The Vice-Chancellor appreciated

Was it always better in the past?  After a recent talk, the question was posed as to whether it is as bad now as its ever been for universities.  You’d had to say ‘no’.  And associated with that question is the question about the way universities are managed.

Even in the 20th Century you’d have plenty of examples – the universities were highly precarious until the 1960s, wars and depressions made unimaginable calls on their resilience.  But even when the Robbins settlement was made, there were still crises to be overcome.  In order to check that I re-read Ann Gold’s edited tribute to her brother: ‘Edward Boyle – His life by his friends’.  It confirmed that things were very grim in 1973-74 and again in 1981.  But they also highlighted the leadership that this Vice-Chancellor offered.

Stubley, Trevor, 1932-2010; Lord Edward Charles Gurney Boyle (1923-1981), CH, MA, LLD, DLitt, Hon, FRCS, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds (1970-1981)

Stubley, Trevor; Lord Edward Charles Gurney Boyle (1923-1981), CH, MA, LLD, DLitt, Hon, FRCS, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds (1970-1981); The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds

Edward Boyle was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds from 1970 to 1981.  He was the first politician to be appointed a Vice-Chancellor, having been MP for Handsworth from 1950 to 1970.  Chris Chataway thought that one the most important legacies from his ministerial career came at the moment when Robbins was published as ‘it was probably Edward who argued most strongly for university expansion’ (Chataway, 1991, p110).

Boyle came to the Vice-Chancellor’s job at Leeds having never worked in a university.  Although he’d done well at Oxford, he’d come there after working at Bletchley Park in the war, he surprised all by getting a third class degree.

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As well as being active in the Conservative Association, Boyle was an active debater, going on a seven month tour of the US with Tony Benn, who he succeeded as President of the Oxford Union.

Student politics were to the fore when he took of the role of Vice-Chancellor.  His predecessor had retired early after a difficult period of student unrest.  The book contains two substantive contributions on his work as Vice-Chancellor which are worth reading in their entirety as they recount a certain style of leadership.  First Challis writes:

Lord Boyle saw his role not as the Jarratt-style chief executive of the university but primarily as chairman of the University Senate. Senate’s own concept of its importance was reinforced by the emphasis which he placed upon it and by his belief in the importance of debate as a means of achieving consensus in key decisions of vital importance to the university or one its departments.  (Challis, 1991, p 126)

Well-briefed by his colleagues, Challis describes his readiness to debate and be challenged.  His political background helped when faced with a projected substantial deficit for 1974-75, calling all the staff together to explain his proposed approach.  Challis delights in telling the consequences of his decision not to replace his driver and therefore abandon the university car, requiring him to catch the bus.  Later in the book there’s a description of the ‘story or legend’ that ‘he once took his friend Edward Heath to the university by bus, police cars falling in in front and behind the bus in a solemn and unusual procession’ (Walsh, 1991, 140).

It’s clear that the scale of the university was different, Challis recounts him and the Deputy Registrar, James Walsh, journeying over a hundred miles to see the parents of a student who had failed his examinations (Challis, 1991, 133).  Sue Slipman explains how Boyle attempted to deal with an occupation in 1974, asking them politely to turn out a few lights (it was in the midst of power cuts in the city resulting from striking miners) to which the Maoists determined to turn them all on (Slipman, 1991, 136).

I would commend the book to those interested in higher education leadership.  In the second substantial chapter on Boyle as Vice-Chancellor William Walsh describes in more detail how he managed to have his view prevail.  It came from taking seriously the idea of the university as a self-governing community, immersing himself in the detail of the deliberative structures of the university and winning arguments.

When I was a student union officer at Leeds, a decade after Boyle had died in post, he was still held in great affection and his dictums were still cited as university policy; as Walsh notes

As a Vice-Chancellor he was able, out of the deepest conviction, to uphold the noblest purpose of the institution – teaching in the atmosphere of study and research, as he liked to put it – with a vivid sense of the intrinsic value of the individual. (Walsh, 1991, 143)

I don’t bring this portrait out to chide current vice-chancellors for not attending enough committees, or for not upholding its values, because I think they do both of those.  I bring it out because universities have had tough times in the past and come through them.  It’s also a helpful example of how someone can come from outside the sector into the VC’s role and be very successful at it.   It’s not necessary to have been an academic to run a university successfully, but you do need to be intelligent, engaging, and committed.



