Life through a plate-glass window...

August 10, 2001

When the University of Sussex opened its doors 40 years ago, it made history with its groundbreaking interdisciplinary approach to study. Brian Smith, one of the founding fathers, traces the institution's history and looks forward to a new era of innovation

The birth of the University of Sussex on August 16 1961 was notable for at least two reasons. First, the royal charter that enabled the university to award its own degrees right from the start was a privilege that had only rarely been bestowed since the founding of the Oxbridge colleges. The usual pattern was for new institutions to serve a period of academic apprenticeship, with their degrees being granted through established universities.

Second, Sussex was the product of a remarkable display of initiative by the University Grants Committee. Well before the Robbins committee was set up in 1961, the UGC recognised the need for higher education in the United Kingdom to expand. Since existing universities were reluctant to provide extra places, the UGC decided to fund several new institutions. It made it clear that it was seeking bids that showed evidence of strong local support; at least 200 acres available for the campus site; and an innovative curriculum, different from existing ones. Sussex was the first of the resulting seven plate-glass universities.

The first vice-chancellor, John Fulton, a Balliol man renowned for his extensive network of contacts, set out to find a distinguished scholar to lead his academic team - someone wilIing to explore new frontiers, and with experience of different universities.

Asa Briggs, professor of history at Leeds, was his choice. Briggs recounts how, after a visit to Brighton in 1960, he was aboard a London-bound train at Brighton station when Fulton suddenly appeared and offered him the job of Sussex pro vice-chancellor, with particular responsibility for academic affairs. Briggs accepted on the spot. He would later became vice-chancellor of Sussex when Fulton retired.

Other key appointments followed: David Daiches, a literary critic from Cambridge, became dean of English and American studies; the philosopher Patrick Corbett left Oxford to become Sussex's first senior tutor; and another Oxford don, theoretical physicist Roger Blin-Stoyle, joined Sussex to head science. These were all highly respected academics, but they were also intellectual risk-takers, frustrated with traditional departments and eager to develop new approaches to learning that would break down traditional academic boundaries.

Briggs and his team wasted no time in devising a programme that facilitated interdisciplinary teaching and research. The university was organised into schools of study, each based on a unifying theme, such as a geographical area or a cluster of related subjects. Briggs recognised that populating each school with staff who came from different disciplines would stimulate interdisciplinary research and also create the alternative model for teaching that he was seeking. He coined the phrase "redrawing the map of learning" to describe the approach and developed the theme further in a series of articles published between 1960 and 1963.

Sussex opened its doors in October 1961 with 52 arts students meeting in two rented houses in Brighton. Each undergraduate studied a major subject together with a number of more general contextual courses designed to broaden their understanding of the subject and its relationship to other disciplines. Subjects such as history could be studied in several different schools. Some of the history courses were common to all schools, but the contextual courses provided both a distinctive academic perspective and a conceptual framework for processing the acquired knowledge and understanding. This approach might appear unexceptional now, but at the time it was considered revolutionary. Generations of Sussex graduates readily acknowledge the role of the contextual courses in enhancing the value of their university experience.

Extending the schools system to all subject groups presented several problems. Academics working at the quantitative end of social sciences were less convinced about the value of contextual courses than were their colleagues in the humanities. They would have much preferred their students to put more time into acquiring data-handling skills. There were also difficulties in retaining interdisciplinarity in science. A multidisciplinary course, "Structure and properties of matter", the equivalent of an arts contextual course, was developed in time for the arrival of the first science students in October 1962 and served the early science schools well. But it was not popular with later arrivals and was eventually abandoned.

None of these difficulties stopped Sussex rapidly acquiring an excellent reputation for its teaching and research. But as the university expanded, it became progressively harder to maintain consistent practices, and in one particular respect, Sussex became a victim of its own success. Once the university was established, applications for student places and staff jobs soared. But not all the staff who were appointed shared the founding fathers' enthusiasm for academic innovation. Many were committed to research, regarded the school contextual courses as unnecessary diversions and would have been more comfortable if Sussex had been a traditional departmental university. Some of the distinctive features of the redrawn map have been lost over the years, due in part to the influence of some of these later arrivals.

Apart from the contextual science course that was abandoned some 20 years ago, other examples include the arts/science scheme, whereby arts students were exposed to some science, and vice versa. This became one-sided when the arts schools opted out.

There have been many debates and arguments about the contents of contextual courses, but this is only to be expected in a lively academic community. Partial reviews of the academic curriculum have resulted in minor changes, and anomalies revealed by these have been eliminated, ignored or swept under the carpet. Paradoxically, the fact that the curriculum is defined by the school structure has made it difficult to introduce new subject areas if they do not fit easily within it.

Women's/gender studies and arts/science interdisciplinary subjects are examples of topics that have been introduced because they were deemed to be important, but sit uneasily in the curriculum. Sussex staff are very pragmatic about such matters.

But these difficulties are only one side of the picture and should be put in context. Briggs broke the mould of departmentalism when he redrew the map of learning. The Sussex undergraduate programmes that resulted from the powerful academic realignment have been popular and successful for four decades. Only over the past two years has it become generally accepted that a full review of the arts curriculum might be necessary. The decision was triggered by the realisation that, although the principles underlying the original academic structure were still valid, its administration had become cumbersome and was probably unsustainable in the longer run. Senate members were shocked by a report that noted that many arts schools offer their students about 40 courses. With this complexity it is difficult to ensure that individual students enjoy a genuinely interdisciplinary experience or that progression through the school courses provides a coherent intellectual passage. To a considerable extent, the problem has been caused by the course proliferation resulting from the academic habit of introducing new courses without being prepared to delete outdated options.

The review process is being led by vice-chancellor Alasdair Smith. It has already been decided that a new map of learning for the arts will be introduced in October 2003. This will offer four canonical models for BA degree programmes, the difference between them being mainly the extent of specialisation and the relationship between the component subjects. The total number of courses on offer will be reduced, but more than 100 BA degree programmes will be available in the revised curriculum, many of which will allow considerable flexibility of choice. The great advantage of the new system will be that academic pathways will be defined more clearly and it will be easier to understand how the component parts fit together. Meanwhile, the scientists and engineers should not be too complacent - it will be their turn next.

Lord Briggs, as he is now, recently celebrated his 80th birthday and remains as active a chronicler and historian as ever. Redrawing the map of learning was a bold and imaginative plan that proved to be highly successful and served Sussex well for four decades. It is taking the skills and persuasive ability of another vice-chancellor to produce a second edition, and it is quite remarkable that 40 years have passed before a full review of the first became necessary.

The second edition will look rather different from the first, particularly when viewed from an administrative perspective, but closer inspection should reveal that many of the academic features of the original remain, only with new territories added, little-used routes removed and the addition of an improved gazetteer. Briggs might have every reason to be delighted.

Brian Smith is emeritus reader in physics at Sussex. He is one of the founding fathers of the Sussex science programme, having been appointed in 1962.

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