Well nearly fifty years. I went up as an undergraduate to Churchill College Cambridge in 1962, to read mathematics. It is, as Tolkien said, a terrible long count of years. I was enormously pleased and proud in 1993 when my daughter Victoria also went to Churchill, to read classics. Of course Churchill has a reputation as a science/mathematics college, so that the handful of humanities students were heavily outnumbered.
I was back in the College on April 21st this year for a dinner especially organised for graduates with a family connection. Think of it as fathers and daughters (as in my case), though it included mothers/sons, and couples who had met and married at the College. I suppose cynics will cry “nepotism”, and perhaps a family connection weighs somewhere in the corner of the mind of the selectors, but I believe that students get in on merit, not on who their relations happen to be.
It was a huge nostalgia trip. The College was still being built when I was there. 1962 was only the second year of undergraduate intake. I found myself recalling a range of incidents. There was the moment when they started filling up the ornamental pools at the main gate. I and a few friends watched from a window, determined to be the first to swim in the pools, and as soon as there was enough water we rushed out and dived in. The Porters, seeing us breaking the rules, and tasked with maintaining order (there was little elf’n’safety in those days) ran out as slowly as they could — to avoid the embarrassment of having to try to apprehend us. We met them later and bought them a beer in recognition of their restraint.
There was the occasion when the Prince of Wales landed on the lawn in a helicopter, and one hapless undergraduate in his enthusiasm to see the Prince ran full tilt through a plate glass window. He was rushed to hospital, but happily no permanent damage was done (except to the window).
More recently I made a visit by invitation as an MEP to see the Churchill archive at the College. I was fascinated to see actual drafts of the Great Man’s famous war-time speeches, and nearly as fascinated to see a couple of artefacts in the collection — Sir Frank Whittle’s own slide-rule (nobody under forty knows what a slide-rule is these days), and one of Margaret Thatcher’s formidable hand-bags.
The great thing about a Cambridge College — even one as young as Churchill — is that it develops its own character, its own ethos, and of course, its own commitment to performance and excellence. For the government to cut across that with crass attempts at social engineering — whether Gordon Brown with the Laura Spence case, or David Cameron with mistaken accusations about the admission of ethnic minorities — is to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Conservatives should read Burke, and respect the wisdom of preceding generations. If we insist on our finest institutions accepting pupils with sub-standard results, because we think they may perhaps have potential one day, or because we want to “broaden access”, we will condemn our great universities to mediocrity and decline.