The Polytechnic and its Territory: A Planning Perspective

Thomas L Blair
Copyright (c) All rights reserved
ISBN 1-980-84-2

An inaugural lecture by Dr. Thomas L. Blair, Professor and Head, Department of Social and Environmental Planning, The Polytechnic of Central London, November 28th, 1973, In front of the Tatlin Tower, Marylebone Road Campus, London

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The Polytechnic of Central: A Planning Perspective

Thomas L Blair

Editions Blair 9 June 2024 © All Rights Reserved

ISBN 978-1-908480-84-2

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The Polytechnic and Its Territory:
A Planning Perspective


 This massively documented sociology study of the Polytechnic’s institutional development has four important aims. One is to recount the goals of the founders Sir George Cayley 1838 and Quintin Hogg 1881 to educate, reform and uplift the working people of London. Second to reveal that the moral character of the founder’s educational goals gave way to the new academic, technocratic and political needs of the rising middle classes and technocrats in an urbanized 20th century society in crisis.

Third to show that the hard-hit underprivileged students and their impoverished London boroughs remained unable to gain access to the Polytechnic of Central London’s educational opportunities. In recent times they were only 25% of the student body. Fourth to propose an action programme to redress this imbalance trend. Or the lack of diversity and inclusion will sculpt the institutions that follow on in the coming years.

The broad conceptual outlines of such a programme by this sociologist and Head of the Department of Social and Environmental Planning are as follows:

1.      Creating models of the institution’s origins and development, achievement and failures;

2.      Analyzing patterns of social relations, organization and management structure;

3.      Relating the institution to its environment. This includes its physical, political, economic, and ecological. social, educational, technological aspects and patterns of influence and responses to social forces;

4.      Considering the societal contexts for possible and alternative futures, and establishing choices for new goals and objectives;

5.      Defining and extending the basis for popular collaboration and institution building;

6.      Formulating and translating the institutional mission into structure and performance  objectives;

7.      Choosing strategies for goal attainment based on need;

8.      Ensuring that institution building takes place along the human dimension at the level of need to personality and interpersonal and intergroup relations, and enabling all persons involved in the building and using processes to make choices which lead to the implanting of positive human values.

Discipline:  sociology, action-oriented urban planning, international development, human settlements planning, and re-building higher education institutions for communities.




Table of contents


Origin I: Cayley’s Polytechnic Institution 1838-1881                                                                          

Origin II: The Regent Street Polytechnic 1881 -1970                                                                          

Origin III: The Polytechnic of Central London Designated 1970                                                      

Problems facing The Polytechnic of Central London                                                                     

Towards Alternative Futures                                    

Epilogue: Conceptual Framework and Research Potentials                                                                  

Some relevant Documents, Sources, and selected Readings                                                                   

Notes on the author                                                  

Illustrations, Tables and Maps                                  


The Polytechnic and Its Territory: A Planning Perspective


This inaugural lecture by a sociologist / planner is an attempt to indicate some new dimensions for polytechnic education in an urbanized society in crisis.

There are now many polytechnics, and I do not know them all intimately; hence I shall try and confine my remarks to one with which I have become familiar over the past seven years- The Polytechnic of Central London [or  PCL] and its predecessors, the Regent Street Polytechnic and the Royal Polytechnic Institution. 

The Polytechnic of Central London grows out of three distinct stages of the social history of British technical education. The first was related to the early 19th Century industrial revolution and represented a new innovative thrust in technical education exemplified by the Royal Polytechnic Institution founded by Sir George Cayley in 1839.

The second was related to the impoverishment of countryside and city and the dehumanization of workers that followed the industrial revolution. It was associated with the need, expressed by men like Quintin Hogg, to raise the working classes, particularly youth, for their own sake, for God’s and for entry into the productive systems of the late 19th century metropolitan economy.

I should like to express my hope that we, the first PCL and polytechnic professors, will establish a style of approach to our inaugural lectures which will not be a tight-lipped, narrowly conceived rite de passage, as is too often the case in the hoary groves of academe. But rather to affirm and advocate bold conjectures that skirt, sometimes even dangerously, the frontiers of many disciplines.

I am grateful to my colleagues and friends who helped me in the course of preparing this lecture, especially Dr. Colin Adamson of The Polytechnic of Central London, and to The Times Higher Education Supplement for permission to use material from my essay in their columns entitled “solution for ills of society in urban polys”, November 3, 1972, No. 55, p.i.

The third and present stage is the regroupment of polytechnic and technical education under government and local authority for political, economic and manpower development purpose and to provide a triumphant and untrammeled entry into the 21st century,

In the 135 years of its existence, many changes in the Polytechnic have taken place in its guiding philosophy, management and clientele, in its students, buildings and investments. In addition, the territory of London’s metropolitan and regional population has grown. The scale, nature and intensity of social problems have changed.

Changes have also occurred in the way in which technology is used by and makes itself felt within society. There are many more polytechnics, now-some 28 in the nation, and 6 in London – and they have an uncertain future.  Uncertain for two reasons. We support the inner City poor that Quintin Hogg fought so valiantly for, yet do not fully understand how growth impacts his mission.

The Urban Crisis places new demands on education and professional training. New challenges arise in the Age of Predatory Technology, of techno economic gigantism and ethical midgetry, far removed from Cayley’s view of the oneness of popular education, communities, science and the arts of life.

When I refer to the Age of Urban Crisis I have in mind the fact that today many of the old urban industrial problems remain and many new ones have been added. Perhaps 3 million households in Britain are caught in the slum/poverty trap and the vicious cycle of deprivation.

There is a large group of the working poor, the elderly, and the abandoned who have yet to make it out of the stagnant urban areas. There is also a new residual underclass of Black and European immigrant communities forming in the twilight areas of cities.