Challis, C, 1991, ‘The Vice-Chancellor at Work’ in Gold op cit
Chataway, C, 1991, ‘At the Education Ministry: His Junior Minister’s View’ in Gold op cit
Gold, A (ed) 1991, Edward Boyle – His life by his friends, Basingstoke, Macmillan
Slipman, S, 1991, ‘The Vice-Chancellor and Student Unrest’ in Gold op cit
Walsh, W, 1991, ‘The Vice-Chancellor in Office’ in Gold op cit





Old Main

Campus masterplans now have to encompass the vast swathes of cities taken over by research universities. However, the majority of these sprawling sites started with either a single or a linked series of buildings. In the US these original buildings often go by the title ‘Old Main’, that single building that served as lecture rooms, laboratories and accommodation. I’m interested in how we’ve grown from these single buildings.

The 19th century saw an explosion of higher education, with teacher training colleges, art schools, technical colleges and university colleges being added to most towns and cities. The architectural choices reflect the conflicts played out in our older universities, with, in effect, a conversation bring played out between a number of architects. Although the new university colleges in London went for classical buildings (think UCL), the teacher training colleges went for low-key gothic.

The Government was not a major force in Higher Education in the 19th Century, but an exception was the commissioning of three colleges for Ireland. Here they set out clear requirements:

… a Great Hall for public and ceremonial purposes, a museum of natural history and geology, a library, a botanic garden, a chemical laboratory, a “cabinet” for philosophical and mechanical apparatus, six lecture theatres holding two hundred persons each, residences for the President and Vice-President, and a cloister for exercise in wet weather. (Blau, 1982, p13)

The Queens Colleges all went for gothic, with different architects borrowing to differing degrees from existing models (Queens Belfast got a copy of an Oxford tower).  Gothic was established as the main building style.  The majority of institutions started with temporary premises before moving into newly designed buildings.  This had the benefit of both accumulating the capital and gaining a clear sense of the requirements.  When Owens College had Alfred Waterhouse build a permanent base, they weren’t too far from the pattern laid out for the Queens Colleges.

The teacher training colleges were built on similar if smaller lines, but they included residential accommodation.   These buildings can be found at the heart of campuses in Chester, Chichester and Winchester.   Having got that first main building, a key choice fell to many growing institutions later on; to stay or to move.  The university colleges were often built in the city centre or amongst nearby housing, with very limited scope to expand.

sheffield 1921

University of Sheffield 1921 (Britain from Above)

Aerial photos show the contrast between the universities who stayed in their original sites and those that moved out to suburbs.  Contrast Sheffield with Birmingham – Joseph Chamberlain’s vision for transforming Mason’s College mean moving from its handsome building, part of the civic building complex, out to a newly designed campus.


University of Birmingham 1928 (Britain from Above)

The university colleges of Exeter and Nottingham had an extra incentive to move as their shared their buildings with other civic users: libraries and galleries.  Their parkland settings gave them room to expand.  For colleges that moved in the inter-war years, this proved a great opportunity – the demonstration of pride in education shown by the new buildings for Edge Hill is obvious.

Edge Hill

Edge Hill Training College 1935 (Britain from Above)

The challenge now is how to incorporate the old main building into a masterplan for a whole campus.  Often the buildings are, perhaps, rather eclipsed by newer bigger buildings.  Although the Great Hall might still have its place, the changing functions of the university mean some of the other uses of those first buildings have changed.   Perhaps we don’t value them as much as the US universities value their ‘Old Main’ buildings?

They are certainly a useful record of the development of our universities; their architecture records changing functions and approaches to education, and the style they were building shows an aspect of their changing nature of higher education – are we looking back to collegiate gothic, or to a form of classicism or now to an ultra-modernism.


Blau E 1982 Ruskinian Gothic – The Architecture of Dean & Woodward 1845-1861, Princeton, Princeton University Press

Pictures from

AUA Conference: it was 20 years ago today

The 1998 Association of University Administrators (AUA) Conference was held at the University of Birmingham.  It was a time of uncertainty; while the Dearing Committee had reported the year before, the new Labour Government’s Green Paper had raised a host of issues.  Meanwhile HEFCE were maturing their systems, migrating institutions’ funding to a common level.

