Ron’s Rambles – May

Our universities
There was a time when there were only a few universities in the UK. They were fairly rich, as a result of philanthropic bequests from the wealthy, they were exclusive expensive establishments and their students came mainly from wealthy upper-class homes by way of expensive public schools. Very bright students from grammar schools might enter with the aid of scholarships and/or bursaries. The universities set high academic standards and pursued world class research, they enjoyed considerable respect. This was the situation in the early part of the twentieth century. Historically they had pursued studies in theology, history, literature, languages, mathematics, astronomy et al. Science was accepted rather reluctantly as an appropriate discipline when the great pioneers of the nineteenth century were pushing back the frontiers, especially in understanding electricity. Prior to that time the work of scientists like Isaac Newton was seen as part of mathematics. Graduates had always been Bachelors of Art, BA, there was a reluctance in some quarters to accept Bachelors of Science, BSc, and that may still be the situation in some places. There was a certain academic snobbishness, apart from astronomy, science was seen as not possessing an appropriate intellectual challenge. Apparently endeavouring to understand the nature of matter was not as intellectually challenging as reading historic documents and writing a new interpretation of their content.
When it came to engineering the same views persisted only much more strongly, engineering was for artisans and beneath the intellect and dignity of the upper-classes.
Attitudes have changed slowly, science became an acceptable academic discipline and was adopted by leading universities, somewhat reluctantly in some institutions, and, globally, scientific study has become the measure of a good university. A properly qualified scientist in the form of a physicist or chemist has some respect, although the standing of science has been undermined to some extent by some new pseudo sciences.
Engineering fared worse, it took a long time before mathematically modelling the stress distribution in complex structures, or the air flow around an aircraft, or the design of a steam turbine was seen as intellectually challenging. By the mid-twentieth century many universities had established engineering faculties, but there weren’t many students coming from the leading public schools, the artisan image of engineering persisted. There were technical colleges, but they were aimed at the skilled worker and the technician, and steered clear of the more demanding studies. The government recognised the importance of engineering studies, especially with regard to defence and weaponry, as well as industry in general, and saw that the provision by the universities was inadequate. They looked to technical colleges dealing with more advanced studies and designated them Colleges of Advanced Technology, in time it was recognised that these colleges were conducting studies and research of the same level as the university engineering courses, and the CATs were designated universities and received their own charters.
Technical colleges had run courses for National and Higher National Certificates, but it was considered that there was a need for some of these students to continue their studies to a higher level. A National Council for Technical Awards (NCTA) was created and they introduced a new award, a Diploma in Technology, the Dip. Tech. This was supposed to be up to degree standard but different. Some technical colleges seen as capable of offering the new course were designated Polytechnics. It wasn’t long before the difference became blurred and there was some grievance in the student body that the Dip. Tech. was not recognised as of the same standing as a degree. There was also a recognition that it wasn’t just in the field of technology that the nation needed better qualified people. The NCTA became the CNAA (Council for National Academic Awards) which became a degree awarding body. The CNAA was an organisation that approved courses run primarily by polytechnics, for degree awards, and monitored closely the operation of these courses ensuring that the standard of their degrees was equal to those offered by universities. This arrangement worked well with some inter-relationship between polytechnics and universities. Examiners were drawn from universities and polytechnics and examining boards were constituted with university and polytechnic staff. Polytechnics were providing courses in a variety of disciplines under the auspices of the CNAA.
It all changed, to some extent, in the late 80s when the government decided to designate all polytechnics as universities with their own charter. The overseeing role of the CNAA was lost as the new universities set their own degrees. It got worse when many other colleges that had never run courses of a degree standard also received their own charter and a degree lost its meaning as a standard. It can be argued, of course, that this is a good thing, it gets rid of the academic snobbery of the past and it increases the value of courses that previously would have been seen as courses of sub-degree level, and rightly so, many of these courses produce highly skilled graduates that are often more nearly geared to the requirements of industry and the workplace in general.
What ruined it was the manner in which the government allocated funds to the colleges which was based primarily on student numbers, the more students the more funds. College management found that science and engineering courses tended to be expensive to run because of the requirement for expensive equipment and, because of the developments in technology and the consequent requirement for continuously updating equipment. Whereas courses in social sciences, history, English and many others were relatively cheap, and many other new courses cheap to operate were introduced in disciplines never heard of before.
Matters got even worse when the government went one step further and, in effect, privatised the universities by requiring them to fund themselves by charging students a fee (an arrangement backed up by an appalling government loan scheme). Now more than ever the universities need to recruit more students and this has led to a lowering of the standard required for university entry. Many universities have been found to offer applicants a guaranteed place, regardless of their academic results, as long as they commit to come to that university.
Another rather worrying aspect of the current situation is the reduction in the standard and appropriateness of much research undertaken in our universities. One regularly comes across reports of research of very questionable value to the student or to society. Just one example recently was reported, it was triggered because a woman was unfortunately burned in a fire, her injuries were made worse because she used emoluments on her skin that were paraffin based and her nightclothes had become impregnated with the substance. The research was conducted to determine the effect that such impregnation could have on the fire. The conclusion was that clothes impregnated with paraffin burned more quickly and the consequent fire was hotter. Now there was a surprise.
Our universities all contain people that have had a fairly extensive period of education, some of them may be extremely bright, they are a national asset and if they are going to conduct research surely they could pursue research that is of some value to business and industry or in the furtherance of knowledge.
I remember Good Fridays
When I was a child in the 1930s I hated Good Friday. My siblings and I had to wear our best clothes, for me that meant a grey suit with short trousers, long socks and a tie. We were told not to get dirty and not to make a noise, we were not allowed to play outside, in effect we should not be doing anything where it appeared that we were enjoying ourselves, about the only thing we were permitted to do was to go for a walk. It wasn’t just us, nobody was allowed to be seen to enjoying themselves, cinemas, public sports events, public tennis courts, all forms of entertainment were closed. Public transport practically came to a standstill. I expect that there would have been church bells, but maybe not, I don’t remember them, outside it was uncannily quiet, There were three bus routes went past our house and on a normal day you would not have to wait many minutes before one came along going in one direction or the other, but on Good Friday a bus was a rare sight, there was the occasional car but even they appeared be afraid of making a noise. If you turned the wireless on you would most likely hear sombre religious music or a serious male voice reading a sermon. It was as though the whole nation was in mourning, perhaps that was the intention.
For an eight-year-old boy the day was boring and endless. Of course, the significance of the day had been drilled into me over and over again, but I still could not understand why we were not permitted to play.
It was odd, the Church was beginning to lose its grip on society at large, but still held great sway with the government, people did not want to be seen as irreligious, what would the neighbours think? There was, I think, just one group of people who were permitted to go about their usual business and make a noise if they wanted to, construction/building workers ignored Good Fridays and carried on as usual. It maybe that my memory is playing tricks on me, it does these days, but I think this odd behaviour by builders was a tradition. Why there should be such a tradition I have no idea.
This is my memory of Good Fridays, was it really like that? I would be interested to hear other peoples’ memories of Good Fridays before the war, and the builders’ tradition, if there was such a thing.

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