H.D. (“Billy)” Hughes – an Appreciation
Billy Hughes was Ruskin College Principal from 1950 to 1979. He, and the Vice-Principal, Henry Smith interviewed me for a place on the OU Diploma course in Economics and Political Science in the Spring of 1962. I was offered the place and began my course in October of that year. I had taken the Ruskin correspondence course in Advanced Economics via my union, the CAWU. The tutor (who was in fact Henry Smith, although I did not know that at the time of writing essays for the course) suggested that I might apply for a full-time course.
The College had set the entry requirements on an essay and an interview. For the essay, a list of questions included one on the lines of “Stagnant Affluence” – is this an accurate description of Britain today, and if not, how would you describe it.” I chose Galbraith’s The Affluent Society as a starting point. The interview was friendly, but searching. Billy Hughes wrote to offer the place, but wanted to know how my studies would be financed. I did not know of the TU scholarships at the time. My local authority, Doncaster, chose not to make a grant, as such grants were not mandatory. I had a tax refund, did vacation work, and Pauline, my wife, found a job in Oxford. We had married ten days or so before the course started. At the end of the First Year, Billy Hughes offered a TUC Appeal Fund scholarship, with the suggestion that he would write to the local authority and recommend a grant on academic grounds. If successful, perhaps I would allow the Appeal Fund Scholarship to go to someone else, which it did, as the local authority agreed.
Billy Hughes was an active fund raiser for the College. Around that time persuaded the then Federation of British Industry to match the TUC’s annual grant to the College. He was also influential in persuading the government of the day to make local authority grants mandatory for students accepted on degree courses. The College, of course, retained it strong links with the trade unions, and I believe that in the 1960s academics did help to create the widespread acceptance that sound collective bargaining could make a major contribution to industrial peace and prosperity. It was also widely, though not universally, accepted by large businesses. Much skill at designing effective pay systems and structures was developed around then, though largely ignored in recent decades.
Billy Hughes was an effective and interesting lecturer, and his descriptions and analysis of constitutional and political matters remain with me. The atmosphere created by Billy and the rest of the staff, tutorial and administrative was supportive, while providing and expecting scholarship at a high level. However, life at Ruskin was more than one of earnest endeavour. For example, Billy’s take on the Twelve Days of Christmas at the end-of-term concert was topical, and a class act. I remember one of the items being “Scrap Concorde” (relating to a then current proposal, and “7 per cent bank rate”, which was (part) of a variety of attempts at countercyclical policy. Times have moved on, but it is difficult not to conclude that understanding gained then has also been lost.
Billy Hughes was a great man. I met him again a few years after graduating from Keble College. Billy was still Principal of Ruskin, but was supporting a WEA weekend course for tutor-organisers at Leeds.
Ruskin College, 1962-4