The Birth of the People's Universities
edited by Tom Bourner and Tony Crilly
privately published: available from Amazon
362pp., £10.20 (paperback), ISBN: 978 1717559715
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2020
The 1960s was an extraordinary decade and, for those of us old enough to remember it, an exciting one. Post-war reconstruction was largely complete and the economy was growing. Most households now had radio, television and a refrigerator, many had a car, some had freezers.
Developments in science and technology included the laser, the first computer video game, audio cassette tapes, touch-tone telephones, colour television, automatic teller machines, the computer mouse and the Arpanet (forerunner of the internet). In 1961 Yuri Gagarin was the first man to go into orbit round the earth; just eight years later - in 1969 - the US put a man on the moon.
There were great changes in society, too, marked by an explosion of fresh ideas and different lifestyles, and the rise of a youth culture which challenged authority. There were campaigns for women's rights and gay rights; new styles of clothing and popular music; and the use of psychedelic drugs (notably LSD). Many saw these developments as liberating and empowering; others regarded them with distaste and feared the collapse of the social order. In the universities, student protests led to conflict.
Harold Wilson's Labour government oversaw reforms in health, housing, gender equality, price controls and pensions. Provision for disabled people was improved and child poverty reduced. Capital punishment was abolished, homosexuality decriminalised, abortion legalised, theatrical censorship abolished, and divorce law reformed. It was, by any standard, a remarkable record.
In education, it was a period of great expansion so that, by the end of the decade, the government was, for the first time ever, spending more on education (£2.3bn) than on defence.
In primary schools, there was an increasing emphasis on creativity, innovation, and a child-centred approach to teaching, supported by the 1967 Plowden Report Children and their Primary Schools. In the secondary sector, most local authorities were getting rid of the eleven plus exam and replacing their grammar and secondary modern schools with comprehensives.
Higher and further education saw equally significant developments. The 1963 Robbins Report on Higher education recommended a massive expansion of provision to cater for all who had the necessary ability. New universities were opened and more women undertook higher education (HE) courses; colleges of advanced technology provided four-year courses leading to the Diploma in Technology; and local technical colleges offered a wide range of courses.
Enfield Voices: The Birth of the People's Universities is the story of one of those technical colleges, as remembered by editors Tom Bourner and Tony Crilly and by their 28 contributors.
The authors' three main aims are:
First, to explore what had happened in what was a leading college of technology at the birth of the binary system of HE in England. Second, to discover what, if anything, was so special about this particular college at that time. And, third, to help contribute to remedying the lack of study of English HE outside of the universities at an important time for HE in England (p.viii).
The book begins with two introductory chapters by the editors. In the first, Tom Bourner describes Education in England when Enfield Tech became Enfield College of Technology.
He argues that
The conventional view of higher education at the start of the 1960s would have seen the universities as the leading institutions of HE and Oxford and Cambridge as the leading establishments within the university sector. And that viewpoint would have placed the technical colleges, a ragbag collection of institutions with a majority of sub-degree work and no coherent or cohesive philosophy, at the rear. Arguably, however, the reverse was really the case; the universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge, proud of their traditions, were the most resistant to change and it was the technical colleges that led the changes in HE that occurred during the subsequent decades (p. 13).In 1962, Enfield, 'a pretty run-of-the-mill technical college' (p. 15) became Enfield College of Technology, with George Brosan as its new Principal.
Brosan had 'a distinctive outlook on education and, in particular, higher education. It was focused on the application of new knowledge, rather than its discovery' (p.15). Under his leadership, there were seven key elements in the college's approach:
All this gave him experience of industrial employment, the application of his engineering knowledge to manufacturing, teaching in colleges of technology and his time in the education department of Middlesex County Council meant that he understood local authority rules, regulations and politics (p.17).He was 'entrepreneurial, iconoclastic and proactive'. As such, he was willing to take chances, did not find university professors, senior civil servants or government ministers intimidating, and was determined to 'make a difference' (p.17).
In his introductory chapter on How Enfield College came about, Tony Crilly recounts the history of Ponders End, 'a little known place' (p.20) eleven miles north of the City of London. It was
a place where work was done. In the van of industrialization of the late eighteenth century, mill owners, manufacturers, and industrialist saw it as well connected with London by canals and roads, and it met their needs for an efficient transportation system for goods and manufactures (p.20).By the end of the nineteenth century the town had a Technical Institute attended by students who worked in the Enfield Small Arms Factory, and with the development of the modern electronics industry in the early 1900s, new buildings were constructed. Following the 1946 Barlow Report Scientific Man-Power, the college began operating as 'Enfield Technical College' with four departments, all connected with engineering.
