Ivory Tower Or Wasted Asset

Ivory Tower Or Wasted Asset



Alan Ducklin and Stuart Wallace

Paper presented at Seventh International Conference on the History of Adult Education, University of Dundee, July 1998

The partial closure of Newbattle Abbey College in 1989, after the withdrawal of Scottish Education Department (SED) funding, ended a half century of full-time residential adult education (RAE) in Scotland. This was not simply a result of the application of Thatcherite policies, but should also be seen in the context of longer term reluctance of the SED and other potential funders to support the principle of RAE. Amidst public controversy over Newbattle’s future, the release of government documents in 1988, under the “thirty-year rule”, revealed that withdrawal of funding had been an option discussed within the SED since the early 1950s. The 1945-51 Labour Government, and its Conservative successors, had sought to extricate themselves from any financial commitment to the College, which had been established in 1936 after Newbattle Abbey (six miles south of Edinburgh) had been gifted to the Scottish nation by the Lord Lothian[1]. Public records also revealed that trade unions and local authorities, referred to specifically by Michael Forsyth, the Education Minister, in 1989 as alternative sources of financial and other support for adult education, had been equally unenthusiastic about residential provision at Newbattle from its inception.

Adult education has a long history in Scotland, stretching back to the eighteenth century. John Anderson, the Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow from 1760 to 1796, “instituted in addition to his usual class, one for the working-classes and others whose pursuits did not enable them to conform to the prescribed routine of academic study”. After his death, the Andersonian Institute was established from funds he left specifically “for the use of the unacademical classes”.[2] Between 1799 and 1804 Natural Philosophy was taught in the Institute by George Birkbeck (a medical graduate of Edinburgh University), before he moved to London to do similar work which culminated in the founding of a Mechanics Institute there. Birkbeck was a Yorkshireman, but the Scottish contribution to adult education was considerable, as the names Leonard Horner[3], Samuel Smiles[4], Professor James Stuart[5] and Richard Burdon Haldane[6] testify. Yet it is also clear that adult education in Scotland lagged behind similar developments in England. Of the names mentioned above, only Horner was concerned primarily with Scottish adult education. One of the reasons for Birkbeck leaving Glasgow had been that the response to his classes had been disappointing. The fortunes of other later Mechanics Institutes (or “Institutions” as they were called in Scotland) were “very mixed”. “After the initial enthusiasm, many ran into financial difficulties or closed.”[7]

Later comment on adult education provision in Scotland focused on this relative backwardness. Writing just after the First World War, Albert Mansbridge noted that the weakness of “organised voluntary educational work” was “probably due in large measure to the comparative ease with which poor students…secured access to the Universities and also to the fact that the love of knowledge and argument is quite common. In other words the Scottish people have not found it necessary to develop new activities.”[8] In the mid-1930s the picture was a similar one of adult education provision still “far behind that of England, and the organisations concerned with it much weaker in finance and influence.”[9] Perhaps the fullest explanation for this had been given some forty years earlier by the then Secretary of the Glasgow University Extension Board. Referring specifically to the absence of a leading role for universities in adult education, Robert Wenley found the “causes traceable to the condition of popular life in Scotland". “The wide diffusion of popular education for generations”, “the network of local ‘literary’, ‘philosophical’, and ‘dialectical’ societies”, and the work of educational trusts, all affected the demand for extension teaching. In addition, the “sparse and scattered” population, “outside of some fair-sized towns”, made organisation more difficult, while “the Scotsman’s well-known failing, or virtue, in matters financial" (Wenley, it should be noted, was a Scot), was “a surprisingly formidable element”.

Wenley’s intention was to defend Scottish universities against the charge that they were uninterested in adult education (compared to Oxford and Cambridge, where extension work had begun in 1873). The debate on university reform in Scotland (after the Royal Commission of 1876 and the Universities Act of 1889) had diverted much of the energy which might have gone into extension work. Also, the heavy teaching load of the Scottish professor, who coped with large classes without the assistance of lecturers and other junior staff, meant that there were “few, if any, men of real leisure attached to our universities”. Equally important was the attitude of Scots themselves: “the general public are as much to blame for academic apathy as are the unfortunate teachers, whom it has become fashionable to saddle with responsibility for everything that goes wrong”, he concluded.[10] Much of this could be applied to Scottish adult education in general.