Bob Fryer was the main speaker, in his role of Chair of a lifelong learning advisory body but, in effect, David Blunkett’s plenipotentiary to the post-16 education sectors.  Government had taken the learning society theme from Dearing, and were advancing a programme of lifelong learning for all – a point that he emphasised (no measly 50% target here).  Fryer explained to a packed hall the challenges that the Government saw in three damaging educational ‘values’: failure, exclusion and hierarchy.  This was to be an integrated policy, he was as concerned about the kids who’d disengaged at 12 as those choosing educational paths at 16 or 18.   Fryer spoke often in this period, blending theoretical stances from Beck’s Risk Society with the ambition of his political masters.

Michael Clark (PVC at Birmingham) took a different angle to the same questions, looking at the New Labour approach to the management of public services, and then threading in how higher education would fit.  The ‘Third Way’ would be important, and Clark warned that Blair would be more radical than people had given him credit for. He also said that political advisers would have an important role – my notes include ‘Most influential thinker on Ed is Ed Milliband!’

To emphasise the newness of the government, we heard from a new backbencher Stephen Twigg, seemingly still shocked to be MP for Enfield Southgate but known to the sector as a former NUS president. Noting the Government’s plans on £1000 fees, he sounded a caution about the removal of grants and the potential issues around mature students.

A more regular feature of AUA conferences is senior leaders providing their own takes while being open about the challenges facing their institutions.  Sandra Burlesden explained how MMU had responding to the changes in policy by holding a major strategic review.  Nick Andrew and Margaret Andrew (Registrars at Bradford and Huddersfield) focused on how a regional focus would help their universities and then addressed academic & administrative structures and how universities needed to do better to build career structures for their staff.

Souvenir, but also useful to make coffee in halls of residence

SUMS often offer a window into their recent practice at AUA, and I went to two sessions they supported.  Bernarde Hyde looked at changing administrative support structures, with modularisation (often the 1990s’ bugbear) and research selectivity driving a ‘search for excellence’ in structures.  John Haywood (with Fraser Woodburn) ran a session on ‘shaking up the administration’, with new mechanisms for support services’ accountability and value for money.

The best part of AUA conferences is colleagues sharing their practice – my last session was a comprehensive guide to creating an international recruitment strategy. Perhaps providers will be more reticent about sharing ideas that might be giving them a competitive edge, but the open sharing of ideas and processes is still at the heart of our professional body and its wonderful annual conference.

The Snowflake Monster

The University is threatened by a monster, the snowflake monster. This is not a monster made of snowflakes – that derogatory term that is used for sensitive students who won’t tolerate debate and who need trigger warnings. It is the monster that uses the term ‘snowflake’ and it lurks in our media, all over the world.

There is a spectacular example of its work in a ludicrous story published by The Sun (I’d not normally refer to this media source, but it’s necessary to confront it). The Sun has discovered there is a ‘snowflake’ reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Except, as attested by the professors cited in the article, this isn’t news, this is what the novel is about. Surely the journalists must know this, they’ve clearly read the introduction to the novel (from where this story seems to originate from) and anyone who has read the book would know where the terror lies. So assuming that the journalists are not stupid, the first concern is that they think their readers are stupid.

This story presents universities as places where strange theories are hatched, where monsters are empathised with and accorded human rights. This is anathema to a part of the media whose stock trade is monsters. How dare universities teach such stuff.

This is the backlash that paints liberal arts courses as useless, that sees legislators try to de-fund humanities research and attempts to de-legitimise the university itself. The very business of contesting truth, the heart of the university’s business, is ridiculed. Common sense tells you that Frankenstein is about a monster killing people, not about what it means to be human. Universities must be ridiculous places if they hold such notions.

Each stupid piece, even if on the most stupid premise, chips away at universities. This nonsense in the Sun isn’t itself a big deal, it’s so obviously stupid. But it’s only one of today’s stories. That’s the bigger problem.

