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 will bring 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 hopes to historicise 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.

Stuart Jones, University of Manchester:

The study of university history has usually flourished at moments of institutional transformation, when the nature and functions of a university are in question. It was the demands of reform that drove the work of Sir William Hamilton, Mark Pattison and Hastings Rashdall in nineteenth-century Britain, and university history flowered again in the wake of the turbulence of the 1960s. Today universities are again struggling to define their purpose in an age of global competition and neo-liberal management, and university policy is an important  site of political contest.

We have launched this blog to give an online focus to work on the history of universities, and to bring that historical work to bear on current debates about the public role of universities. We want to encourage historical perspectives on policy issues of the day, and more broadly to stimulate historical reflection on the academic practices we take for granted today. Modern Universities have  a range of diverse functions – generating new kinds of knowledge and understanding, forming elites, training an educated workforce, and engaging with their communities to shape an informed citizenry – and their histories have a lot to tell us about broader histories of forms of knowledge, of social mobility, of economic development, and of civic life.

James Hopkins, University of Manchester:

A search through the literature on the history of universities quickly reveals the potential for research, as well as the need for broader epistemological and ontological approaches. Therefore, the most prominent reasons for this blog are to stimulate interest in the field, highlight new research and garner networks of interested individuals.

University history is not simply institutional history, and we hope that this blog will diversify, engage and excite. There are diverse disciplinary and professional approaches to university history and rich research materials through architecture, archives, art, artefacts and communities. By engaging broadly we hope to bring together and capture work on universities that reaches beyond institutional history and into fields such as material history, the history of practices and historical geography.

There are exciting opportunities to get under the skin of universities and better understand their role in knowledge, society and culture. We hope this blog will renew interest and engage and excite within and beyond academia.