They are the product of urban housing, education and welfare policies that have assisted the institutionalisation of poverty and of racial discrimination in the employment and housing markets, stifled upward mobility, and made the formation of stable families virtually impossible.

These problems of the inner city are only one measure of the crisis facing polytechnic education and limiting educational and cultural opportunity and student choices in urban industrial societies [which affect the poor and well-to-do alike].

Equally, student choices are affected by a number of factors: the increasing gap between prices and incomes, limited access to rapid transport, the impoverishment of the destructive effects of motorways and traffic congestion, the widespread pollution and environmental mismanagement, and the marked tendencies towards self –alienation, and racial and social conflict.

Within the last few decades vociferous opposition has risen against modern urban civilization. A mood of rebellion developed among students, central city dwellers and underprivileged workers, and some sections of the middle classes. For them, the urban crisis is in fact only the representation on a spatial scale of deeper societal problems associated with the rise of the technocratic corporate state.

In the technocratic corporate state, with its economy geared to the multi-national companies and international bureaucracies, those who govern will satisfy themselves by reference to the findings of technical experts. And will justify their actions in the name of the sacred cow of scientific knowledge-beyond which there will be no appeal.

This is in many ways, the ideal some men usually have in mind when they speak of modernizing, updating, rationalizing, and planning. Stressing the desirability of such unquestioned imperatives as the demand for efficiency, co-ordination of men and resources, and for higher levels of affluence, the agents of the technocratic state will work to knit together the anachronistic gaps and fissures of the urban industrial society.

The results of this ideal are already becoming apparent. It is the regime of experts and those who employ experts. It is the state in which everything from A to Z – from anal gratification to the Zeitgeist- is programmed. It is a state in which a ruling class accords him as compatible with the maintenance of its domination.

It is the state characterized by a new integration of science, education, culture, technology, and profit. And where research is a euphemism for intellectual espionage and coordination really stands for wholesale seduction and manipulation. Under the new regimes of the Age of predatory Technology the basic conflict will be between an increasingly remote, powerful techno-bureaucracy and an increasingly alienated class of dependent participants in a programmed technocratic state.    

All of this pose challenges to the social uplift goals of Polytechnic founder Quinton Hogg.

In this lecture I shall be concerned with establishing new and different goals and functions for the PCL and other institutions of polytechnic education. My belief is that no cluster of problems is more critical to our future than those of the city and urbanized high-level technological society.

Only by plunging into the heart of mass technological urban society can we hope to prepare our students and their futures. I believe our mission should be to establish in central London a great popular institution of technical learning for teaching, research and social service.

And that it should be committed to seek out and support those people whose sex, race, recent immigration or depressed economic status denies them the opportunity or even the expectation of an education beneficial to them and their communities.

If technical knowledge is to be the mainstay of the new society then we should make sure that it is knowledge for everyone’s sake, not for new vested interests alone. If polytechnics are to grow then we must remember that to be big is one thing, to be useful is another.

The question which seems to me to be so immediate and of such great importance is: what should be the role of the polytechnic, and particularly The Polytechnic of Central London, in the coming age of urban crisis and predatory technology? In order to get a historical perspective on this question I shall look first at the origins of the PCL, and then at some of the contemporary problems faced by the polytechnics.

Origin I: Cayley’s Polytechnic Institution 1838-1881

The historical roots of today’s Polytechnic of Central London extend back in the time to the foundation in 1838 of the Polytechnic Institution at 309 Regent Street and 5 Cavendish Square. 

Sir George Cayley (1773 -1857), who’s bi-centenary falls this year. Cayley has been acclaimed as the Father of aerodynamics and aerial navigation. And Wilbur Wright eulogized him as the man who carried “the science of flying to a point never reached before” Cayley was a native of Scarborough and later a member of parliament from that constituency. He was a self–made man, with no university training, who desired to improve the applied and technical sciences. He came along at a time when “physics held no terrors… and the laws of the universe were something a man might deal with pleasantly in a workshop set up behind the stables.”

Though many persons thought of him as a kind of “brilliant eccentric who happened on various discoveries and made a matchbox aeroplane in the basement”, a more sober view offered by Capt. J. Laurence Pritchard, CBE in the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 1958, describes him as “the highest grade of professional”.

Cayley got the idea for his polytechnic while serving in London as MP. In 1837 he issued a prospectus of An Institution for the Advancement of the Arts and practical Science.  In the prospectus he said:

“It may be deemed desirable by many persons, friendly to science, to establish, in the western part of London, an institution where the public, at little expense, may acquire a practical knowledge of the various arts and branches of science connected with manufacture, mining operations, and Rural Economy”.

“The premises, as a whole, will thus, at a moderate subscription, combine the advantage of a laboratory, Experiment Rooms, and a Gallery for the illustrations of Science and Art together with a convenient place for social resort for the lovers of practical visitors from the provinces, the colonies, and foreign parts – whilst the premises fronting Regent Street will be open to the public for a small sum, to be paid, on entry, to inspect the Gallery, to attend Lectures, or to examine any process going on.”

Cayley’s Polytechnic Institute at Regent Street was opened on August 6, 1838 with the press in attendance. The gallery exhibited and gave practical instruction related to manufacture of various types, with opticians equipment for polishing lenses, a furnace for glass melting, letter press printing, engraving, power looms for weaving and Dundonald’s rotary steam engine, listed as examples of the applied nature of the institute.

There were laboratories for demonstrating the baking of bread, for gas cooking, and with a forge and engineer’s shop which allowed practical work to be undertaken; in addition, there were lectures in an assembly room with places for 500 students.

