Accidental Academic

Colin's Story

I never intended to be an academic. That happened by accident. A lucky accident as it turned out as I have enjoyed my career immensely.

The story starts in the VI-form of Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield when the then headmaster informed me that he didn’t think that I was “university material” and hence wouldn’t support my application for a university place. This would appear to have been on the basis that the only subject I had managed to fail during my school career was Latin, which, as it happened, was the subject he taught. Given this, coupled with my parents’ ignorance about universities and the manner in which students were funded (no-one in my family had been to university), I only applied to the nearest university on the basis that my parents couldn’t afford for me to live away from home. That was of course the University of Birmingham and the then admissions officer, a certain A. H. Halsey, turned me down on the basis that I had failed A-level mathematics (I met ‘Chelly’ Halsey many years later at Nuffield College and he was very amused to hear that he had once turned me down for a university place). Not knowing quite what to do next I went to the City of Birmingham College of Commerce with the intention of retaking the A-level Math’s exam. However, when talking to the staff at the College, they informed me that, given that I had passed two A-level subjects (English and Geography), I was qualified to enroll on their external London University degree course in social science (the subject I had applied for at Birmingham University). So, the question was, would I be interested in doing so?

I should explain that the London University external degree system had been devised with the needs of the empire in mind, external students being those who did not attend approved courses of study in a School or Schools of the University, and whose sole connexion with the University was that they presented themselves to it for examination. This meant that students in any far-flung part of the British Empire, whether in Singapore, Lagos or Madras, could study for a London University Degree, while being spared the need to travel to London as the exam papers would be flown out to whatever educational institution they were attached to.  Now it seems that after the end of the Second World War colleges in the United Kingdom realised that there was nothing stopping them from also offering such courses, and the City of Birmingham College of Commerce was one of these. Typically, such courses were offered on a part-time basis, with prospective students fitting their studies around a full-time (or occasionally a part-time) job. This had been the case with the Birmingham College for some time but it so happened that at precisely the time I turned up to retake my A-level Maths exam, they were planning to run such courses on a full-time basis. So, the question wasn’t simply would I be interested in taking an external London degree course, but would I be interested in doing so at the College on a full-time basis? The course in question was the B.Sc. (Econ.). Given that I had intended to live at home while studying full-time at the local university, doing the same thing at the local College of Commerce seemed as good a prospect as any. So, I accepted the offer.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realised quite how different an experience it was to be taught by the people who will be examining you from being taught by those who will have no hand whatsoever in the examination process. The latter is unnerving in the sense that no amount of assurance from your teachers that you are indeed `making progress’ or that you work is `up to the mark’ actually registers. For you know only too well that it is not their judgement that matters, but that of mysterious individuals about whom you know nothing. It was also rather unnerving to be studying alongside students who had a track-record of taking the external London University Part 1 exam in social science – after a period of part-time study – only to fail two or more of the eight papers; and who had done so more than once: often failing a different combination of papers each time.  Luckily, in 1960, I passed the Part 1 in all eight subjects.

It was at this point that a particular difficulty arose. The B. Sc. (Econ) degree was structured in such a way that, after studying eight subjects for two years one then specialised in one of the these for the final third year. Now as it happened I had rather taken a fancy to the subject of sociology (taught in the first two years under the heading of Elements of Social Structure) and so wanted to take this further in my third year. The problem was that no-one had chosen this as their specialist subject before (economics, political thought or government were the subjects usually chosen) and so there was no-one on the College staff qualified to teach it. Consequently, either I had to change my preference or the College would need to bring someone in to teach me, which I am pleased to report, was what happened. My very good friend (as she is now) Jenny Williams, newly graduated as she was at that time from Bedford College, was appointed so that I could be taught sociology in my final year. It was therefore with her help that I managed to pass my finals and graduate in 1961. It was then, at this point, that fate took a hand and my future was decided.

In order to discover my degree result I had to travel to London and visit Senate House, where the degree results for many hundreds of students, including mine, were posted on the wall of a long corridor. I remember quite distinctly emerging from one corridor to find myself roughly facing the middle of this wall of paper. This put me in a quandary.  Did I go right and start with the names of those who had failed or go left and start with the names of those who had obtained a first-class degree. Luckily, I saw my name fairly quickly, listed under those who had been awarded an upper-second. My next task was to return to Birmingham and inform the staff at the College that I had passed. This I did, to be confronted with the unforgettable response, “Congratulations: would you like a job?” The job in question being a full-time teacher at the College.  I had no hesitation in accepting this offer. Not only was it the only job offer I had received, but it was also the only way that I could continue my study of sociology, a subject that had begun to engross me, and which, I was only too aware, I knew so little about. Consequently, I took up my appointment as an Assistant Grade `B’ lecturer at the College on the 1st of September 1961, with a grand annual salary of £895.

Teaching at the College did more than improve my knowledge of sociology. It also served as an excellent apprenticeship for the career of lecturer. It was not simply that one was faced with a sizeable teaching load (thirty hours a week was normal), but also that there was considerable variety in both the subject material (I was expected to be able to teach any one of the eight subjects I studied for the Part 1) and the students. I distinctly remember teaching psychology to St Johns’ Ambulance personnel and British Government to local authority staff on a day-release scheme. Incredibly, I was also tasked with teaching some of my fellow external London-degree students who had failed their exams. How, looking-back, I had the gall to do that I don’t know. But I do remember that they were very good about it, accepting it would seem that, as I had passed and they hadn’t, there must be something I could teach them (although, in reality, that didn’t amount to very much.) It was then, at this point in my budding academic career, that I took a decision which, viewed in retrospect, was somewhat foolish. In January 1963 I decided to embark on a Ph. D.

What I had discovered was that if one had acquired an external London University first degree, at a second-class honours level or better, then one could register for an external Ph.D. Given therefore my determination to continue studying sociology to the best of my ability, this did seem, at the time, to be a reasonable step to take. Unfortunately, there were a number of things I hadn’t taken into account. One was the heavy teaching load I was committed to. Another was the fact that my wife and I were planning on starting a family. While a third was the fact that I was committing myself to undertaking a Ph. D. even though I would be without the advice and support of a supervisor. I did discover, after I had registered, that the University of London did have a scheme whereby external students could arrange for a member of staff to offer help for an external student undertaking a Ph. D. This `help’ consisted of an hour’s tutorial at a fee of – if I remember correctly – five guineas. I decided not to take up this offer. As for what was to be the subject of my Ph. D.; that was a question I found relatively easy to answer for, having taken a special interest in the sociology of religion, while also being a founder member of the Birmingham Humanist Group, it seemed obvious to me that I should study non-belief (or, as I subsequently came to call it, `irreligion’). Consequently my thesis was on the Humanist, Ethical and Rationalist Movements in the UK in the 19th and 20th centuries (for more details see  I was still struggling to make progress with my Ph. D. when I was lucky enough to be appointed Assistant Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York in October 1964.

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