An Academic Registrar’s Challenges (Twenty Years ago)

1998 has many parallels with 2018, at least as far as higher education policy and practice goes.  I’ve had a look through my notebooks for the first term of the new year and we face some of the same issues, but there are some contrasts as well.  As a young academic registrar, there was a sense of precariousness, some of that connected with the issues facing the college but also the  sector acting on the Dearing Report, and a government starting to hit its stride.  There was tension about HEFCE’s new funding methodology, which would see institutions migrate to within 5% of a standard unit of resource measured by FTEs, which were controlled by the MASN.

Strategic Challenges

There were two specific challenges facing King Alfred’s College: the termination of its nursing contract and the conversion of the neighbouring La Sainte Union College into the New College of the University of Southampton.

The move of nursing education into universities is a fascinating story, and it should be told properly.  King Alfred’s had merged with its local nurse training providers and had a substantial number of students on nursing and midwifery programmes (I remember vividly my first midwifery validation event – which prepared me well for later encounters).  A bidding exercise had been run and many smaller providers had lost their contracts to offer nursing and midwifery courses, including King Alfred’s.  In early 1998 the college started to plan to phase out a third of its income.  The contract was taught out and a lasting memory is how the staff involved in the provision handled this situation with the utmost professionalism.

Another challenge came from the college’s validating partner: the University of Southampton had ‘merged’ with La Sainte Union College (LSU). LSU had succumbed to a second poor Ofsted inspection, it had not diversified sufficiently to survive without its teacher training contact and it was merging with its validating university: Southampton.  This was fine, but Southampton had come up with a new vision for LSU as ‘New College’, to act as a new access part of the university, combining with its adult education department.  For King Alfred’s, the potential revitalisation of LSU as a part of its validating university was a major concern.  It also forced a volte face on the part of Southampton who’d been looking to avoid ‘unhelpful competition’ between members of its validating ‘family’ but now found itself trying to compete.

Lifelong Learning

The Dearing report had positioned higher education firmly in a lifelong learning context – meeting the needs of the learning society.  The college had extensive CPD offering for teachers and a long established part-time evening degree, but was responding to HEFCE funding streams to engage adult learners.

Notes from a conference in March 1998 show that developing a culture of lifelong learning in the university was seen as the key challenge.  The Government were very enthusiastic but the sector would need to find ways of engaging as it developed its green paper into a framework for action.  Tessa Blackstone told the conference that universities should develop partnerships, have coherent strategies for access and develop plans for more adult lifelong learning.  Credit accumulation should be used to help students move between institutions.

At this stage the University for Industry was a key part of the government’s plans, with learning accounts enabling students to access short courses.  There was even mention of graduate apprenticeships.   Corporate learning would be important, and Geraldine Kenney-Wallace, the ‘vice-chancellor’ of the ‘BAE University’, provided information on their virtual university – part of their business strategy to enhance their international competitiveness, covering qualifications from HNDs to PhDs.

Working parties

If some have measured out their lives with coffee spoons, the life of an academic registrar is measured out by working parties.  In addition to the committees and standing groups, I appear to have attended specific groups on regulations, IT systems, graduation, continuing education, and tuition fees (we were still billing LEAs – but planning was underway for the new £1000 fees).

One set of working parties was concentrating on the future of the college, preparing a plan to deal with those strategic challenges, particularly focused on the prospect of applying for degree awarding powers.


Despite lots of efforts (including Bob Fryer who later headed it) Southampton’s New College never took off and the old LSU site was sold for housing.  BAE never developed their corporate university.  King Alfred’s got it’s degree awarding powers and is now the University of Winchester.

The Commuting Universities Blues- the solution is song…

One of the greatest concerns for the modern universities was to gain acceptance from public opinion as true universities.  They had many disadvantages; they often taught vocational subjects, had a poor stock of buildings in unglamorous cities but the greatest concern was that their students were commuting and therefore there wasn’t the esprit de corps exhibited in the old universities.   The provision of residences became a high priority, enabling the modern universities to compete for students.

This was between the wars.

The Great War saw the foundation of the modern British university system, with the UGC distributing government grants, the CVCP co-ordinating universities and the NUS building an internationalist movement while arguing for improvements for students. The UGC and NUS agreed that the residential model was best.

Students’ Unions provided the common rooms, societies and sports in the new, non-collegiate, universities. The majority of students in the civic universities lived either at home or in digs, rather than in halls.


