chapter  3
19 Pages

The fashioning of higher technical education in Britain: the case of Manchester, 1851–1914

The debate on the interpretation of Britain’s industrial decline is perhaps less keen than it was in the 1970s. But the essence of the controversy is still very much with us, and as long as the roots of discord are rekindled by contemporary anxiety about the state of the British economy, we can be assured that the debate will not subside. Yet there is at least one aspect of the debate that has remained virtually untouched by controversy. This is the relation between education, innovation, and industrial performance. Of course, the old indictment of the educational system as a cause of the country’s relative economic decline is alive and well. What is disturbing, though, is the unswerving uniformity of the judgements on the issue. A hundred and forty years after Lyon Playfair’s denunciation of Britain’s delay in the organisation of scientific and technological education, and of the consequences that this delay was bound to have on her capacity to respond to the challenge of other industrial nations, the terms of the analysis are still the same. Time and again, historians have argued that, despite the widespread echoes of the Baconian ideals concerning the importance of ‘useful knowledge’, the two central features of the British system of education have remained: (1) a decisive commitment to a model of education enshrined in the curriculum and style of the ancient universities, and (2) a strong resistance to any innovation that might lead to contamination by practical affairs. Invariably, stress is placed on the fact that the rise of modern industry was not accompanied by any substantial change in this situation, and that although in the later nineteenth century new higher technical schools and engineering courses at university level began to expand, traditional curricula retained the unrivalled high status they have always enjoyed.1