In 1839 Cayley’s enterprise received a Royal charter from Queen Victoria and became the Royal Polytechnic Institution. His capital, of about £30,000, came in large part from a great builder, about whom Cayley once said “he and his friends (all for money, with sciences the means)” had the main voice at board meetings. Cayley was often criticized by the board for his impractical   dreaming, but he felt that the public would in time accept his novel institution.

It was his belief that the institution “is well adapted for the display of scientific discoveries, and were it in truly scientific hands, so that scientific discoveries were thrown off here hot from the brain and before they became public property by publication, sufficient novelty would be produced to excite public attention and make it pay.”

He was constantly at odds with his board and once remarked in extreme exasperation: “We much want a good scientific board confined by no aristocracy of orthodox men who sit like an incubus on all rising talent that is not of their own shop….  Freedom is the essence of improvement in science.”

Cayley’s Polytechnic offered a new type of non-classical, non-university education. He organized popular public lectures and encouraged research into rapidly expanding fields of engineering and science at a time when there was a great deal of prejudice in University circles against these daring innovations. For example, when the vice chancellor of Cambridge University heard that Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen, had been appointed professor of chemistry at Warrington academy, one of the earliest “polytechnics”, he is reported to have exclaimed that no matter what Warrington had done “chemistry is not suitable subject for universities”

.Nevertheless, through the efforts of Sir George Cayley and his co-workers and to a large extent due to the resistance of the universities to novel applied scientific ideas, the Polytechnic was among the first of the establishment of technical education in Britain. As such, its success was part of the wave of popular education and innovation associated with the technological development of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and Europe.

Origin II: The Regent Street Polytechnic 1881-1970

The Royal Polytechnic Institution existed in this form for over 40 years until 1881 Quintin Hogg purchased the premises in order to extend his work among the poor class of young people in Central London. Hogg had commenced his youth work 1864 and at first was almost entirely concerned with religious instruction. Gradually, however, the work assumed a four-fold combination of spiritual, intellectual, physical and social activities.

Larger accommodation was necessary and in 1882 Quintin Hogg moved his classes, clubs and societies into 309 Regent Street. After Quintin Hogg’s death in 1903 his work was continued for a further 40 years by Sir Kynaston Studd (formerly) J.E.K. Studd.

Academic activities combined to grow, and developments in the fields of arts and sciences were such as to make increasing demands on space. In 1912 the Regent Street building was enlarged and it received the facade which it has to this day. In 1927 the Regent Street building was further enlarged and an extension built in Little Titchfield Street. After World II further accommodation was provided in the vicinity of Oxford Circus.

Institutional growth and change were as typical of the second period of the Polytechnic development, 1881-1970, as it was under Sir George Cayley. A major threat of continuity, however, was the all pervasiveness of a Christian ethnic. Quintin Hogg, the grand father of the present Lord Hailsham, Chancellor of the Excheqeuer and Polytechnic governor, was a businessman, philanthropist and an evangelical Christian.

His daughter and biographer, Mrs. Ethel M. Wood, CBE, notes that “he seems to have been very popular boy at Eton” where two sides of his nature were formed: his love of sports and his religious endeavour. In his latter regard, Mrs. Wood records that when serving as a prefect Quintin’s cure for rowdy bahaviour by boys in his hall was prayers and scripture reading on Sunday afternoon in his room—a set of tasks that his mischievous young penitents quickly tagged as “piggy Hogg’s Bible class”

Later in London in 1864, when Hogg was 19 years of age, the misery he saw among the poor touched him deeply. “I felt sorry, he said. “for the little chaps I used to see running about the streets.” So he began his life-long mission, in his own words, “ with an empty beer bottle for a candlestick and a tallow candle for illumination, two crossing-sweepers as pupils, your humble servant as teacher, and a couple of Bibles as reading books, what grew into the polytechnic ( nearly 20 years later ) was practically started.”

The religious emphasis developed as the Young Men’s Christian Institute and became a permanent and integral part of the ethos of the Regent Street Polytechnic. As late as 1962 it was probably the only technical college whose board of governors opened their meetings with prayers, had a well-attended Christian Fellowship and Christian union, a bible Class and staff prayer meetings, and held fortnightly Sunday afternoon services throughout the year.

By the early 1960’s, the Regent Street Polytechnic, a combination of Cayley’s and Hogg’s ideas, occupied a major place in the London educational scene. It had special status as a private foundation under royal patronage, was aided by the London County Council educational authorities, and served the educational and leisure-time needs of people, young and old alike, over a wide geographical area.

The Polytechnic offered courses and activities of all kinds—recreation, religious, home-making, arts, sciences and crafts, technical and professional specialties of degree and non-degree status—and there was a student “poly parliament”, modeled after Westminster, for debating current issues.

Fourteen thousand students were enrolled: 2,000 of them were full-time day students; 1,500 were part-time day students; and there was a huge evening class of more than 10,000 students enrolled in what became known throughout London as the “After-Hours University”. Together these students accounted for a massive 2½million hours of attendance and tuition, and even the then Director of Education, Dr. J.E. Richardson, CBE, remarked upon the large enterprise in his care in 1962.

Courses varied in length from only one day to five years full-time or eight years part-time in the evening. Entry qualifications ranged from “no questions asked to a university degree”. Students were mainly over 18 years of age and drawn largely from London and the Home Counties; others came from the Midlands and the North, and about 20 per cent were from overseas.

Many were mature men and women and graduates seeking re-training or new skills after working in industry and the business world for years. The costs of tuition ranged from 30shillings a subject one evening per week for a whole session to £32.10 per session for a full-time course of five days per week for 36 weeks. These fees were purely nominal, however, and in no way covered the cost of tuition nor the total cost of running the Polytechnic whose budget was on the order of £ 750,000 per year.  

