I went back to Warwick University last weekend for a dinner to celebrate fifty years since the class of 1966 arrived there. I was one of them and we were the second University cohort (it opened in 1965) but we massively outnumbered the previous year’s crowd.
When I arrived back then the place was a sea of mud and construction. The student residences were not completed so I found myself a guest in the home of the pro-Vice Chancellor for most of the first term. It wasn’t exactly student life as we know it!
The new university was a strange place. There was no student union and many of the teaching staff were only a few years old than the students. The place was stuck in the countryside straddling the border between Coventry and Warwickshire as part of a peace deal over funding. It was quite a long way from Warwick!
It might have been the swinging ‘60s but I was only eighteen years and one month old with a social age of about fourteen and a half and I had only ever been further north than this once in my life. I had been to a primary school run by nuns and then a boys Grammar School so I had a fair bit of growing up to do. My only asset was an exceptional collection of American R&B which got me into some discos and University entertainments.
So, going back was an odd experience. First of all, I was surprised by how old everybody was which implied that I must’ve been that old as well. Secondly, the people who turned up mostly ended up as teachers, lecturers or other forms of public servant. If there were merchant bankers, celebrities and politicians in our number they didn’t own up to it! There was no evidence that, as a group, we had changed the world through widening access to higher education.
It was a nice enough dinner and although we paid something it was well subsidised and lubricated and you had to appreciate that. Ironically, it took place on the top floor of what we used to call the Social Building. This was the building which the student body struggled to appropriate in the early years of the University and did finally succeed in turning into the first student union against the implacable opposition of the administration. The University has taken it back now and there is a fast food franchise where the rebellion took place and the Vice Chancellor has a private dining room on the top floor. There is a student union elsewhere on the site but, symbolically, you felt that something was lost.
As a university site today, there is still mud and new development. The site oozes affluence from new international partnerships and a giant new multi-storey Warwick Business School block squats over the central site which might say something about the place’s priorities.
After the dinner, we had the customary appeal with a basic message of don’t forget us when you die coupled with a talk about how successful the place was, how international, how connected and how it now ranks just behind Oxford and Cambridge in addition to being well placed in international rankings.
That was kind of sad. Warwick and the other new universities of the 1960s were, I naively thought, established to do something different and to open up access to more students with novel courses and a sense of excitement that we were engaged in doing things differently. Warwick hasn’t done that but, instead, has emerged as a match for Oxford and Cambridge by being more like them in terms of high-level research and international relationships and not by being different. The students still come low in the pecking order and you sense that the place is still run for someone else.
The second part of the dinner was anecdotal and carefully stage managed so that we chuckled about the mud and a catering boycott over the price of egg and chips. We were treated to memories of how wonderful some of the lecturers were and invited to chuckle over the exploits of Germaine Greer. It wasn’t just that there wasn’t anything about the genuine politics of the place or what it was about but there was a sense of being part of the manufacturing of a convenient history about the rising curve and the great success of Warwick University incorporated.
I don’t think everybody felt like this. A few people openly admitted to remembering nothing from their University days and a few others looked as if they hadn’t felt anything for quite a long while! It all ended with an overnight sleep in the opulent conference centre, a place where students are not encouraged, an impossibly large breakfast and a drive home. It was a nice day so I opened the sunroof, turned up the Stones and decided I might give the next reunion a miss!