September 28, 2021

Last year a report by Universities UK concluded that higher education was racist. At the same time, without any research or forethought, a number of universities declared their intention to ‘de-colonize’ themselves. So, institutions devoted to the advanced study of human history suddenly found it a cinch to trash their own. All who trusted them, including the cities and counties whose names they bore, and the hundreds of thousands of graduates who carried their degrees, were going to have to live with the confession that their higher education, whatever it was worth before, was worth a lot less now.

For if these universities were or are racist, their self-knowledge must be low, lower than one might expect from institutions founded to promote it. But if they are not racist institutions, how can they explain their willingness to be so falsely charged?

The Vice-Chancellor of my student days at Sussex University was the historian Asa Briggs. At 21, he went to work at Bletchley Park where he spent three years deciphering Nazi codes. We can presume he knew what real racism sounded like. We can presume too that the thought that Sussex could be a racist institution (coloniser or colony?) would be, for him, a sign of utter madness. I don’t know whether Sussex has declared its intention to ‘decolonize’ or not. I hardly dare look.

In the 1960s and 70s Sussex University was special. I got off the bus at Falmer and the first thing I saw was a low grey slab declaring this be the University of Concrete Modernism. This is it, I thought. This is me. After a particularly poor interview (got stuck on the world price of copper) I patted the slab for luck on the way out.

Then one lovely October morning I got off the bus again to be handed a leaflet denouncing the university as a form of ‘oblique state repression’. I didn’t know what that meant. In those days, nobody talked about the British ‘state’. If we had a state at all it was a ‘welfare state’. The concrete slab spoke of modernism, welfare, and social democracy. If this was repression, bring it on.

Sussex University was an astonishing example of the hope and aspiration of post-war British social democracy. At the time, only about 5% of school leavers went to university. A mere twenty years since working-class children had started going to secondary schools, let alone universities, the vast majority of students came from middle-class homes. But all that was changing. At 15, I could have left school and followed my father into the shipyards. At 18, here I was walking into what promised to be the finest education money could buy (but I didn’t have to).

First of the ‘new’ universities, Sussex saw itself as modern but scientific as well. Even the Soccer Club promised “a modern approach to the science of soccer”. We took IQ tests designed to measure our brain power against Oxford freshers doing the same test at the same time on the same day. I copied from the lad sitting next to me, a fresh-faced Scouser who let me look.

If Oxford was olden and golden, Sussex was planned down to the last red brick — planned, in fact, to be like Oxford but not Oxford. Sussex ‘schools’ of study were intended to operate like colleges. Most teaching was done in tutorials rather than in mass lectures. While I was happily chatting away with my tutors, supping their coffee, at Manchester my wife (not yet) was shuffling into vast lecture halls un-noticed and unheard.

Sussex arts students did some science and Sussex science students did some arts – a nice idea but friendships have a life of their own. We mixed in Brighton flats and guest houses and in that vast range of Union clubs and societies that made the university swing. Experiences differed according to subject. My two flatmates read English and hardly had the time to look up from the 19c novel. One chose Jane Austen as his special subject not because she was good but because she only wrote six. I chose Human Genetics for my science module because I thought it might have something to do with, er…

Instead of beautiful old buildings, we had Basil Spence’s beautiful new ones, and instead of crumbling quads, we had a ‘Great Court’ that reached out east and west to the very edge of our lives. In winter, when the wind lashed and the rain blew, we leaned across it like figures from a Lowry.

Sussex was planned, but the idea was to be natural, as if the university was itself a feature of the park it sat in, free to grow, but part of everything around it. There was no bureaucracy. Essex House was up in the corner and far away. The only office I ever saw administered my grant: in about three minutes. I once had to attend a disciplinary committee where I was fined 10 shillings by Macan, the Union president.

There were guys in ties and suits, but by and large they were the lecturers. The Vice Chancellor took classes, walked the campus, debated the Union, and could be seen Sunday mornings on his knees in prayer in a ring of light in the University Meeting House. The Student Left wanted to pick a fight with the university administration, and did so, but our hearts weren’t in it. We knew Asa Briggs was not the enemy.

