Rift and squeeze in 1960s

January 5, 1996

Harold Wilson's Labour Government was still pretty new in late 1964 and so was the merged Department for Education and Science. Government papers newly released under the 30 year rule by the Public Record Office show the two coming into conflict through the personalities of science minister Lord Bowden - on leave from his post as principal of the Manchester College of Science and Technology (now UMIST) - and permanent secretary Sir Bruce Fraser.

Their differences occupied almost the whole of a meeting on December 14, 1964 between Wilson and Sir Laurence Helsby, head of the civil service. Sir Laurence reported that Sir Bruce was "finding it an almost impossible task" to accustom Lord Bowden to the ways of Government while Lord Bowden "could no longer tolerate Sir Bruce Fraser as his permanent secretary". The prime minister admitted to being conscious that Lord Bowden was "not house-trained".

Unsurprisingly the end of 1965 found both in different jobs - Sir Bruce, who had been destined for the Ministry of Housing, instead moved to the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources, while Lord Bowden returned to Manchester College for a further decade.

There were further rumblings from the seat of Government in March when Lord Heyworth's report on social science research was shown to Tommy (later Lord) Balogh, the Hungarian-born economist who was Wilson's economic adviser. He described the report as: "By (rather naive) social scientists for (rather more unscrupulous) social scientists." The proposal to create a Social Science Research Council should be accepted, he said, but he was unhappy about the possibility that expanded research opportunities would tempt the talented away from teaching or government jobs and feared the council would become a monopoly provider of such opportunities, dominated by hidebound academics.

Balogh returned to the attack in May, warning of "the steady and irresistible pressure of the senior established authorities on the young men in full vigour of originality and invention". Tony Crosland, who had succeeded Michael Stewart as secretary of state in January, said that Mr Balogh misunderstood the proposals and there had never been any intention of giving SSRC, duly created in 1966, a monopoly.

The Robbins report continued to define higher education policy. But while accepting its student number targets, the Government dropped institutional proposals. Robbins had called for six more new universities, but the Government opted for a ten-year halt - leaving space only for a possible technical institution in the north-east - and concentration on existing institutions. Robbins's proposals for special institutions for scientific and technological education and research were dropped in favour of concentrating activity on Strathclyde, Imperial and Manchester College.

But the colleges of advanced technology and Heriot-Watt received their charters in April - with the correction "delete central institutions, insert Heriot-Watt" on an early draft of the ministerial statement. This suggests that Scotland's new universities of the 1990s came disconcertingly close to inadvertently attaining that status a quarter of a century earlier.

A spending squeeze menaced the Government's cherished plans for a University of the Air and Crosland was told to look at the possibility of funding it through advertising revenues from a fourth TV channel.

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