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One of the prominent activities was singing.  The Leeds University Song Book is an example of how those modern universities tried to build up their spirits.  The preface explains:

With the advent of the Song Book, the hope grows strong that our University may develop a corporate musical spirit well befitting such an institution.  Some of the songs in this book are very robust: in singing them it is hoped that students will feel the inspiration of comradeship…

The Committee commend the book, hopeful that ‘our University may at last become a University of Song’.  There are five sections: Patriotic and National Songs; Yorkshire Songs; General University Songs (including Departmental Songs); Students’ Songs and Hymns.  The oldest of the local songs dates from 1886. sung in the early days of the student association of the then Yorkshire College.

The committee notes the enthusiasm of Professor Garstang in writing songs, so we’ll start with his Boating Song (which although he wrote some music can also be sung to the Eton Boating Song).

Cambridge has her Granta
Oxford, Isis Fair,
Leeds, with an enchanter,
Still might row the Aire;
But until he comes, in spite of banter,
We must go elsewhere!
Until he comes, in spite of banter,
We must go elsewhere

As an example of a ‘departmental song’ here is the Song of the Fuel Department (by Allan C Monkhouse)

Now listen all ye students who gather round to hear
The song of the fuel Department, a name to us so dear
Its work is quite stupendous, and if you’ll come along,
We’ll tell you all about it in our departmental song.

From sim, dark, distant ages of palaeozoic life
To present day conditions with all their stress and strife,
Our fuels have been building up until this day they stand
As the power of the nations who have them in their land.

There are equivalent songs about the joys of Geology, History, Mining, Physics, Chemistry and Maths.   The songs show that the healthy inter-departmental rivalry that still plays out in calls for differential fees.  The ‘University Songs’ show their pride in their alma mater, but perhaps with that sense of their technological status and what Flexner would complain was the service-station model of higher education.

Do you yearn to know more of the Arts and the Sciences.
Icelandic verbs or textile appliances?
If in leather or medicine or steam your alliances,
Presto, you’re served while you wait, up –
Up, pup, pup, at the Varsity,
Hup, pup, Kumati, Kuamti, Grrr, Mah
Ha-gi, Hai Ha-gi,
Now for the last bit, Hurrah


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‘Ku-ma-ti’ is the ‘war-chant’ of the university.  Historians of the university are unsure exactly how it was adopted, but it appears to have a link to Maori.  Another song picks up the theme:

Tho’ some Varsities be older
Being establish’d long ago
By the glamour of antiquity surrounded;
Yet we’re just as proud in Yorkshire,
And have many things to show,
to prove to you our pride is fully grounded

So Ku-Ma-ti! For Leeds and its Varsity;
Its medicine, science, arts and law,
Its technicalities galore,
The students and the training corps,
So Ku-ma-ti for Leeds

So, perhaps one part of the answer for commuting students is a return to the song book.  It will combine pride in your university, however vocational its studies might be, and would come with helpful patriotic songs (having access to the words to Rule Britannia and Land of Hope of Glory must help with our new confident global status).

The Song Book is a reminder that we’ve been through many of our current anxieties before.   Of course, communal singing isn’t really going to be a solution.  Especially if its a series of songs about how hard study is in your department.

John Major and Academic Drift

The binary line was abolished in 1992.  A deliberate policy of having two sectors of higher education was ended and the universities and polytechnics were brought together under a single funding agency.  A part of that process was the agreement that polytechnics could apply for university title.  As I have noted before, somehow this is still controversial.  Papers in the National Archives show something of how that policy developed.

John Major became prime minister at the end of November 1990.  His first Education Secretary was Kenneth Clark who, after settling in, submitted a paper for discussion on long term issues in education policy responding to the PM’s own stated priorities.  This paper includes the following section on Higher Education.

The natural evolution of the reforms for Higher Education contained in the 1988 Act is to bring together the two Higher Education sectors – Universities, and Polytechnics and Colleges – under a single Funding Council. That will ensure that the system can continue to expand cost-effectively and without artificial barriers. It means the end of the so-called “binary line”. Most polytechnics will want to call themselves universities, and the time has come to allow that but we shall need to ensure that the diversity of provision in HE does not suffer as a result. I am quite sure that the change will not result in any diminution in standards in our excellent higher education system. We will need to ensure that by good quality assurance control arrangements and seek to preserve the diverse and distinctive contribution of the universities and polytechnics.

