My revolting past

April 23, 2004

Sir Graeme Davies recalls how his remote engineering faculty sparked a creative approach to entertainment.

Sir Graeme Davies recently rediscovered a picture of the 1958 Auckland University students union executive. "We looked like a board of directors," he says.

The president was Jonathan Hunt, now speaker of the New Zealand Parliament. But Sir Graeme - the UK's leading serial vice-chancellor, with posts at Liverpool, Glasgow and London universities either side of his term as chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England - remembers an apolitical world. "It wasn't the climate for revolution. New Zealand in the 1950s was a very prosperous society. It had a state-of-the-art education system: immensely inclusive and with extremely high participation rates."

All but the first of four undergraduate years at his home-town university were spent at the out-of-town School of Engineering on an old air force base at Ardmore, where the Royal New Zealand Air Force had left behind empty hangars "ideal for building large bits of engineering plant".

The engineers lived on site with 480 teacher-training students. Sir Graeme remembers: "The nearest town was Papakura, about five miles away. Being so isolated, we made our own entertainment."

Much came from practical jokes at the expense of the trainee teachers. "As it was an old airfield, there were a lot of drainage ditches. There was a garage on the campus, where school buses were kept. We'd get some planks, lie them across the ditches, drive the buses across so that the wheels were on either side, then take the planks away. In the morning they'd find four buses straddling the ditch."

Another prank needed more serious engineering expertise. "One of our number had worked for the post and telegraph department. He found an underground telephone line from the engineering school, which surfaced near the admin block of the teacher-training college. We wired into both bits and one night gave them an impromptu concert over their Tannoy system from a sealed room in the engineering school."

"Making our own entertainment" also involved finding ways round licensing laws. "Bars shut at six, you were not allowed into them until you were 21 and large parts of the country were dry. We had to set up private clubs, run by students," Sir Graeme says.

He recalls "a great deal of weekend partying", subject to heavy self-policing. "One of the peculiarities of the place was that the authorities had delegated the management of discipline to the student union. I suspect we were far more draconian than a normal academic administration would have been. We were very harsh on antisocial behaviour, while having women in your room - there were no women engineering students - was pretty taboo."

All of this accompanied hard work "nine to five, Monday to Friday with Wednesday afternoon off" and a physical remoteness that meant the latest research discoveries arrived no faster than the passenger ships from Europe or the US.

This intellectual isolation persuaded Sir Graeme not to return to New Zealand from Cambridge University a decade later. But the educational system's inclusivity made it remarkably successful.

"A disproportionate number of us became academics working around the world," Sir Graeme says, pointing out that John Hood, vice-chancellor designate of Oxford, was one of those put-upon student teachers.

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