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Artillery Row

New universities in the early Eighties: an elegy

Steve Morris reflects on his time at the University of East Anglia with his contemporary, Iain Dale

I went by tube to Northolt and then London Victoria Station where I boarded a National Express coach to Norwich. I had a suitcase and a book and was heading off to start my degree in English Literature at the University of East Anglia, one of the radical new universities.

UEA was as far as you could get from the dreaming spires of Oxford University

UEA was opened in 1963 and its trademark brutalist buildings, designed by Denys Lasdun, actually began to open in 1966. It really is a tour-de-force; even today when the concrete has begun to look a bit tatty; as Anthony Daniels who writes as Theodore Dalrymple has pointed out, the concrete of brutalism “doesn’t age gracefully”. Lasdun designed a huge teaching wall – a single string of teaching departments some 1,510 feet long. This teaching area was attached to a multi-layered terrace of houses – pyramid-style (and now listed) which became known as Ziggurats. This was as far as you could get from Matthew Arnold’s “dreaming spires” of Oxford University.

Allied to the architectural boldness, were the creative teaching methods the university employed – modular courses, continuous assessment as well as finals, seminars (where students discussed ideas) and optional lectures. Flexibility was a watchword and a new collaborative style of teaching and learning. It was as though this new university, and others, were re-threading the very fabric of higher education.  In 1965 Benjamin Britten was appointed music advisor at UEA and in the Seventies Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson pioneered the creative writing Master of Arts. By the Eighties, it was still, well, quite odd.

I was the first person in my family to go to university and I was studying the subject that I loved. Looking back, it seems like another country. Underpinning the new universities, even in early 80s, was a kind of utopianism – that if you give students choice and engagement in the structure of their course then you will produce young people who think for themselves and will go out and change the world in surprising ways.

I wanted to go to a university and study English, but I didn’t want to study Chaucer or the ancients

They were essentially an experiment. The campus novelists David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury may have tried to puncture the high educational ideals of the places by revealing the venal behaviour of the individuals who actually ran and attended them, but Lodge and Bradbury wouldn’t have thought of teaching anywhere else. It was a largely affectionate mockery. What certainly is true is that, despite all the bold modernism, day-to-day life on campus in the early Eighties was rather quaint. In the large common room there were stalls run by ex-graduates selling all kinds of nonsense. If you fancied joss sticks or vegan soup, this was where to go.

Universities may be completely different, but the legacy of these extraordinary universities certainly lives on. To understand why, you may have to accompany me on some time travel back to the early Eighties.

By some wonderful synchronicity I was at the UEA at exactly the same time as Iain Dale, who now hosts a radio show on LBC. He studied German, linguistics and teaching English as a foreign language. We decided to talk about our experience of UEA and just what it has left us with. It turns out that Iain does some time travel too: “Whenever I go back now, I walk around the campus as though I am back in the 1980s and feel invisible to people who are there now. It has changed, but the central part is exactly the same … you still feel like a student when you are there even though it was 35 years ago.”

Iain wanted to go to a university that had a flexible course. He loved German as a language but “hated studying literature” and UEA was one of the few universities that gave him the flexibility to do the things he loved. It was the same for me. I wanted to go to a university and study English, but I didn’t want to study Chaucer or the ancients. It felt liberating and I was happy that I could get to know about the things I wanted to. But UEA wasn’t a distressed choice; it was exciting and seemed to capture the zeitgeist.

Iain tells me that he has dug out the old prospectus that we were sent before going for our interview. It was love at first sight, Iain tells me: “I put UEA at the top of the list. I got the brochure and thought it was so much better than all the others. I came across that brochure the other day and it just made me feel how I felt back then. I wanted to go to UEA when I went for the day to visit it, I just fell in love with the place. I just knew I would be happy there…”

My application interview was with Dr David Punter (as he was then). I remember how he listened to me and was friendly. I remember the lovely sandwiches the university provided and the sense that here was something new and for people just like me. That approachability was way ahead of its time. I didn’t even apply for a traditional university.

On the ground, it was a time of political turmoil and UEA was pretty wired. But by and large you got to express even unpopular opinions freely. We were still listening to each other. There was, at times, fevered radicalism, but it felt relatively gentle. Campus life was peaceful with no sense of violence or danger.

Iain set up the first Conservative Society at UEA and became something of a campus personality. Everyone knew who he was and sometimes they let him know they didn’t agree with him. Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister while we were there. Iain tells me that in the midst of this firmament of ideas and debate, “That year 82-83 was the best year of my life.”