During the latter years of this second period in the Polytechnic’s history, and particularly since World War II, a number of subtle changes took place. The courses offered narrowed in scope. Most craft training was transferred to other colleges and more emphasis was placed on advanced work in degree and professional courses with one or more GCE “A” Levels required at entry. Major awards and qualifications were introduced and emphasized.

In addition to the Polytechnic’s own diplomas there were the University of London external degrees, the Diploma in Technology , Higher National Diplomas, Higher National Certificates, City and Guilds Certificates, and a wide variety of qualifications awarded in conjunction with professional bodies.

In the process of these changes the Polytechnic became an important training ground for a new generation of accountants, architects, planners, engineers, mathematicians, chemists, physicists, economists, sociologists, journalists, linguists, photographers, industrial managers, and many other academic, technical and professional disciplines.

In this way the Polytechnic contributed to the British managerial revolution, provided cadres of skilled technicians, clerical staff and managers for government, industry and commercial establishments, and enabled the rise of an educated urban and suburban dwelling middle class from the ranks of the “deserving poor”.

In looking back over these precursors of the Polytechnic of Central London certain themes recur with great frequency: novel innovations, inter-disciplinary technical education and applied activities, relevant to the community at large, and expressed in a popular manner open to the public; and the acceptance of the economic utility of scientific knowledge and technical education, modified by healing arts, recreation, culture and human spirit.

Both Cayley and Hogg drew upon prevailing forces stressing the individual’s desire for self-development and the need to integrate the stable elements among the working poor into the social and technical order of industrial society. Both men were part of a social movement of youth and adult educationalists and mutual improvers.

They fostered religious and secular ideals and backed by mechanics and intellectual vigour they created a haphazard mosaic of institutions of adult and higher education, provincial Athenaeums, historical, antiquarian and scientific societies, library facilities and lectures which atoned for the gross deficiencies that existed in British primary and secondary education.

The successes of Cayley and Hogg owed much to the evolution of formal engineering and technical education in the industrializing nations of Europe. Cayley for example, specifically acknowledged the contribution to his ideas stemming from the Technische Hochschule in Germany and Austria and the Polytechniques of France.

I think I am right in saying, therefore, that today’s Polytechnic of Central London inherits a position as the sixth oldest surviving institution of technical learning in Europe after Anderson’s Academy in 1789; which became the Royal Technical College, Glasgow; the Ecole Polytechnique of Paris 1795; the Royal Institution 1797; the Technische Hochshule of Vienna 1815; and John Birkbeck’s Mechanics Institute 1823, now Birkbeck College, University of London.


Origin III: The Polytechnic of Central London – Designated 1970

Successive Governments since the 1950’s have emphasized the expansion of education and its adaptation to the ever-increasing demands of complex technology, large-scale organization, sponsored research and information retrieval, and improved administrative practices. The white paper, A plan for Polytechnics and other colleges, presented to Parliament in 1966 led to the designation of the Regent Street Polytechnic and a limited number of similar institutions as “polytechnics”.

Following this the Regent Street Polytechnic was amalgamated with the Holborn College of Law, Language and Commerce and designated in 1970 as the Polytechnic of Central London. Holborn College, it should be noted, was a local authority school founded by the London County Council in 1958 by the amalgamation of the Princeton College of Languages and Commerce with the Law Department from the Kennington College of Commerce with the Law Department from the Kennington College of commerce and law Department from the Kennington College of Commerce and law. Both had existed since just before World War I, and when combined moved to new premises in Red Lion square, Holborn in 1961.

The PCL was a result of a complex set of arrangements between the directly responsible authorities: central government, the greater London Council, the inner London Educational Authority, and the governors of the Regent Street Polytechnic and Holborn College.

Similar arrangements led to the creation of polytechnics in other parts of London and the United Kingdom according to a broad national policy of combining groups of senior colleges of technology, commerce and art, and other establishments, many of whom had a tradition of privately

–supported, and occasionally impoverished, independence, a hierarchy of educational control came into existence.

Two major influences which cannot be overlooked were the degree-granting bodies; the University of London and the new Council of National Academic Awards having authority to confer bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees in the polytechnics.

Their interests in the matter concerned, on the one hand, the running down of London University external degrees courses offered in the polytechnics and, on the other hand, ensuring the growth and prestige of new CNAA degree in this polytechnic sector of non-university publicity-supported  higher education.

The CNAA is an autonomous degree-granting body chartered to serve “the advancement of education, learning and knowledge”. Subject boards with a total of 700 members across the country normally receive requests for approval of courses from the polytechnics and often help promote new course ideas as well.

But it should be noted that the CNAA is not the prime approving body for new courses in the polytechnics. There must be a lengthy series of prior approvals by the Regional Advisory Councils and the government’s Department of Education and Science, before the CNAA has any authority to consider courses, and this takes its inevitable toll in delay and compromise.

The polytechnics were proposed as the other half of a binary higher educational system sharing parity of esteem with universities, and in the future, parity of status, standards of provision and conditions of service. Unlike universities which receive direct grant funding from central government agencies, the polytechnics are the unique part of a national system of education resting in local hands and financed by local authority rate-support grants.

By creating the polytechnics long-term economies of scale were envisioned in the use of national resource. And few government administrators would deny that this would not provide a cheap way of containing the rising expectations for higher and further education while meeting presumed manpower requirements of the future.

Supporters of the polytechnics have stressed that their contribution to the preservation and upgrading of the technical college tradition and the importance of placing a strategic sector of higher education under local authority control. The polytechnics are expected to relate more closely to their environment than universities in terms of their links with industry and commerce and the education demands of the community.

