On the shoulders of giants

Matthew Reisz talks to the movers and shakers of the past 40 years who made Times Higher Education what it is today

October 13, 2011

Credit: Sally Soames/Peter Searle
The great and the good (clockwise, left to right) Brian MacArthur (as launch editor, he got the THES going), Shirley Williams (making civil servants nervous), Laurie Taylor (hugely free from editorial interference)

It all started with a direct threat. Macmillan, the publisher of Nature, was planning to launch a paper called Senate, aimed at teachers in higher education. Times Newspapers Ltd was worried that this would eat into the substantial advertising revenue of the Times Educational Supplement - and so, in 1971, the Times Higher Education Supplement was born.

Brian MacArthur, then education correspondent on The Times, was summoned to the office of the editor-in-chief, Sir Denis Hamilton, and asked if he wanted to be the supplement's first editor. He was given six staff, six months to prepare and three years to make a profit. Hamilton, a man who had learned his delegation skills from Field Marshal Montgomery during the Second World War, took a notably hands-off approach.

"It's very easy for a new product to die," declares MacArthur, a veteran of several launches who was once told that launch editors invariably get fired after four weeks. "The key is to launch the paper well, establish it and get an audience, and then to get advertising to make it profitable. In my five years as editor of the THES we became accepted and gained self-confidence in what we were doing."

One of the crucial decisions, in MacArthur's view, was "to have separate correspondents covering universities, colleges of education and polytechnics. We also had separate correspondents for the arts, social sciences and science, so we could cover each sector and most disciplines." Since the "binary system" had only just been established, the polytechnics were the new kids on the block, full of people needing a debating forum for the big issues.

This is backed up by Ian McNay, emeritus professor of higher education and management at the University of Greenwich, who returned from a period abroad in the early 1970s to take up a post as academic registrar at Bristol Polytechnic. "What the THES did", he says, "was give a sense of common purpose, of a shared agenda, which I think is now missing because of the 'gang warfare' among the mission groups. "The polys were forming an identity and I was trying to develop a graduate professional cadre of staff in my section. I had more people with an interest in broad policy and with knowledge of curriculum issues than many academic departments...My senior staff all read (the paper) to keep up to speed and prepare for the next changes on the agenda, and their local implications." But although it had initially been important to establish the THES as "the polys' paper", MacArthur was alerted to market research suggesting that they had gone too far and were alienating the universities, which led to a certain shift of emphasis.

An early major coup came with the release of the James report on Teacher Education and Training in 1972, which MacArthur decided to print in full. When what was then Her Majesty's Stationery Office complained about breach of copyright, he was summoned by Hamilton, treated like "a keen young journalist who'd been a naughty boy" and given the mildest of rebukes. Sales of that particular issue went through the roof.

Perennially short of funds, MacArthur's THES often employed academics as "special correspondents". Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, was delighted to see an article on colleges of education appearing on the front page in early 1972. Less happy was the time he wrote a feature to coincide with a conference on training, only to find someone at the conference waving the article at a crowded table and "saying the paper would never survive if it published such boring stuff".

But what kind of balance did MacArthur strike between supporting those in positions of authority and holding them to account? "I think the staff felt I was too close to vice-chancellors," he replies. "Because I'd been education correspondent on The Times, I knew most of them quite well. And I believed in getting stories from ministers. I'm more a reporter than a commentator and I was very anxious that we were on top of the news. I had some good friends, as opposed to contacts, who were registrars, so when the University Grants Committee was doing something I could ring them up and find out what was in the allegedly confidential reports."

Nonetheless, MacArthur suspects that "the crusty right-wing universities always distrusted us". He also remembers an occasion when he took copies of the paper that carried reports on riots at the University of Essex to a big conference in Bologna - and happened to find himself sharing a lift with the vice-chancellor's wife. She suggested he should "put them on the bonfire". He also faced a personal dilemma when "a close personal friend and godfather to my daughter produced a report that we savaged in a leader. That was uncomfortable, but I didn't stop it, because you shouldn't kowtow to someone just because they are a friend."

"When I joined the THES in 1973," notes Annabel Ferriman, now senior news editor of the British Medical Journal, "it still had the buzz of a new publication. Everyone was young, argumentative and obstreperous." Many would later turn out to be stars. Christopher Hitchens was sacked after displaying "a distinct lack of interest in higher education" but soon began his "meteoric rise to fame in the US". Stephen Pile went on to a job at The Daily Telegraph and, in 1979, produced one of the great cult best-sellers of the time, The Book of Heroic Failures. Sir Peter Scott took over from MacArthur as the second editor before becoming professor of education and then pro vice-chancellor at the University of Leeds and later vice-chancellor of Kingston University.