In the spring of 1962, as part of the government's expansion programme for technology, it became Enfield College of Technology with George Brosan as its Principal. In an article entitled 'A New Sort of University' in The Spectator (20 November 1964), Brosan argued that the existing universities could not be relied upon to meet future higher education needs.
Brosan drew a distinction between 'academic attainment' and 'intellectual attainment' and he suggested the latter should be the criterion for awarding degrees. He labelled the 'conventional academic attainment' the product of the traditional universities whereas 'intellectual attainment' would be the benchmark in the comprehensive institution he envisaged (p.27-8).Enfield College of Technology, argues Crilly, was now 'ready to play a leading role in the revolution in higher education, a revolution that occurred in Britain in the 1960s' (p.28).
The bulk of Enfield Voices consists of contributions from 28 former teachers of the college (some of whom had also been students there), divided into three sections: Early Birds (1962-1965), Mid-time Arrivals (1966-1968), and Later Comers (1969-72).
Early Birds begins with John Carr's recollections of 'the revolution at Ponders End' (p.30), and includes chapters by John M Stoddart, who writes of 'opportunity, vision and change' (p.38); Bryan Davies, who says the college provided a 'unique educational experience' (p.73); and Alexander Romiszowski, who writes of his 'fourteen fun and formative years at Enfield' (p.109).
Among the Mid-time Arrivals are contributions from Richard Baillie, who talks of his 'mostly happy memories of Enfield days' (p. 132); Ruth Towse, who describes 'how I learned to teach' (p.147); Brian Evans, who remembers his time at Enfield as 'an experience which shaped my academic life' (p.176); Thanos Skouras, who reminisces of 'a serendipitous start to an academic career' (p.206); and Roger Harris, who writes of 'intellectual generosity in a prototype for a new kind of institution' (p.246).
The Later Comers includes chapters by Tom Bourner, who suggests that Enfield was 'the beat of a different drum' (p.258); Jeff Evans, who writes of 'interdisciplinarity, fraternity, and a fair amount of freedom' (p.286); and David Dewey, who arrived 'just in time for last orders' (p. 323).
In The final chapter - making sense of it all, Tom Bourner notes that these 'delightfully disparate' accounts were written 'by individuals coming from different places who had different experiences at Enfield at different times during its eleven-year history' (p.330).
He provides an account of the College over its eleven years from 1962 to 1972, looking at what was special or distinctive about it and assessing its wider and longer-term impact.
He considers the concerns raised by the Robbins Report and argues that:
An unintended consequence of the Robbins Committee was to give a voice to other stakeholders of HE in Britain and create some new alliances and new forces within HE. One new alliance was between the ATTI [Association of Teachers in Technical Institutions], the Association of Education Committees (AEC) of local authorities and the DES. Each had a stake in preserving, if not expanding, HE in local authority institutions. The Robbins enquiry led to these advocates for HE in local authority institutions making common cause. Research for the Robbins Committee also, incidentally, had revealed how much HE had grown outside of the universities (p.335).He notes that one of Brosan's first appointments was Eric Robinson as Head of Mathematics, and he gives a detailed account of Robinson's background as an active member of the Labour Party; as a member, and later President, of the Association of Teachers in Technical Institutions; and as Vice-president of the Socialist Education Association from 1965 until his death in 2011.
Robinson effectively became George Brosan's deputy. The two men had similar views about higher education, and Enfield 'became the site where those ideas could be tested out in practice' (p.337). Bourner argues that their approach was:
Brosan knew best how local politics worked especially around education as he had been assistant Chief Education Officer for Middlesex ... Robinson, by contrast, had a better understanding of national educational politics and policy and the direction in which it was headed (p.339).At first, the main focus at Enfield was on 'making the transition from being a local tech college to becoming a college of technology with a broader remit including a wider area of recruitment'. This involved the appointment of staff who would 'move the college in a new direction' (p.339).
By 1964, says Bourner, Enfield 'had big ideas and a disproportionate number of articulate young social scientists, some in surprisingly senior positions' (p.340). In that year, three key events took place, each of which would have a significant impact on the work of Enfield: Harold Wilson's Labour government came to power, the Council for National Academic Awards was established, and the Crick Report on Business Studies was published.
The college expanded, enabling Brosan and Robinson to realise more fully their aims and changing the culture of the college from that of a technical college to that of a 'proto-polytechnic'. In 1966 it was proposed that Enfield would join with Hornsey College of Art and Hendon College of Technology to form a polytechnic, and in January 1973 it became part of the newly-created Middlesex Polytechnic.
