This book provides an account of the University of Manchester's struggle to meet the government's demands for the rapid expansion of higher education in the 1950s and the 1960s. It looks at the University's ambitious building programme: the controversial attempts to reform its constitution and improve its communications amid demands for greater democracy in the workplace, the struggle to retain its old pre-eminence in a competitive world where new ‘green field’ universities were rivalling older civic institutions. The book tells the story, not just from the point of view of administrators and academics, but also from those of students and support staff (such as secretaries, technicians and engineers). It not only uses official records, but also student newspapers, political pamphlets and reminiscences collected through interviews.
If the price of liberty had always been constant vigilance, it seemed that the price of survival in the late 1980s was constant surveillance and the price of efficiency constant competition and the publication of results. In return for their employment, academics must now submit to scrutiny, designed in part to establish whether or not they were giving value for money, and in part to identify strengths and weaknesses. Concern with the Research Selectivity Exercises threatened, as time passed, to become obsessive. ‘Publish or your department perishes’ became a nagging admonition, impossible to ignore. However, the improvement of research performance was a legitimate goal. The reorganisation of biological sciences demonstrated the University's ability to reform itself; it provided a model and a precedent for the refashioning of groups of departments into schools in other parts of the University.
In the late 1980s the students at Manchester had come to distrust the gesture politics and rituals of left-wing protest, partly, perhaps, because they offered no solution to the practical and material problems of student life. Student officers in 1989–90 came close to agreeing with the views adopted by the Vice-Chancellor in 1981—to the effect that the best way to impress the government was not to demonstrate on the streets but to lobby behind the scenes. Much of the fiercest campaigning, by Woolton Hall, was in the name of a traditional order, rather than in favour of change. Sexism rivalled, perhaps even replaced, racism and fascism as the principal target of progressive thinkers in the 1980s; it too was recognised as an evil which flourished within the University as well as outside it. Women students were now numerous, influential and self-confident enough to demand the respect which was due to peers.
The student activists of the 1980s were not the revolutionaries of the decade, the bearers or prophets of a new order; instead they seemed fated to be rebels, protesting against changes imposed from on high. The initiative had passed to a neoliberal, sink-or-swim, roll-back-the-state government which nevertheless contrived to interfere with universities as none of its predecessors had ever done. It appeared to be starving students of public money, ostensibly in an effort to make them more self-reliant. Individually, students suffered from deteriorating services, grants and benefits. Collectively, they—or their elected officers—faced attacks on the autonomy of student unions, measures designed to subject them to tighter control by the administrators of their own universities.
On 8 February 1982 the Vice-Chancellor to the Chairman of the UGC wrote, ‘the University of Manchester, as the largest unitary university in the country, has a scale of problems in absolute terms which is not faced by any other similar university’. Figures presented to Senate in November 1981 showed that the University's annual income was now about £60 million, and that expenditure, if allowed to continue unchecked, would amount to £64 million and immediately plunge the University into deep debt. Natural wastage, early retirements, and voluntary severance might conceivably make the required savings, but they would operate in a haphazard manner. Unless the University resorted to planned, compulsory redundancies it would be unable to carry out a balanced and rational reduction of its staff.
Endless arguments arose as to whether the new and increasingly formal system of management would actually make the University more effective. It provided machinery for procuring a general level of efficiency, keeping everyone up to the mark by constant scrutiny, and seeking to motivate academics by material rewards and gains in status. In abeyance was the liberal notion that academics should be their own managers, doing their own work with some encouragement from colleagues and friends.
Cuts in public spending forced universities to devise schemes for self-help which would reduce their dependence on public money. The University was again forced to adopt a host of economy measures, some of them seemingly trivial, and puritans began to attack minor extravagances as grave lapses of discipline. On the other hand, the University had to think of selling its services and of collaborating, not only with public institutions and government departments, but also with industrial and commercial concerns. Its purpose in doing so was not just to raise money, but to demonstrate its usefulness to society and the economy, to win friends and restore itself to favour; it was important not to get involved in contract or consultancy work which would increase income but have no academic value, or produce results which might be used for intellectually dishonest or nefarious purposes.
In October 1989 Senate and Council heard that Sir Mark Richmond had resigned his office with effect from 30 September 1990. He had presided with stoicism and courage over the most critical years in the University's history, when the position of Vice-Chancellor brought the least pleasure and the most pain. One year after Richmond's departure, Martin Harris, then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Essex, agreed to succeed him, eventually arriving in August 1992. Harris had the formidable task of adjusting to the system of devolved management in the University of Manchester, whose staff was six or seven times larger than that of the University of Essex, where personal government had been much more practicable. An optimist in the Armitage tradition, with great faith in the University's capacity for self-improvement, he aspired above all to raise it to its rightful place in the league table. Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College, and perhaps Edinburgh would be hard to overtake, but Manchester should at least be Number Six in the national race for acknowledged excellence in teaching and research.
Between 1979 and 1981 all the four principal posts in the University's administration changed hands. It seemed as if a new consortium of managers was assembling and preparing to tackle the problems of a much bleaker era. None, however, was a businessman; all had risen to eminence by climbing academic ladders, albeit in a slightly unorthodox manner, and they did not all share the same values. The University advertised simultaneously the two top jobs of Registrar and Bursar, on the retirement of Vincent Knowles, who had held sway as constitutional authority for a quarter of a century, and on that of Geoffrey McComas, the former colonial officer who had been Bursar of UMIST before coming to Owens. Fred Ratcliffe, the passionate book collector, accepted appointment as Librarian of Cambridge University in the spring of 1980. A joint committee of Council and Senate—appointed to search for a new Vice-Chancellor—met and deliberated at intervals between February and August 1980, whilst its chairman, Sir George Kenyon, consulted advisers in such London venues as the Athenaeum and the Oxford and Cambridge Club, and sounded out potential candidates for the job.
Attempts at characterising students have usually depended on dubious stereotypes, on images formed around the most vocal, vehement, idealistic, eccentric and badly behaved. In the 1970s, however, the press, as though baulked of its prey and frustrated at the dearth of good copy, tended to concentrate on the unspectacular qualities of students and their lack of originality. It was probably true that the ultra-left and the devotees of direct action had become more distant from the ordinary student population and that their methods, if not their ideals, were regarded by the majority with greater impatience and distaste. Rises in the cost of living and the failure of student grants to keep up with them induced a hard-headed concern with the practical-material. Few students were utopian. They were not averse to protesting, but protests usually had specific and limited aims, such as preventing the demolition of a still-useful building or adding a few pounds to the Union capitation fee. Once challenged, authority often made conciliatory moves.