A Very British University problem

Some of our great universities had difficult beginnings. Even Harvard had a false start. Rather than a neat linear progression, most universities had some form of wobble on their way to greatness. This probably helps to reinforce a Whiggish view of university history, one that marketing departments can latch onto.

Some themes return, a distinctively British one is the ‘failure to complete your student number returns’…

At its foundation, University College Nottingham was not blessed with a lavish donor. It gained civic support, but was struggling for students. It was referred to as “the great white elephant of Shakespeare Street”. By 1909 the College was ready for a big push for an appeal for funds, but then came the “unhappy events of 1910”. The historian of the University College relates the story:

Serious errors were discovered in the returns of the numbers of students made to the board of education by the College for the year 1908-09. There had, of course, been no deliberate attempt to deceive or defraud. The trouble seems to have arisen in the department of natural sciences which. By a misunderstanding made in innocence and good faith, returned students doing three subjects…as counting three and not one. The error was spotted by a subordinate in the Registrar’s office, but it was not brought to the attention of Mr Stevenson, the Registrar, and as he did not notice it himself as they stood. On the basis of these figures the treasury grant of £5,700 for the year 1909-10 was made, and the return was subsequently presented to parliament. When inquiries began it was clear that there had been culpable carelessness in the administration of the College…

Measures to investigate were taken, and inspectors investigated the College. In the end, both the Principal and Registrar were asked to resign. Wood notes a ‘tradition’ that the Principal ignored letters from London about the disputed figures and describes that his last years in charge represented a “loosening of grip and a loss of vigour”. The ‘stark tragedy’ of Principal is described by Wood, but we don’t hear of the final fate of the Registrar…

Quotes from Wood, A, 1953, A History of the University College Nottingham 1881-1948, Oxford, Blackwell


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