An impersonal look at heroic history

16th February 2001 at 00:00
UNIVERSITY, CITY AND STATE - the University of Glasgow since 1870. By Michael Moss, J Forbes Munro and Richard Trainor. University of Edinburgh Press. pound;35

This is heavyweight institutional history lightened by scenes of mayhem at rectorial elections. Unlike some other Scottish universities, Glasgow has been lucky to see its sons assiduously plotting its history for a couple of centuries and more. So the present volume can be seen as the continuation of a distinguished series, and its interest lies in its emphases rather than in the revelation of any remarkable new facts, except for the most recent period.

Its predecessors were likely to lay great stress, for example, on the numerous Great Men the university has sent out into the world. They are not lacking here, though there is something of a tendency to regard academic bureaucrats as the Greatest Men of all, but the whole approach and tone of this study is much more impersonal. The university appears as bigger than the sum of its human parts, and the real story lies in its relations with equally majestic entities - the city of Glasgow on the one hand and the British state on the other.

Traditionally, the university was more embedded in its surrounding community than any other even in Scotlnd, let alone in Britain. That has shown itself in the extraordinarily high proportion of its students native to the west of Scotland, only now starting to change, and during earlier times in generous benefactions from the region's commercial haute bourgeoisie. At one time, too, relations between the university and the corporation of Glasgow were close, the two tending to regard their great occasions as worthy of mutual celebration. But when Labour took municipal power in the 1930s, it laid a dead hand on the university as on everything else, and let relations deteriorate on the grounds that academe was elitist.

Of course, in Glasgow precisely the opposite was true. Institutions may be dull in detail, but this book shows their history can be heroic. Glasgow survived the first half of the 20th century with a lower income per student than any university in Britain, yet still gave prodigious numbers their chance in life. It took all the efforts of a series of dedicated principals to put things right, to raise funds and secure equality. This activity consisted largely in cosying up to the Government and convincing it that its treatment of Glasgow was scandalous. These men made their university richer and better but, somehow, less interesting.

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