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The theme for the 1960s and beyond might be summed up in the phrase ‘caught on the hop’. Here was a self-consciously modernist and progressive college which nonetheless did not anticipate the new kinds of social change that occurred in the 1960s.
Four strands of national debate about higher education came home to roost in the College’s early days.
Traditionally, the ancient universities had taken a large percentage of their students from fee-paying private schools. At Churchill a new direction was taken by the College’s second Senior Tutor, Richard Tizard, who has been described as the post-war era’s greatest reforming Senior Tutor in Cambridge. The creation of universal state grants to cover fees and maintenance for university students made wider outreach possible. Churchill was one of the first colleges actively to pursue this opportunity, seeking talent first in state grammar schools and later in comprehensive schools. Perhaps more than any other college in the late 1960s and 1970s the College had a higher number of its student cohort who were first generation attenders at university. The problem of ensuring wider access endures today, especially now that students are once more obliged to contribute financially toward their degree courses.
The second strand was the growing demand for greater opportunities for women in higher education. Until the late Victorian age, the ancient universities were for men only, and by 1960 there were still only three Cambridge women’s colleges and none was co-educational. It seems odd today that Churchill was founded for men only, reflecting prevailing assumptions in the 1950s about women and science, and women in the workplace. The documents of the founding are very masculinist. That it was possible still to create a men-only college in 1960 but unthinkable only ten years later is a prime example of the ‘cultural revolution’ which took place in that decade. The College moved swiftly to catch up. Its decision to admit women, made in 1969, unleashed a wave of reform throughout the University. Between 1972, when the first women students were admitted to Churchill, King’s, and Clare Colleges, and 1986, one by one, and often amid bitter wrangling, every formerly male college in Cambridge took the momentous decision to ‘go mixed’.
Another development in British university life in the 1960s has been dubbed ‘the rise of the student estate’. Students, largely deferential to their academic seniors in the 1950s, began to press for a greater say in how their institutions were run. The founders of Churchill College had given little thought to formal student representation on committees, but in 1969 two student representatives joined the College Council for the first time. On the national stage, it was Churchill students who led the campaign to achieve a legal ruling in the high court in 1970 that students could vote in parliamentary elections in their university constituency instead of that of their parental home.
Lastly, there was the question of the place of religion in a ‘scientific age’. Here, the College was not immune from divisive controversy. Historically, Oxford and Cambridge universities had been the seminaries of the Church of England, and chapel attendance had remained compulsory until the Second World War. At Churchill, some founder Fellows were deeply hostile to the proposal to build a chapel, and Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, resigned his Fellowship in protest. His letter to Winston Churchill explaining his resignation is one of the most intriguing ever sent by a great scientist to a great statesman. The outcome of the controversy was a subtle compromise, of the sort only dons could have devised. A chapel was built on the farthest edge of the College grounds, and is not an official part of the College. A preposition saved the day: it was agreed there would be a chapel at Churchill College but not of Churchill College. The College had a chaplain until 1981, after which a lay professional counsellor was employed, leaving the chapel to appoint its own chaplain. There is only one university degree subject in which the College has never admitted students: theology.
Within a decade of its founding, the College had acquired its distinctive characteristics. If the Founder’s vast archive had not yet arrived, the creation of the Churchill Archives Centre had already been mooted: the Centre would be opened in 1973. And if the Møller Centre for Continuing Education would follow much later (it was opened in 1992), it also had its roots in another aspiration of the founders: that there should be scope for continuing professional development and educational programmes for executives working in the entrepreneurial world. In the early days of the College, Michael Young had held summer vacation courses for adult learners lacking formal qualifications, an idea he would later develop in his signal role in the creation of the Open University.
This account of the College’s origins and early contexts stops around 1970. The story will be further developed in due course.