As the universities founded at the height of Sixties optimism head into their forties, are they suffering a midlife crisis? Tony Tysome investigates
"You've never had it so good," Harold Macmillan convinced the British people who elected him Prime Minister in 1959. And for a generation of thinkers he helped to create by laying the foundations for the creation of nine new universities during the 1960s, his optimism seemed spot-on.
"I remember walking around the site in Wellington boots and someone would say, 'Why don't we do this?' and everyone would reply, 'What a grand idea!' There was a feeling that you could do almost anything," recalled Michael Shattock, the founding registrar of Warwick University.
The institutions were amply funded, enjoyed student-to-staff ratios of no higher than ten to one, and were each allotted a minimum of 200 acres of land on greenfield sites close to well-to-do towns. Leading architects of the day, including Sir Denys Lasdun and Sir Basil Spence, were enlisted to bring the vision to life. "It was a Utopian idea that good architecture creates happy citizens," according to Stefan Muthesius, an architecture historian at the University of East Anglia.
Populated by what Professor Shattock described as "ultra-young academics and ultra-sparky students", Warwick, Sussex, York, Essex, Lancaster, Kent, Ulster, UEA and Stirling (which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year) had more or less free rein to develop courses and ideas.
Terry Kemp, recently retired professor of chemistry who joined Warwick as an assistant lecturer in 1965, said: "Everyone was very open and communicative. I remember going for my first cup of coffee and sitting next to the historian E. P. Thompson. I didn't know who he was, but I quickly found out. There were some very big names, but people were approachable because there was no establishment of grey figures lurking around."
But as the Sixties institutions reflect on their first 40 or so years and face the prospect of student tuition fees rising well above the current Pounds 3,000-a-year cap before they see their 50th anniversaries, some commentators argued this week that they are facing something of a midlife crisis. Their future may hinge on how much they can rekindle the spirit of innovation that characterised them and motivated their staff in those early days.
The institutions were truly pioneering in British higher education because they "sprung straight from the egg", having been created as entirely new foundations, according to Professor Shattock. But they reflected an optimism about the great unmet demand for higher education "which took little account of the financial costs".
By the late 1960s, the funding and political conditions had shifted, the "new" universities had become a key target for student radicalism, the reinforced concrete buildings had started to crack, and the butler in UEA's senior common room looked increasingly out of place.
Michael Sanderson, a professor of history at UEA, said: "There was a feeling that the Sixties universities were like a country house party that had gone on for a bit too long."
Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, said: "In the very early days there were some radical ideas, but in the end they were not followed through and most of the new universities became relatively traditional."
This view was shared by Malcolm Tight, professor of higher education at Lancaster University. "There were attempts initially to experiment and redraw the 'map of knowledge'. But generally, these institutions have rowed back from that. In that sense, they are now less than they were. But in other ways they are more, in that they are much bigger than was ever planned, and they now compete against the major city universities."
Ted Tapper, former head of international relations and politics at Sussex University, who was there for 36 years until his retirement in 2003, said that although the universities did "challenge the mould" and have retained some distinctive features, "they have not been a beacon of light" since their heyday.
But Mark Tathan, professor of linguistics at Essex University, who has worked there for 40 years, said the situation was worse than that for some. "They are poised on an abyss and likely to jump off. They need to re-establish their distinctiveness by asking what they can offer that is unique."
Professor Shattock believed they would rise to the challenge. "Despite all the changes in higher education, this group of universities is still more inclined to be innovative. It is in their genes."