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The Plateglass Universities, 60 years on

  • 10 May 2024
  • By James Fuller
  • James Fuller works at Lancaster, studied at Warwick and has a daughter at York. Here, he reviews The Plateglass Universities (1968) by the Hon Michael Beloff KC. He considers this small but punchy book, and is astonished by its accuracy and prescience nearly sixty years later. He is very grateful to The Hon Michael Beloff who kindly provided a new quote.

The Plateglass Universities, a phrase sanctified by its inclusion in Wikipedia, were founded in a time of optimism- the swinging sixties-of which they were themselves an emblem.

Decades on, the durability of the Magnificent Seven, is shown by their tenancy, in the latest British University rankings by the Times Educational Supplement, of places between 12 and 34, the top two being members of the Russell Group.

Michael Beloff, 2024

The book describes the reasons for the conception of the plateglass universities; a small and exclusive university sector, rising demographic need and growing international competition and considers the contemporary arguments for this unprecedented university expansion. He notes ‘for connoisseurs of the way in which British government works’ that seven new Universities came into being with no parliamentary debate while the Robbins report, for all its official recognition, led to no new creations at all.

Beloff considers the nature of the new students and the curriculum innovations that they (mostly) benefitted from. His wry, but often sympathetic descriptions of the emerging town and gown relationships are insights into a bygone era of seaside landladies and patriarchal university authorities. The horribly rude comments in a York student newspaper about the locals; ‘saliva-ejaculating, decrepit men’ are given as an example of how the students did not always endear themselves to the population. Conversely, the East Anglian Daily News is  ‘…tired of bearded reformers….that tell us that Norwich is dull and dead from the neck up’.  Beloff himself describes the city of Lancaster as going to bed at 6pm, though a wag in my Lancaster University copy of the book has corrected this to 4pm. As one might expect for the period in question, sex, drugs and rock and roll are considered. The new students are categorised as more socially conservative than the scandalous national press reporting makes them out to be. A postscript addresses the growing radicalism characterised by the sit-ins of the late sixties, providing another fascinating insight into attitudes of the time, concluding that  ‘..students have long protested about the world – it is the duty of graduates to change it.’

Seven chapters follow, devoted to individual universities. Those with an interest in a particular plateglass university should certainly dip into the appropriate chapter.  Beloff absolutely captured the spirit of the newborns, and made some extremely astute predictions about what they might look like in the future. It seems that the formative years and foundational principles set the tone for today’s institutions.

Beloff was impressed by the ambition and academic standards of my alma mater and predicted a future for Warwick as a large American-style institution. It has become the largest of the plateglasses and has also met the book’s prediction that the influence of Lord Rootes and early ties to industry would be significant. Warwick has proudly maintained successful industry links as part of its DNA. Beloff hilariously describes the new Rootes building as “a great white whale of a building…tiled in the ugly white slates of a lavatory interior”. This description is as valid in 2024 as it was in 1968, though expansion this century has made the campus more of an impressive sight for the modern visitor.  

Of all the seven, Beloff finds York hardest to pin down. Only nine pages describe the new campus, the proposed curriculum,  and the priority given to the colleges in the life of the University. My daughter certainly recognised this college and community focus when she read the chapter. Like all those who write about York, he also talks about the pond, bemoaning the lack of punts. He eventually concludes with a quote that ‘York will be a bloody good university’ – a fitting and accurate end to the chapter.

After roundly criticising Lancaster as a city, especially its isolation, Beloff is rather more positive about the University, my current employer. He (rightly!) predicts that Lancaster will be one of the best of the plateglass institutions and is impressed, if somewhat daunted by, the level of interdisciplinary choice available for an undergraduate student to follow. He also predicts the future success of the embryonic business school. Beloff spotted the potential for sporting rivalry between York and Lancaster: ‘The Battle of the Roses may yet outstrip the Battle of the Blues’. He wasn’t wrong. The Roses competition is now an epic three-day Olympic-style competition, won last month by Lancaster.  

There is a real sense that the author has tried hard to get under the skin of these novel institutions, and he also clearly enjoyed the project. It’s optimistic, (mostly) positive and written in an extremely engaging, often irreverent style.  It should perhaps be noted that a few comments in the book do reflect the times when the book was written. An author couldn’t breezily note today, for example, that an institution held the record for staff-student marriages. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in the recent history of education in England, especially those with an interest in one of the seven plateglass universities.  The author kindly provided a quote to go with the review and considering he got it right so often in 1968 we can hope that he is right today….

Now in an era of uncertainty they have to cope with problems pervasive throughout the University sector – funding, graduate unemployment, competition from overseas. Donning the garb of a donnish Nostradamus, I predict that they will not only survive, but succeed.

Michael Beloff, 2024

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