Times past, times future, Times Higher

October 18, 1996

The THES has had three editors in its 25-year history. The first, Brian MacArthur, recalls launching the paper with seven staff and not a marketing man in sight. His successor, Peter Scott, remembers how the turbulence in Fleet Street was mirrored by revolutions in higher education. While the current editor, Auriol Stevens, points out that though the paper has been electronically refashioned and the circulation greatly increased, its basic function remains the same: to entertain, to inform and to beguile. BRIAN MACARTHUR

Nowadays it often takes a year to launch a newspaper. Looking back on the launch of The Times Higher Education Supplement 25 years ago, it all seemed to happen so casually at least to a 31-year-old still innocent of battles in the boardroom.

Under new management, Macmillan Journals, the publishers of Nature, had been enviously eyeing the success of The Times Educational Supplement and were planning to start Senate, a new weekly paper for teachers in higher education which would be a direct threat to university advertising in The Times and The TES. I had been education correspondent of The Times for nearly four years when I was summoned one afternoon to see Sir Denis Hamilton, editor-in-chief and chief executive of The Times. He explained that The Times was responding to Macmillan's impertinent ambition by starting its own weekly offshoot of The TES addressed to universities, polytechnics and colleges of education, asked if I would edit the paper and said I would be given two years to show a profit. That was it.

Hamilton, who had been one of the youngest brigadiers in the British army during the second world war, was a delegator who left his officers to get on with their jobs. When I next saw him months later, a few weeks before the launch to show him the first "dummy", seven staff had been recruited and we had created the mould for The THES, much of which still survives, on our own without any intervention from the marketeers who would have had so much say today.

Any doubts Hamilton, creator of the modern Sunday Times, may have had about the first issue of October 15 were suppressed. He had faith. Yet how dull and grey that first paper looks today, with so much text, only one small "mugshot" on the front page, no picture at all on page three and such dismal headlines as "Encouraging report from Oxford". But our main story on the front page, a leak from the University Grants Committee, got us on to the Today programme on Friday morning and announced to the world that we were now in business.

Our first columnist was Robert Jackson (subsequently a Tory minister of higher education), who alternated with Charles Carter, vice chancellor of Lancaster University, and Colin Adamson, director of the Polytechnic of Central London, a nicely-judged combination of Oxford, new university and new polytechnic.

There were others with faith too. The most crucial was Stuart Maclure, editor of The TES who supported the project wholeheartedly but who was now confronted with a cocky cuckoo in his nest. Some of his reporters were less sanguine about The THES than Maclure and The TES was suddenly full of stories about higher education. It had to stop. As we defended our turf, there was a momentous row with Maclure after which we happily went on our separate paths.

Also vital to our eventual success were "Duke" Hussey, managing director of The Times and later chairman of the BBC, who denounced me as a scoundrel one day for complaining about our cramped offices and rang the next to congratulate us on entering into profit, and the late Derek Jewell, the effervescent publishing director of The Times.

It was the staff, of course, who made The THES. It was a nursery of real talent: Peter Scott, the deputy editor and resident intellectual (now a professor), Michael Binyon (diplomatic editor of The Times), Alan Cane (now at the Financial Times), Paul Medlicott (political lobbyist), Christopher Hitchens (American columnist), the late Fred Reading, the chief sub, Jennifer Payne, our secretary (who subsequently went on to work at Sussex University) and Peter Hennessy (also now a professor) who sent reports from the United States and joined the staff a year later. Other early recruits included Philippa Ingram who looked after books (and then joined The Times), David Hencke (The Guardian's Whitehall correspondent), Patricia Santinelli, and Roger Grinyer (now at the Higher Education Funding Council).

Only years later did we realise how important were some of the decisions we made early on about our editorial formula. The most crucial was the decision not just to assign specialists to report from universities, polytechnics and colleges of education but also to cover developments in the arts and sciences as news. Our greatest danger was to think that we could succeed if we addressed only the civil servants of higher education. Most academics are more interested in their subject than the latest circular from Whitehall.

Equally crucial was our decision to seek a constituency in the 30 polytechnics which had only recently been created and needed a champion. We succeeded too well. Our early market research showed that university academics thought we were devoting so much attention to the polys that we were anti-university. That apparent bias was quickly corrected.

