May 2018 –  Approaching University – a Fragment of Memoir

It is doubtful that many younger people in contemporary Britain are unaware of Universities, and indeed “going to Uni” is a phrase often heard, even though only a minority actually get admitted to universities, while smaller numbers  actually complete courses. Oddly, although I came from a middle-class professional background, I grew up knowing very little about what universities were, and what attendance might involved. This changed only after my elder sister began studying at the University of Birmingham in autumn 1970.

My families came from the commercial/professional middle class rather than sectors informed by academic achievement. My grandfather, for one, was very suspicious of, and sceptical about, anyone who, like his son, had qualifications. My father had obtained his professional qualifications by correspondence course in the late 1940s, after spending most of the war years in the RAF, and through this became a chartered surveyor. My mother, who would study with the Open University in the late 1970s, had left school at 16 to work in a bank. Rumour had it that my paternal grandmother had begun to study at the University of Liverpool (then newly founded) in 1913-4, but that her studies were curtailed, not by the outbreak of war, but by the need to look after her ailing stepmother. Long after her death, it turned out that this was true.

There was thus scant experience of university in my family, or indeed with most of the people that my parents knew. Beyond medical practitioners, most of the professionals that my father knew, like the Borough Librarian in Wallasey, were the products of grammar schools and steady advancement through employment and promotion, rather than the possessors of degrees. 

Early images of university were shaped by occasional references in the media. I recall watching University Challenge not long after this quiz show began in September 1962; I assumed that the students involved had brains far beyond any capability that I might develop, using much greater levels of knowledge than anyone I might ever know. The format of University Challenge reinforced this feeling, from the jaunty if serious theme music to the character of the presenter, Bamber Gascoigne. Gascoigne (from Eton and Magdalene College, Cambridge) came across as a classic TV intellectual: posh, polite, confident, with a youthful enthusiasm and the air that he personally knew the answer to every question. With wavy fair hair and spectacles, he epitomised one vision of an academic, displaying an effortless command of knowledge and understanding. To become someone like him seemed to be one of those unachievable ambitions, like playing for England at centre-forward, climbing Mount Everest, or joining the Beatles. 

Science fiction, juvenile or adult, provided some images of academics, of the (faintly mad) professor or scientist type. Angus McVicar’s juvenile Lost Planet series from the 1950s featured professors from various countries, engaged in the development of space travel; here academics were scientists, powerful and fostering a form of progress. I think that I later read John Wyndham’s dystopian fictions like The Day of the Triffids, and C S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, which presented academics as other-worldly, but capable either of being misled or of bringing some form of salvation. My predominant image was of upper-middle-class middle-aged men, intelligent and committed, slightly eccentric, wearing tweed jackets with a pipe bowl in the breast pocket, and rumpled flannel trousers. No women were involved; this was an image influenced by 1950s writings!

Another perspective was provided by a charismatic teacher at my primary school. Mr Ellis was youthful, bearded, playful, and sometimes violent, but it was rumoured that he had been to university. Many year later it transpired that he was indeed associated with a university, and, disavowing modern notions of ethics, was carrying out experiments on his primary school class, for (I think) a Masters degree that he was completing. I would have had no idea then what a Masters thesis was, but Mr Ellis certainly provided a model to follow. He was also prophetic. On what may have been a parents evening, he told my mother that I would either end up sweeping the streets or would be a lecturer at “the university”. He meant the University of Liverpool, but I would end up – in more ways than one – at Liverpool Polytechnic. I had little idea what this meant, bar threats to my fate should I make insufficient efforts at school work. I was much more impressed by Mr Ellis’ reading of excerpts from the Manchester Guardian. If I could return to think as my 8-year old self thought, it would be that when I grew up I wanted to be an adult who would read the Manchester Guardian. I would indeed grow up to be a well-meaning Guardian reader – it felt like the house medium when I was at university – and this reflected my passage into the liberal middle class.

That would involve a long transition from the family for whom the Daily Mail and, later, the Daily Telegraph, provided and reflected shared viewpoints. My father and mother seemed to be quietly horrified by much of what they saw in the 1960s. They saw attacks on deference coming from programmes like The Frost Report, fronted by a man who was clearly a product of Oxbridge. David Frost was  extremely intelligent, highly articulate, irreverent and, in some obscure way, dangerous to those who felt (and feared) that the establishment could readily be undermined. My parents were also bemused by a group of entertainers who had worked with Frost and had been in the Cambridge Footlights. From mid-December 1969 I and my sisters began to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus. This seemed to exemplify clever undergraduate humour and to open a window into an adult world in which those in authority, especially the conventional middle class so often depicted on 1960s television, were consistently sent up. The Pythons became unofficial heroes when I was at university, so that going to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail was viewed as a celebration of old familiar friends in the political circles in which I then moved.

Whilst I may have enjoyed undergraduate humour by 1970, I still had almost no idea what a university education would involve. In retrospect, this may not seem odd, as so few people then attended university. One of my sisters, now 64, got to know many young middle-class people when she first moved South in 1978, but she proved to be the only graduate amongst them. (Indeed, she had a doctorate, a qualification that I had never heard of until my sister embarked on a Ph.D. in 1973). What is odd is that I was sent to a secondary school one of whose main purposes, or so it emerged, was to prepare boys for the rigours of an education in Cambridge, specifically to certain selected colleges there. (There were other purposes, including supplying ruling officials for parts of the vanishing British Empire, preparing boys for officer service in the military, and fostering, through fear, support for the political and religious establishment). Seemingly, this was what lay behind the brutality and psychological oppression, the endless emphasis on crushingly heavy quantities of tedious work and the obsession with sporting achievement. Yet, it was never explained what university was for. I gained the impression that it was like an extension of the sixth form, for whom, viewed from the age of thirteen, there seemed to be a level of relative freedom – they did not, for instance, have to wear their caps all the way home. They would be exalted for passing examinations – along with sport, that ultimate Holy Grail! – but no wider purpose and nature of study was ever communicated.

The 1960s has been recorded as a period of student revolt, although many attacks on the established social and political order in the West came from elsewhere. 1968 is a year to which entire books have been related, like Ronald Fraser’s 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt. I remain uncertain whether I later joined that generation or simply looked up to them in retrospect (and in uncertainty), but until 1970 I hardly understood what any revolt was about. Perhaps if students had invaded my school and burnt the whole place down, I might have joined the revolution on the spot. But I followed my family’s view: these “long-haired layabouts”, as my father described them, were ungrateful louts, biting the hand that fed them. They threatened an establishment which had the natural right to rule, and should be admired and supported. One solution was to put the whole lot (women too, presumably) into the army. That summed up the view of my Dad – a very kind and gentle man – on a bad day; on others he shrugged his shoulders and just assumed that after some high jinks most students would join the establishment. I would not engage in high jinks myself, but neither did I ever join – or aspire to join – the establishment.

Much later I would attempt to recruit students to programmes upon which I taught – my job then depended on it. Anyone who showed enough potential, sometimes through experience rather than formal qualifications, was welcome. My impression is that universities in the 1960s recruited such a small elite, for so few places, that they had no need to promote their merits, even their existence, to the general public. This must partly explain why even children from suburban middle-class backgrounds had little idea what they were about. It was sufficient to allow elite schools like my direct-grant grammar school to prepare selected recruits for university entrance (preferably to Oxbridge or Russell Group institutions), and to dispose of the rest as so much refuse. I suppose I owe the fact that I attended university to that process, to Mr Ellis and, above all, to the fact that I grew up in an era in which university expansion was finally beginning to take place. In my provincial town, it could have been that the whole idea of university would have remained distant.