As regards the special significance of Enfield, Bourner says:
It established an organisation structure that elevated courses above subjects because it prioritised the higher education of students above the accumulation of new subject-based knowledge ... Courses were developed to meet the perceived needs of students and the perceived needs of the community and society more widely, including the application of new knowledge. The result was the development of a range of distinctive courses particularly in the fields of engineering, business studies and the social sciences, which together accounted for the large majority of the work of the college. Distinctive features of these courses included interdisciplinary studies, student engagement through work experience and a broad vocational relevance rather than narrow vocational training for specific occupations (p.347).The ethos of Enfield was based on 'a set of dominant values and guiding beliefs' that underpinned course development, so that
Critical discussion was valued as the basis for decisions and actions. Student-centredness was valued above subject development and the accumulation of new subject-based knowledge ... Youth was valued for its fresh ideas and energy ... Difference was valued at Enfield even to the point of eccentricity (p.348-9).The college, he argues, challenged three traditionally-held views of higher education: that it was, for the most part, synonymous with university education, that the involvement of technical and other further education colleges was 'at most peripheral', and that such higher education as took place in the colleges was 'only possible by association with a local university or the University of London External Programmes' (p. 350).
Enfield did not attempt to replicate university education 'in either of its two archetypal forms, broad-based liberal HE or specialised single-subject degrees' (p.353). Instead, it constructed its degree courses 'from scratch' (p.353).
Finally, Bourner suggests that there were two other noteworthy consequences of Enfield: it led to the production of the book, The New Polytechnics: the People's Universities by Eric Robinson, which was 'very influential in the non-University sector'; and there was the effect of the 'Enfield Diaspora' as 'many of the more active players at Enfield went on to influential posts in HE in Britain, including Directors of at least four polytechnics, three of whom became Vice-Chancellors of universities' (p.355).
It is possible to argue that Enfield was a small North London (Ponders End) college with ideas above its station, unrealistic aspirations, even delusions of grandeur. It is also possible to argue that it made a significant contribution to the transformation of HE in Britain in the ensuing decades by providing proof of the concept of a second sector of higher education separate and different from universities and it demonstrated that it was possible for colleges that made up that sector to design and examine high quality HE without supervision by universities. Based on the accounts in this book, we think the balance of probabilities lies with the latter (p.356).
Enfield Voices will appeal particularly to two audiences: first, for former students and teachers of the college it will undoubtedly bring back many happy memories. A sense of excitement, of doing something new and important, is clear in many of the contributors' accounts.
Bryan Davies, for example, who joined the college in 1965 as a lecturer in history, remembers the first meeting for new staff addressed by Eric Robinson, in which
He expressed brilliantly, and with great passion, the creative future which lay ahead for the college. It was to promote the comprehensive principle in further and higher education, widening access for students, replacing the London University external degrees in favour of degree courses which would have strong vocational relevance (p.74).For Roger Harris, who taught philosophy at Enfield from 1968, the college was memorable for 'the exhilarating collective intellectual generosity of my colleagues' (p. 246).
And Julie Ford, who taught Research Methods on the BA Social Science degree course, remembers the college with obvious affection. Its location at Ponders End - 'Yes, really' - was 'a great source of amusement to colleagues in "proper" academic institutions', as was its 'ramshackle collection of ill-matched buildings'. She found herself at Ponders End, she says, because she was 'too appallingly deviant to fit in anywhere else ... an outrageously dressed barefoot twenty-two year old hippy with a PhD' (p. 305).
Inevitably, not all the contributors' recollections are entirely happy ones. Roger Harris, for example, recalls that there were 'serious constraints' (p. 254), some of which were externally-imposed, such as the inability of the college to award its own degrees; some of which were 'of our own making'. He argues, for example, that
Whatever his major positive contributions might be judged to have been, I feel, in retrospect, that Eric Robinson foisted on us at the time (and bequeathed when he left) a serious lack of civility towards colleagues. I often leapt into some fray that Eric had engendered in ways I now regret, and his cantankerous self-serving style persisted on Polytechnic boards and committees long after he had left (p. 254).So there is an honesty here, and memories are certainly not filtered through the proverbial rose-tinted spectacles. Nonetheless, Enfield clearly played an important and positive part in the lives of all the contributors.
For the second audience - readers with an interest in the history of the period, especially that of the development of further and higher education, Enfield Voices provides much useful information. The post-war development of higher and further education, and the political and wider educational context are all covered in some detail, and there is a useful timeline of key events.
But Enfield Voices will also appeal to the general reader. It is well-written, without too much jargon or too many acronyms, and it is full of interesting and sometimes amusing anecdotes. It is well presented with an attractive cover, and at £10.20 is remarkably good value.
But most importantly, Enfield Voices is an inspirational book, full of hope and possibilities.