Emphasis is also placed on the provision of a variety of sub-degree work, evenings-only, and day and block release courses for those lower middle and working classes who would not normally have access to higher education.

Problems facing the polytechnics

I don’t think it would be too unfair to say that the creation of the polytechnics was an attempt at a blue print for the exploitation of urban resources- human, industrial and municipal – for purposes of which education was only one aspect. But such a blueprint is not  without problems of implementation, “for the polytechnics are the product of a British political system which often for short-term and limited motives causes reorientation in government policy and having done so leaves others to pick up the pieces” observed Dr Colin Adamson the first  director of the

 Polytechnic of Central London 1970.

In the course of my lecture preparation a number of problems facing the Polytechnic of Central London, and possibly many other polytechnics as well, came to my attention. They indicate the difficulties of defining the polytechnics’ territory and illustrate the barrier to the implementation of current ideas about polytechnic education.

The Polytechnic of Central London occupies a central location in London. Its many buildings are dispersed throughout the central business district which has a daytime commuting population of more than a million workers, shoppers and tourists. We are financed by the Inner London Educational Authority which has responsibility for the education needs of millions of residents in the inner London boroughs within five to seven mile radius of Charing Cross. How much do we know about the social and physical aspects of our territory?

In the first instance, we need to know much more about our students and their social backgrounds, and home localities. How representative or unrepresentative are they of those in need within inner London? Does the PCL have a positive effect upon educational opportunities for youth and families of deprived backgrounds? What should be the criteria for selection—formal qualifications or the ability to benefit from the polytechnic education? What should be the proper social mix in the student body?

A brief glance at the most up-to-date information available on the home localities of current PCL full-time students indicates that about 57 per cent of our students come from London and the Home Counties, and about 10 per cent from Europe and overseas. It is also clear that less than one-quarter of our full-time students are from Inner London Boroughs, and less than half come from both the inner and Outer London boroughs. Our service to the densely –populated, largely working class inner city areas is, therefore, rather minimal, in the field of full-time education.

Territory plays an important part. Other ILEA-financed polytechnics are in and serve specific London localities; for example North, East and South. And one might speculate as to whether their student bodies are drawn from an Inner London catchment area to a greater extent than is true for the PCL. But I have not seen any conclusive evidence to this effect.

Surely there is a need for a total appraisal of the true educational requirements in inner London—with some estimation of the pressure for comprehensive higher education stemming from population density and demand – so that territorial responsibilities and educational services can be allocated on some rational basis.

Looking at the economic aspects of our relationship with our territory does the PCL –do the London polytechnics have a positive effect upon income opportunities? How credible are we if our-low paid workers are from the inner city and our higher paid staff are from the commuter suburbs far removed by geography as well as interest from the problems of the inner city? What are the relationships of the PCL to the central business district industrial and commercial activities?

I think we must ask the question: who benefits most from our services to the community? And the answer is that too often those who have benefited most are the better off, and those who have the least are disregarded. In general, business and government, the well-to-do, the powerful and the resourceful reap great benefits, while the poor and disadvantaged have only restricted access to the polytechnics’ activities and services.

What this inevitably means is a continued regressive redistribution of education opportunities and benefits in the urban social system. Therefore, how can polytechnics serve to equilibrate the drive for efficiency with the need for social equality? Who will create the formulae of neo-Bethamite felicific calculus, that is the amount of social benefit derives from the polytechnics role in society?

The vast majority of polytechnics are in urban areas; many of them like the PCL are “down town”. What is their relationship to their surrounding in terms of the urban physical structure, housing and property values, traffic flows and communications, and their investment portfolios? What choices does the PCL have in the competition for space in central and Inner London? Without a careful analysis of the economics and politics of institutional locational planning the PCL may be forced into some very difficult choices.

Will it be forced by its own growth demands and rising land prices to relocate outside London – and who will it serve then? Or will we find ourselves erecting buildings across the Euston Road eating into working class residential areas and adding to the cumulative negative effects of unplanned land use changes? These land-grabbing aspects of educational institutions need to be looked into very carefully.

Certainly in the United States a similar tendency of institutional imperialism by the urban-based universities of Syracuse, Berkeley, Chicago and Columbia has led to long-term strife with local communities.

I think it is imperative that the PCL, with the help of the ILEA, establish an office of Urban Affairs with the purpose of encouraging and assisting our own and other institutions of higher education to relate their programmes to urban need. Highest priority would be given to initiating institutional self-studies to provide a basis for an urban involvement of colleges and universities in urban affairs.

It is clear that the government emphasizes the vital contribution that further education makes to the provision of a work-force capable of meeting the changing demands of industry and commerce.

Employers are urged to increase their support for further education by making full use of the facilities offered part-time, not only for employees in initial training , but for those persons over 18 years of age who are in need of up-dated skills, restraining and adult education. In the future the numbers of full-time students in polytechnics is expected to grow considerably, perhaps doubling or trebling current numbers by 1984, according to reliable sources.

Some estimates suggest that between 300,000 and 400,000 persons will be seeking places in the public sector of higher education, including polytechnics and colleges of education and further education; with an equal number in the university sector. And these are considered low estimates. Where will the additional resources come from to meet this massive demand for places in polytechnics?

At the same time we will see the growth of an educationally under-privileged section of youth whose needs will not be met. For example the 15 year-old school leaver and broadly speaking the 16-to-19 year old group.

Who will cater for the educational needs of unemployed youth and those who are employed but have no access to day release facilities (perhaps some 60 per cent of young men and 90 per cent of young women), and disadvantage racial and social minorities including immigrant youth?

