On 23 November 1918 the President of the Board of Education and the Chancellor of the Excequer received a deputation from Universities in Britain and Ireland to make the case for increased state funding.
The meeting was 12 days after the signing of the armistice, and the War was a theme to the presentations made. There were 67 people on the university side; lay members of council, vice-chancellors and principals (including Miss Tuke of Bedford College, the only woman present) and committee members of the Universities Bureau of the British Empire. Cases were made for different disciplines, citing their usefulness and issues for Scottish and Irish Universities were outlined, although their relevant secretaries of state were not present.
The minutes of the proceedings set out the arguments made. A note from Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, a former education minister, set the tone – a nation that had been spending £6-7 million a day on fighting the war could afford £2 million a year to support higher education.
Sir Oliver Lodge spoke first, representing the ‘Modern Universities’. He concentrated on professorial salaries, noting that a large increase was needed for them.
You may be starving the source of the golden eggs by not dealing with this matter in a liberal fashion. Professorships must be established on a better footing.
He then described how the basis of University education must be enlarged, ‘throwing it open to a wider class of the community’, and describing how more activity would require more funding. He also recounted how Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Secretary, had encouraged the universities ‘to get American students over here and to send our men over there’. He explained how universities were establishing a new degree ‘having as its object a training in research’ for both home and American students. But, he noted, these new PhDs would be expensive to teach.
His pitch was for the 1915 review of the grant (which had been planned to double expenditure but didn’t happen because of the war) to be added to a 1920 review (another doubling) but noting that ‘we cannot wait; we want these two doublings put together, we want a quadrupling at once’
Following a statement on Scotland, Sir Bertram Windle, Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, spoke of the special needs of Ireland, but also turned to the special contribution of the humanities.
May I emphasise the truth that we have won the War and the Victory on which civilisation depends, not less by moral than by material forces, and that the humanities, as taught in the schools and Universities, have had their own high and necessary contribution to make both to the national appreciation of the issues for which we went to war, and the good conscience with which we fought and endured our sacrifices.
He then turned on German education…
The perverted mentality of our foes which rendered possible their criminal assault upon civilisation was due to the predominant reliance in their systems of education upon material force, to their extremely narrow ideas of intellectual discipline, to the false philosophy of the State taught in their Universities for the last forty years and to their disregard of those moral influences in education of which the humanities are the record and enforcement.
Sir William Bragg, attending for the Universities Bureau, covered the immense contribution of University science to the war effort. In 2017 we might find some ambivalence towards perfecting explosives, targeting artillery or creating new gases, but this was 1918. He spoke particularly about the struggle against submarines, how applied science had used an idea from pure science to detect them, and how the work would continue such that the submarine could be neutralised. He said:
What time means in fighting the submarine it does not need any more words of mine to explain. The whole of the grants that we have been asking for to-day might be swallowed up in the sums you can think of in questions like that. The attitude that understands just what science can do and what it cannot do, and how to set it to work in England, and its function, the natural function of a University, to do it; the fruits of a University are seen in the attitude of the people towards knowledge.
Moreover, we must provide men filled with a desire to learn. We must provide laboratories to teach them in and the staff to teach them. And so I say that, when we think of the problems of this war and put them together in our minds, we recognise that to a very great extent it is to the development of the University that we must look for the solution to the problems of the future.
The Chancellor, Andrew Bonar Law, was cautious in response, not able to pledge any money there and then. He was sympathetic to the ‘desire that the University should extend right down to the very bottom of our social system’ – here the minutes record ‘(Hear, hear)’. When he concluded that proposals put to Government would be considered at least sympathetically – the record notes ‘(Cheers)’.
The President of the Board of Education, H A L Fisher, the former Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield, reiterated that the Government would consider their proposal carefully.
I am convinced – and my conviction has been deepened by the impressive mass of testimony which I have heard to-day – of the necessity of a very much more liberal assistance from the State to the higher learning in this country. (Cheers.) And I am equally convinced, from my long connexion with Universities, of the great value of preserving University autonomy. (Cheers.)
The mechanism for distributing funds, keeping the notion of a quinquennial grant, was entrusted to the University Grants Committee who reported to the Treasury and not to the Board of Education. The evolution of state support for British Universities could now quicken pace. The war has slowed down the development of state support, but it demonstrated, as the Deputation showed, how valuable Universities could be to the country.
It should be noted, as Fisher did, that although the Universities were united in wanting more funds, they were divided on the issue of how to handle different costs of degree courses and the fees associated with them.