This post has been contributed by Keith Vernon, Principal Lecturer in History at the University of Central Lancashire where he teaches on modern British history. He has written on several topics in the history of technical and higher education in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially on the relationships between universities and the state, between universities and their local communities and the student experience.
University institutions seem to be becoming more interested in their pasts. One manifestation of the trend is the appearance of historic dates on websites or logos of which Manchester University was a pioneer. When the (old Victoria) university finally joined with UMIST, origins could now be traced back to the formation of the Manchester Mechanics Institute out of which UMIST claimed its foundation. Now ‘1824’ features boldly in the university’s branding, neatly pipping UCL’s presumption to be the oldest English institution of higher education after Oxbridge. A more recent entrant is Queen’s University Belfast, which has taken to emblazoning ‘1845’ across its publicity as the year when the Queen’s Colleges were established. Otherwise, institutional webpages sport time lines or historical introductions that establish lineages of suitable antiquity. Some places have created impressive museums of their role and contributions as at De Montfort. Although in one sense surprising for institutions more accustomed to trumpeting their cutting edges, it is not to be wondered at that universities also want to claim historic antecedents. Status in higher education commonly follows the longest established. As the field becomes ever more crowded, and with the danger of potentially dubious upstarts, demonstrating a weight of tradition adds valuable gravitas.
Previously, one of the few times that universities looked to their pasts was around anniversary years that afforded an opportunity for a commemorative volume. A flurry of institutional histories marked the centenaries of the older civic universities, and a number of former polytechnics discovered their pasts on becoming universities. Interestingly, the silver anniversary of the post-92s came and went without much recognition.
There are currently few obvious anniversaries in view, but why wait for the obvious? My own institution, the University of Central Lancashire / UCLan, has this year decided to celebrate a 190 years since the formation of its ancestor, the Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge, in 1828. It seems an arbitrary choice, nor is it presented as much else by the current Vice-chancellor, whose initiative it is. He is interested in history and heritage, wants to create an occasion (and some institutional re-branding) and accepts that he probably won’t be in post in ten years time to mark the 200th anniversary. If we take the sound historical argument that round figures of years are rarely of greater significance than the years before or after, then why not the 190th?
The Avenham Institute, which opened in 1849 in Preston, was the first permanent home for the Institution of the Diffusion of Knowledge (which later developed into UCLan)
As we know, anniversaries are a doubled-edged sword to historians of universities. While they offer an occasion, and until recently, a rather rare occasion, when a university will make some consideration of its past, they are mired in the problems associated with this kind of study. There is usually little desire for searching or critical investigation. An anniversary account is seen as an opportunity to flourish achievements and steady progress.
The issue has become personal in that I have been asked / tasked with writing an updated history for UCLan 190. An account covering the development of the institution from 1828 was produced in the early 1990s when the university was first created. This latest version will just deal with the most recent phase of the university years. The project raises many historical, methodological, indeed ethical issues, but returns to the key ones of commemorative history. The task is not to write a searching critique, and there is no place for muck-raking, but nor would I wish to be overly critical. In part, that is not the commission but, more than that, UCLan has been my career home for most of my life; I am committed to and have great affection for what it seeks to stand for (even if it often doesn’t succeed), its academic community, and its home city of Preston. Is the entire undertaking, then, illegitimate in that any history written will, by my own admission, be more or less sanitised?
But should we be so sniffy about engaging with this form of university past? While never a substitute for thorough historical scholarship, is there no place for accounts that are accessible but critical, offer a simplified version of the past, but still inform and raise deeper issues and questions? At a time when universities and what they stand for are openly being questioned, it surely behoves us to take what opportunities we can to tell the story of what universities do, their importance and centrality to the modern world; not photo-shopped, but not necessarily warts and all either.