A Sociological Autobiography: 27 – Ingested by UCL

By | April 15, 2014

I have alluded to UCL’s ingestion of the Middlesex Hospital Medical School in 1987 without dwelling on it. It was an abrupt and disconcerting experience. Sold to us under the rubric of a ‘merger’, it was clear from the outset that the nomenclature of the University College and Middlesex Hospital Medical School would be temporary. I recall Peter Campbell, an old-school Middlesex biochemist, calling an ad hoc meeting during which he advised us to reject the merger. Peter Semple appeared as if by magic at the back of the hall to insist that rejection was NOT a realistic option. Semple, later re-christened ‘Simple’ by philosopher Ted Honderich, was one of the many ‘clever but stupid’ medics I have encountered over the years. It was on a medical ethics sub-committee that Ted re-named him – for this query: ‘this medical ethics, is it respectable at all? Is it a science?’ Margaret Bailey, a shrewd, reserved social work academic in the Department of Psychiatry at the Middlesex – who had difficulty making eye contact – used to take me quietly to task when I railed at the ignorance and arrogance of medics. But I had a point. It is an arrogance found in many GPs for example, generalists who have an elevated sense of self-confidence and worth, who have lost sight of their limitations and think they can turn their hands to anything (specialists have a keener sense of what they don’t know). Try explaining social-political aspects of illness behaviour or health policy to GPs: often they hear without listening or understanding and quickly end up telling you stuff. Basic medical scientists fall into a different category: they typically hold to rigid, simplistic notions of ‘what science is’ (experimental in the lab, RCTs in the community) and castigate the social sciences as absurd imposters. Now, that’s got that off my chest! Of course there are multiple exceptions to these caricatures!

Talks preceded the merger. The well-established and proven Middlesex behavioural sciences course was doomed from the outset. The psychology teaching for UCL’s medical students was, and was to remain, in the hands of Bob Audley, Head of the Department of Psychological Sciences; and his emissary Peter Salmon was under instructions to yield nothing. James Thompson and Stan Newman lost their teaching and were sidelined. For James, an inspiring teacher, this was a blow; for Stan, it was a very welcome opportunity to concentrate on research. And for me? Well, Ray Fitzpatrick had not yet been replaced and UCL had no Department of Sociology, so it was left for me to concoct a course with Mary Ann Elston, who was based in Michael Marmot’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health. This we did, but Mary Ann subsequently took a year out to focus on research, with Jon Gabe stepping in as temporary lecturer; then she left for Royal Holloway. I did a lot of teaching and assessing until Paul Higgs was appointed in 1994.

I had never really identified with the Middlesex, partly I suspect because I was a loner, most content when scribbling away on my own in a café somewhere, literally in those pre-laptop days, but mostly because sociologists in medical schools were isolated and marginalized. I cannot say I minded much, and I was temperamentally disinclined to do anything about it, so I admit my share of any blame. But the upshot was a degree of alienation from this discrete and intense subculture given over entirely to medical science and professionalization socialization. I liked the students, but little else.

UCL had a lot more to offer than the Middlesex, providing a home to almost all major disciplines with the ironic exception of sociology. Moreover it was in expansionist, not to say, imperialist, mode, colonizing no fewer than 12 previously separate institutions between 1986 and the end of the century (including the Royal Free in 1998). While Provost James Lighthill negotiated prior to effecting mergers, the altogether more abrasive Derek Roberts, who took over in 1989, reversed the process, announcing his mergers and negotiating later. In the event it probably took me a further 20 years before I began to see and present myself as a UCL academic. I shall return to this in future fragments. But what was and is UCL?

Jeremy Bentham did not found UCL although the presence of his boxed ‘Auto-icon’ (since 1850) might suggest otherwise. The doors of the college were first opened in October of 1828 when Bentham was a frail and withdrawn man of 80. He had given his blessing and financial support to the establishment of a university in the largest city in Europe, and almost the only one without its own university, and the founders were certainly indebted to him. In fact, the founders comprised what Bentham characterized as ‘an association of liberals’ (a description contained in his letter to South American liberator Bolivar in 1825). According to Negley Harte and John North’s The World of UCL, 1828-2004, Scottish poet Thomas Campbell was the main man. He was inspired by a visit to Bonn and the atmosphere of religious toleration he sampled. He enlisted the help of ‘Benthamite’ MP Henry Brougham. Harte and North capture the thrust of their campaign:

‘When Campbell and Brougham began to organize a university for London, the only existing universities in England were those long established at Oxford and Cambridge – ‘the two great public nuisances’, Bentham called them, ‘storehouses and nurseries of political corruption …’. Membership of the Church of England was necessary for admission to the one and for graduation from the other. Al noncomformists, Catholics and Jews were thus excluded, while many Anglicans were kept out by the social restrictiveness, by the cost or by the characteristic intellectual backwardness. The old universities were seen to be increasingly out of touch with a rapidly changing society. The population doubled in the first half of the nineteenth century and the combined effects of industrialization and urbanization were making for new social patterns with new pressures and new demands. The industrial revolution necessitated an extended system of higher education.’

The new university came into formal existence on 11 February 1826 with the signing of an elaborate Deed of Settlement. The details need not detain us for now. The core principle was that religion in any form should be neither a requirement for entry, nor a subject for teaching. Eight acres in Bloomsbury had been acquired in 1825 for £30,000. The architecture proved contentious (Pugin dismissed it disdainfully as ‘pagan’), but – and this is its real pedigree – it soon became notorious as ‘the radical infidel College’ and, in more popular parlance, ‘the godless institution of Gower Street’.          

It is a painful question to pose of the grandiose successors of UCL’s founders, but: ‘what is left of the radical aspirations that informed and shaped UCL in the present era of financial capitalism?’ How, by the criteria so compelling at its conception, do the Knights and Lords of the Realm who have served as recent Provosts stand up to scrutiny? And do they care? These are matters perhaps best addressed with the perspective of the retiree.



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