George Kerevan: Napier at 50 has lessons for all

As the Edinburgh university hits its half-century, today’s degree factories should take note, writes George Kerevan

Merchiston Tower amidst the construction of what was then to be Napier Technical College

EDINBURGH is famous for its universities. Two are very well-known – the University of Edinburgh itself, founded in 1583, and Heriot-Watt, which goes back to 1821. But there is a significant third: Napier University, which this year celebrates its half-century. The story of Napier deserves to be wider known, for it was a great and daring educational experiment; an experiment that has lessons for the future of university education.

I taught economics at Napier for 25 years, half the university’s existence. I was in on the ground floor with some of the amazing personalities who created the institution. Which explains, for instance, why I refer to it as Napier University and not the recently rebranded “Edinburgh Napier”. I assume the university’s current 17,000 students and staff have an approximate notion of what city they are in.

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Roll back to 1964. Britain has lost an Empire and is struggling desperately to modernise its decrepit manufacturing base to meet American and German competition. There is demand for a new generation of engineers and scientists – men and women who are not just au fait with technology but with running businesses in an entrepreneurial fashion. And that requires a new approach to training engineers.

A leading figure in this drive to create a new engineering elite was Joseph Dunning, Napier’s founding father (who died in 2012, aged a grand 91). Dunning has never received the recognition he merited for the Napier experiment. Gruff and taciturn, yet with a wicked sense of humour, Dunning hailed from Penrith and carried with him the aura of some no-nonsense, 19th-century, northern-English foundry owner. By profession he was in fact a metallurgist.

What was special about Dunning’s educational vision? His view of educating engineers was not instrumentalist, as it is today. He did not see Napier as being there to turn out technological cogs for the economic machine, or graduates who assume the bottom line defines human progress. True, as an engineer, he demanded tight engineering tolerances when it came to the delivery of everything at Napier. But he would not see eye-to-eye with Michael Gove, today’s Westminster Education Secretary. For Dunning believed his engineering and science students had to be whole personalities with a renaissance view of society and culture.

Napier opened its doors in late 1964 in a new campus built around Merchiston Tower, the 16th-century home of the eponymous John Napier, inventor of logarithms. The Tower, in which Dunning had his office, had been saved from the municipal vandalism typical of the period by an unlikely grant from the Ministry of Works.

Dunning assembled round him a staff of practical engineers who had acquired a passion for education – outcomes not process. Until someone gets round to writing a history of Napier, the names will mean little: avuncular Donald Leach (later head of Queen Margaret University), sarcastic Jim Murray (a passionate innovator and Scot Nat), cheery Alex Barron (always chomping a cigar, in those days when you could) and aloof Bill Turmeau (a cerebral nuclear engineer whose ultra-polished shoes were mesmerising).

Dunning’s Napier was different. He inspired the staff and the early student body to help shape educational innovation, and that was exciting and empowering. Napier was to pioneer a new subject area: industrial studies – a portmanteau critical look at how capitalism worked. Traditionally, engineers stuck to their slide rules but Dunning made them study sociology, psychology and economics.

Napier’s industrial studies department was stuffed full of youthful radicals like myself, but Dunning enjoyed the creative tension. He was never afraid to make students think about politics and came up with the cash to help found the Scottish Union of Students (later merged with the National Union of Students). The stern Miss Cowper, who ran the library and dressed like an Edwardian lady on an Alpine cycling holiday, was a fervent Scottish Nat. This meant that the library had, for its time, a definitive collection of material on Scotland and the Scottish economy.

The result was a creative laboratory. Napier’s design, journalism and film departments, staffed by crusty old practitioners rather than youthful academic theoreticians, actually taught students how to do things… and well. I was very much involved in the development of Napier’s new business studies degree. Again, the Dunning ethos dominated: every student had to spend a year out in industry. In essence, Dunning’s Napier found a way of combining practice with cultural vision. Today’s degree factories have standardised the practice and eliminated the culture.

Dunning retired in 1981. Napier evolved and grew, in line with the general expansion of higher education in the UK – changing its name en route from College to Polytechnic (which I still prefer) to University. This evolution, though inevitable, was a mixed blessing. For a period during the 1990s, Napier lost its way. A new generation of lecturers wanted Napier to be a “real” university, focused more on research. Dunning’s ideal of genuine polytechnical education taught by true practitioners started to get lost.

I’m not one of those who regrets the emergence of mass university education. What worries me is that despite this expansion in student numbers, Britain has become an infinitely less socially mobile society since Dunning retired. Today’s universities – split between the elitist Oxbridge-Russell group and giant vocational assembly lines – reinforce class divisions rather than challenge them. Our present set-up is one cause of the lack of social mobility. You won’t cure this by sending more working-class kids into the system to be processed.

Dunning’s Napier was diverse. Partly this was because Napier also taught vocational HNC and HND courses, meaning working-class students could easily transfer into degree courses. Napier students – be they engineers or secretaries – were taught to be critical of society and tended to reject conventional hierarchies.

We need mass vocational education. But the mess professional bankers created proves that vocationalism is not enough. Joe Dunning understood that.