By any estimation Charles Waldstein (later Walston) was an interesting man.

Born into a Jewish family in New York in 1856, he was the Director of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, the archaeologist who excavated Aristotle’s tomb, and both an organiser of and competitor in the Games of the First Olympiad, held in Athens in 1896.

But Waldstein was also a firm believer in a subject about which we have been hearing a lot of late – student choice. Seen as the necessary and desirable corollary of enhanced competition, student choice is central to the current government’s higher education reform agenda. But as Waldstein’s comments in the early years of the twentieth century show, it is by no means a concept that is new to British universities.

In 1912 Waldstein championed the ‘freedom and natural development’ of students, arguing that they must be allowed to choose among their teachers, realising ‘the power and responsibility of judging for themselves’. This, he thought, would help form in students a ‘great discipline of mind and character’ – something he felt was absent from the tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge. It would stimulate their studies and ‘react in a most fruitful manner directly upon the academic teachers themselves.’

Yet despite his devotion to ‘natural competition’ in education, Waldstein was not a fan of institutional specialisation. Heavily influenced by his time as a student in the German university system in the 1870s, he thought that freedom of student choice helped guard against academic ‘one-sidedness’. The science students could attend lectures in the humanistic departments and vice versa, and this intercourse would lead to the ‘natural development’ of a University as a place that pursued ‘the unity of systematic knowledge’.

But how was this advantageous situation to be achieved in Britain? The answer Waldstein proposed may surprise many labouring in British universities today.

He thought that it was gifted lecturers who would attract students. When such teachers are not there, he argued, ‘no amount of assertion on the part of the University authorities, of mechanical and material advantages, appliances, tradition, and reputation, will secure eminence for any given subject.’

Therefore Waldstein held that ‘the conditions of the academic career’ should be improved. Venturing that ‘there is no career in our common life so thoroughly handicapped by unfavourable conditions as is that of our University teachers’, he suggested that fostering academic mobility, lifting salaries, and encouraging research would give university teachers the opportunity to ‘expand [their] energies [and] to realize and effectuate the capacities that are in [them]’. Such opportunities should be offered equally to all teachers, regardless of the relatively popularity of their subject. For not only was it impossible to tell who next would rise to prominence, but ‘the full intellectual health and the balance of the University teacher can only be ensured by living among, and in touch with, his colleagues in other departments.’

Central to Waldstein’s commitment to student choice were therefore the providers as well as the consumers of higher education. Only by improving their conditions might the ‘natural development’ of the universities take place.

As any reader of the White Paper will note, it is an emphasis that has so far been absent from the current government’s higher education agenda.

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