Our best stroke of fortune was the publication of the James report on teacher training chaired by Lord James, vice chancellor of York University a few weeks after the launch. I cannot now remember what it cost to buy the report from the HMSO but it must have been at least Pounds 5. Our readers got it in full for 8p and our sales boomed.

No thought of copyright had entered my mind until I was summoned to Hamilton who had received a letter of complaint from the Stationery Office. He was a newspaperman though, and I detected a twinkle in his eye as he gently instructed an ignorant young man in the mysteries of copyright.

When The THES started we needed six pages of advertisements to enter profit. Still today I cannot pick up The THES without flicking through the pages at the back to count the classified which after 1971 soon began to mount. We were lucky in being launched when a new, bigger constituency of higher education was growing. It was the era of Shirley Williams, Gerry Fowler and the early Margaret Thatcher. The expansion of higher education became a hot political subject and academics beyond the members of senates began to realise that they needed to know what the UGC, Council for National Academic Awards and the Department of Education and Science were saying and thinking. We spoke to them and for them and won a readership.

After a labour of five months, the first issue of The THES arrived in our office from the printers on October 14, 1971. Only one shadow clouded our sense of rapture. We suddenly realised that we now had six days to produce the next and we had to get The THES out every week. For those who launched The THES there is no greater pleasure than to see it thriving 1,300 weeks later.

Brian MacArthur is associate editor of The Times.


The THES was first published 25 years ago when the Robbins-induced expansion of the universities was running out of steam and into trouble - but the force of the polytechnic alternative had yet to be recognised; the donnish dominion was intact; the ivory towers defended.

I was associated with The THES from the start. For its two formative years I was deputy editor. In May 1976 I became editor. For the next 16 years my life was ruled by the rhythms of a weekly newspaper - one-and-a-half million words of leaders to write, 25,000 page proofs to check, more than 800 weekly editorial conferences.

During those two decades the newspaper industry was transformed. It was born into a world labelled "Fleet Street" - clanking Linotype machines, print union chapels, gentlemen-managers, distant proprietors. The THES was an offshoot of The Times and its self-important traditions, and of an older, more enclosed and more aristocratic world of (curiously misnamed) "public-men". Universities were still part of such a world in 1971.

When I went to Leeds in the summer of 1992, an industrial revolution had taken place in newspapers. Hot metal had been superseded by flickering computer screens; Fleet Street with its artisanal values and anarchic practice succeeded by "information super-highways".

A similar revolution had overtaken higher education. In 1971 there were only 176,000 students in 45 universities; the grass had barely grown on the green-fields campuses of the new universities; and the polytechnics were still in the process of being formed. But what the system, if there was a system, lacked in size and coherence it made up for in self-confidence. The state was kept firmly at arm's length by that benign buffer, the University Grants Committee. The universities continued to enjoy the best of all possible worlds, public patronage and private privilege.

Two decades later higher education, like the newspaper industry, has been transformed. Approaching 1.5 million students in more than 100 universities, 50-plus colleges and spilling over into further education. A new iron age of acronymic oppression as HEFCE and SHEFC allocate MASNs and conduct TQAs and RAEs.

Yet contradictions abound; the nascent leftist intelligentsia of the 1960s curbed, but subjects and people admitted to higher education until recently categorically excluded; a government of wretched and shrunken values, but the agent of, or accomplice in, an irreversible transition from elite universities to mass higher education. Much the same - maybe - can be said of the media - global concentration combined with market democratisation.

So the fates of The THES and higher education have been curiously bound up. But there is a still deeper sense in which their fates are entwined. A quarter of a century ago newspapers were an archaic, inward industry and universities were grand donnish institutions. They belonged to different worlds. Today the boundaries between the media and higher education are breaking down. Last year's Technology Foresight exercise lumped them together in a single sector - leisure and learning - responsible for generating 13 per cent of Britain's GNP.

Perhaps the universities of the next century will be run by Disney or Microsoft. Certainly today's universities will have become media-wise - in their mentality more importantly than their technology. The THES is where the two worlds intersect, the global media as represented by News Corporation and the intellectual property (and cultural heritage) of higher education. As for me, having thought I made a big move when I moved to Leeds, I find I have not really moved at all. Editors and professors are now in the same industry, almost the same game.

