Universities in the UK are currently having a tough time, subject to brickbats from multiple media commentators. Various agendas are being pushed. Higher education is either run as a business, or not sufficiently customer-focussed; ‘fat cat salaries’ are paid to senior staff while students face life-long debt: most worryingly, expert knowledge is devalued and learning is questioned.
An invitation to join students and staff of the Continuing Education division for an awards ceremony provided me with welcome distraction from these views, and a chance to reflect on the role of universities in civic life.
The term “higher education” not only refers to advanced study: it also alludes to its ability to transform lives. John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University” (1852) presents an ideal that resonates today: “It is a place where inquiry is pushed forward … and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge.”
This liberal concept of teaching beyond narrow specialisation (and free from religious determination) underpinned the foundation of the civic universities in England and Wales.
Our university is a fine example of that ambition. Our 1884 Royal Charter speaks of the University offering “instruction in all the branches of a liberal education … providing for persons who are not matriculated students.” Today, our mission is described succinctly but no less powerfully: we exist “to create and share knowledge and to educate for the benefit of all.”
It is that provision of education for the benefit of all that we celebrated when I recently presented certificates and awards to students from Continuing Education.
The department has evolved greatly. Nowadays Continuing Education provides many part-time courses for the public, widening access and professional development activities, free-standing modules for undergraduate students and the recently introduced Pathways part-time routes to full-time degrees.
Continuing Education brings people from all walks of life into our academic community – the heart of our civic mission. It speaks eloquently of our rootedness in our city, bringing scholarship within a world-leading university to the community that established it. Most importantly, it puts power in people’s hands, and tears down media portrayals of ‘ivory towers,’ aloof from civic life.