The context in which Newbattle opened as an adult residential college in 1936 was thus one of a “modern adult education movement…later in origin and weaker in growth…than in England”, with the added factor of economic depression, “peculiarly severe in the Scottish industrial areas”.[11] This had affected demand for Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) classes (mostly established ten years after the English ones, following the First World War). University extension had also been slow in expanding, and received no financial assistance from central government as in England.On the other hand, Scottish universities (despite the introduction of entrance examinations for the first time in 1892) still recruited more widely than in England. They were non-residential institutions, meeting local demand (especially in the case of Glasgow and Aberdeen), with teaching organised around the professorial lecture (rather than a college tutorial) and with bursaries for poorer students. There was even some part-time study for degrees. In short, Scottish universities still reflected those values of accessibility and utility which had set them apart from Oxford and Cambridge, and which had provided a model for English civic universities in the nineteenth century.

The model for Newbattle Abbey College, on the other hand, was a Welsh one, which Lord Lothian knew of from his old Liberal colleague Thomas Jones.[12] In December 1931 Lothian had decided to offer Newbattle Abbey to the universities of Scotland to be used in perpetuity as an educational centre for Summer Schools and…for the kind of University Extension work which…[was] being done so successfully at Harlech College in Wales”.[13] Coleg Harlech in turn had been inspired by the example of the Danish Folk High Schools,[14] and Lothian had visited some of these in the summer of 1936, accompanied by the Rev. Alexander G. Fraser, his Warden-designate. Fraser, a Scotsman who had previously worked in adult education in Ceylon and West Africa,[15] shared Lothian’s antipathy to socialism and his desire to see Newbattle imbued with “a true Christian spirit”. Lothian later wrote:“...I am sure in my own mind that Newbattle Abbey College cannot succeed without that force of Christianity at the top and adequately infused in the staff. The central conclusion I formed after our tour of Denmark and Sweden was that the real success of the folkschools depends on what old Grunding [N.F. Grundtvig] had put into them, and that when they were run by mere intellectuals or Marxists they really did more harm than good to their inmates....It is the same in Scotland. Unless N.A.C. is founded on that spirit - symbolised by the Chapel - it will...breed a destructive, harshly intellectual temper in its members, corrosive and corrupting.”[16] Later we shall see that Lothian’s suspicion of “mere intellectuals” was shared by politicians in central and local government, educational administrators and, probably, significant sections of public opinion.

The Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews and Aberdeen now agreed to become trustees of the proposed college, on condition that it involved no cost to themselves. The Carnegie Trust gave £15,000 to fund reconstruction of the building, a seventeenth-century stately home, and another £14,000 was raised privately for capital equipment and working expenses. The Scottish local authorities reluctantly agreed to offer bursaries, and the SED promised a capitation grant of £28 for each student. When it was officially opened in January 1937, Newbattle Abbey College had 130 acres of grounds and was free of debt, but it would cost £7000 a year to run and it had no endowment. For the next fifty years the Newbattle Governors attempted to get the Scottish Office to commit itself financially to the College, but with only partial success.

Recognition as a Central Institution (CI), and hence secure funding, was not possible because Newbattle did not provide “the highest form of specialised instruction”. “So far as Adult Education is almost entirely concerned with broad cultural education, it is difficult to reconcile the aims of Newbattle with those of a Central Institution”, a civil servant minuted. It was also pointed out that the capitation grant of £28, was also more generous than that paid to CIs.[17] Equally, SED funding rules did not allow for the provision of residential (as opposed to educational) costs under the 1908 Education (Scotland) Act, which was the source of funding for continuing vocational education. This mixture of administrative inflexiblity and lack of sympathy with liberal educational provision was to dog Newbattle for the next fifty years.

Relations between the Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, Sir John Colville,[18] and the College Governors in the last years before the outbreak of the Second World War were not good. Colville was convinced that the Governors had been neither “very energetic or skilful in conducting their appeal” for funds from local authorities and the public. This impression was reinforced when Lothian and the College Governors argued that in Scotland there was “considerable feeling that working-class education should be paid for entirely by the State”.[19] Historically this may have been correct, but it was not the kind of message that ministers in a cost-conscious Conservative government wished to hear. When the war broke out in September 1939, plans for a record intake of students (55 compared to 26 in 1936-7) had to be shelved, as did any further discussion of government financial assistance, and Newbattle was turned over to army use. Writing to the College Warden from the United States, Lothian reflected on “the ultimate future of Newbattle” and looked back on the first three years: “...I never realised what a tough job you would be up against, either with the executive committee [of the College] or the hard materialist underlying point of view of many of the students from the industrial areas....”[20]

