Huw Richards delves into secret Government papers released for the first time under the 30-year rule.
James Callaghan was that modern rarity, a non-graduate Prime Minister. But in spite of his background, or possibly because of it, he showed a keen appetite for briefings with academics in 1977.
His Government was under attack for its plans to devolve power to Wales and Scotland, and preoccupied by its precarious majority in Parliament, the fight against inflation and ghastly government finances.
Higher education got scarcely a mention in the Cabinet proceedings for 1977, although background papers showed the shape of things to come with the warning on February 14 that current expenditure forecasts "provide for no increase in the total number of academic staff, and a more intensive use of other resources."
Papers released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule show that Mr Callaghan still thought it worthwhile to meet with scientists and economists. Thirteen scientists including John Ashworth, then chief scientist to the Central Policy Review Staff, and later vice-chancellor of Salford University and director of the London School of Economics, met the Prime Minister at Number 10 Downing Street on March 21.
Mr Callaghan had been briefed that one purpose of the meeting was to discuss scientific and technological developments for economic purposes, in particular, "how is this ... going to be turned into profitable products for British industry before our competitors do it".
One member of Mr Callaghan's staff, adviser Tom McNally, afterwards discerned "a yawning gap between industrial research and university research with very little interchange".
Seven economists from the LSE, led by director Ralf Dahrendorf, had come to No 10 in January. Mr Callaghan was preoccupied, among many other economic woes, with the doubling of unemployment to nearly 1.4 million since Labour had taken office three years earlier.
Afterwards Mr Callaghan received the economists' proposal for a programme under which companies would receive a £20-per-week subsidy for every extra worker they took over and above their average for 1976.
It was sent to Gavyn Davies at the No 10 Policy Unit who said it had "obvious attractions", but these were outweighed by a likely breach of the Treaty of Rome.
Callaghan responded that they "should at the very least let the Department of Employment people look at it".
That was a more positive response than some other academics received in the 1970s. A thick Northern Ireland Office file details six years of trying to keep John Burton, the former Australian diplomat who headed University College London's Centre for Analysis of Conflict, at arm's length.
Keen to help in Northern Ireland, Dr Burton was described in department memos as "a man with a hectoring manner and a grossly overrated sense of his own importance and achievement".
Meeting him in September 1972, officials were surprised to find him "pleasant and constructive", although they remained resistant to his offers of mediation in Northern Ireland.
LOOKING BACK: THE THES IN 1977
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- An occupation at the London School of Economics protesting tuition fee increases
- A poll showing that two thirds of academics thought their pay adequate
- Sue Slipman becoming the first woman president of the National Union of Students
- The Association of University Teachers campaigning under the slogan 'Rectify the Anomaly'
- Fears that a decline in the birth rate in the 1960s and 1970s would derail future expansion
- Allegations of 'Marxist influence' in Open University courses
- Birmingham students electing a Dalek as vice-president of their students union.
FOREIGN STUDENTS UNDER SUSPICION: KING MOSHOESHOE II AND MILITARY DICTATOR YAKUBU GOWON
Africa's political upheavals have over the years supplied Britain's universities with some exotically unconventional students, invariably monitored warily by the Foreign Office.
Government documents released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule recall the curious academic career of King Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho.
He went to Oxford as a teenager in 1956, leaving without a degree in 1959 when he succeeded as Lesotho's paramount chief. After falling out with his Prime Minister, Chief Leabua Jonathan, he returned to Oxford in 1972, to study for one term a year.
He read politics, philosophy and economics at Corpus Christi and had a famously plush set of rooms. According to Oxford legend, he was alleged to have signed death warrants while working in the Bodleian Library.
Classics tutor Ewan Bowie was reported by York University Africanist Christopher Hill as rating the king's essays at B++ level.
Although the king was supposedly estranged from the Prime Minister, the Porter's Lodge reported regular telephone calls from Chief Jonathan and "rather surprisingly" the king returned the chief's calls.
What did worry the Foreign Office in 1976 and 1977 was the suggestion that the king might go on to take a law degree, possibly at Cambridge, and that some of his aides might also study law.
In January, the Foreign Office informed the British High Commissioner in Lesotho that he should not offer encouragement "if it was suggested to him that the British Government might subsidise the king's higher education in the UK". Overseas fees, it should be noted, had recently been doubled.
The king was not noticeably discouraged, coming to Britain in 1977 to complete his degree, attend the Queen's Silver Jubilee service and to receive the Silver Jubilee medal.
The final note in the file records his impending return in October 1977 to begin his law degree, still at Corpus Christi.
A slightly more conventional academic trajectory was followed by Yakubu Gowon, military dictator of Nigeria until he was deposed in 1975, when he began studies at Warwick University.
Even so, he caused David Owen, the Foreign Secretary, some disquiet. Dr Owen, when visiting Nigeria in April 1977, was subjected to vigorous complaints about General Gowon appearing on a BBC television programme.
Owen reported to Home Secretary Merlyn Rees that General Gowon had generally behaved with discretion but that "his presence in this country does us no good".
The Foreign Secretary suggested that he meet General Gowon informally and express a preference for his leaving Britain after he completed his studies in 1978.
Premier Jim Callaghan thought this a sensible course, but Dr Owen's plans angered the Home Office, which thought that appearing to pressure the former ruler to leave might breach the European Convention on Human Rights. Foreign Office Minister Ted Rowlands, a former academic, also advised to "leave well alone".
General Gowon appears to have been left undisturbed. In December, he sent Callaghan a Christmas card with a note promising to "endeavour not to create any problem for Her Majesty's Government, particularly with regard to relations with Nigeria".