Leader: It's still a joy after all these years

We have much to celebrate at 40, but what remains most gratifying is being part of a vital, creative and committed sector

October 13, 2011

It was "the sort of tabloid that gets journalism not so much a bad name as a long one"; it was "edited by people whose common characteristic was an extreme dislike of higher education"; and for Alan Johnson, MP and former education secretary, "it was an essential part of my irritation" in the job.

That's us they were talking about: THE, formerly with an S and by all accounts always capable of inducing a fair amount of Fs and Cs. We were launched as The Times Higher Education Supplement 40 years ago this week to advance the debate over UK universities and polytechnics. As the leader in the launch issue said, there was no national planning and no public influence, only a private conversation among the great and the good. The themes of the other two leaders (there were three in those early days) were two-year degrees and how to manage the support of basic research. Isn't it incredible how far the debate has moved on?

In 40 years, what has certainly changed beyond all recognition is the publication itself. It was launched as a tabloid newspaper. It had a lot of text, pictures were rationed and colour was unknown. It then went through a number of redesigns, daring to splash a bit of red on the front page in February 1987, culminating in a new format - a colour magazine and a new name - in January 2008. A few readers hated it; fortunately, most didn't.

As we grew, we suffered the odd identity crisis. We went completely AWOL for 11 months in 1978-79 during a strike that closed all the Times titles. And we opted for a poor disguise from 1991, cunningly styling the paper as The Higher to diminish the word "Times" in the masthead: the boycott of Rupert Murdoch's titles after the bitter Wapping dispute in 1986 was a popular cause among university types.

Over its four decades, the publication has had six editors, three of whom came from The Times, including the founding editor, Brian MacArthur, and two have been female. Women, however, failed to feature much in the early days, reflecting the male-dominated higher echelons of the sector. Margaret Thatcher as secretary of state for education and science was a rare exception. We were much better at technology than gender balance - much like our readership, some would say - going online in 1995.

We have flirted with controversy over the years, but not always intentionally. The publication mistakenly printed a Victorian woodcut of the Prophet Muhammad, prompting a demonstration outside its offices. Aubrey Beardsley's drawings of grotesquely enlarged genitalia, which had to be described loudly and in graphic detail by an unfortunate female sub-editor in a phone call to a partially deaf lawyer at News International before they could be published, raised a few eyebrows in the newsroom. And of course there was the reporter who took her political brief a little too seriously and was exposed by the News of the World over her liaison with Boris Johnson, then shadow minister for higher education.

At times over the decades, we have been strident when we should have been measured, crass when we should have been nuanced, and dull when we should have sparkled. On the whole, however, we are proud of our record, our journalists and, yes, our readers. It's been a privilege.


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