Another leading figure from Ferriman's days on the paper was Peter Hennessy (now Lord Hennessy) who, in his mid-20s, had "the mannerisms of a 55-year-old country squire" and "used to snack on beef sandwiches, which he invariably called 'cow pies', after the favourite food of Desperate Dan, of The Dandy". Hennessy met MacArthur at a party for Kennedy Scholars about to leave for America and was persuaded to submit occasional articles to the paper. Hennessy's favourite was an interview with the satirical song writer (and mathematician) Tom Lehrer. He phoned him up, told him that he lived nearby, and said he wanted to portray him as Harvard's greatest contribution to Western civilisation. "Do I detect a note of flattery in your voice?" came the reply.

Back in Britain, and at a low point in his PhD, Hennessy was asked by MacArthur if he had ever thought of becoming a journalist. He joined the paper for a year and a half at the end of 1972 and went on to spend 20 years in the media before eventually embarking on a glittering academic career.

In every respect but one, Hennessy describes his time at the THES as "one of the truly happy times in my professional career". "MacArthur was very tolerant of a pushy youth like me," he says, "showed me how to operate as a journalist, how to work a crowd. I loved having to produce vast amounts of copy and working with a small team in a very confined space, although the window looked on to a vegetarian restaurant and it felt like living in a constant ambience of fart."

No account of the beginnings of the THES can omit a figure who remains central to its identity even today. Laurie Taylor got involved when he "wrote a piece about the dreariness of a committee meeting, where I realised I was dying as the meeting went on". The Poppletonian column, as it became, is now more than 30 years old and became the university's "official newsletter" when the paper became a magazine in 2008. Although he has attracted some sharp comments from fellow academics, Taylor has been left "hugely free from editorial interference", even when he "published occasional columns sending up Scott's editorials, which were long, balanced meditations on the philosophy of higher education". He has, however, avoided coming into the office too often, after being warned by a columnist for The Times that "If you come in, they might get the idea to sack you. If they don't see you, it will never occur to them."

Looking back, Ferriman sees one of her major contributions to the newspaper as "establishing the annual summer outing. The first year we went by boat to Greenwich, the following year to Cambridge, where we went punting, and the last year I was there, we went to Brighton, where some reporters remained for several days. The annual outing was subsequently abandoned for encouraging debauchery." It was later revived - and losing staff on the summer outing remains a treasured tradition at today's Times Higher Education.

Roger Grinyer, former head of corporate communications at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has seen THE from both sides of the fence. He joined the THES as a reporter in 1972 and became the news editor before finding employment with the funding bodies. "The nationals were not nearly so interested in HE as they are today," he describes. "That was the time of the 'three-day week' and the heyday of the 'industrial correspondent'. The THES moved quickly to seize its chance and fill a gap in the market."

Journalism and public bodies were very different in those days. While editors could wine and dine the great and the good, Grinyer notes that, "for most reporters, there were very few press officers to provide briefings and answer their queries...The established HE bodies were much more difficult to penetrate. The forerunners to Hefce - the University Grants Committee, which later for a short time became the Universities Funding Council - ruled by diktat, bringing draconian cuts to some institutions in the early 1980s and the closure of academic departments following subject reviews. While today's funding is still complex, it is a model of transparency compared with the old systems used by the UGC and the UFC in the early 1990s."

When Grinyer became the first information officer of the UFC in 1990, he "discovered that the method for dealing with press enquiries was to transfer journalists' phone calls to the typing pool. Their questions were then typed up as memos and circulated to the appropriate officer. After several days the journalist may have received a response." Grinyer made sure that the system became more responsive and up to date.

Scott's memories also suggest how relations between ministers, civil servants and editors have changed since his tenure as editor.

When Shirley Williams (now Baroness Williams) was secretary of state for education and science in the late 1970s, Scott "persuaded her to accept an invitation from the American Association for HE to speak at their annual conference...the civil servants were very nervous about the whole business, especially the fact that she would have no 'minder'". He was therefore "summoned by them separately and bullied into acting as a kind of unofficial 'private secretary' and ordered to get a transcript of her speech, and fax it back to the Department of Education and Science so it could then be released". The minister, understandably, "told (him) not to bother".

