on their legacy. Keele’s own recent shift away from a commitment to dual honours certainly suggests that any legacy may be more historic than current.


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