Warden with a history

June 5, 1998

FEW recent head of institution appointments have occasioned more surprise than that of Ben Pimlott, professor of contemporary history and politics at Birkbeck College, London, as warden of Goldsmiths College, writes Huw Richards.

Why should a historian, whose biographies have been so successful that he could pretty much name his price, choose instead to spend his future studying funding council and quality agency circulars?

Neither has he arrived via the standard route of working as a dean or pro vice-chancellor.

But as Professor Pimlott, 52, points out: "If you can have a prime minister and chancellor of the Exchequer who have not previously held any ministerial office, there is no reason why it should be impossible to run an academic institution."

Aside from wanting a challenge after producing three large books, biographies of Harold Wilson (1992) and The Queen (1996) and a book of essays, Frustrate Their Knavish Tricks (1994), in six years, he says: "I have always had an activist political side and been excited by the opportunity to do things with the world." That tendency expressed itself as a Labour candidate in the 1970s - he got within 1,500 votes of taking Cleveland and Whitby in October 1974 - and nowadays as a member of the Fabian Society executive.

He was chairman of the society during the Labour leadership election in 1994 and topped the poll for the labour executive last year, describing his political position as "off-message new Labour".

He is unsure whether there is a hereditary element to wanting to run things in education. His father, John Pimlott, was head of the further and higher education department at the Department for Education and Science in the early 1960s and is credited with devising the title "polytechnic". But he was a historian as well, his book The Englishman's Holiday among the most influential works of social history of its time.

Professor Pimlott intends to go on working as a historian and commentator:

"I don't see this as a scholarly death sentence."

Of the institution, he says: "It is an exciting place, with world-class quality in culture in the broad sense - fine arts, performing arts, communications and media. That is a niche I want to develop." He is grateful to his Goldsmiths' predecessors, Richard Hoggart, Andrew Rutherford and Ken Gregory, saying they have "left an excellent inheritance".

Professor Pimlott is less taken with the overall situation of higher education. "For the past 18 years we have poured new students into the system without expanding the staff and called it improved productivity. It is simply dilution and if you treated the currency that way, you'd have to call in the IMF."

It leaves him fearing that Britain might soon face a new wave of student unrest. "If you look at what happened in France and Germany in the 1960s, it had a lot to do with institutions with minimal staff-student contact, overlarge lectures and overworked staff," he says.

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