Some stories just run and run...

October 18, 1996

Huw Richards sifts through the news that has filled our pages and reaches a remarkable conclusion. Plus ca change ... The appearance is admittedly different. Where today's THES readers are confronted by colour illustrations and two or three front-page stories, their predecessors on October 15 1971 were offered a mass of monochrome leavened by a single passport-sized mugshot.

Some of the terminology, and certainly the names, have also changed. In 1971 any database-count of constantly used words and titles would have offered up - among others - UGC, quinquennium, polytechnic and Fowler with the same frequency that the 1996 reader encounters research assessment, quality audit and Dearing.

But those who seek the eternal need look no further than that first splash story. Elsewhere in this supplement founding editor Brian MacArthur points to the absence of professional marketeers among those responsible for the launch. Perhaps because of their absence, the launch team appear to have pulled off one of the trickier feats in the book.

MacArthur and his team epitomised the unchanging with that headline "Science and engineering vacancies pose serious dilemma for UGC". With variations in wording and institution titles it might have run at any time in the previous decade, has continued to do so in the 25 years since and is a fair bet to turn up somewhere in the 50th anniversary edition in 2021. There are periodic outbreaks of deviancy - 1977 found the Institute of Education declaring the national shortage of engineers a myth and polytechnics overwhelmed with applications. But the general rule is that engineers are always with us, but never quite in sufficient numbers.

That sense of back to the future runs through those early issues. That first issue also found space for the eternal chestnut of degree-course length, with Bristol contemplating two-year pass degrees in science and The THES leader column criticising the "totally theoretical sanctity of the three-year honours degree".

Several other running stories would be introduced before the end of 1971. The government was keen to reform the running and finances of student unions and were contemplating introducing student loans. This story came into its own in the early 1980s when Keith Joseph's attempts to devise a loans system - and their rejection, more often than not by a wary Treasury - appear to have followed an annual cycle as relentless as the 1990s chronicling of the malfunctions of the system that was eventually introduced.

Few subjects animate academic debate more readily than usage and abusage of the title "professor". It was just as live in 1971, with City of London Polytechnic rejecting a proposal to introduce the title in November. And the steady progress of the polys from local to national institutions was marked in the following month by reports that the government was contemplating the creation of a national body. That story would run in an on-off cycle through the 1970s, with the vicissitudes of the National Advisory Body as fruitful a source of news throughout the 1980s.

Times happier than our own? Maybe in the very early days, but within a year the first storm-clouds could be seen gathering with the Committee of Vice Chancellors in the role of Cassandra, proclaiming in October 1972 that grants were insufficient. By January 1974 public spending cuts were taking Pounds 100 million off budgets and 50,000 off expansion targets, the CVCP was describing universities' financial prospects as "grim in the extreme" and THES columnist Maurice Peston was arguing that "The good times have definitely rolled by". That prediction was certainly nearer the mark than his throwaway comment in the same column that "the secretary of state has lost a golden opportunity for leadership which she may never have again" - but nor did anyone else at the time foresee the shape of Margaret Thatcher's subsequent career.

The now Lord Peston was among a number of academics whose journey to worldly eminence incorporated a spell as a THES columnist. First of all was Robert Jackson, subsequently a mid-1980s higher education minister. His opening shot celebrated academic diversity, not to say introspection: "Higher education has not yet succumbed to the industrial metaphor. Among academics in the 'tertiary sector' and particularly in the universities, there is encouragingly little sense of belonging to the kind of higher education community which the sociologist has it in him to describe. On the whole their commitments remain with their own particular branch of learning, and with the particular institutions around which the life of education defines itself. Now they have acquired a weekly newspaper to mirror their commendable professional disunity. Long may they both continue." Mr Jackson's goodwill may have receded a little when a subsequent column appeared under the headline "Pornography, Obscenity and Culture".

Not least of the fascination of those early issues is seeing the subsequently-eminent in earlier incarnations. Ivor Crewe, cherubically youthful in 1975 and a vice chancellor in 1996, bemoaned the absence of serious academic studies of universities as institutions while John Cadogan, now director-general of the research councils, was head of chemistry at Edinburgh in 1978 when he complained that "Support has declined so rapidly that British university scientific research must now be considered to be a deprived area of activity. The rate of decline is such that we are within sight of irreversibility".

Tessa Blackstone, then a lecturer at the LSE, was profiled in September 1973: "She says she is in the Labour party but on the left of it over most issues. She tore up her card in 1968 at the time of the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill. "'But I drifted back after tinkering on the periphery of more left-wing groups. There is an element of pragmatism in me and I have considered working for the civil service. I'm basically a democratic socialist, although I do often get disillusioned and wonder if one shouldn't be less mealy-mouthed and take a more militant view'.'' Lady Blackstone might be a member of Tony Blair's first cabinet. A certainty for it is Gordon Brown, to be found as rector of Edinburgh University in 1973 demanding action against apartheid: "It is time to listen to the voice of the African majority - not that of the university liberals. In the words of Albert Luthuli I No expressions of concern, no platitudes about justice will content us. The test is action - action against oppression".

Elsewhere David Triesman, now a dapper-suited general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, gazes out of a photograph as a visual prototype for Malcolm Bradbury's Howard Kirk while Polytechnic of North London director Terence Miller - whose battles with staff were a running thread through the 1970s - compared his treatment by students unfavourably with that he encountered as a prisoner of the Third Reich.

But for the sharpest whiff of 1970s Zeitgeist one turns - perhaps inevitably - to Laurie Taylor. One of his earliest THES contributions described his adventures at the 1972 Social Psychiatry conference in New Orleans: "By the second day I was caught up in the much more important problem of getting back my briefcase from an ex-hooker who had borrowed it to show off to some of her friends.... On the other hand there was the need to keep away from the seafood restaurant on Bourbon Street where I had drunkenly negotiated a major mescaline deal earlier in the week".

Not everyone was impressed with the paper once dubbed "The sort of tabloid that gets journalism not so much a bad name as a very long one". Max Beloff, much more arsenic than old lace even then, complained within a few months of the launch that The THES was "edited by people whose common characteristic was an extreme dislike of higher education''. A more charitable critique came from the Open University, which gave Brian MacArthur an honorary degree in 1976 with the citation that he "made dreaming spires dream less easily". Both views no doubt have their adherents today. Plus ca change...

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