Young working women, in particular, will need increased training opportunities. And it is interesting to note that Mr. Arthur Prior of the PCL has initiated an ILEA working party of further education colleges, schools and the Youth Employment Service and recommends positive discrimination inn education for women.

To this list of educationally deprived one can add the need for experiments in community education and opportunities for continuing education, or education Permanente, at all stages of the career and life cycle. What if we in the Polytechnic of Central London were to adopt the view that “it is the community that is the school”, and linked ourselves with a variety of community-based organizations and institutions in the city?

We might make them the places in which locally needed Para-professionals can be trained, and in which our students can be taught and from which students are recruited.

We might encourage persons to begin their teaching careers in community –based schools and then move onto the main PCL campuses; and a reverse flow could be encouraged also.

Suppose we used our PCL buildings and equipment as a vast information switchboard, and not as the citadel of our narcissism.

* Higher education in Britain can be divided into 2 main parts, (1) a university and (2) a non- university sector with a student body in 1971 -72 as follows: 666 Colleges of Education,

114,000 or 55.9 per cent; 20 Polytechnics, 66,000 0r 32.4 per cent; and 150 Colleges of Further Education, 24,000 or 11.7 per cent.

Then our teaching, research and service teams could roam a wide field in London, nationally and abroad, plugging into the switch–board when necessary for special knowledge, facts and  expertise, communicating through telex, electronically equipped mobile buses and airplanes, VTR systems and computer graphics. Indeed, the PCL could establish an urban field service whose job it would be to organize resources to provide assistance to disadvantaged urban groups, and also offer field experience for students in a wide variety of subjects.  

Turning now to financing and budgeting, the PCL serves too many conflicting masters. For example, one group of Authority officers examine the teaching needs of academic staff in accordance with the Burnham formulae and report to one committee, whilst other groups of officers examine technical, administrative and library staff requirements and report elsewhere.

There are related problems of financing the purchase of class materials, of supporting staff attendance at conferences and staff development and retraining, of purchasing new equipment, and launching new educational programmes.

At the same time there seems to be an extra-ordinary lack of economy. There is poor utilization of plant and buildings, on the one hand, made more serious by the departmental boundaries placed around some facilities, and on the other hand, an unrealistic relationship between teaching staff, courses and services.

Financially, the polytechnics have cost more to run and improve than was originally projected. And if they are to meet the responsibilities placed on them more money will be required, not without prejudice to the demands of staff for satisfactory salary scales and incentives.

Surely, the integrity of the binary policy for higher education demands rapid resolution to all differentials in resource allocation between the university and non-university sector of higher education.  

There is a trend, more rapid than might have been expected, away from the comprehensiveness and variety that was so characteristic of polytechnic education. This is exemplified by the shedding of low-level courses and emphasis on first degree courses for full-time and sandwich students, and on post-graduate work; and the replacement of low-cost, or no-cost, lecture courses with expensive short course programmes.  

 This is of obvious concern to the ILEA with whom our annual budget, now approximately £4 million, is negotiated each year. On the other hand, as is often the case, some faculty and administrators consider this sum as inadequate for the tasks we perform and a harness that holds the PCL at the educational poverty line. 

This has been accompanied  by a reduction in the age range of students; a reduction in part-timers and working class students; stricter entrance requirements; the loss of links with technical colleges ; the decline of foreign students; and the recruitment of students from wider regional and national catchment  areas.

These trends seem more compatible with an institution hell-bent toward university status, than towards establishing a new and different form of socially responsible higher education. 

There is considerable lack of clarity in the instruments and articles of association about the limits of powers held by polytechnics. The PCL would do well to analyze its powers and functions and compare them with what actually happens, or could happen. This would serve to expose the tensions between academic goals, administrative convenience, student and community needs, and government policies.

In this regard one notes the preliminary work of Michael Locke of the Centre for Institutional Studies, North East London Polytechnic in Formulating comparative analytical model for this purpose in his excellent monograph, The Instruments and Articles of Government of Polytechnics, Coombe Lodge Report, Vol.5, No. 15.

One hears much talk of the promise of self-validation and academic autonomy. To accomplish this will require untangling and clarifying the skein of relationships with external authorities at central and local level, with employees’ unions, with professional institutes, and with certifying and degree-granting bodies, and aid-granting research councils.  

In concluding this section on the planning problems of the Polytechnic and its Territory, it would be remiss of me if I failed to mention that the polytechnics have attracted many young highly-qualified staff, encouraged team teaching and research, and many innovations in teaching and learning systems. They have introduced development planning and new forms of academic organization.

In particular they have created pro-directors at the top level, a professoriate now numbering eleven persons, and a three-tier academic structure consisting of an elected Academic Council, school boards, and course committees with student representation.

Yet in research much of the current work is too narrowly conceived and it is proving very difficult to keep young researchers with ability and potential without searching out new resources to support their proposals. (It is important to recognize that the bulk of sponsored research grants go to the universities and research institutes).

What should polytechnics research into any way? Isn’t there some way of encouraging research that meets at least three criteria: social benefits, relevance to agreed upon goals, and with feed-back into the teaching process?   

In much of our teaching work we are merely regurgitating past knowledge. How can we systematically introduce subjects based on the new sciences cybernetics, micro-biology, neuro-physiology, linguistics and communications, post-Keynesian behavioral and policy management, and avionics?

The present polytechnic educational offerings were undoubtedly good enough to produce excellent technocrats for the 19th century industrial revolution; but that you will recall was long ago. Our graduates will be at the peak of their performance and responsibilities in the early 21st century. For them to know only their narrow specialisms and fill their days with the tedium of lessons learned in schools will not be good enough. How to understand and cope with the problems their own efforts create will be a much more vital question. 