The bulk of the THES' history comes under the rubric of "the (Rupert) Murdoch years". When the previous owner, Thomson Corporation, tried to negotiate the introduction of "new technology" (printing without the use of hot metal) in 1977, the local Fleet Street union branches rejected the agreement. Management issued an ultimatum and then suspended publication for almost nine months. After what amounted to a climbdown, Thomson put Times Newspapers up for sale in 1981, so Scott and his fellow supplement editors "tried to organise a management buyout. Through a friend of mine, who was in that kind of high financial world, we even managed to line up the money - which wouldn't have been a problem because, in those days, the TES made a fortune, the THES was profitable and the TLS [Times Literary Supplement] loss was fairly minor. That didn't work, because Thomson was committed to selling all the papers as one block.

"Then there were rumours that Murdoch might buy it, which we all regarded as ridiculously far-fetched. Laurie Taylor wrote his regular column in the style of a Sun editorial. As usual, he delivered it on Monday evening. I knew before the paper went to press that Murdoch was actually going to be the new owner, and could have pulled it. But I thought 'what the hell' and ran it."

In the event, and rather against his political convictions, Scott discovered that "the new regime suited me fine. I think News International were better than Thomson because things were much clearer - either I could decide things myself or decisions were taken without (much) consultation."

By the time Auriol Stevens became the THES' third editor in 1992, the three supplements were based at Priory House in Clerkenwell. "They had been left behind when Murdoch moved the 'big' papers to Wapping in 1986, regarded as too unionised and too profitable to take the risk," she explains. This also meant they were not directly involved in the ferocious Wapping dispute of 1986-87.

"So we were left behind geographically and technically," Stevens says. "There were just two word processors in the office, one belonging to the editor's secretary, the other a private Amstrad belonging to one of the reporters. The machine I insisted on was the third. Otherwise it was typewriters. Subbing was done with blue pencils on hard copy. Pages were laid out by a local printer using scalpels and glue. "The printer's electronic typesetting was so shaky that the 1992 research assessment exercise results - which we had persuaded Hefce to give us in full in advance - crashed their system and we had to photocopy the tables...and paste them on to the templates. The result: a curious change of typeface halfway through. "It made no sense that the trade paper for higher education, the most wired community in the country thanks to JANET, the joint academic network, was not available online and I accepted the job only on the understanding that this was about to change. But there was a problem: the wiring in Priory House was too antiquated to cope with the computers needed for direct inputting. It took 18 months and a move closer to the dark towers of Mordor before we joined the modern world."

Even in 1997, when the paper hit a sales peak with an issue covering the Dearing report, Stevens attributes the achievement largely to some distinctly low-tech methods, with "the circulation department spending most of one night with blank posters and felt-tip pens writing come-on banners to go out with the bundles of papers to all the newsagents".

When the paper did enter the high-tech world, Stevens says it was the "Murdoch empire's canary in the coal mine". It was the first of his UK titles to put its text, archive and job ads on line, although the text was at that time behind a subscription wall.

Stevens took over at the THES just a month before the "binary system" was abolished and the former polytechnics were reborn as universities. The time was also marked by what she sees as an intellectual "shift from Habermas to Darwin", from "social science and in particular European philosophy and theory" towards the hard sciences. In 1993, she explains, "we sponsored a major conference on the application of Darwinian ideas to the social sciences at the London School of Economics. Evolutionary psychology and the application of evolutionary ideas to economics and medicine were counter-cultural at that time - hard to remember now - and American academics in particular found it more comfortable to discuss such ideas in London than at home. "It was a rich seam for the paper, integrating science and social science, but it brought rows in the office, for example over an article suggesting that women would never get to the top because they were too interested in work/life balance to spend the necessary hours networking in the pub after hours."

Two other changes have marked the paper/magazine's first four decades. One is a decline in a certain stuffy high-mindedness and snobbery towards the media once common in the academy. Hennessy recalls that the political scientist Ralph Miliband - now most famous for his sons, David and Ed - refused to talk to him on the grounds that he was too "frivolous". Long-term contributor A.W. Purdue, visiting professor of modern history at the University of Northumbria, wrote a "Don's Diary" about a period "in Hong Kong and Macao on loan from the Open University to the University of East Asia" and found himself "reproached by fellow academics for 'giving the game away' in suggesting that academic life was, rather than a pilgrim's progress through the valley of earnest toil, enormous fun, sometimes accompanied by conviviality and generous libations".

