Review: ‘Redbrick: A Social and Architectural History of Britain’s Civic Universities’

It might be surprising to learn that, in 1814, England possessed only two universities: Oxford and Cambridge, both of which were already 600 years old. Today, the United Kingdom is home to over 160 universities, with almost 2.5 million students currently enrolled. Three of these institutions are ranked in the global Top 10, with another four in the Top 50. When leaving school, more students now attend university than enter the workforce directly. Increasing numbers of employers are demanding that prospective applicants possess at least an undergraduate qualification from a ‘recognised tertiary institution’. A greater proportion of the population are connected to universities than ever before, whether as a student or an employee. This rapid, unprecedented expansion can be traced to the development of the first ‘Redbrick’ civic universities; it is this history that Professor William Whyte (St John’s College, University of Oxford) attempts to account for in his latest work, Redbrick: A social and architectural history of Britain’s civic universities.

9780198716129

As Whyte writes in his introduction, the term ‘Redbrick’ can be traced to 1943, when it was used by Edgar Allison Peers (Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Liverpool, and founder of the Modern Humanities Research Association, writing under the pseudonym Bruce Trustcot) to describe Britain’s ‘modern’ universities. Those institutions were founded in the 19th century, typically in or around one of England’s emerging cities, particularly in sites of industry and manufacturing, most of which can be identified by their ‘red brick’ architecture – think Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds. The place of the ‘Redbrick’ universities in British history is not insignificant: Whyte argues these institutions were not only the ‘biggest influence on the creation of new universities’, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, but that they were responsible for transforming ‘the intellectual and social life of the country’: the former was no longer contingent upon the status of the latter. Instead, over the course of the 20th century, the rise of the civic universities led a general evolution in Britain’s demographics: in 1920, just under 5,000 students were enrolled at university (equating to 0.01% of the total population); fast-forward to today, and current student enrolment figures (2.5 million) now equate for almost 4% of the total population. Without the civic universities, the opportunities for higher education may have irrevocably remained behind the gilded gates of the Oxbridge institutions.

Written in a clear, concise and, at times, amusingly satirical manner, Whyte has divided Redbrick into six parts, each covering a different time period. Beginning with 1783 – 1843, and ending with 1973 – 1997, Redbrick traces the evolution of the civic universities, from the first attempts in the 18th century (which failed spectacularly, largely due to over-ambition on the part of their founder(s), or because the strata of students they attempted to target was not sustainable), to those later into the 19th century, which managed to succeed. Each part is helpfully bookended by its own prologue and conclusion, within which Whyte typically structures his analyses around one or two specific universities as case studies. This is a particularly useful approach: it creates a narrative which links the arguments across the six chapters, which makes for pleasant reading.

university of manchester
Manchester University

While Whyte’s claims may at times be substantial, they are not unfounded. He succeeds in deftly capturing, and properly recognizing, the way in which the Redbrick universities irrevocably altered higher education in Britain. For the first time, those who had previously been excluded from Oxbridge because of their class, beliefs, or gender, were able to take advantage of tertiary education elsewhere. The economic, political and social effects of this ‘opening up’ of further education in Britain cannot be overstated. Redbrick, then, is as much a social history as it is an architectural one, and in many ways, it can be seen as a social history of architecture, which is not altogether surprising given Whyte’s background, counting nationalism, religion, and modern history as research interests alongside architecture. 

In a recent dicussion on Redbrick at the University of Oxford’s Modern British History Seminar, Whyte remarked that a part of his motivation in writing Redbrick was to trace the way in which the identities of educational institutions are determined as much by physical spaces as they are by human communities. After all, the Redbrick universities rose, in part, from a demand for accessible tertiary education, where learning would no longer be intrinsically tied to geographically determined socio-economic demographics. Take, for example, the University of Manchester, which traces its foundations to the formation of the Mechanics’ Institute in 1824. The English chemist John Dalton, with the backing of Manchester businessmen and industrialists, established the Institute as way to ensure industrial workers could learn the principles of science; it would later become noted for Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of the nucleus of the atom. This is, I think, one of Redbrick’s more distinctive perspectives. Consequently the reader is left not having simply learnt something about the civic universities, but encouraged to re-consider the ‘place’ of these institutions in British history.

In his conclusion to Redbrick, Whyte observes that the position of the university in popular discourse is now so paramount that it is unlikely to change in the immediate future: ‘higher education is [now] seen as central to the nation’s development, and especially to its economic success’ –  in 2014 alone, UK universities contributed more than £3 billion to the British economy. The Redbrick universities, then, are perhaps owed more than we give them credit for. And both socially and architecturally they have succeeded where Oxford and Cambridge did not: they broadened the economic and geographic boundaries of tertiary education.

Ashlee Beazley

‘Redbrick: A Social and Architectural History of Britain’s Civic Universities’ is published by Oxford University Press, RRP £65.00.

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