HE has deep historical roots. But is it really possible to learn from the past?

Matthew Andrews
University Secretary and Registrar
University of Gloucestershire


History surrounds us. Our universities are amongst the oldest and most long-lived institutions of any type to be found anywhere in the world. This does not only apply to those institutions which wear their age most obviously. Institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge in England, and Saint Andrews and Glasgow, in Scotland might have clearly visible and outward signs of antiquity but some of our apparently new institutions often have deep roots.  And, whatever their age, institutions throughout the higher education sector share many practices that were developed in the context of very different historical periods and yet remain important to the present day.

This means that if we wish to understand the higher education sector today it is vitally important to understand how it has developed. Differences between the constituent nations of the United Kingdom are not just the creation of comparatively recent political devolution but are deeply rooted in the way in which the higher education systems of those nations developed.  Scotland, for example, developed a model of higher education based on a larger number of smaller institutions teaching a professional curriculum that students were able to access from home.  Whereas, in England, Oxford and Cambridge attained a dominant position that enabled them to close down the development of competing institutions.  This created in England both the commonly held perception that a University education is a residential one and the strict hierarchy of institutional prestige that arguably persists to the present day.  Understanding history means we can understand why these developments occurred in the way they did.

Essential elements of the academic infrastructure can also be dated to specific times and places.  When Durham University was created, for example, it so needed to demonstrate equivalence with the older English universities that it introduced a system of external examiners from Oxford.  The development of provincial English higher education was greatly enhanced by the support offered through degrees from the University of London, which was itself a compromise created to satisfy the competing claims of King’s College and University College, London. The federal University structure that was created in London as a political compromise had far reaching effects throughout England and across the world throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries, enabling small institutions to offer degrees which would probably not otherwise have been possible.

The higher education sector is not now, nor has it ever been homogenous. Understanding this context puts the current sector into a sharper focus and enables us to understand what might be behind why we hold certain assumptions about how universities operate.

Understanding the history of our sector grounds us in our identity, raises our awareness of why we place value in certain activities, helps us understand how change occurs, and how we can better face change in the future, and raises our awareness of what’s true about the sector and what’s not. History broadens our horizons and offers a new perspective on contemporary events.


To explore these concepts further,  book your place at the Introduction to Higher Education event, which will take place on 14 June 2018 in Manchester.

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