By the time Stevens sat in the editor's chair, much of this had disappeared. Moreover, she "found the sophisticated academic community as susceptible as any to celebrity culture: an issue with Robbie Williams on the cover did startlingly well. But an issue carrying a Hindu image involving blue boobs got the paper relegated to the top shelves by the stricter Asian paper shops." Together with this easing up went a transformation in how the publication looked. "We didn't have designers," muses MacArthur. "At that time, even The Times didn't have designers - only The Sunday Times did." Although things improved slowly over the years, it was not until after the break with Murdoch in 2005 that a really radical revamp took place under a team led by Gerard Kelly (who succeeded John O'Leary, the fourth editor) and the current editor Ann Mroz. "We redesigned the paper twice," says Stevens, "but it was after my time that the wonderful switch to magazine format was possible. While we printed on the Sun's presses this was not a favoured option." Yet the "most timely change to magazine format", she is convinced, "offers a much more promising future than that now facing newspapers".

100 months of solitude (punctuated by groans, sighs and 'tsks')

Lynne Truss

I joined the Times Higher Education Supplement in 1978, when I was 22. I had graduated from University College London the year before, and was supposedly working for a year before going back to start my PhD on the sentimental English novel (I already had a grant in place).

The job title, as advertised, was "books sub-editor" and I thought it would be a nice fill-in job for half a year. But the plan went wrong, somehow. I ended up staying exactly 100 months. In the summer of 1986 (after eight years, four months - the maths is easy), I moved to The Listener as books editor.

I couldn't tell you whether this was the THES' golden age, but it certainly seems a different aeon, looking back. For one thing, the academics who wrote book reviews for us in those days would often a) turn up their noses at most things they were offered, b) demand at least two months to turn round a book review, and then c) turn out, disappointingly, to have no writing ability whatsoever.

My main - quite painful - memory of the literary editor (the estimable Philippa Ingram) is of hearing her read a really bad book review, after I'd already subbed it. The groans. The sighs. The heartfelt "tsk" noises.

A page was turned (sigh), a pencil was tapped (groan), and then, "tsk", Philippa would wearily reach for a pad of paper and start composing a four-page letter to the poor unfortunate academic, explaining that while he had given a faultlessly accurate account of the contents page, for the rest of this so-called book review we might just as well have given it to the cat.

I say "he" with such old-fashioned confidence, by the way, because in those days (I think I'm right in saying) Tessa Blackstone was the only woman working in academia. Is that right? I mean, correct me if I'm wrong. My memory is that Philippa and I were quite hot on gender issues, really. For example, on the personal front, it was Philippa who firmly explained to me the political reasons why I should stop doing all my boyfriend's ironing.

I also remember a truly enlightening moment when another (male) literary editor gave me two books to review: one on sex, the other on women. I said to Philippa, "I don't understand why he's put these together," and she replied (I'll never forget), "Because in his mind, Lynne, they are the same subject".

Meanwhile, on the grammatical front, we boldly decided to allow "they" as a singular pronoun, to avoid the awkwardness of the "he or she" construction. So we honestly did make strides. But on the gender imbalance front, while we strenuously trawled for women reviewers, we failed. Week after week, we would look aghast at our own finished pages and see not a single female there (unless, of course, we'd called in a special favour from Tessa Blackstone).

I loved working for the THES. The only thing I got tired of was people getting the name wrong all the time (it was Higher Education, not Higher Educational). I once interviewed the great playwright Arthur Miller for the THES and he made me repeat the name to him three times ("Times...Higher...Education...Suppli - what?"), incredulous that a publication could survive with a moniker like that.

I can still picture the pink galley proofs; still smell the ink; still remember the weight of the leather swing-doors to the composing room; still recall my regular confusion when I unfolded a page proof and found all my headlines had been set in teeny-weeny 12pt, when I'd asked for 36. Oh, the joys of hot metal.

A year or two ago, I found myself in Provo, Utah - home of Brigham Young University - looking round a really interesting print museum, with replicas of a Gutenberg press, and so on. In the corner, I found an ancient contraption - a cross between a knitting machine and a Wurlitzer - and I thought it looked familiar.

Moving closer, I realised, with a gasp, that it was a Linotype machine - the exact same kind that was used by the Times typesetters to set the THES in the days when I first started in journalism.

Seeing it in a museum, in a desert, 5,000 miles from home, was rather a Planet of the Apes moment, obviously. I suddenly realised I was a thousand years old.

Lynne Truss is an author and journalist. Her books include Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003) and Get Her Off the Pitch!: How Sport Took Over My Life (2009).

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