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



Freedom of Speech: Back to the Past

The news that a Conservative MP has delivered a speech on campus, albeit with a bit of disruption, will keep alive the freedom of speech debate.  This looked like it might have settled down, but this will stoke it up again.

It is, of course, fabulously reminiscent of past debates, and past scuffles.  We have the long established legislation about freedom of speech from the Education Act 1986.

Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.

So, well done to UWE for meeting the requirements of the act.  The occasional attempts by people inside (or, as in the case of UWE, outside) the university to stop people from speaking can be fed into the investigation of the  Human Rights Committee.

The Committee is looking into Freedom of Speech in universities, and the evidence supplied to it is very illuminating.  Outside the responses from higher education providers and organisations, there are a range of particular issues raised.  These include: Abortion, Israel/Palestine, Islamophobia, and Gender & Sexual orientation.

The issues represented are familiar, certainly they formed a standard part of the political life of student unions as I knew them in the late 1980s and early 1990s.   These are ‘wicked’ problems; the ongoing discussion of issues that matter, and matter most to some people.  But these issues do matter.  Universities are a place in which these issues should be discussed and debated, but where tensions run the highest.  In 30 years the debate has moved; while many would see ‘progress’ on a number of key issues, they are not ‘solved’ or the debate concluded.

This is my picture of an OGM in 1991/92 in the Riley Smith Hall in the Union at Leeds. Whatever the vote is for, the RCP contingent is unimpressed.

What’s important is to distinguish these very important debates from other parts of the life of the university.  Firstly, Freedom of Speech is not the same thing as Academic Freedom.   Academic staff have the freedom within the law to ‘question and test received wisdom’, and to ‘put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions’ – but this generally placed within the bounds of the profession.  An historian might tease twitter about Oliver Cromwell and chocolate cake, but too many articles on the subject won’t be rewarded.  In the UK we haven’t had too many test cases of flat-earth geographers or creationist biologists to handle. 

The other issue is whether booking a room at a university confers upon someone an undue dignity which means that a higher standard should be applied.  Should UCL refuse to accept room bookings for people interested in eugenics?  How different is this from UCLU accepting a booking for an indifferent band?  

A student union officer contemplating room booking policy in 1991/92 

I want to see students unions and universities continue to be at the leading edge of these discussions.  I want to see successive generations debate the ‘wicked’ problems that we discussed, and I understand that tensions will flare.  Students are at the leading edge of change: track issues of immense social change through the 20th Century and you’ll find students at the heart of many things we now take for granted; starting with women’s suffrage.

I see this as an ongoing tension, but not one that is worse in 2018 than it was in 1988 or 1968 or 1938.  However the immediacy of information and the need for instant responses makes this much harder than it was 30, 50 or 80 years ago.

I also know that as important as this is,  for many it does not represent much to do with the day-to-day life of the University.  Tens of thousands of students will pass through most universities between occurrences of incidents of free speech that affect a tiny number of students.  We must keep this in proportion: important, but not such a problem as to dominate.  It certainly must not distract either.