William Whyte breaks new ground in his comprehensive history of the concept of the ‘civic university’ in Britain over the past 200 years. In this, he is not unlike the academics, administrators, private philanthropists, politicians, civil servants, and architects who, he argues, conceived of and executed ambitious new visions for what higher education should look like. The first comprehensive study of the civic universities for 60 years, Redbrick departs from previous scholarship in significant respects. It refuses to view the civic universities as imitative of Oxbridge, instead treating institutions like Birmingham and Manchester as paradigmatic for British higher education. But nor does it limit the definition of ‘Redbrick’ to such late nineteenth-century universities, applying it to institutions from University College London (founded 1826) to the University of Lincoln (gained university status in 1992) that were rooted in cities, funded by complex private–public partnerships, comprised a largely middle-class student body, and inhabited campuses that were designed to express certain visions of the education they were meant to offer. Indeed, Redbrick is billed as a ‘social and architectural history’, and it devotes considerable attention to campus master plans and how they were realized (or failed to be realized) in practice; how actors interacted with university buildings; and how analysing architecture (the book is generously illustrated with images of buildings) might help historians to apprehend the ‘Redbrick’ concept and its influence on British higher education to the present day. Redbrick is organized chronologically in six sections that, spanning the years 1783–1997, integrate the history of universities within a narrative of modern British history that features themes such as urbanization, imperialism, the changing size and role of the state, and changing ideas about gender, identity, and private and community life. Each section includes a Prologue and a Conclusion that zoom in on a particularly illustrative case, as well as one chapter covering political and institutional themes and one focused on how buildings and campuses were designed, built, and inhabited. The story begins in the eighteenth-century North American colonies, with the first British colleges and universities designed from scratch since the middle ages. It then returns to the metropole to delve into the founding of the University of London: the first civic university, whose degree examinations enabled the birth of university colleges around the country where students could work towards a London degree. Whyte argues that these university colleges, founded in Midlands and northern industrial cities in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, were the origins of the modern British university system. He narrates the founding of these institutions, their unsteady starts and subsequent growth in the years before 1914, and their erection of new buildings (often in red brick) in city centres and on new campuses on greenfield sites. Administrators’ desire to create a sense of corporate identity and residential campus life among the largely middle-class and largely local students who started to come to these institutions led to grand buildings such as student unions and to invented traditions from degree ceremonies to rag weeks that, Whyte argues, became the basis for a lasting popular image of student life. In the interwar years, in contrast to contemporary observers’ perception of failure, Redbrick students and teachers exploded in numbers. The formation of the University Grants Committee (UGC) in 1919 meant that the Redbricks, unlike Oxbridge, began to receive significant state funding for teaching and research—part of the wider growth and centralization of the state in the first half of the twentieth century. After 1945, the Redbrick model influenced the founding of new, experimental institutions such as Keele and Sussex, the nationalization of the university system through increased UGC funding, and the experiences of the ever-growing numbers of students who attended old and new universities alike on government grants. Whyte argues for an essential continuity of the Redbrick vision across the twentieth century—even as universities underwent crises amid the student protests of the 1960s–70s and the decay of modernist tower-block campuses that had been built on the cheap in the 1950s, and then struggled under cuts to government funding and increased regulation and assessment in the 1980s–90s. When, after the 1992 reforms, polytechnics sought to become universities, they too aspired to be civic universities for the middle classes (indeed, their numbers of working-class students declined), designing monumental new buildings to signify this. Whyte brings his narrative right up to the present, with new buildings at former polytechnics and new experiments with privatization evidencing ‘the way in which Redbrick has continually reinvented itself’ (p. 337) through 200 years of British history. Redbrick brings the civic universities to the centre not only of the history of universities but also of the history of modern Britain. Making effective use of deep dives into specific archives—such as those of Birmingham and Keele Universities and the UGC—and of the large but little-known secondary literature on history of universities, Whyte pulls together an exciting story covering a large time span. Redbrick could easily be of interest to the general reader as well as to the specialist who will gain from mining Whyte’s impressive footnotes. Whyte also makes a compelling case for the importance of architecture and a sense of place to understanding the history of universities. Though the separation between political/institutional history and architectural/social history that the chapter structure imposes may seem artificial, the architecture chapters offer both straightforward analyses of buildings and fascinating insights about the social use of space, from late nineteenth-century sites for romantic assignations (p. 149) to how architectural failures influenced '60s student protest (p. 265). While Whyte’s initiative to redress the balance of a history of universities focused almost entirely on Oxford and Cambridge is laudable, one wonders where they and the ancient Scottish universities would fit in his story. How did they fare once the national higher education system had been made in the image of Redbrick? Did the civic university model influence them, the way it did post-1945 foundations? How did late twentieth-century debates about access and inclusion or about research assessment affect ancient, Redbrick, plate-glass, and post-1992 universities alike? Hopefully future scholars will take up such questions, now that Whyte has breathed new life into the history of British universities. © The Author . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org 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)
Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jul 21, 2017
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