Scottish college to fight its own battle

September 29, 1995

The aptly-named Newbattle Abbey College is to re-open yet again - but why is it without a grant? Vi Hughes asks

In a step of great significance for the future of adult education in Scotland, Newbattle Abbey College is this week struggling to be reborn. It will be the third time in just under 60 years that Scotland's only long-term, residential college for mature students has had to go through the trauma of beginning life again.

The story of Newbattle Abbey College is not merely material for the history of a small college, but forms a chapter of importance in Scottish cultural history. The indifference, or downright opposition, to the creation, and the re-creation of the college in its two previous existences, from public bodies of both right and left-wing political persuasions, raises questions about received views of Scottish respect for education and should focus sharp attention to the immediate future ahead of it now.

The college opened in 1937 by Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian, who on succeeding to the title and estates in 1931, had donated the abbey "to the people of Scotland" for use as a residential college for adults. The coming of war in 1939 brought about its closure after only two full academic years. It was not re-opened till 1950, five years after the ending of the second world war, with one of Scotland's finest poets, Edwin Muir, appointed as warden.

In 1987, the Government decided to withdraw its recurrent grant and despite strong and imaginative campaigning by many people in and beyond Scotland to have the grant restored, this has not happened. The college ended its work as a long-term residential college for adults in June 1989.

The college's governors invited Bill Conboy, then vice principal of Ruskin College, Oxford, to help them find a way of ensuring the continuation of some kind of education life at Newbattle.

Mr Conboy, now principal of Newbattle, has achieved a guarantee of sufficient money for the college once more to resume its proper status as a long-term, full-time residential college. Inevitably a price had to be paid. There is still no recurrent Government grant, the initial proposal is for the running of the college for a period of three years, and eight acres of the estate that Lord Lothian left "in perpetuity for the use of the Scottish people" have had to be sold so that the interest on the money thus obtained could go towards the re-opening of the college.

Clearly this launch, like the earlier ones, will be attended by risks and challenges that will need to be faced with a considerable force of will and conviction if the college is to survive and flourish in the future.

Why should such a problem afflict Scotland, a country that at least 300 years earlier than England created a democratic system of public education? Why is it the one country in Britain without any long-term, adult residential college, while there are six such in England and Wales, the oldest being Oxford's Ruskin College, now almost 100 years old? The educational success of these institutions is undeniable.

It is also true that the proportion of adults who could benefit from the opportunity, denied them in youth, of finding and developing their latent intellectual abilities is at least as high in Scotland as in England and Wales.

The answer lies firstly in the absence of a strong adult education tradition in Scotland. Despite the fact that the first known example of an adult education class appears to have been one for artisans in Glasgow in 1795, the true roots of the adult education movement were put down in England and in Wales.

Despite Lothian's hugely busy life as an international statesman, for six years he worked unremittingly to persuade a reluctant Scotland to accept his gift of Newbattle and its grounds.

The trade unions were suspicious. The Scottish Trade Union Congress refused to give any money or be represented on any committee concerned with the creation of the college, arguing, with a certain absence of any sense of Scottishness, that it could already send members to Ruskin College. Plebs magazine, the voice of the National Council of Labour Colleges, launched a vicious attack on the college, seeing it as a step towards the bourgeoisification of the working class.

Lothian knew he had to rely on the ancient Scottish universities for support and invited the principals to be the trustees (along with himself) of the college, although from the beginning he was not over-confident of their understanding of his aims. There was indeed a marked lack of enthusiasm from certain distinguished academics involved, who "did not believe in adult education". Without the support of his former Oxford tutor and friend, Sir Robert Raitt, at this time the principal of Glasgow University, things might has gone even more slowly or even badly for him.

In the end he won and Newbattle opened for the first time in 1937 with 22 men and women students: clerks, salesmen, manual workers and unemployed. Ironically, because of the outbreak of war in 1939, the college had to close and was taken over by the military after only two years.

The military held on to it for two years after the end of the war and it was not re-opened until 1950, a delay that surely would not have been allowed had it been part of the conventional education system.

John MacMurray, at this time professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, was a passionate advocate of adult education. It was largely due to his insistence that the college did re-open in its long-term role. It was his proposal too that Edwin Muir, one of Scotland's finest poets, should be invited to become its first post-war warden.

No one could have better understood the needs of Newbattle students. He too had had little formal education, his father having been driven off the land in Orkney because of too high rents, to industrial Glasgow when Edwin was only 14.

An appalling series of family tragedies left him quite alone. Despite these disasters, in the leisure time left him by dreary jobs, he managed to educate himself to a quite extraordinary level.

But even in 1951 there were rumours that the college might close. Student numbers were low - in the first three years 20, 23 and 18 respectively, not unusual for an adult college at the beginning.

Local authorities more often than not refused bursaries to adults even when they had been accepted, not once, but two years running by the college. Help was asked from the universities - the modest sum of Pounds 100 was suggested.

To its credit, Glasgow University met this every year. The University of Edinburgh, five miles along the road from Newbattle, found this "too difficult" after the first year and refused any more for the next three years. No other offer of any kind of help came from Edinburgh.

Today, responsibility for Newbattle's success may seem to lie with the same powers and bureaucracies as before. But there are two new elements. One is the increasing involvement of the Trustee Universities in life-long education. The other is the Scottish people, now reaching out to new democratic choices and responsibilities. This time will they take possession of Newbattle Abbey College as rightfully theirs "in perpetuity"?

Vi Hughes is research associate at Ruskin College, Oxford.

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