Told from the start that “the University in the main expects students to run their own lives”, this was what we wanted, that was why we came. But when it came to the task in hand, I think too often we mistook weak teachers for liberal teaching, modular choice for intellectual diversity. If there were any conservative aspects to being human, or thoughtful, they weren’t taught.

Sussex was a university that wanted us to find out, but lacked any collective sense of what we needed to know. And because we were not in a position to know what we needed to know…well, you can see the problem. Arts and social science lectures should have been compulsory. Briggs and J P Corbett (two of the main planners) understood how lectures provided a common ‘framework’ or ‘narrative’, but they underestimated how important that was in a system based on module choice. In any case, lecturing is a rare talent. I had to wait years before witnessing brilliance in the lecture hall. Still, at their best, Sussex’s teachers had a wonderful capacity for getting intellectually close.

Sussex was planned, but the outcomes could not be. Wordsworth talks in The Prelude about “Remembering how she felt, but what she felt remembering not” — and so it was on finding myself standing next to Jimi Hendrix in the gents, or being dropped off in Penge (ah! so this is London), or seeing my first art film (The Bofors Gun). We in Social Studies were so used to cause, pattern and effect, it was easy to miss what could be learnt on the wing.

Sussex in the Sixties sang that we came not so much for the S-u-s but more for the S-e-x (tune: British Grenadiers) but that apart, what the university really enjoyed, on the wing, was self-belief. It believed in itself to the extent that it believed in us and we, by and large, had no difficulty in believing in ourselves. You might think that sitting in a tutorial while the tutor bought an oil painting over the phone – long corduroy legs stretching out to a pair of desert boots – was a waste of our time, if not his. Not at all. It was great. Keith Middlemas was doing his thing (in the jargon), we were learning to buy an oil painting over the phone, and the tutorial wasn’t too bad either. I was learning to fly but had no wings. Coming down was the hardest thing.

Universities have come a long way since 1970. With over 45% of the school population preparing to go, they have never looked so open. And yet, they have never looked so brashly corporate and market-greedy either, and not only have (some) sullied their reputation, they cost a great deal of money, incur a great deal of debt, and suffer from a great deal of grade inflation both on the way in and on the way out. The number of firsts has risen by 90% in eight years. Eighty per cent of degrees are firsts and upper seconds.

In my lifetime, going to university has gone from the unthinkable, to a rare privilege, to a middle-class right-of-passage, to something that well over half the post-school population can look forward to. In 1964, John Fulton, first Vice Chancellor of Sussex, asked two questions of the new universities. First, he wondered how much of the nation’s youth talent they should monopolise. Second, he wondered how much of the country’s resources they should share with other “post-school institutions”.

Fulton’s questions need to be addressed all over again. Adult education is self-evidently a multi-tasking power for good, and an effective levelling agent. Part-time degrees cost less and probably mean more. Life on the wing does not have to happen only to the itinerant young. Communities sustain a full cultural life by retaining people who are not only educated but resident, and not only resident but rooted. If adult education could be said to have a strategic plan, this is it.

As for further and technical education, having already grievously misjudged our polytechnics, we should look to German models. If De Montfort University, which has recently woken to the fact that it is named after a medieval war lord, wants to cancel its eponymous hero, ‘Leicester College of Art and Technology’ sounds great to me.

If we don’t re-think our universities, others will. Circling above are private business ventures like Euan Blair’s ‘Multiverse’ — companies that sell themselves as alternatives to university. On the one hand, now that Sussex has declared its intention to appoint a new Vice Chancellor not by trusting to its own legacy but by hiring a firm of consultants that specialises in “appointing world-class leaders”, and on the other hand, now that De Montfort’s new Vice Chancellor has just delivered an inaugural address devoted to “how can we reset public perception of the usefulness of universities”, this seems like as good a time as any to turn and think again.

Isaiah Berlin’s two freedoms — freedom from and freedom to — only work when mixed together and thrown in the air. Sussex in 1970 looks better and better because it trusted itself to make the mix and trusted us to do most of the throwing. It planned itself to be schooled. It unplanned itself to be free. It believed in both. Nine years after I graduated, Pink Floyd taught some kids to sing we don’t want no education. Which was handy because they’d already had one.

Robert Colls is author of This Sporting Life. Sport and liberty in England (OUP)