The Guardian has published its latest rankings of UK universities. These things mustn’t be taken too seriously, of course. But I see that Aberystwyth, where I taught for the first half my career, has now plummeted from 50th overall three years ago to 106th (out of 116). And it isn’t just the Guardian which perceives a rapid falling off: the Complete University Guide has Aber dropping over the same period from 47th to 87th. Those are, surely, huge drops, signalling something pretty dire going on. And apparently, applications are dropping sharply too, with the number of new undergraduate students at the university dwindling from 3,283 in 2011 to just 2,510 in 2013, and entry requirements for some courses hitting rock bottom. (There’s now an online petition with some excoriating comments about the current vice-chancellor who, incidentally, got nearly a 10% “performance-related” pay rise for presiding over the first two years of this plunge down the ratings, and now earns 50% more than the Prime Minister …)
When I was in Aber, there were some very distinguished people scattered round the college. My colleagues in the philosophy department included D.O. Thomas, who wrote the definitive book on Richard Price, the Berkeley scholar Ian Tipton, and O. R. Jones — all extraordinarily nice men, and thoughtful serious philosophers (and very hard-working and productive too, by the standards of the day). We had some very good students too: for example, Sue Mendus started as a student the year I arrived there. A department very ripe for closure, then, as happened in the “Thatcher cuts” of the later 1980s. At that time, the institution faced hard choices but seemed to jump the wrong way repeatedly, and the slow diminution as a serious place started that has now accelerated alarmingly.
Aber was the founding college of what became the University of Wales (a national institution which also no longer exists in its original form). It is sad to see the place, which used to be held in quite unusual but very understandable affection by its students, in such precipitous decline.