THE 100 Under 50: Prefabs sprout so distinctively

The University of York has always been unafraid to go its own way, Laurie Taylor recalls

May 31, 2012

Credit: Ian Martindale

Nowadays I take the compliments showered on the University of York for granted. I no longer need to be told by The Sunday Times that "York is one of Britain's academic success stories", which in a mere 45 years had "forged a reputation to rival Oxford and Cambridge". Nor was I exactly surprised when it was named University of the Year 2010 by Times Higher Education.

For the truth is that ever since I left the place more than 20 years ago after resigning my chair in sociology, I've hardly come across an ex-student who doesn't want to bore me to death with tales of how much they enjoyed themselves on the Heslington Campus.

When I turned up there to be interviewed for the post of assistant lecturer in sociology in 1965, it would have been difficult to forecast such a bright future. I can remember thinking that it didn't look like a real university. Not like Liverpool or Leeds. Not like Oxford or Cambridge.

The only ancient building in sight was the refurbished manor house in which my interview took place. Beyond Heslington Hall, and dotted around the largest plastic-bottomed lake in Europe, were the dull prefabricated buildings that formed the rest of the university. Although the architecture softened as the trees grew and the flowers flourished and the wildfowl bred, in those early days it looked more like Milton Keynes-on-Sea than a citadel of learning.

It was also several miles from the city centre. This was all part of the plan. York was to be a campus university where a closed community of scholars would be free from the sort of urban distractions routinely encountered by its redbrick counterparts. Students and tutors were expected to live on or near to the campus so as to encourage this sense of community. And to make matters even more homely, they were to be housed in separate colleges that weren't simply halls of residence but centres of social life.

Eric James, Baron James of Rusholme, York's first vice-chancellor and a model meritocrat, had a simple prescription for making all this a success: "First, get extremely good men on your staff. Secondly, create the kind of place where schools will want to send their best people. Thirdly, look after the students when you have got them."

He pursued these aims in refreshingly original ways. His first professorial appointments said it all. Instead of going for tried and trusted academics, he went for people who excited and inspired him. Who else would have selected the brilliant, ebullient, eccentric Wilfrid Mellers as York's first professor of music, or chosen schoolteacher and wartime French Resistance hero Harry Rée for its first chair of education, or (in 1965) have selected a woman, the excellent Kathleen Jones, as its first professor of social policy?

James looked after students with equal aplomb. I remember serving on a staff-student committee that he chaired during the late 1960s when the students' union was busy establishing itself as a red base. At one meeting, the student representative informed him that the union had decided that York should no longer operate "a double jeopardy policy", which allowed the police as well as the university to take action against anyone caught using drugs on campus. It had also "mandated" the vice-chancellor to announce that cannabis was a harmless substance.

I watched with admiration as he gently explained why he would take neither action because if he did so the campus would immediately be swarming with anxious parents and undercover gentlemen from the drug squad.

"So the very best thing you can do now", he said amiably, "is to go away and do what you want to do in the privacy of your own room without bothering the rest of us. Good morning."

There was one other element within that young university that I believe helped kick-start its success: its emphasis on breaking down disciplinary boundaries. Part of this emphasis was pedagogic. When I began teaching in 1965, all social science students followed a common five-term introduction before being allowed to specialise in economics, sociology, economic history or politics. But there were also structural incentives to collaboration. Tutors and students were assigned to colleges in such a way as to maximise the range of disciplines within a single building. For example, my own senior common room was home to sociologists, biologists and computer scientists.

Not all these ideas flourished. The joint five-term course in social science was abandoned despite student protests, and colleges became more associated with single disciplines as academics insisted on hanging out with their colleagues. But there remained a powerful sense that this was a university that was trying to do things differently rather than aping its elders. Perhaps that most determined the huge loyalty of its staff and students. Few people want to opt out of a crusade.

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