Growing University of Buckingham celebrates 40 years since foundation

The debate over the formation of the University of Buckingham appeared in the Advertiser, on April 2 1971 PNL-140917-122252001
The debate over the formation of the University of Buckingham appeared in the Advertiser, on April 2 1971 PNL-140917-122252001

Saudi princes were among some of the first students at Britain’s first private university which is marking 40 years since its foundation this year.

The University College, Buckingham, as it was originally called, started life with just 65 students in 1976. The University of Buckingham now has 1,600 students on its roll and is preparing to welcome another 66 when its new Medical School opens in January.

Advertiser, February 13 1976. Opening of the University College at Buckingham PNL-140917-122241001

Advertiser, February 13 1976. Opening of the University College at Buckingham PNL-140917-122241001

The germ of an idea which lead to the university’s creation was planted by consultant physician Dr John W Paulley, in a letter to The Times in May 1967.

In his letter, Dr Paulley wrote of a growing concern over political influence at universities due to their reliance on state funding.

“Is it not time... to examine the possibility of creating at least one new university in this country on the pattern of those great private foundations in the USA without whose stimulus and freedom of action the many excellent state universities in that country would be so much the poorer?” he wrote.

Harry Ferns, Professor of Political Science at the University of Birmingham, and Oxford professor Max Beloff, who had similar concerns, met with Ralph Harris, director of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

University of Buckingham Duck Race PNL-140822-112128001

University of Buckingham Duck Race PNL-140822-112128001

Prof Ferns was invited to write a paper, which was discussed at a conference in 1969, along with practical steps to establish an independent university. This led to the creation of the Planning Board for an Independent University and a fundraising committee.

Possible sites included London’s South Bank or one of the country’s larger cities, but a chance conversation between a member of the planning board, Prof Denman of Cambridge, and Bucks county architect and planning officer Fred Pooley led to the decision to locate the college at Buckingham. Plans were drawn up and submitted to the borough council in March 1971.

The Buckingham Advertiser reported: “To say that the borough council members were stunned is an understatement – they were knocked speechless.”

Several sites in Buckingham were considered and rejected, including extending North End Square to Moreton Road, St Bernadine’s College and the Town Hall.

University of Buckingham Graduation. John Bercow MP and Lord Tanlaw.'130316M-D350 ENGPNL00120130317145017

University of Buckingham Graduation. John Bercow MP and Lord Tanlaw.'130316M-D350 ENGPNL00120130317145017

Cash was provided by philanthropist Ralph Yablon for the purchase of the former Yeomanry Barracks and a £1 million gift from Lord Tanlaw, who stepped down as chancellor last year, funded the renovation of the dilapidated Hunter Street buildings.

There were no objections, so planning permission was granted and the first Senate met in October 1973 with Prof Max Beloff as principal.

On May 3 1974, townsfolk and invited guests including Lord Hailsham gathered for the unveiling of the foundation stone, in the wall of what is now the university bookshop. A band played and bunting fluttered.

That autumn, work began on renovating the Hunter Street buildings to make them ready for the first intake of students in 1976.

Julie Cakebread started as an office junior, aged 17, in Max Beloff’s office the week before the university opened in 1976.

She is now PA to Mike Cawthorne, head of the uni’s new medical school.

Starting out with just 40 staff, the university now employs about 360 people.

Ms Cakebread said: “Before the opening, no-one believed a university could survive in Buckingham.

“Everyone thought of universities as being large institutions. It seemed too small.

“But there was a feeling of excitement. Lecturers came because it was new and pioneering.

“As there were only 65 students in the first intake, they were housed in the cottages in Hunter Street.

“Two thirds were foreign – mostly Malaysian. The Malaysian police force had sent recruits to be trained as lawyers in the law school, opposite Yeomanry House.

“The Hunter Street library also housed the students’ common room and refectory.

“The first students were shocked about how small the university was. It was just the buildings in Hunter Street.

“The language lab was two rooms, one for French and one for German, with a secretary sitting at a desk in the corridor between the two.

“A couple of Saudi Princes were amongst the early intakes.

“The university was like one big family. We knew every single student by name and we knew a bit about their families.

“Students and staff mixed much more. The younger staff went to student parties and there were garden parties for staff and students.

“Rag Week was a real laugh. Students would try to ‘kidnap’ a member of staff and there was a carnival, with lots of floats through town, at the end.

“Taxi companies and more estate agents set up in town after the university opened.”

In July this year, vice-chancellor Prof Terence Kealey retired from the university after 13 years in charge.

And in January 2015, the university will open its medical school, offering four-and-a-half-year degrees.

The university holds a series of public concerts and lectures open to local people, often held in the Radcliffe Centre, which is also used by the community as a venue for shows, concerts and talks.

Other events open to the local community this year have included a sell-out production of Grease by students from the uni and The Buckingham School, the annual Duck Race and an African/Eastern showcase complete with fire-eating acrobat and dancing Chinese lion.

The university loans sports fields to a local junior football club and is actively supported by The Friends of the University, who meet for an annual garden party and other events throughout the year.

Students are members of the town’s tennis club and some help out in local schools.

There’s a chance to find out more about the uni and all the degree courses it offers, at a university-wide open day on Saturday, October 4. For full details, see www.buckingham.ac.uk/admissions/open-day