Workshop 1 - Marion McClintock, ‘The Post-war UK University’

Marion McClintock (Honorary Archivist and former Academic Registrar, Lancaster University) opened her presentation with a comparison of the social reality in Lancaster after the Second World War and now. She explained how, 20 years after the death of Lord Ashton in 1930, the Lancaster community was still dominated by the rivalry of two major family companies, in contrast to 2009 when main Lancaster employers are two universities and a hospital.

McClintock outlined the impact of the creation of the University of the communities and its effects on the people living here, who were drawn into an experiment that was neither of their making, nor their wish.

Concomitantly, McClintock illustrated the scale of her argument with statistics relating to the number of universities and changes taking place in their establishment around the U.K. She compared the changing gender and class composition of the student body as well as the location of the new institutions and their effects on their social environments. McClintock also positioned her presentation in the international educational context.

Then she moved into the analysis of the UK university system in general.  She pointed out that whereas the pre-World War 1 'red-brick' universities were the result of civic initatives, and othe universities emerged from the chrysalis of earlier institutions, the seven 'plateglass' 1960s universities (East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Lancaster, Sussex, Warwick and York) emerged sui generis from a unique state-led experiment. Each was created on a greenfield site outside their historic centres, each developing its own style. 

After these came a number of universities formed from technical colleges, such as Aston and Brunel, and the Open University, introducing distance and virtual learning.

McClintock suggested that the most significant change in the UK university structure took place in 1992 when 38 polytechnics were awarded university status on the same day - a destabilising point in university education which has had wide impacts, including the creation of the Russell Group. These changes made it easier for government to divide and rule universities but at the same time brought about a fierce debate about the possibility of uniform academic standards across such an array of institutions.

Consequently, McClintock argued that nowadays universities don’t shape they own destinies but are experimented upon by government (for example in the planned integration of further education and higher education). But she also pointed to the enormous scope for any individual to enter the higher education system, and explained how this phenomenon was shaped by history and numerable reformulations.

To illustrate the changes wrought by the 1960s universities, McClintock described the distinctive path taken by Lancaster University. From its early years, students were encouraged to cross the ‘Snow’ line between the natural sciences and the arts and humanities, and staff were encouraged to teach their own research specialisms. The compactness of the university and the strong interconnection between subjects, led to a strong emphasis on interdisciplinarity, with the School of Independent Studies, in which students could construct their own degree, the most radical pedagogical experiment.

Today, despite a continuing commitment to transcending boundaries, the Snow line has largely reasserted itself, largely because of the conflict between the wish to enable students to explore subjects across the boundary, and the pressure for them to have units of assessment up to a consistent level to contribute to their final degree result.

Lancaster Environment Centre and the Institute for Advanced Studies were held up as playing an important role in bridging disciplines. The new School of Health and Medicine shows a distinctively Lancaster approach; although medical schools are traditionally seen as lying at the ‘heavy’ end of universities, here SHM is much more closely integrated with other disciplines.

McClintock talked about the forces being exerted on the former model of academics as semi-autonomous individuals and the changing experience of students with the development of IT and peer learning. She suggested that the dramatic expansion of HE has been a natural laboratory, with consequences for our political and economic life. For Britain, a country that ‘relies on its wits’, the HE tier of education is crucial, but an idiosyncratic sector, regarded by government with a curious mixture of both pride and suspicion.

The sector deserves evaluation, but formulating the appropriate questions requires an understanding of the characteristics of the system as a whole, and its antecedents, and also a consideration of single institutions – but in a spirit of discovery, not audit.

DISCUSSION

The following discussion focused around four themes.

Firstly, the questions of agency in the university experiment were posed, exploring the influence of senior officers, the founding vice-chancellor and student representatives.

Secondly, discussion moved onto the issues of public health in the context of public/personal debate. It was recalled that Lancaster University announced in 1994 that it was a first world health promoting university, conducting a project funded by NHS. This initiative ensured the quality of medical services for students but unfortunately provided less investment in the health of staff. As to its legacy, after funding dried up, the project drew to a close and no line was drawn under it at the time of its end. This practise was considered as an example of a relatively unproductive experiment.

Thirdly, discussion turned onto Manchester University and its reabsorbing of UMIST and consequent the change of its name (Manchester EST 1824) which emphasised not experimentality and innovation but on the contrary tradition. Attention was also drawn to the geography of Manchester University where science and the humanities are divided by a main road like a physical fabric, reasserting the art/science distinction. The question of whether there is any experimentality going on in the direction of bridging the two was posed. This example was subsequently contrasted to the plan of Lancaster University’s campus, which was supposed to blend and integrate students from different faculties.

Subsequently, the notion of 'flight from innovation' was considered in terms of contradictions of experiment as narrowing and expanding the view of education. The following themes were raised in this part of discussion:

  • as the experimental model of education had changed, what is the model organism now?
  • the issue of constant quantification
  • whereas past students were more like apprentices, learning by students today is a process of fragmentation - module taking as breaking down to absorbable components, understood quickly, followed by a gradual building of knowledge and leading to a lack of previously implicit deep understanding
  • portfolio degrees – from the discipline to the supermarket approach
  • combined subjects as merely doing half of two degrees, as students are left to personally combine the given knowledge from both sides