University celebrates 40th birthday

By Roddy AshworthONE of the region's most successful - and at one time most notorious - educational establishments celebrates its 40th birthday today.

By Roddy Ashworth

ONE of the region's most successful - and at one time most notorious - educational establishments celebrates its 40th birthday today.

In October 1964, just 122 people arrived to become the first students at the new University of Essex.

Because the area that was to become the central campus was still effectively nothing more than a building site, the university was centred around Wivenhoe House, a mansion set in rolling parkland that was once painted by John Constable.


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Much of the initial teaching took place in a cluster of temporary huts and the seven departments and two centres boasted 28 teaching staff.

Wivenhoe Park had been selected for the new university - ahead of a site in Chelmsford - in 1961 and it was sold on January 1, 1962, for £75,000.

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The initial plan was drawn up for a large campus university with a student population of 20,000, although subsequent cuts in Government funding prevented the proposed expansion.

People who object to its original, brutalist architecture, where tower blocks loom above their landscaped surroundings, should count themselves lucky - initially 28 of the 14-storey towers were planned for Wivenhoe Park, but just six were ever built.

Sir Albert Sloman, the university's first vice-chancellor, wanted to create an establishment that was inter-disciplinary, with departments grouped in schools to strengthen their academic links.

The campus was supposed to be a cohesive community, with the residences and social space linked to the academic buildings to create a university town in which staff and students mingled in the same restaurants and coffee shops.

Sir Albert believed a university should provide an experience of living as well as an opportunity for learning, which led to the-then radical decision to have flats, rather than halls of residence.

But in the early years not all went well. In 1967 the student “troubles” at the university began and ran into the 1970s for almost a decade.

Classes were boycotted, buildings were occupied, students marched through the streets of Colchester and police raided the campus for drugs.

When Prime Minister Harold Wilson received his honourary degree at Essex University, 30 or 40 students barracked him and clashed with police.

The university's undergraduates became so disorderly that five MPs from the House of Commons select committee for education conducted an inquiry - which was promptly broken up by students.

Wivenhoe Park became infamous as a hotbed of protest and many national newspapers - and their cartoonists - criticised the university and its reputation for student unrest.

However, towards the end of the 1970s and after a number of incidents, including an attempt to set fire to the campus branch of Barclays Bank, the university settled down.

In 1985 the Queen visited the campus and the university was delighted that the royal visit provoked no action from students.

Today, Essex ranks in the top 10 UK universities for both research and teaching, while Wivenhoe Park is home to more than 7,500 students and 1,800 members of staff.

The university has 17 academic departments, 40 centres and institutes and, through flourishing partnerships with other institutions, students also study for degrees in Chelmsford, Loughton and Southend.

Current vice-chancellor, Professor Ivor Crewe, said: “Sir Albert Sloman's ambition 40 years ago was to create a university that was international, inter-disciplinary and inclusive, breaking down the barriers between nations, disciplines and social hierarchies.

“The university has succeeded in all three respects. It is international in its outlook and values, with a faculty and student body drawn from across the world and a curriculum that respects and celebrates other cultures and traditions.

“It brings the different disciplines together in new joint degrees and innovative collaborative research programmes, and it enjoys exceptionally good relations between students, academics and support staff.”

roddy.ashworth@eadt.co.uk

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