Utopian Universities: reflections on radical beginnings

Leading scholars discuss seven institutions created in the Sixties

October 30, 2014

Source: Dan Welldon

Obedience: Marina Warner’s resignation has raised questions about the relevance of the ‘utopian universities’

One of the great educational experiments of the 1960s was put under the academic spotlight in a conference at the Institute of Historical Research.

Utopian Universities: a 50-year retrospective focused on the seven “new universities” that were created over a four-year period (Sussex, East Anglia, York, Lancaster, Kent, Essex and Warwick). All were notable for their willingness to rethink what a university should look like, how and what it should teach, and how it should be governed. Separate sessions explored innovative campus architecture and curriculum design, the role of philanthropists and entrepreneurs, and the student experience.

Marina Warner’s recent decision to resign her professorship at the University of Essex on the grounds that its founding ideals had given way to a commercialised “culture of obedience and deference” has raised questions about how relevant and indeed distinctive “the utopian universities” remain today.

An opening discussion chaired by Laurie Taylor brought together some academics who lived through the dramatic early days to discuss this.

Peter Buckley, director of the Business Confucius Institute at the University of Leeds, studied at York, East Anglia and Lancaster and found it “an incredible liberation for a grammar school boy”, starting from the moment when an interviewer told him off for calling him “sir”. The general social sciences degree he gained at York, he added, had held him in good stead ever since, offering a range of perspectives often lacking in those with single-honours degrees in economics. He was less impressed by the bold hiring policies that led to a few appointments who “should never have been allowed in a classroom”.

Learning to improvise

Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, recalled how a commitment to “interdisciplinarity” meant “you made it up as you went along”. Students “came for a pioneering adventure” and were “intellectually engaged” as well as active radicals – many attended his lectures and seminars even if they had not signed up for his courses. What marked the beginning of the end for him, “like something out of a Kafka novel”, was a quality-assurance visit in the 1990s, when it became clear that he was being assessed for his paperwork and sticking to the reading list rather than the quality of his lectures.

Lisa Jardine, director of the Centre for Humanities Interdisciplinary Research Projects at University College London, warned of the dangers of “sentimental tosh” but admitted that “the thought of those days when we were so radical is fantastic”. At Essex during the student unrest of 1968 and the sit-in of 1974, she described the politics as “confusing rather than shocking”, with many of the academics “Stalinist in their adherence to their radical agendas”. Beforehand at Cambridge, by contrast, “the faculty were the enemy and we as students were opposing them – and that was very reassuring”. Perhaps, she reflected, “very intelligent and radical students need some sorts of constraints”.

Taking up the story, Geoffrey Crossick, distinguished professor of the humanities at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, remembered arriving in Essex as a lecturer in 1979 and finding an institution “still living with the memories and traumas of 1974”. As applications fell away, many of the students “simply weren’t up for” its ambitious interdisciplinary courses, yet Essex refused to reconsider such “an iconic part of what it stood for”.


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