There are no simple solutions to these problems. What one is saying, however, is that there is a need to reform obsolescent strategies, harness new financial resources, and ensure that new academic structures are built upon sound democratic principles of participation. And what stands out as our greatest deficiency is the lack of a convincing ethos, one which accords well with the demands of urban dwellers for a new and better way of life. And in my concluding remarks I should like to outline my perspectives on this subject.


Towards Alternative Futures

The ills of our time are all interconnected with our life styles and ways of thinking. They are extensions of human and societal attitudes and ideas which remain largely unexamined. These include the way we objectify nature, race, culture and heredity and justify our insensitive handling of other human beings and the earth’s life and resources. The way we split mind from matter, and the individual from society for convenient analysis.

Moreover, the way we fail to see that the “pathologies” of great city-centred cultures are in fact reflections of the social costs of adaptation to the organization of social life. And the way we ignore injustice while every protest suffocates against the mattress of political inertia. They all reveal deep-seated flaws in modern society.

We know that high-level technology societies are handling our cities and environment in a way that can be lethal. What we do not know – and had better make haste to find out – is whether a high level technology can achieve a safe, durable, and socially  just and improved relationship between man, city, society and environment.

To be sure we cannot retreat to some pre-technological womb. But we can seek to understand the consequences of our fragmented thought and activities and propose methods of directing the forces of change towards alternative futures.

Since we will not reproduce older forms of unity, we have to seek it at a new level by such drastic innovations as restructuring market and productive relations, government and industry, educations, and our basic beliefs and values. Without these innovations a high level technology society will produce either chaos or tyranny or both.

Within this context, I believe, the polytechnics have their future. They are destined to be a proving ground in the search for solutions to the ills and contradictions of society. Many of the polytechnics will reaffirm their traditional objectives: social experimentation in education in a wide range of forms, the relief of poverty, and the education of the working classes and related peoples throughout the world.

Their major contribution, it seems to me, lies in their commitment to understanding and acting upon vital problems that lie at the interface between technology and society, and building strategies for change toward that stage of history which lies beyond alienated toiling, adolescent self-slavery, waste-producing exploitation, and the inequalities that exist today.

For some polytechnics there may emerge a special sense of urgency, of destiny and purpose. They may declare that by their Victorian Philanthropic legacy and their location in the metropolitan heartlands of an urbanized society, they are ideally fitted to make a declaration.

We are urban-based; we stand with the city and all its people.

We are action-oriented; and aim to do something now, even though all the facts and research findings are not yet available.

We are community-oriented; we accept the basic principle of public accountability but call for the reformation of outmoded structures and the implementation of democratic participation, at all levels in educational planning. 

This special view could be carried out within a multi-disciplinary, comprehensive framework. This could establish stimulating and innovative courses at all levels covering new and traditional areas of education and advance opportunities of all graduates to make influential   contributions at work and in all walks of life.

Certain educational structures would be essential in this context. These include: open forums enabling the exchange ideas among students, staff, professionals, policy-makers and codification and diffusion of knowledge.

Centres of continuing education providing a wide range of opportunities for educational and cultural enrichment are essential For example experimental colleges and programmes open to persons of all ages and differing abilities; community-based schools and centres to extend areas of interaction, participation and social mobilization.

These polytechnics, and there may be only a few who choose this  new path, would bravely have to make a start to free themselves from dirigiste policies based on narrowly defined cost yardsticks, and arguments that “change takes time”. They would have to tell the nation and the world that they have their own dream of what their future is, and must be; even though others may disagree and choose other paths.

They would reject the views that the sole purpose of the polytechnics is to produce vocational / professional cadres, technocrats of survival, as bulwarks of problem-ridden affluent societies.

They would challenge the cynical view that the polytechnics are merely a safety net for the middle classes, and that the students are merely fodder for the factories of educational production or the mills of economic development.

They would affirm the view that the birth of the polytechnics is part of a basically human struggle for the creation of alternative futures based on the consciousness of the potential of modern science and technology for enhancing the quality of life and the environment.   


Conceptual Framework and Research Potentials

The subject of this professorial lecture falls within the general framework of the sociological study of institution building, i.e. the analysis of social institutions as instruments for mobilizing and directing human energies towards the achievement of desired aims. The goal, in this case, has been to try and establish the basis for philosophy, structural forms, and implementation procedures.

This has necessarily involved reviewing the Polytechnic of Central London’s history. This includes its organizational structure and resources, clarifying some manifest and latent goals and values, illuminating areas of tension and conflict, and suggesting ways of restructuring the institution so that it can move forward in a manner most compatible with new socially relevant tendencies in society.

The study of institution building, its problems and processes, could well provide the framework for a long-term research and self-study of the programme of the Polytechnic of Central London [or PCL]. Thus making a valuable contribution to the formulation of its development plan. The broad conceptual outlines of such a programme, which would also enlarge and add to our sociological knowledge, would include the following points:

  1. Creating models of the institution’s origins and development, achievement and failures;
  2. Analyzing patterns of social relations, organization and management structure;
  3. Relating the institution to its environment. This includes its physical, political, economic, and ecological. social, educational, technological aspects and patterns of influence and responses to social forces;
  4. Considering the societal contexts for possible and alternative futures, and establishing choices for new goals and objectives;
  5. Defining and extending the basis for popular collaboration institution building;
  6. Formulating and translating the institutional mission into structure and performance  objectives;
  7. Choosing strategies for goal attainment;
  8. Ensuring that institution building takes place along the human dimension at the level of personality and interpersonal and intergroup relations, and enabling all persons involved in the building and using processes to make choices which lead to the implanting of positive human values.

