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Haldane and the birth of the modern HE sector

On the centenary of his influential machinery of government report, David Kernohan looks at the career of Richard Burdon Haldane, a man who did more than most to shape the HE sector we know today.
This article is more than 5 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Published a hundred years ago this month, the 1918 Machinery of Government report, delivered by a committee chaired by Richard Burdon Haldane, is still the basis of our modern form of government and the checks and balances that Parliament places on it.

It sets out the idea of departments based on services rather than user constituencies (a Department of Health. not a Department of Paupers), introduced the idea of policymaking based on high-quality commissioned research, and laid the groundwork for the independent parliamentary committees to scrutinise that policymaking.

It also set out the principle that came to bear his name – that, though departments could commission their own research to inform specific policymaking, general research should be commissioned by an autonomous research council. The current councils that make-up UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) also stem, to a greater or lesser extent, from the machinery of government report.

This came as a part of the reconstruction of the UK following the Great War, but represented one of Haldane’s last public acts in a career that saw him at the centre of the greatest ever reforms of the UK HE sector.

The state of English HE

When Haldane was born in Edinburgh in 1856 there were only five institutions that we would recognise as universities in England: Oxford; Cambridge; Durham; King’s College; and University College London. The latter three were relatively recent inventions – alternative providers if you will – and all but UCL had strong links to the Church of England. The older two institutions were almost universally derided as being out-of-touch and irrelevant. Parliament had been moved to conduct inquiries into the perilous state of education at Oxford and Cambridge. Intellectual life in England centred around the Royal Society and, to a lesser extent, the smaller, independent medical schools in London. For a country with claims to be a world leader, this was an embarrassing state of affairs.

By contrast, Scotland had five well-regarded higher education institutions – and the youngest two of these (Edinburgh and Marischal College) had been modelled explicitly on the new European model of Protestant colleges. The centre of this modern idea was Germany, which had more than forty universities at the time, many of which were smaller, local institutions. Even as far back as the 14th century, these had been at the forefront of European thought. It was Martin Luther, a professor at the University of Wittenberg, whose writing sparked the Reformation.

So, in studying at Gottingen and Edinburgh, Haldane had a direct experience of the power of a modern university. It was an experience which shaped a lifelong interest in the transformative potential of HE and in continental philosophy (including writing on and translating Schopenhauer and Hegel).

Alternative providers

Having seen the potential of these emerging approaches to a rigorous HE – research-led, civic-focused, socially and economically beneficial – he spent a good part of his incredible and storied career trying to bring these experiences to England and Wales.

In his autobiography, he puts it thus: “I had come to see that what we needed badly in our own country was more universities, and universities of the civic type, in different parts of these islands”.

He became involved in campaigns to establish universities in Liverpool and Leeds (emerging from the comparatively recent Victoria University consortium based around Manchester), Bristol, and later Wales. He also began to apply himself to the crisis developing at the University of London, having a hand in the establishment of Imperial College along with the Prince of Wales (later King Edward), and bringing it into a reconstituted university.

Haldane sat on the first Treasury Committee on University Education, which granted charters to those named above alongside Sheffield, Reading, and Birmingham. This prompted an explosion in the establishment of university colleges around England, all of which later became universities.

Thus early in the century there were established teaching universities controlled within the great cities to which they belonged. The civic communities had reached a stage where they had resolved to be content in higher education with nothing short of what was highest

Britain’s Humboldt?

Institutes like Edinburgh and Gottingen were organised around a Humboldtian conception of HE. Oxford and Cambridge, in comparison, were best described in John Newman’s “idea of a university”.

People who hark back to a Newmanesque golden age of UK HE should be reminded of how Haldene put it in the preface to his Discourses:

The view taken of a university is the following: That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a university should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science.

In contrast, Wilhelm von Humboldt was far more concerned with institutional autonomy, academic freedom, freedom of study for students, and research and teaching all happening in parallel. He had little time for Newman’s church-led focus on universal knowledge, paying more regard to the advancement of knowledge.

What Haldane was aiming to do in the UK was very much a Humboldtian project. As far as he was concerned he wanted to base these new universities on a model which (at the time) was the best in the world.

The need for higher education

In a celebrated 1916 speech to the House of Lords, Haldene is utterly convinced that even during wartime, education and training needed to be of the highest possible quality. He lamented continued issues with secondary schools:

The result is that when they go on to the university — such as do go on to the university — they have to do over again the work that ought to have been done in the secondary schools.

But he was also clear that university education for a substantial proportion of young people in Britain would be central to the success of the nation:

In England only 18,000 enter university institutions of some kind, and I am including the agricultural colleges. In Scotland it is much better. With less than 5,000,000 of population, 7,700 enter university institutions annually. That is a deplorable state of things. It means this. We are entering upon this great struggle when there is this splendid willingness of the nation to do what is necessary to save itself, when there is in every class just now the spirit which is willing to undertake new enterprises and rise above the indifference of the past: and I say that a great responsibility will rest upon our rulers if they do not rise to the occasion and take the lead in directing the acquisition of opportunities for that vast neglected class, that vast reservoir of undeveloped and undiscovered talent, which may contain for all we know men and women who would raise the genius of the country in every walk of life.

It was a very modern speech, and a very modern sentiment, from a very modern man.

Too pro-Europe?

Haldane held many national roles during his career. In 1915 he was set to join a Liberal/Conservative coalition government engaged in the First World War. Having had an integral part in the reform of the British Armed Forces, and a detailed knowledge – gained through contacts in Germany – of opposition preparations he would have seemed an ideal candidate to play a leading role in supporting the war effort.

But his Germany “sympathies” (with his academic and educational preferences a key part of this supposition) led to sustained attacks in the popular press. Lord Harmsworth – who at the time owned The Times and the Daily Mail, and was once described as having done (next to the Kaiser) “more than any living man to bring about the war” – was particularly scathing on these issues, sparking a popular letter-writing campaign.

Reflecting on this in his autobiography, Haldane notes:

Looking back, I can find nothing but advantage in the extent to which I acquired something of an international mind. There came to me more knowledge than I could otherwise have acquired, and also more courage

But he concluded:

I had gone to Germany too often and had read her literature too much, not to give ground to narrow-minded people to say that Germany was my spiritual home

This popular feeling meant that Haldane had to resign as Lord Chancellor in order for the coalition to be formed and so unable to contribute directly to the war effort. That said, his previous organisational efforts were appreciated – none less than Haig described him as “the greatest Secretary of State for War England ever had”.

His international outlook and interest in the advancement of knowledge stood as a black mark against him in a time where the press was stirring up a nationalist mood, and the country appeared to have had enough of experts. Today the sector he helped found occasionally finds itself at odds with popular sentiment too.

But like Haldane, British universities have laid the foundations of civic society as we know it. Even in difficult times, the structures put in place can support the country in the absence of competent leadership. Although Haldane faced abuse and disdain as he was forced to sit out the war, one that he tried to avoid and then readied a chaotic nation for, he never lost sight of the central place that research and education needs to play in civic society.

One response to “Haldane and the birth of the modern HE sector

  1. This is fascinating thank you, and the Hegel reference has sent me down a Haldane family tree/wikipedia rabbit hole. Looks like it was his sister (Elizabeth) who translated Hegel (as well?) whilst he did the Schopenhauer. Elizabeth was an important suffragist. His brother John Scott was a pioneering physiologist who experimented on his own son (famous Marxist scientist) John Burden Sanderson Haldane. I would like to have witnessed their family gatherings.

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