February sees the 40th anniversary of the Warwick Files Affair, an episode in the student militancy of the 1960s which still resonates. The expansion of university education following the Robbins Report and the baby boom post 1945 created new universities. But whether expansion would be intellectually productive or limited to the production of technical specialists was an open question.
This debate was at the heart of the Files Affair. The ferment of student protest across campuses in most Western countries ensured the purpose of universities was briefly a live issue. At Warwick, where an initial protest over the lack of student union building spilled over into controversy over links with industry and outside interference in the university’s affairs, issues over academic freedom became heated, and some important academic principles were reaffirmed. If the subsequent development of the university abandoned some of the more purist elements of the ivory tower, the basic framework of a liberal view of university education remained intact.
This compromise cannot be taken for granted. Pressure to measure the value of university education purely by economic factors is growing, while political interference is never far away. In recent weeks Lord Mandleson has been threatening Oxbridge – and by implication other Russell Group universities – with quotas if they do not admit certain types of students. This is an echo, in reverse, of one aspect of the Files Affair. It was alleged that students were being rejected on political grounds. It is equally unacceptable to accept students on political grounds.
Similarly, Lord Mandleson decreed an extra 10,000 places in universities this autumn, but only for faculties in the natural sciences. Do other areas of the curriculum not provide an equally valid education?
Fourty years on, the Warwick Files Affair may seem as ancient as Flower Power or the football tactics of Sir Alf Ramsey. But as a seminar held at Warwick in 2003 to evaluate the concequences of the protest showed, the issues remain fresh and controversial. Next February would seem a prime time to reassess the Files Affair in the light of the challenges of a new century.
Trevor Lane Fisher
History and Politics 1970,
Member of the Committee of Seven during the Files Affair, February 1970