Some Relevant Documents, Sources and Selected Readings


Department of Education and Science, The development of Higher Education in the Non-University Sector, Circular 7/73, 1973

Department of Education and Science, Education: A framework for expansion, cmnd, 5174, London, HMSO, 1972

Department of Education and Science, A Plan for Polytechnics and Other Colleges: Higher Education in the Further Education System, cmnd. 3006. London, HMSO, 1966

Inner London Education Authority, An Education Service for the whole Community. London, 1973    

L.C. Robbins, Baron, Committee on Higher Education. Report of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister, Cmnd. 2165. London, HMSO, 1963


Dr. Colin Adamson on behalf of the Committee of Directors of London Polytechnics, “on Determining the Academic Needs of Polytechnics, Particularly Non-Teaching and Research Staff—The case for an academic Packaged Deal”, mimeo.., and other papers produced by the Director’s office, The Polytechnic of Central London.

Thomas L. Blair, “Solution for ills of society in urban polys”, Times Higher Educational Supplement, No.55, November 3, 1973, p.1, opinion column.  

Sir George Cayley, Chairman of the Provisional Committee, Prospectus of an Institution for Advancement of the Arts and Practical Science, December 14, 1837. London. 

Michael Locke, “The instruments and Articles of Government of Polytechnics”, Coombe Lodge Report, vol.5, No.15, October 1972. Bristol

Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, February 1958, Vol. CVI, No. 5019, pp.197-212 

Research Unit’s Notes. Department of Social and Environmental Planning, The Polytechnic of Central London.

J.E. Richardson, “How Lord Hailsham’s Grandfather Started the Polytechnic”,

Time and Tide, 27 September -1 October 1962.

The Times, extracts from August 3, 1838 issue.

“Great Engineers II; Sir George Cayley, the forerunner of Aviation,” Times Educational Supplement, November 9, 1956, Also other issues 1970-1973.

The Times Higher Education Supplement, 1973 issues. 

Ethel M. Wood, The polytechnic and its founder Quintin Hogg. London, Nisbet and Co. Ltd., 1932 (rev. and enl.ed.)

Selected Readings

Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (London: Pelican, 1968)

Asa Briggs, Victorian People (London: Penguin, 1970)

Tyrell Burgess and John Pratt, Policy and Practice: The Colleges of Advanced Technology, LSE Studies on Education (London: Allen Lane and Penguin, 1970) 

Tyrell Burgess and John Pratt, Technical Education in the UK, OECD Case Studies on Innovation in Higher Education (Paris: 1971)

H.J. Butcher and E. Rudd (eds.) Contemporary Problems in Higher Education (McGraw-Hill: Maidenhead, 1972)

K. Coates, Poverty: the forgotten Englishman (London: Penguin, 1970)

D. Donnison and D. Eversley (eds.) London: Urban Patterns, Problems and Policies (London: Heinemann for the Centre of Environmental Studies, 1973)

George S. Emerson, Engineering Education: A Social History (London: David and Charles, 1973)

F. Engels, The Condition of the working Class in England (London: Panther Books, new edition 1969)  

H. Marcuse, One-dimensional man (London: Routledge, 1964)

Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilisation (New York: Harcourt Brace and world, 1963 Reprint)

H.V. Perlmutter, Towards a Theory and Practice of Social Architecture: The building of Indispensable Institutions (London: Travistock Publications, 1965)

Eric Robinson, The New Polytechnics (London: Cornmarket Press, 1968)

E.J.B. Rose and associates, Colour and citizenship: A Report on British Race Relations (London: Oxford University Press, 1969)

 D. Schon, Beyond the stable state (London: Temple Smith, 1971)

Sir Peter Venables, The Changing pattern of Technical and Higher Education

(London: British Association for commercial and Industrial Education, 1970)

Max Weber, The theory of Social and Economic Organisation (London: Oxford University Press, 1947)

I should like to thank the librarian and staff of the British museum and the library and Director’s Office of the PCL for their kind assistance in making certain historical materials available to me. In addition, Mrs. Sandra Smith, Mrs. Georgina Henderson and Miss Margaret Brown of our Department gave valuable help with the editing, fact-finding and typing tasks associated with the written presentation of this lecture. 

Notes on the Author

Professor Thomas L. Blair is a sociologist / planner specializing in the study of the social aspects of planning in advanced and the developing countries. His current academic interests encompass a concern with establishing a dialogue between disciplines and tasks. These include sociology, planning, and architecture, the politics of community action and social policy formulation, and the systematisation of planning theory and practice.

As a result, Blair’s habitational ideas and ideals of urban democracy and popular community participation in planning have influenced professional planners in the Polytechnic’s London and Home Counties bailiwick. Furthermore, his projects, lectures and travels abroad have merged indigenous practices with the forms and functions brought on by industry and urban growth in independent African and Asian nations.

He received his university graduate training in America, and has conducted extensive cross-cultural research investigations in Africa and Latin America. He has also served as consultant for international agencies and enterprises in the fields of architecture and planning, mass media, food and nutrition, and marketing.

Professor Blair’s articles and book reviews have appeared in professional journals including The British Journal of Sociology, The Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Journal of the Town and Country Planning Association, the Architectural Association Quarterly, and Official Architecture and Planning (Now Built Environment).

 During his twelve-year tenure at the Polytechnic of Central London  1973-1985 he authored three books on relevant subjects: a treatise on the problems of the world metropolitan centres The International Urban Crisis (London: Hart – Davis McGibbon and New York: Hill and Wang, to be published Spring 1974); a critique of modern planning theory and practice The Poverty of Planning (London: McDonald 1973). And collaborated on The Environmental Handbook Action Guide for the UK 1971 with the Friends of the Earth movement for Eco-Action.



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