Is Nottingham ‘Britain’s global university’? Of course not. In terms of global influence, it performs respectably, but not spectacularly. The most recent rankings saw it placed 147th in the Times Higher league, and somewhere similar in the Shanghai classifications. With branch campuses in China and Malaysia, it does have a global reach, to be sure. And it is only fair to note that these were the first branches established by any British institution. But, even taking account of such intriguing offshoots, it is scarcely the most internationalised of Britain’s very international universities. Forty-one per cent of its students—or 27 per cent if one only counts those resident in Nottingham—are from overseas. By contrast, 67 per cent of students at Imperial and 69 per cent of those at the LSE are non-British. The title of this book, and its concluding claim that Nottingham is ‘Britain’s one truly global university’ (p. 516) is somewhat disconcerting. So is the fact that the manuscript was read by the vice-chancellor and is now prefaced by a glowing foreword from the registrar, celebrating a project which ‘took longer than everyone imagined’ but nonetheless has generated important ‘outputs’ (p. vi). Its glossy paper; its 487 full-colour photos; its (surely subsidized) price: all this, too, evokes a promotional piece rather than a work of history. The tone of the text, which begins by extolling ‘a story of success when measured in terms of the higher education world more generally’ (p. 2), is likewise typical of the sorts of corporate celebrations that many universities now delight in. And yet this is a substantial book, written by a distinguished historian and based on proper archival research. It is published by an academic press, one which declares itself to be ‘a defiantly independent publisher of scholarly works for the academic community and thought-provoking, attractively-produced books for the general reader’. Other universities have managed to produce serious, scholarly, official histories. Oxford has nine; Westminster four. Birmingham, under Eric Ives, has a model of the one-volume study—not an easy read, perhaps, but packed with insights and drawing on the most extensive research. If you want a book that looks good, reads well and also offers a candid view of the past, then you could do worse than take up Helen Mathers’ Steel City Scholars, a splendid study of Sheffield. Nor has Nottingham itself been badly served in the past. There is already a substantial two-volume survey as well as a remarkably informative architectural history of the place. Beckett’s book thus has a difficult balance to strike. It is, at one and the same time, an official celebration and a work of history. This delicate equilibrium is not made any easier by the structure adopted. The first third is given over to an account of the period 1881 to 1979. It is clear, based on a decent range of material derived from the university archives, and very nicely illustrated. There are some curious omissions, which speak of a certain studied discretion. The 1960s student radical paper Red Blob is mentioned, for example, but only those against which it directed its ire are actually quoted. This is a shame, not least because Red Blob is such a marvellous source: one of real national importance, offering insights into radicalism that few other student publications of the period can match. It is also a pity that there is some exaggeration, too. Nottingham, for instance, was neither the first university to develop an adult education department (p. 69), nor a ‘pioneer’ in providing halls of residence (p. 32). But this brisk trip through ninety years is, on the whole, nicely judged. It is in the latter part of the volume (pp. 204–516) that the book most obviously struggles to sustain its equipoise. This final two-thirds of the text covers the last thirty years: three decades in which Nottingham (in common with the rest of the higher education system) was profoundly transformed. True enough, difficult issues are raised here: the suicide of an unhappy academic; the arrest of an undergraduate; the fact that as ‘a predominantly Muslim Society … political activity was unwelcome’ on the Malaysian campus (p. 318); the acknowledgement that students on the Chinese campus were compelled to attend classes on Marxism-Leninism. But, in the end, the story of success—and, in particular, of successful globalisation—is never seriously challenged. ‘Accusations crept in that a new generation of research-active academic staff with little commitment to teaching was replacing an earlier generation that published less but paid more attention to their students’, the author notes. This was, he concludes, ‘an accusation which may, or may not, have been true’ (p. 484). Readers might reasonably expect the historian to offer some sort of judgement on this—and on much else besides. This situation is not helped by an almost exclusive reliance on sources from within Nottingham itself. These include anecdotes gathered by the alumni office as well as frequent citations from staff and student newspapers and correspondence taken from archives. This yields some insights, but makes it hard to see what is particular about the place. In truth, there may be less than the institution would like. Even the two ‘distinctive’ features identified in the conclusion—a (longstanding) green campus and an (evidently more recent) overseas mission—are far from unusual (p. 514). Comparison with Exeter, in particular, would have shown a very similar story. As Jeremy Black has revealed in his history, Exeter was similarly impoverished from the start—except in respect of its site. It was also equally able to play the system from the 1980s onwards. Small, agile, with its vice-chancellor’s eyes always on the prize of whichever ranking seemed to matter most, it was (just like Nottingham) able to outmanœuvre and, in some cases, overtake the older, richer, more ponderous civics. It would have been worth exploring these analogies rather than assuming Nottingham was as special as it said it was. All this speaks of the problems which insiders must always encounter when writing about their own institution: problems very brilliantly articulated, and confronted, in Laura Schwartz’s history of St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Above all, it reminds us that the history of universities needs to be taken as seriously as any other field of research. It must not become just another tool with which university leaders compete. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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