Debating Buckingham's fate

January 7, 2005

The Times Higher is shown making news as well as reporting it in selected government papers from the past 30 years released this week by the National Archives under the newly operative Freedom of Information Act, writes Huw Richards.

An article in The Times Higher by Labour MP Philip Whitehead (now an MEP) was used by Department of Education and Science officials to prepare possible answers when Mr Whitehead tabled a question in 1983 on the proposed award of a university charter to the private University College, Buckingham.

Secretary of State Keith Joseph - who, as a former patron of Buckingham, was personally vulnerable on the issue - was offered answers to 17 possible supplementaries on the basis of what Mr Whitehead wrote.

Citing the Council for National Academic Awards' refusal to recognise Buckingham's courses several years earlier and doubts among vice-chancellors, Mr Whitehead said the proposed award was an "insult to reputable academic institutions" and "a shabby political payoff of the worst kind".

Mr Joseph argued that, on the contrary, Buckingham showed what might be achieved outside the state sector and declined to commit himself when former Labour Education Minister Chris Price invited him to prove a lack of political bias by also awarding a charter to Goldsmiths College, London.

The attached documents show that DES officials advised that, on balance, Buckingham deserved its charter, though they demanded external examiners, a visitor and external appointments to its council as a condition and warned that Buckingham's financial position was "not wholly satisfactory".

Other papers showed the difficulty experienced by some Ugandan Asian students in receiving support for their studies after arriving as refugees in the early Seventies.

The then Conservative Education Minister Norman St John-Stevas(now Lord Fawsley), was torn between sympathy for their plight and wariness of appearing to treat them more favourably than home students.

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