But not quite. Professors are allowed to pontificate! The story of The THES has been part of the ebb and flow of British higher education. And that more-flow-than-ebb is a grand story, pregnant with social opportunities and intellectual possibilities. It has shaped modern Britain far more powerfully than is generally acknowledged. If Britain in the last decade of the 20th century is more open, less class-bound, wealthier, more cultured, much of the credit must go to higher education. It is a story that has yet to be told. But the first drafts were - are - produced week-in week-out by The THES.

Peter Scott was editor of The THES from 1976 until 1992. He is now pro vice chancellor of the University of Leeds. He has written a memoir of The THES under the title Reporting Academics, Leeds University Press 1995.


It was my great good fortune to become editor of The THES in 1992 at a time of three major developments. The first was in the structure of higher education. Everywhere elite systems have given way to mass enrolment and Britain is no exception. The former polytechnics became universities a month after I took over. The next spring the further education colleges became independent. For another magic year student numbers were still allowed to grow with all the multiplication of opportunities for them, for staff and for us that that implied.

A year later the brakes were on in higher, though not in further education, as government took fright at unexpected demand and resulting high costs. They are still on, a clamp on change and innovation. But debate continues unabated: how tightly should higher education be controlled; who should pay for what and how; how closely should learning be geared to jobs; who should decide?

This year even the debate got too hot for government or opposition. They colluded to bundle higher education off the election agenda using the device of a committee of inquiry chaired by Sir Ron Dearing. Now The THES hosts the Dearing inquiry's Web site and all our readers have a chance to bend the committee's ear.

Which brings me to the second development: modern communications technology. The academic community has long been ahead in this area thanks to forward-looking investment by the former Computer Board of the University Grants Committee in the JANET and Superjanet networks.

In 1992 The THES was still produced on typewriters in a building with electrical wiring incapable of supporting modern technology. Now we are on the World Wide Web. The THES was the first News International title on the Internet and among the first papers in Britain to make job ads available electronically.

Electronic technology changes the way we produce the paper and the speed and scale on which we can provide information. It does not alter the basic journalistic job: to sift, summarise and interpret; to provide a forum for debate; to entertain, inform, beguile. Electronic technology may revolutionise the way information is packaged and purveyed - not least to students. It enables greater openness and democratisation. But essentially IT is a new way of doing old things - as were printing or railways. Information and knowledge can reach more people more directly and faster - but duff stuff remains duff.

At the core of the academic enterprise lie not the structure of the "system", not the means of communication but knowledge, ideas, insights and understanding. The third development of the past few years has been in the intellectual agenda. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. As political structures fell, cracks were revealed in the supporting intellectual infrastructure. Cultural and material determinism, critical theory and postmodernism are losing their hegemony.

Scientists and mathematicians are stirring in their ghettos, gaining courage as painstaking work in genetics, molecular biology, neuroscience, statistics has given them confidence that they may have something to contribute to the understanding of society.

The renewed popularity of Charles Darwin, who was nine years older than Marx and died a year before him, illustrates the change. Last month he was proclaimed "the greatest ever Englishman" in a talk at the Natural History Museum. His house in Kent is at last being rescued from neglect and restored as a shrine. In 1993 The THES sponsored a ground breaking conference on Darwin and the Human Sciences at the London School of Economics. Since then, quietly in the Darwin seminars which followed and more loudly in, for example, Steve Jones's Reith lectures and the Le Chaim debates in Oxford, the Darwinian paradigm is throwing new light on disciplines like psychology, anthropology, philosophy, medicine, linguistics, gender studies, sociology.

Such shifts in the intellectual tectonic plates produce fierce debate and wonderful copy. New insights and research possibilities pop out from the gaps between disciplines. New reputations are made. New intellectual stars are born. In this speculative stage, everyone can play and subjects like consciousness, environmental risk, changing patterns of family and work, new (or are they old?) ideas of community and animal rights have moved up the agenda, brigading together once unlikely groups of philosophers, lawyers, scientists, mathematicians, economists, political scientists.

Nonfiction bestseller lists are led by names like Hawking, Dawkins, Gould, Arthur C. Clarke. Oxford's Merton professor of English, John Carey, writes in his preface to the Faber Book of Science, "As science has grown so, inevitably, has the ignorance of those who do not know about it." And those who know nothing of it are dwindling as the national curriculum forces at least some understanding on all. The next 25 years may see a reintegration of intellectual life, so splintered over the past century. Keep reading about it in The THES.

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