The University Reimagined: Past and Present

The Research Group on University History was launched in 2014 to promote and co-ordinate teaching and research on the history of the University of Manchester and of universities more generally. Through its work the Group seeks to advance the understanding of universities and their place in society.

This accompanying blog brings together a nexus of people working on university histories in the broadest context, to provide a platform for discussion on the changing roles and meanings of these institutions through time. The website is the only such site dedicated to the history of universities, and historicises many of the contemporary issues and debates surrounding higher education today.

William Whyte, St. John’s College, Oxford:

Most universities are remarkably uninterested in their history. Their heritage – well, that’s another matter; so long as this amounts to little more than the most photogenic parts of the campus and a happy myth of excellence, inclusivity, and innovation which has been passed down ever since the foundation, if not before. In recent years, of course, as universities have awoken to the financial potential of their alumni, there has been a flurry of glossy, full-colour, coffee-table books. But, in the main, these are little more than expensive begging letters, and they almost always also parrot all-too familiar claims about excellence, inclusivity, and  – well, you get the point. They rarely rise to the level of real history.

At a basic level, then, writing the history of universities is an exercise in uncovering potentially unpleasant truths. In place of celebration and mythology, historians can offer a more complicated and sometimes more troubling account. History can also challenge settled assumptions about what universities are actually for, revealing the ways in which our contemporary understandings significantly diverge from  those of our predecessors.

As this suggests, the history of universities is of more than antiquarian interest and research can uncover, more than just salacious scandal – although it can certainly produce both antiquarianism and scandal.  History is also an important way of thinking through the questions about what a university is, what it does, what it should do, and who and what it’s for. Indeed, given the way in which universities have unexpectedly evolved; given the fact that they lack a single legitimating text or coherent body of substantive doctrine: to think about universities historically is surely the only intellectually justifiable way to assess the idea of the university.