50th Anniversary: Sir Peter Venables Q&A

50 Aston Greats - Sir Peter Venables

Sir Peter Venables

Sir Peter Venables (1904-1979) was Principal of the College of Advanced Technology (1955–1966) and Aston University’s first Vice-Chancellor (1966–1969). He was born in Birkenhead, the second of the seven children of a Post Office clerk, and attended Birkenhead secondary school and Liverpool University, where he obtained a first-class degree in chemistry, an education diploma, a PhD and a research fellowship. He went on to Chair the Planning Committee of The Open University and served as The Open University’s first Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Council. This is an edited version of an interview conducted by Aston University’s Academic Registrar, George Arkieson, on January 27th 1970.

Sir Peter at the Charter dinner, 1966

Sir Peter at the Charter dinner, 1966

Sir Peter you retired in August 1969 from your post as first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aston in Birmingham. Can you tell us about when you first came here?

I came [to Birmingham] in June 1956. I was appointed in the January 1956 to take up appointment in May 1956 and the Government, bless them, obligingly published a White Paper on technical education about C.A.Ts [Colleges of Advanced Technology] in February, so I came here able to get a lot of things underway which Principal Wilson had asked for time and time again; the conditions were not propitious, the policy wasn’t accepted and these things largely fell into my lap. From then on we had the C.A.T., which was the first [in the country] to be designated in September 1956. The following year, 1957, all the Bakery, Domestic Science and allied work was shed to form the College of Food and Domestic Arts, which you may remember the students christened in the first week as the College of Grub and Scrub! The following year we shed all the craft and technician courses to the Matthew Boulton Technical College, so it is from 1958 onwards that we were really devoted to university-level work only. The shedding of work, of course, had its problems, many people joining the staff feeling, you know, they had joined this College for good and all, and then found themselves being transferred to other colleges. I think generally that was managed reasonably well.

The next stage, of course, was independent status.

Lord Eccles, who has never been given credit for developing technical education in the way I think he should, discovered that these local authorities in charge of these [C.A.T.s] had 100 per cent autonomy and were contributing about three per cent of the net cost because all the rest of the cost came from a Central National Pool and so he promptly determined that by 1962 they should become independent Colleges under trustees with direct grants from the Ministry of Education. That stage, of course, was fascinating because the Robbins Committee had already been appointed. So there was a great ferment of discussion and, of course, everybody in the C.A.T. [was] hanging his hat up for university status with no other thought in mind – and that is, as you know, what actually happened.

Looking back now, do you think it is a pity that polytechnics came along later? Would it have been better if the C.A.T. in Birmingham, on its site surrounded by Commerce and Art, had become the first super polytechnic?

Yes, this was greatly debated at the time. People are now saying, of course, that the polytechnics have rushed into the vacuum in the further education system left by the transference of C.A.T.s to technological universities, and with hindsight, one might say, it would have been better for the C.A.T.s to remain at the apex of the further education system. [But] there were many reasons why people wanted university status and not mere snobbery. First of all, if you joined a university system, you were assured of certain conditions of governance; of academic autonomy; of designing of courses; of finance [which], once granted to you, you dispersed for your own needs, flexibly, over a period of five years. For the staff, they were recognised members of a scholarly community, not only in this country but throughout the world. As you know, five of us went to Russia to see something of their Higher Technological Institutions and quite a few of us have been to the States, and to try to explain to them what a C.A.T. was, and what a Dip. Tech. was - and that it was really the equivalent of a degree, but you know, we don’t call it a degree - was an impossible thing to do.

All these things (and I do emphasise “not mere snobbery”) did impel people to say that these institutions are doing work at university level, they ought to be accorded the standing and the character of universities - by character I mean a Charter - that they become autonomous; that they have the responsibility of designing their own courses, setting their own levels of financing and helping themselves and so on. This is really the reason why [the university status] came about. There was a very interesting point in the progress when, I think the best way of putting it is, we suddenly realised we didn’t have to shout about status anymore and this was just about the time of the Robbins Report. There is a nice point in any progress when it is not advisable to go on shouting about status because if you do, all you do is convince other people that you’re convinced you haven’t got it. 

Shortly after the Robbins Report, the Government accepted his proposal that the C.A.T.s should become technological universities, did it not?

Yes, that’s right. The Robbins Report was in October 1963, and, in the shortest possible time, I think it was less than a week, the Government announced the acceptance of the recommendations. So from the following April we were transferred to the U.G.C. list and from then onwards started to devise our way. It was not until April 1966 that the Charter was granted. Some of us felt that this was carrying Fabianism and the inevitability of gradualness too far. It was a very interesting exercise and we had tremendous debates, of course - those who wanted Professorial Senate; those who wanted Senate representatives of every section - and I think the result was, for the time, quite liberal in its representation of the non-Professorial staff. I think we did well on that. Looking back I think we didn’t pay enough attention to students, but I think it would be easy, you know, to make a judgement by hindsight because the conditions then were different. We did in fact consult the students but their views were not so well developed or so urgent as they later became.

What other concerns had members of staff at this time, apart from what actually went into the Charter?

Well, I think they were concerned about the problems of undergraduate courses; the balance of sandwich courses; the balance of teaching and research. There is no doubt [that] university status brought with it increasing insistence on research work. Little had been done before this, and to some people, it was a challenge; to others, a bit of a threat. This meant the designing of new courses; the designing of postgraduate courses for M.Sc.; the establishment of research projects and getting grants and all the rest of it. This was a major challenge to staff and I would emphasise that they tackled it marvellously because it was all done on top of running an institution.

Would it be fair to ask whether you had any disappointments at this time in your life?

Well, it would be impossible to expect everything to go smoothly. The one major regret I have is that we made absolutely no progress whatever in six or seven years in gaining athletic grounds for students.

It would have been easier, of course, to provide these facilities if the University had moved out into a green field site somewhere. Do you think this would have been a good idea for us to have done in 1960?

Oh that was a splendid controversy which was carried on for a good many months. I must confess I became rather determined, and perhaps even heated, in the process because I felt it was absolutely vital to stay [in Birmingham]. I couldn’t be dispassionate about it. Those who want to establish the University in green fields, well by all means go and do it, whether as a free university, as a private university, or as another university on the U.G.C. I could never see that that university would be the same as a university in the centre of a large city. Here we have the [City of Birmingham] Symphony Orchestra, we have the libraries, we have the art galleries, we have all the life of a city. I would argue that a technological university in the centre of a great city - the second city of the kingdom - is a good place for a technological university to be, and I am sticking to that.