‘We shall be in danger of making our Universities pale reflections of merely one side of English opinion … what we want are many institutions among which you may have faithful witnesses to unpopular truths and non-utilitarian studies.’

These words were not pronounced in the context of the dramatic changes reshaping English universities in 2011, but rather they were delivered in 1921 by Sir Michael Sadler, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds, when the threat to universities seemed to come not from the retraction of government funding, but instead from its introduction.

For, in the wake of the First World War, the universities had found themselves under real financial strain. Emptied during the conflict, or turned over to the war effort, after its cessation large numbers of returned soldiers had flooded into them, demanding accommodation, teaching, and new approaches to both. With nowhere else to turn the exhausted universities looked to government to assist them, making new sorts of arguments about their contribution, not just to the war effort, but also to national life. However, though impelled towards state aid, they nonetheless feared the surrender of their independence, worried that government money might carry unacceptable conditions and compromise their autonomy.

According to Sadler this independence was the most precious quality the universities had. ‘If we hand over our freedom to officials, however wise,’ he warned, ‘we are failing in our duty to build up again in England that which our forefathers built up in the older England, institutions with a personality which will hold fast to things that are unpopular rather than give way.’

This sense of the need to protect a place for the unpopular was central to Sadler’s sense of the universities’ value to the nation. He pointed to the heterogeneous nature of opinion in the country, and to its abiding plurality: ‘what is now the dominant opinion in England? Not one opinion, but as always, two. England is two-minded. There are two Englands in one England.’

For Sadler universities were essential because they provided a space – perhaps one of the only spaces – in which the cacophony of voices that go to make up modern society could be heard. Unpopular truths and non-utilitarian studies were essential, not because they helped advance GDP, but because they too were intrinsic to the fabric of the nation. In the wake of the destruction of the Great War, no-one could be sure that, if left alone, science and technology would not lead the world to another engineered carnage. ‘The England that we care for’, argued Sadler, ‘is the England which is the synthesis between those two points of view.’

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