University of the Air made waves

January 3, 1997

IT WAS still known as the University of the Air, although its eventual title was contained in the first line of the draft white paper: "The Government has decided to establish a University of the Air, that is to say, an open university."

In 1966 Harold Wilson's government was preoccupied by prices and incomes policy, Rhodesia, Aberfan and getting re-elected. But the cabinet papers for the year revealed this week by the Public Record Office show that plans for the University of the Air still commanded some cabinet time.

Reports presented by Herbert Bowden, Lord President of the Council, and Jennie Lee, junior minister at the Department of Education and Science, called for the creation of a fourth television channel to carry the UoA's programmes and looked forward to a time when it might graduate as many as 1,000 students a year. It was expected that it would "assist the development of adult education in general and technological education in particular".

With a squeeze on Government finances there was concern about the likely cost of the institution. It was decided that spare time on BBC2 should be used as a pilot.

It was a year for new institutions. In May, education secretary Tony Crosland announced the creation of a "strong and distinctive sector of higher education in the further education sector" - otherwise known as polytechnics. Thirty institutions were to be created, some by merger, to concentrate HE provision which had grown up piecemeal.

And the Ford Foundation offered $3 million to back a new postgraduate institution in Oxford. Crosland was inclined to try persuading them in the direction of a newer university, but was told that Ford's McGeorge Bundy was only interested in the Oxford project, largely because it would be headed by Isaiah Berlin.

The problem for the Government was finding funds to match the Ford gift. Harold Wilson's adviser Thomas Balogh urged him to encourage the Wolfson Foundation to come in, and in weeks the foundation of Wolfson College, Oxford with Berlin as principal was reported in the press.

On the other hand the future of Camborne School of Mines looked much less secure. The DES advised Wilson against visiting Camborne while in Cornwall, saying that he would be "lobbied to no purpose" about the institution's future. At the year end officials thought they had found a solution by linking the school with the Cornwall Technical College, also in Camborne.

In the autumn statement, Crosland was an effective Cabinet infighter, persuading his colleagues that any cut in student grants combined with increased parental contributions would be very unpopular and dent the chances of more fundamental reform.

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