I wore a leather jacket and the same trousers for three years

In the Eighties there was still the faint whiff of the gentle utopianism and idealism of UEA in the late Sixties and Seventies. Those earlier generations were a pretty hairy and folky lot, but we were less laid-back. By the Eighties, new wave was here and the UEA ground-breaking music programme was attracting the best, most dangerous bands around – Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, The Damned, Motorhead, Julian Cope. I at least felt rebellious; as if we were on the cusp of change with a new meritocracy on its way. I dyed my hair. I wore a leather jacket and the same trousers for three years. I’ve got the photos.

UEA came into the world to Do Different, as its ungrammatical motto proclaimed. We, at least at the time, thought that was about right. It helped that there was space and not just the parkland and lake. With only 4,000 students studying you never had to queue. And with a full grant, there was no debt.

But why did we choose to go to UEA? It can’t just have been the sandwiches and the crazy beards and flared trousers of the professors. It turns out Iain and I chose UEA for the same reason: “I knew that I wouldn’t fit in to one of the old universities. I knew. I hadn’t been to private school. I would have felt incredibly uncomfortable. What it gave me was to become an adult … it enabled me to discover what I was good at and wasn’t good at and make my decisions after.”

It did the same for me.

UEA is still there but it is no longer a new entrant, a disruptor. It has a good reputation. It is a respectable university – that’s good. I have looked in vain on the university’s website for a recounting, even celebration, of its radical past. I couldn’t find it. I may have looked in the wrong place.

At the end of my time at UEA I stopped reading novels for 10 years

I have a few nagging doubts that have come on over the years. I studied English and the university English department was deep in the thrall of various isms – like Marxism and post-modernism and structuralism. Books became texts, literary games full of signs and symbols. But I can’t understand how we could study, say Milton or Bronte or even D H Lawrence and not mention Christianity or the Bible? At the end of my time at UEA and after a miserable MA, I stopped reading novels for 10 years. I’ve recovered now. At least UEA helped me to know that beyond all doubt I would never be an academic. The dying of that dream enabled me to come up with a better one.

But what about the class of 81-85? What did UEA turn out and did they the students really end up being and doing different. I think so. “People are doing fantastic things – they are MPs and SPADs and all kinds of things”, says Iain. They are also writers and producers and journalists and scientists. What our generation all have in common is that we took a chance and went to a new university up in the East Zone.

The wind whips across the campus. The concrete can seem oppressive. But once, 35-odd years ago we all went to a charming university that was a bit of an experiment. The residences in an old air force base were a disgrace, “a bit like a prison. I never got a good night’s sleep with all the racket”, as Iain says. It wasn’t polished, but nor were we. We spent four years in a Fine City, as Norwich describes itself, and that can’t be bad.

UEA and other new universities began a process of shifting the balance of power, from teachers towards students. That balance needed shifting, even if it may have gone too far the other way right now. New styles of teaching and learning did breathe new life into academic departments. It felt that we were students at just the right time and just the right place.

Perhaps those new universities worked best in helping us to take risks and not follow the obvious path. Maybe we are biased. Perhaps the more traditional universities offered that same sense of adventure and choice. Do different, UEA still whispers to me. Do different. Iain tells me: “When I went to UEA I thought I was going to become a German teacher, well obviously things took me on a very different path.”

A university like the UEA of the early Eighties could not exist now

Me too. I am now a priest. Universities have changed radically; we all know that. A university like the UEA of the early Eighties, in all its village friendliness, could not exist now, and that’s a bit sad. The numbers and the money wouldn’t stack up. We genuinely studied not to get a job at the end of things, but to learn and enjoy the experience. Were we the last generation to do that? It wouldn’t surprise me. UEA’s concrete is showing its age and so am I. I am a bit weathered and stained and crumbly. But isn’t that decay part of the charm?

Suddenly I remember my graduation. My dad was a Cockney and he was under strict instructions not to embarrass me. He had his best suit on and mum looked lovely. Just as I was about to go in, I spotted dad waving frantically at me. “You can’t wear those shoes, son. It’s university, it’s posh and you look scruffy.” And so, we swapped shoes. Dad wore my size 10 Dr Martin’s with his suit, and I wore his smart size 8 black leather shoes.

You know… he was right.

Steve Morris is author of Our Precious Lives: How telling and listening to stories can save the church, published by Authentic Media and available from Amazon.

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