When Newbattle re-opened after the war (and after Lothian’s death), the same financial problems remained, and there were only 20 students in residence. On the other hand, a new Labour Government was in power, and the College understandably hoped for a more sympathetic hearing in its quest for funding. There was strong support for the idea of residential adult education, from at least one Junior Minister, Peggy Herbison.[21] The students were mostly “industrial workers” who had left school at fourteen and who showed “a real desire for further education”, she informed the Secretary of State, Hector McNeill.[22] “More and more I am becoming convinced that if Social Democracy is to have any hopes of better success we require better leadership in our factories etc.” If trade unions could “contribute more”, then perhaps Newbattle could help achieve this objective.[23] Unfortunately, McNeill was less convinced of the necessity of RAE, considered Newbattle’s “staffing preposterously extravagant”, and believed “that some of the full-time resident staff might easily be replaced by part-time non-resident tutors”. He reluctantly approved a £60 capitation grant, with £7000 as a one-off “exceptional measure” to meet the College deficit and the costs of re-opening after the war, on the understanding that if Newbattle could not keep its costs under control he would “not come to their rescue and ...[was] prepared to see the College sink.”[24]

These misgivings about the financial burden of RAE were soon compounded by “grave doubts” about the way Newbattle was being run by its new Warden, the distinguished Scottish writer Edwin Muir.[25] McNeill found his apprehensions shared by “two reputable Directors of Education”, and by a former Warden of Ruskin College (Lionel Elvin) who “described Muir as ‘a man of great lustre but entirely lacking in any administrative or organising ability’.” Worse still, a group on the Newbattle Board of Governors led by Lord Greenhill (Chairman of the Scottish WEA) now considered the appointment of Muir to have been “a mistake”. Although this later developed into an acrimonious open dispute between Muir and the Governors of the College, the more fundamental issue of the SED’s attitude to Newbattle remained hidden from the public gaze. “We in the Department have always been doubtful of the extent to which Newbattle Abbey College could succeed as a residential college for adult education”, the Secretary of the SED informed McNeill, while one of the Directors of Education argued that Newbattle was irrelevant “under conditions of full employment and higher education open to all”.[26]

Here, in essence, were the arguments deployed against RAE thoroughout the 1950s, both within the SED and local authority education departments. Thinking in central government was neatly summarised by the civil servant who doubted whether “the sober respectable type of man who is making his way in the world will (even if he has no family responsibilities) think twice before throwing up his job, when the chances of returning at the end of the course, even where he left off a year earlier, must be rather remote”.[27] With this the Director of Education for Dundee largely agreed, adding his own doubts that the trade unions would ever support RAE in general and Newbattle in particular: “The average Trade-Unionist of to-day is not sufficiently interested to attend his own Union meetings and he is very suspicious of the academic type of individual who he regards rightly or wrongly as a non-producer. One is tempted to ask the question as to whether or not this same feeling does not pervade Trade Union circles at top level as well as lower down....” As for Muir and his teaching staff: “Each is the scholarly type, and I would say first rate for University teaching. But I am doubtful and even sceptical of their appeal to the average working man. The kind of people I would choose for the staff of Newbattle would be of the Officer type developed during the war, who could maintain easy relationships with the men and at the same time hold their respect, who are not only first-rate academically but can approach their students easily. I cannot imagine Dr. Muir approaching any student with ease, he is much too shy himself, and I would say definitely not a social type.”[28]

This mixture of simple prejudice and acute observation is expressed in the language of the early post-war years, but the official view of Newbattle did not shift significantly over later decades. The reluctance to provide secure funding, beyond the capitation grant paid for each student completing his or her studies, was justified by reference to the cost of RAE compared to other forms of further education. In addition, it was asked why the SED should pay for the expensive upkeep of a former stately home. The dry rot problem was a source of official concern in the 1950s as in the 1980s.

Another consistently-held view was that Newbattle could somehow make itself more attractive to non-governmental funders by running short vocational courses. For example, the Director of Education for Dundee, claimed that the one-year course,“suitable for the more leisurely days prior to the war”, was now “totally unsuitable”. “At most, conditions in industry are such that three months is likely to be the longest period for which employers will release workpeople, but even shorter courses will have a greater appeal”, he told McNeill. If this were the case, then weekend schools and short courses in “Management Studies” (perhaps with sponsorship from the Scottish Council for Industry) could “bridge the gap between school and industry for hundreds of young people”. Under the existing system, “students, uprooted from factory life or conditions of employment, did not always benefit intellectually and morally from the sudden transfer into the casual, dilettante atmosphere of Newbattle. The atmosphere was further vitiated by the well-intentioned pampering of Lord Lothian”.[29] Even the benefactor, who had been dead for over a decade, could, it seems, be dragged into the discussion.