This book provides an account of the University of Manchester's struggle to meet the government's demands for the rapid expansion of higher education in the 1950s and the 1960s. It looks at the University's ambitious building programme: the controversial attempts to reform its constitution and improve its communications amid demands for greater democracy in the workplace, the struggle to retain its old pre-eminence in a competitive world where new ‘green field’ universities were rivalling older civic institutions. The book tells the story, not just from the point of view of administrators and academics, but also from those of students and support staff (such as secretaries, technicians and engineers). It not only uses official records, but also student newspapers, political pamphlets and reminiscences collected through interviews.

In 1973 came one of the great turning points in British university history, a transition into a bleaker world governed by the principles of uncertainty, economy and improvisation. The finances of most British universities lay at the mercy of politicians and were subject to capricious cuts in public spending. Their precarious situation was a consequence of the state-financed expansion of the previous decades. What taxpayers gave, their elected representatives could pare and trim when the economy wilted and crisis loomed. At the end of 1973, Edward Heath's administration withdrew guarantees that the government would protect the finances of universities against the effects of inflation. No more would it proclaim itself ready to look with sympathy upon their plight. Anthony Barber, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, reduced university income from parliamentary grants by about 10 per cent.

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Achievement and self-doubt

In the 1970s, the University of Manchester was proud of its achievements and given to reciting them at length. Needing to assert its distinction and to struggle against its austere appearance, it possessed neither the ancient universities' sense of natural superiority nor the Londoners' confidence that ambitious academics would gravitate towards the capital. While the institution maintained its capacity for nurturing and attracting eminent scholars in a variety of subjects, not all regarded a Manchester chair as their crowning achievement, and a few succumbed to the blandishments of other institutions. However, Manchester was still among the ten leading universities of the country.

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Consultation and conditions

During the 1970s little appeared to have come of the 1960s dream of transforming the University into a workplace democracy, rather than a specialised institution dedicated to extending and communicating knowledge and know-how. However, the institution was well-equipped with committees and consultative bodies, with departmental boards to advise professors and staff-student consultative committees to advise departmental boards on the curriculum and the pastoral care of students. Some saw them as talking-shops, harmful in that they created confusion, wasted time and worsened resentments by airing them publicly. Others saw in them a device for smoothing the way towards better relations between professors and their colleagues and ensuring that considered decisions were taken.

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Life and opinions

Attempts at characterising students have usually depended on dubious stereotypes, on images formed around the most vocal, vehement, idealistic, eccentric and badly behaved. In the 1970s, however, the press, as though baulked of its prey and frustrated at the dearth of good copy, tended to concentrate on the unspectacular qualities of students and their lack of originality. It was probably true that the ultra-left and the devotees of direct action had become more distant from the ordinary student population and that their methods, if not their ideals, were regarded by the majority with greater impatience and distaste. Rises in the cost of living and the failure of student grants to keep up with them induced a hard-headed concern with the practical-material. Few students were utopian. They were not averse to protesting, but protests usually had specific and limited aims, such as preventing the demolition of a still-useful building or adding a few pounds to the Union capitation fee. Once challenged, authority often made conciliatory moves.

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Campaigns and causes

Stern critics accused the radical students of the 1970s of trying to carry on the 1960s by the same means. Raucous pickets, disrupted meetings and occupations of administrators' offices still characterised the ritual of protest; squabbles between left-wing factions threatened to drive disillusioned students to vote for Conservative candidates who would run the Union on a tight rein. But there were original twists in the story of the 1970s. New methods of protest, including refusals to pay unjust fees or rents, drew attention to grievances though seldom got them rectified. New causes, such as the pacifist campaign to get troops out of Northern Ireland, won support. Both provocation and repression adopted new forms.

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Between 1979 and 1981 all the four principal posts in the University's administration changed hands. It seemed as if a new consortium of managers was assembling and preparing to tackle the problems of a much bleaker era. None, however, was a businessman; all had risen to eminence by climbing academic ladders, albeit in a slightly unorthodox manner, and they did not all share the same values. The University advertised simultaneously the two top jobs of Registrar and Bursar, on the retirement of Vincent Knowles, who had held sway as constitutional authority for a quarter of a century, and on that of Geoffrey McComas, the former colonial officer who had been Bursar of UMIST before coming to Owens. Fred Ratcliffe, the passionate book collector, accepted appointment as Librarian of Cambridge University in the spring of 1980. A joint committee of Council and Senate—appointed to search for a new Vice-Chancellor—met and deliberated at intervals between February and August 1980, whilst its chairman, Sir George Kenyon, consulted advisers in such London venues as the Athenaeum and the Oxford and Cambridge Club, and sounded out potential candidates for the job.

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On 8 February 1982 the Vice-Chancellor to the Chairman of the UGC wrote, ‘the University of Manchester, as the largest unitary university in the country, has a scale of problems in absolute terms which is not faced by any other similar university’. Figures presented to Senate in November 1981 showed that the University's annual income was now about £60 million, and that expenditure, if allowed to continue unchecked, would amount to £64 million and immediately plunge the University into deep debt. Natural wastage, early retirements, and voluntary severance might conceivably make the required savings, but they would operate in a haphazard manner. Unless the University resorted to planned, compulsory redundancies it would be unable to carry out a balanced and rational reduction of its staff.

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Cuts in public spending forced universities to devise schemes for self-help which would reduce their dependence on public money. The University was again forced to adopt a host of economy measures, some of them seemingly trivial, and puritans began to attack minor extravagances as grave lapses of discipline. On the other hand, the University had to think of selling its services and of collaborating, not only with public institutions and government departments, but also with industrial and commercial concerns. Its purpose in doing so was not just to raise money, but to demonstrate its usefulness to society and the economy, to win friends and restore itself to favour; it was important not to get involved in contract or consultancy work which would increase income but have no academic value, or produce results which might be used for intellectually dishonest or nefarious purposes.

in A history of the University of Manchester 1973–90

The student activists of the 1980s were not the revolutionaries of the decade, the bearers or prophets of a new order; instead they seemed fated to be rebels, protesting against changes imposed from on high. The initiative had passed to a neoliberal, sink-or-swim, roll-back-the-state government which nevertheless contrived to interfere with universities as none of its predecessors had ever done. It appeared to be starving students of public money, ostensibly in an effort to make them more self-reliant. Individually, students suffered from deteriorating services, grants and benefits. Collectively, they—or their elected officers—faced attacks on the autonomy of student unions, measures designed to subject them to tighter control by the administrators of their own universities.

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