This minute (dated 7 May 1919) included a report entitled ‘Organised Labour and the University of Birmingham'.1 It proposed that a diploma should be awarded after examination for students nominated by local trades unions. The unions would cover wages and related costs of workers attending the university for two days a week, over a twenty-six week session. The university would provide without charge all lectures, tutorial assistance and facilities for study. Sir Gilbert Barling, the university’s vice-chancellor, described the course as ‘fitting workmen for the duties of citizenship and for an effective share in the control of industry’.2 A Joint Committee of the University and the Workers’ Educational Association) (WEA) oversaw this workers’ course.
Barling’s progressive view and, indeed, this positive partnership between university and labour movement should be considered against the circumstances at the end of World War One. Neville Chamberlain, a member of the university’s council, suggested a conference in September 1918, to consider how the university could be of more educational service to the labour movement.3 Nationally, the Ministry of Reconstruction formed an Adult Education committee that promoted the idea of universities developing tutorial classes.4 However, these initiatives were regarded with suspicion by some parts of the labour movement. Certainly, Birmingham’s scheme was hindered by influential local activists who supported the Central Labour College's opposition to such developments.5
The Labour College movement had a longstanding antagonism towards the WEA, which it regarded as promoting an ‘objective’ or ‘bourgeois’ education instead of the Marxist alternative offered by local labour colleges.6 This general tension was aggravated locally because of the University of Birmingham’s action against one of its staff in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.7 The Senate was accused of ‘gagging’ Dr Segal, an expert on Russia, when his lectures were deemed to be too revolutionary.
Eventually, the ‘objective’ model of workers’ education succeeded, with the support of local activists, such as Thomas Hackett, who supported the joint University/WEA committee in Birmingham. However, practical issues caused friction between the partners for some years, reinforcing the distrust by some of this form of workers’ education. As early as 1919, funds were refused by the university to print a prospectus for the workers’ course.8 A request to provide shelves for books bequeathed by the late Rose Sidgwick was also rejected. In 1922, an appeal by the WEA for funds to hold general classes on site in the suburbs was rejected, and the workers’ course remained at Edmund Street for many years.9 In 1925 the university restated that lecturers who were appointed specifically to serve the workers’ course were not able to participate in the university’s superannuation scheme.10
1 Council Minutes, vol.12, minute 6574, 7 May 1919 [UBSC]. See also Ashley's working notes. 2 ‘Modern Universities and Labour – Birmingham’s Experiment’, Birmingham Post (4 March 1920) 3Birmingham Post 4 Council Minutes, vol.13, minute 6624, 2 July 1919 [UBSC] 5 Letter from William Ashley to Neville Chamberlain, 8 September 1919 [UBSC: NC/8/1/6] 6 George Barnsby, Socialism in Birmingham and the Black Country 1850-1939 (1998), p.343 7 Barnsby, pp.346–347 8 Council Minutes, vol.13, minute 6690, 23 July 1919 [UBSC] 9 Council Minutes, vol.17, minute 8252, 10 January 1923; minute 8280, 7 February 1923 [UBSC] 10 Council Minutes, vol.19, minute 9051, 7 January 1925 [UBSC]
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