I’ve been silent for some time, I know, but this seems as good a day as any to start blogging again. For on this day fifty years ago, I graduated as BA in Modern Languages from Queen’s University, Belfast.
What my mentors had had in mind for me was that after graduation I would go back into the grammar school where I had been taught, and spend the next forty years imparting the complexities of French syntax to unwilling youngsters. I think I would have lasted two weeks at most. Fortunately, however, my University teachers encouraged me to go on to postgraduate work in my preferred subject, Spanish, and I eventually had a mostly happy and fulfilled career as a lecturer in Spanish Language and Literature.
Universities were different places in those days. The notion that students would later come to be considered ‘customers’ would have been unthinkable, as would the idea of our evaluating our lecturers. Nor did we imagine that there would come a time when students would finish their University courses with debts of £30,000 or more, which would continue to be a millstone round their necks until well into middle age. Neither we undergraduates nor our lecturers felt any need to apologise for pursuing learning for its own sake, nor did anyone question that such a pursuit should be funded from the public purse.
But of course it couldn’t last. The downside was that there was little explicit acknowledgement of accountability to the long-suffering tax-payer, and little attempt to make a case for the social relevance of humanities disciplines in terms that the public could understand and support: their value was assumed to be self-evident. Though I was privileged to have excellent and committed teachers, some of my generation in other institutions were frankly sold short by self-serving and lazy academics. Looking back, I think my cohort was experiencing the last of the old elitist kind of higher education, which was just about to give way to the concept of mass education. It is hard to fault the demand that universities should give ‘value for money’, but the whole atmosphere of the sector is now much more competitive and utilitarian, and has thereby become less humane.
Some issues were specific to Queen’s. The University prided itself on being an oasis of tolerance in a society riven with sectarian conflicts, and on the whole it managed to sustain this ethos, at least until the conflicts intensified in the 1970s. No-one during my time as an undergraduate could have envisaged that a lecturer in the Law Faculty would later be murdered on campus by republican paramilitaries. But there was a price to pay for maintaining this illusion of pluralism. Many of the lecturing staff were from outside Northern Ireland, and adopted an attitude of Olympian detachment from local problems. Furthermore, the relative avoidance of internal sectarian conflict was only achieved by a tacit agreement to leave one’s tribal loyalties at the door when one entered — but they were often picked up again on the way out.
On a brief visit to Belfast last February, I walked round the Queen’s campus at night, and was impressed with the number of new buildings (including a handsome new Library) and the vastly improved amenity of the environment. In every way, the University seems to have gone from strength to strength.With all its limitations in the 1960s, my alma mater provided me with a passport to what has been a richly fulfilled life. Thank you, all of you who have helped me along the way.