On track from the first minute

April 2, 2004

As the Political Studies Association prepares for its annual meeting, David Baker and Philippa Sherrington dig through the records to explore the origins of Warwick's politics unit and discover a real sense of a world lost.

Imagine a shiny new politics department in a greenfield-site university called Warwick with some 5,000 students. A department with no historical memory or established procedures to draw on. A department seeking to formulate and protect its core discipline and cope with expected expansion on a limited budget. A department working to develop agreed and workable assessment methods while increasing the quality of a solidly average A-level intake, in an administrative environment with no research assessment exercise or quality assessment pressures. A department of only eight staff, where seminar sizes never exceed eight students, in which the annual allocation for 1966-67 was £750, with a library grant of £350 and a photocopying grant of £10 per colleague.

This is the newborn department revealed to us when we stumbled across the politics departmental minutes for 1966-70.

Politics was founded at Warwick in 1965 under the chairmanship of Wilfrid Harrison. International studies developed as a separate department under successively Fred Hirsch and Robert Skidelsky, and later joined with politics to form the politics and international studies department (PAIS).

Initially, it was a department centred on political theory and institutions, and as such a product of its time, but it was also trying to develop a distinctive approach. Politics at Warwick was dominated by two Anglophone intellectual and pedagogic traditions: Oxford University for its core political theory and W. J. M. Mackenzie's Manchester University for comparative politics and political systems. The lists of visiting speakers in 1966-67 underlines this tradition, including E. P. Thompson, Michael Oakeshott and Arthur Hedley Marshall. With several members, including Willie Paterson, researching continental political systems, it also contained a strong European focus, and the minutes record its aspiration to develop this further.

The early curriculum, defined primarily as political theory and political systems, reflected the founding staff's research interests but also the resource constraints of a fledgling department.

There were, naturally, dissenting voices concerned about the breadth of options on offer to students and whether the coverage of political institutions in the first year was too thinly spread. "It is doubtful whether our first-year students are sufficiently well-grounded in some of the first principles of political science," one lecturer says. Such arguments are still familiar today.

Much effort was devoted to forging joint degree programmes with other Warwick social science and humanities departments. Most notably, in hindsight, the history-politics degree, set up in 1966-67 and still running, was created under recommendations made by the "Thompson committee", chaired by E. P. Thompson.

Early leanings beyond the core discipline were towards behaviouralist American political sociology, and the minutes record considerable support for the setting-up of a sociology department along these lines.

Significantly, as it proved, positive noises were also made about developing an international studies focus, explicitly defined as a discipline distinct from international law and diplomacy.

In the early days, the research scope was confined to political analysis, comparative government and public administration. A much more relaxed pre-RAE attitude towards research specialism is also revealed in a 1967 response to a university request to speculate on future recruitment of staff, which declared unequivocally: "We should not propose to proceed by recruiting a series of narrow specialists. We want to continue to have an integrated team in which each member, while having a main specialisation, can nonetheless participate in other work..."

The general aspirations of the department are revealed in a fascinating response to a 1967 request for an overview of the department's needs for the following five years and beyond. "A critical size for politics would involve a staff of about 20I we do not consider that the staff-student ratio should be allowed to deteriorate below 1/10.5I our aim is of having seminars in fives in the undergraduate first year and tutorials of three in the second and third years. Politics is not a subject in which use can be made of teaching machines or such devices... if it were practicable we would prefer to maximise individual tuition..."

Pages of minutes are dedicated to elaborate handwritten statistical breakdowns of teaching loads and alternative scenarios laid down for the most effective use of limited staff resources. These were deliberated by the academic staff rather than being left to a dedicated departmental administrator or a head of department as they are now. Today, though, there is much more awareness of the trade-offs between teaching, administration and research.

The protection of academic standards was key in the formative years of the PAIS. The year 1968 was pivotal as staff endlessly discussed the need for a Part I assessment and examination because of concerns that second-year students lacked focus and perceived this year of their degree as almost a "free ride". There is also concern expressed about a notably high failure rate on first-year courses and a determination to push up the quality of entrants to all degrees and to enrich the curriculum.

Size was an important administrative and pedagogic advantage in the 1960s.

With relatively low student numbers (an undergraduate population of 235 across all joint degrees and 20 postgraduates, while today there are about 700 undergraduates and 160 MA students), staff could comment on individual students' progression and achievement within the context of general staff meetings. Political correctness and data protection legislation have since sanitised the language of minutes that once included comments such as "poor student, uncooperative, uncertain as to what he is doing" and "intelligent but resents working".

Most startling to us was how the student cohort meant that students had to present themselves before the assembled department at the start of the second term. Students also had to produce six formative assessment essays each term, reduced from eight in January 1967 with the proviso that "students be advised that the department will now expect more substantial essays".

There is a real sense of a world lost in these minutes. The PAIS of today, with its 30-plus full-time staff, has a major international studies and international political economy focus, concentrating on globalisation, European regionalisation and democratisation. The relatively relaxed approach to teaching and research seen in these minutes has been replaced by government and university-set targets and formal auditing processes.

But there is also much evidence of continuity - including the Anglo-American tradition in the department's political theory work and the European focus to teaching and research. Our present rubrics for assessment essays, the practice of undergraduate progress reports and the personal tutor system are all to be found in the early days, and, with minor adjustments, they remain part of the PAIS today. There were also staff-student liaison committees from the outset, allowing students to participate in governing their courses.

These minutes are a powerful reminder that academics have always held to clear intellectual standards in defining and defending their discipline and also demonstrate an enduring sense of fairness towards their students. PAIS staff did their utmost to ensure that these values were upheld, even without teaching and research audits to appease. In short, they overwhelmingly demonstrate the embedded self-scrutiny and inherent professionalism of the founding scholars of the PAIS.

David Baker and Philippa Sherrington lecture and research on Britain and the European Union in the department of politics and international studies at Warwick University. They are jointly researching the development of politics and international studies teaching and research in UK higher education.

The Political Studies Association's annual conference will be held at Lincoln University, April 5-8.

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