The Vice-Chancellors who came to tea

Records reveal the arrangements for vice-chancellors to have private dinners with the Prime Minister in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Viewed as an opportunity for an exchange of views, papers show the careful preparation by civil servants for these encounters.

Occasioned by student unrest, Harold Wilson met with vice-chancellors.  In March 1970 the prospects of further student trouble led to another dinner invitation.  Vice-chancellors would be invited to take a more robust attitude towards their responsibilities although the government might offer to shoulder some responsibility.  The cabinet secretary (Sir Burke Trend) suggested that it could be contrived that the vice-chancellors would ask for the meeting, which would then focus on education policy but also include briefings by the Security Service and the Home Office (Trend 1970)

The student situation had settled down in 1973 when Edward Heath arranged to meet with a wider group of higher education leaders including vice-chancellors, polytechnic directors and heads of colleges of education.

The file shows the careful arrangements made, the sharing of agenda items and choice of participants.  There are even notes between civil servants agreeing that the cost of the dinner should be met by the government.  The briefing for the PM includes the key issues for each group.  For the universities, he is told:

More generally, the Vice-Chancellors are concerned about the role and standing of the universities. They suspect that the Government underprize them and do not consider them “relevant” enough. (Anon, 1973)

Whereas, on the other side of the binary line:

The polytechnics are generally in good heart. They have their preoccupations. Chief among these is the need for greater clarification of their role (particularly their place in the LEA higher education sector and their relationship to the universities) and the massive expansion (trebling) of their student numbers following the White Paper.

The briefing also contains the following biographical notes with character assessments. For example, Bullock is ‘very much the Oxford Yorkshireman, plain-spoken, witty and humane’, Armitage a ‘very resourceful man with excellent judgement which he chooses to conceal under a bumbling manner’.

The record of the meeting, circulated to key ministers, records the informal discussion after dinner.  They had discussed links with industry, the impact of Europe on higher education and the following discussion, which must have been uncomfortable for some.

Thinkers versus Doers

Some representatives of the polytechnics argued that a major mistake made by the universities was to value knowledge for the sake of knowledge. The great majority of graduates would pursue their careers in the world of action, not of reflection: and this basic fact should be reflected in university entrance requirements and in final examinations. At present, however, the universities’ approach was too scholastic, and as evidence of this one could point to the low status of engineers, the academic approach to the training of lawyers and the low standards of linguistic ability in this country. As a society we tended to place a lower value on doing than on thinking, whereas those responsible for higher education should always remember that the vast majority of young people would be actors, not thinkers.  (Roberts 1973)

Heath’s thanks to his visitors were noted, but he continued the theme

Universities too often failed to teach their students to think straight and to recognise quality: and without a thorough training in these basic intellectual processes the next generation would find themselves unable to compete effectively with their contemporaries in other countries. To argue the British case successfully in, for example Paris or Brussels would call for the highest standards of intellect and ability. At the same time the educational system had a major part in creating a more flexible social structure in this country, so that ability, wherever it might be found, could be developed and exploited to the full. (Roberts 1973)

Heath only had another year as Prime Minister, but his Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher, was also at that dinner and would take up these issues as Prime Minister.



Trend, 1970, Minute to Prime Minister 12 March 1970 National Archives PREM 13/3426

Anon, 1973, Briefing Note Prime Minister’s meeting with representatives of universities, polytechnics and colleges of education National Archives PREM 15/1477

Roberts C, 1973, Record of a discussion held after Dinner at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday 6 March 1973 National Archives PREM 15/1477




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