There are plenty of complications – there is an awkward Scotland/Wales/N.Ireland dimension. We shall have to insist on robust quality assurance arrangements. Research funding will have to be handled carefully. I expect to be able to circulate proposals on all these matters to colleagues for discussion in March, with a view to a White Paper in the early summer. This would be a topic for legislation early in the Parliament, a commitment to that effect would, I think, be widely welcomed.
(Clarke, 1991)

Clarke continued, with a theme that we would return to:

We could also use that opportunity to add privately funded tuition fees to my existing powers to make student loans available for maintenance. My opinion, however, is against that – you will remember how unpopular it was with our colleagues in the House of Commons when Keith Joseph first suggested it some 5 years ago. I do not believe that it is possible to set up a sensible and fair market in higher education tuition fees. I recognise that the alternative is the provision of more public funds to finance the further expansion of Higher Education
(Clarke 1991)

One of threats that the vice-chancellors had been using was to discuss top-up fees as a way of maintaining the unit of resource in the face of continued ‘efficiency gains’ from the government.

Academic Drift

By March 1991 the ramifications of uniting the sector were being worked through.  The briefing note for John Major before a meeting with Ken Clarke stated:

…then polytechnics will wish to take on university status. Though attractive to them, it is not necessarily advantageous in a wider sense. Courses could become more academically orientated. It is no means obvious that is best for the economy.
(Potter, 1991a)

The Civil Service had first worried about ‘academic drift’ in the early 1960s and had influenced Crosland to create the polytechnic sector in part to prevent it.  Now officials at No10 were concerned again.

After the meeting with Clarke, John Major’s Private Secretary wrote to the DES.

First, if Polytechnics are to be able to take on university status, it will be important to ensure that they cannot shift their course mix or research programme to favour more academic subjects. … the Prime Minister would be grateful for your Secretary of State’s specific assurance that the system in place will prevent an undesirable shift in the allocation of teaching or research resources.
(Potter, 1991b)

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The DES wrote back, with a ‘satisfactory response’ giving the appropriate assurances.  Interestingly the DES thought that student demand would prevent the polytechnics offering more academic courses (Ratcliff 1991).

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The DES noted that if necessary the Secretary of State could require the funding councils to use those funding incentives.  The file contains letters from other ministries commenting on the developing white paper.  Michael Howard (Secretary of State for Employment) endorsed the approach, stating:

We are agreed that parity of esteem between vocational and academic forms of education is important; this is no less so for higher education than at lower levels.  Kenneth’s proposals, in aiming to give polytechnics equal status with universities, should help that objective.
(Howard, 1991)

David Mellor (Chief Secretary to the Treasury) noted that removing the binary line would open up the universities to the ‘full force of competition from the polytechnics and colleges’ but noting the concern  that the polytechnics could adopt ‘some of the less attractive features of the present universities’ and that must be resisted very strongly.  (Mellor, 1991)

Policy Outcomes 

These debates, early in a Prime Minister’s term of office (framed around the Classless Society), are still relevant today.  The issue of vocational vs academic and whether some institutions should pursue one or the other remains live.  So too does the role of competition – although it could be noted that the expansion of the old universities has now moved forward in the last few years as the temptation of £9000 fees without a student number cap kicked in.     There are signs that the government in 1991 thought that its new regulators, the higher education councils, would manage the sector through funding incentives – an option that is harder for government in 2018.   Funding, however, remains live.  Ken Clarke wasn’t convinced that a market in fees could work.  Clearly one of the issues for the ‘major review’ of tertiary funding will be differentiated fees; a major issue for our post-binary line sector.


Clarke K (1991) Education Policy – Long Term Minute 18 February 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294
Howard, M, (1991) Future Structure of UK Higher Education: The Binary Line Letter 28 March 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294
Mellor D (1991) White Paper: Higher Education Letter 20 May 1991 TNA PREM 19/3296
Potter B [BHP] (1991a) Bilateral with the Education Secretary Briefing 6 March 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294
Potter B, (1991b) EA Higher Education – The Binary Line Letter 26 March 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294
Ratcliff, J (1991) EA Higher Education – The Binary Line Letter 28 March 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294