A year of living famously

May 29, 1998

Keele University's foundation year was established in a quest to enrich its students' quality of life. But an economy drive has killed it off and alumna Vicky Hutchings thinks that something special has been lost

In 1971, Keele University produced a film to celebrate its 21st birthday. Called The Dream on the Hill, it went out on television, and showed me dancing in the student union ballroom. It was also shown at Keele, but I did not see it until at least two decades later.

I went to Keele in 1970 to read English and philosophy, having been at an all-girls school in Bath where my A levels were in English, French and history of art. In some unfocused way I already knew that I was going down the wrong track, largely because I had so little information and experience outside my safe, claustrophobic little world. Keele's now doomed foundation year appealed to me for this reason - and because an extra year before starting my degree proper put off the evil hour of deciding what I wanted to do.

The film makes instructive viewing - one student complains that Keele feels like "a prison", while other students suggest that living on campus keeps them away from "real" people in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Like every university, Keele had its "troubles" or student protests at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. But they were always a little muted, and given Keele's history this was not surprising.

One man's "socialist dream", Keele was founded in 1950 by Lord Lindsay. The "people's university" was set up in the potteries to "give something back" to a depressed region that had had few breaks. It was enthusiastic about mature students, it was small (in my day it had about 2,000 students; 500 a year) and students and most staff lived on a small campus near Keele Services on the M6.

But most of all it set its face against the prevailing trend of putting students on a fast track to a degree in a single subject - and on to a job. Keele was "less to do with job prospects than with enriching the quality of life". It sought to do this via the foundation year and by offering no single-honours degrees.

Even the degree course was expanded. In addition to two joint honours subjects (three for students of international relations or social analysis), students had to take two others (subsidiaries) for a year. To maintain breadth of focus, out of the four, at least one had to be from the humanities or social sciences and one from the natural sciences.

FY itself was one of the best years of my life. I sucked up everything on offer like a vacuum cleaner. First, there were 150 lectures to attend, whose themes started with the earth as an object in space, meandered through the ancient world, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the revolutions (political industrial, ideological and scientific), planning, the population explosion, the balance of power in the 20th century, the search for stability, ending up with persons, brains and machines.

Each student was assigned to a discussion group with three members of staff attached. Nine essays had to be produced in the year. Still in the loft are two: "Give a short account of the development of the element from the work of Aristotle to that of Lavoisier" (B+) and "What light have fossils shed on organic evolution?" (A-).

But the staff went further. They invited us to parties at their houses and out to the theatre. One of the most memorable times was being taken down a coal mine with the group and riding up on a conveyor-belt kneeling on the coal, leaping into the arms of a waiting miner at the top.

Besides the lecture course, FY students had to pick two subjects that had not been taken at A level to study throughout the year (sessionals) and three subjects for one term each (terminals). Again the subjects had to be spread across humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

There were further regulations to ensure students would acquire knowledge they had before never thought they would want. If you had not done science at A level then one sessional had to be taken from the natural sciences. I picked philosophy and physics sessionals and English, law and African politics for my terminals.

At the end of the year I changed my intended degree from English and philosophy to politics and philosophy with subsids in maths and English. I seem to remember that 90 per cent of Keele students changed one of their subjects, which is strong evidence that going straight from school into a degree may not be the best moment to pick the right subjects.

One of Lord Lindsay's aims was for "the arts man to understand how the scientists thought and the scientist to keep in touch with the arts". Keeping the scientist in touch with the arts is rather less of a problem than making sure the "arts man" understands science. I shall be forever grateful to Keele for making me do so. (Later I became science and environment writer on the New Statesman, so something must have sunk in.) As one student put it in The Dream on the Hill: "FY teaches you that you are more ignorant than you thought." Not a bad start to adult life.

Some time after I left, Keele bowed to economic pressures and students on three-year courses were admitted, swelling numbers and university revenues. Now FY is being killed off and Keele is no different from any other university. I wonder what Lindsay would think.

Vicky Hutchings was a student at Keele from 1970 to 1974.

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