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We have recently completed a project to survey and partly catalogue the important archives of the Principal and Registrar of the former University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). The project has been supported by the John Rylands Research Institute, and one of its objectives is to encourage greater academic and public engagement with the history of UMIST through these collections.

In 2004 Special Collections took over responsibility for UMIST’s institutional archives, which included records of its administrative and academic departments. The records of the former Principal’s Office are considered to have particular importance because of the wealth of detail they provide on the inner workings of the institution.

Project archivist Clare Connolly writes:

“The cataloguing of the UMIST Principal’s archive has focused on the period of the Institute’s rapid expansion into one of the country’s foremost technological universities from the early 1950s to the late 1970s. It was felt that this era offers huge potential for research, and the archive’s contents provide ample source material to do this.

Until 1955, UMIST had been the Manchester Municipal College of Technology which provided both vocational and university-level education in technological subjects (since 1905 the College had been the Faculty of Technology of the University of Manchester). In 1955 the Manchester College of Science and Technology succeeded the College of Technology, and was later renamed as UMIST.

The Principal during this transformative period was Vivian Bowden (1910-89). Bowden was a passionate advocate of technological higher education, which he believed had been under-valued by both government and industry. When appointed in 1953, he set about building a new type of technological university, one which could hold its own with the German Technische Hochshulen or the American Institutes of Technology. In his Proposals for the development of the Manchester College of Science and Technology (1956), he set out his vision for the College, proclaiming “we must become industry’s university”. This would mean not just raising funds from industry, but designing courses and undertaking research which had direct relevance to industry’s and the country’s needs.

Vivian Bowden (1910-89), Principal of UMIST

Vivian Bowden (1910-89), Principal of UMIST

Under Bowden’s leadership, student and staff numbers grew, and new courses were introduced. Some departments achieved national and international reputations in research, and students were introduced to new types of learning, such as the industrial placements required by many courses.

The campus expanded rapidly with a series of new buildings in a characteristically modernist style. These included new buildings for mechanical and civil engineering, chemistry, physics, and maths. The Renold Building, which opened in 1962, provided space for lectures, conferences and exhibitions, and exemplified the new outward-looking spirit of the institution.

UMIST's Renold Building, opened in 1962

UMIST’s Renold Building, opened in 1962

By the 1970s this pace of expansion inevitably slowed. But renewed concern about British economic performance also focussed attention on UMIST’s innovative approaches to education. Within UMIST, there was both an eagerness to work with new industries like microelectronics, but also a concern that declining industries such as machine tools and textiles could no longer absorb its skilled graduates. Despite these setbacks UMIST continued to explore the opportunities for collaborative research and attracted a significant amount of external funding in the form of research contracts and grants.

The catalogued files in the Principal’s Archive help tell the story of this major period of change at UMIST. Given the institution’s innovative approaches to education and research, the Principal’s archive is of more than local significance. The Principal’s files capture some of the major debates of the time on the purpose of higher education, relations with government and business, and the ‘politics’ of promoting research in innovative areas.

Currently the catalogued portion of the Principal’s archive focuses on the 1950s to the 1970s, the period of optimistic expansion and covers most of the major issues of the time – campus development, the development of new disciplines, staff-student relations, and relations with external bodies. The archive is not however merely of interest to historians of universities, but provides some raw material for wider University and public interest in the history of UMIST, something which is currently being promoted by the University’s History and Heritage Programme.”