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A Social and Architectural History of Britain’s Civic Universities


William Whyte


Oxford: University Press, 2015

Hardcover. xvii+389 p. ISBN 978-0198716129. £65.00


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London



A recent celebration among geography students who graduated from University College London in 1965 evoked the magnitude of change in British universities over the past half-century. The graduating class of forty was taught by fourteen faculty members in an institution with fewer than five thousand students; masters and doctoral students were but a handful. The equivalent figures for 2015 involve 150 graduating students and 40 teachers, as well as over a hundred masters students and a further hundred doctoral candidates. The university now has no fewer than 29,000 students. In his ambitious book Oxford historian William Whyte explores the evolution of higher education in England, Wales, and Ireland but only marginally in Scotland from the early nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century. As the book’s subtitle indicates, his approach is both architectural and social. Its scope is actually wider than the provincial civic universities, set up between 1850 and 1950, that the term ‘redbrick’ implies by contrast with the venerable stones of Oxford and Cambridge, and the recent stonework of colleges in London established in the 1820s and 1830s. Thus the University of London (now UCL) was created in the 1820s on the model of Scottish and German universities as a non-sectarian alternative to Oxbridge, where membership of the Church of England was a requisite for graduation. Jews, Muslims, free-thinkers and non-believers were all welcome at the ‘godless institution on Gower Street’, or ‘the synagogue of Satan’ as it was even called [35]. In fact, William Whyte begins his complex story in 1814 when Charles Kelsall announced a project to create a provincial university in the English Midlands. His scheme was not realised but the idea of opening institutions of higher learning began to attract attention as the decades passed. Arranging fourteen chapters into six chronological sections, Whyte charts the evolution of Britain’s universities from the early nineteenth century to the late 1990s, with mass higher education becoming the norm only toward the very end of that time span.

New universities were dreamed about in parts of the British Empire as well as in provincial England, with McGill, Toronto and New Brunswick universities being granted charters in the 1820s. Numbers of students in these proto-universities were tiny, with very few completing courses of study and receiving degrees. Between 1840 and 1880, colonial governments established universities in Sydney, Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, and in New Zealand. New subjects began to be taught at Oxbridge and three university colleges were opened in Ireland. Civic authorities and local learned societies favoured higher education being provided beyond London and the ancient universities. Thus, ‘as provincial cities increased in size and confidence, so the cultural centrality of London declined, leaving places like Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Leeds as major centres for art, science, and literary life in their own right’ [87].  Medical education and technological training formed important components of the new ‘redbrick’ institutions set up in these cities, with many incorporating grandiose architectural designs, provided the necessary funds were available. Putative universities were opened in Newcastle, Aberystwyth, Leeds, Bristol, Nottingham and Sheffield in the 1870s, and at Liverpool in 1882. After a complicated start, Manchester became a fully chartered university in its own right in 1880. Around the turn of the century, new civic colleges were opened in Nottingham, Reading, Exeter, Southampton and Dundee. ‘Redbricks’ struggled with the image of being ‘glorified night schools’ but were in fact the expression of ‘a particular sort of local patriotism’ [137] that attracted funding from municipalities, industrialists, tradesmen and other local benefactors; for example, the Boot family in Nottingham and the Wills family in Bristol. In some instances, inner city buildings were replaced with elegant premises in the years prior to World War II or were complemented by suburban campuses on the North American model.

By 1948, Britain had 20,000 undergraduate students, by comparison with 10,000 in 1914; women were still very much in the minority. In 1949, the University College of North Staffordshire (the future University of Keele) was founded, heralding in the 1960s a suite of new institutions that included Sussex, York, East Anglia, Lancaster, Essex, Kent and Warwick; each was laid out on the campus model. Problems of funding the university system plagued all institutions during the 1970s and 1980s, with many buildings old and new alike being denied essential maintenance. Legislation in 1991 abolished the distinction between municipal ‘polytechnics’ and universities, thereby creating a batch of ‘new universities’ as they came to be known. By 1997, the higher education sector comprised 1.8 million students and over 100,000 full-time staff. Nearly one-third of 18-year olds attended university, compared with one in eighteen in 1974. In subsequent years, teacher training colleges and other institutions acquired university status and were able to award degrees. The higher education sector had ‘witnessed a genuine revolution’ [319] and had become big business. A crop of new buildings was constructed. In 1998, tuition fees were introduced and these were increased substantially in later years; attracting students from overseas who were prepared to pay high fees became a very attractive – and remunerative – proposition. At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, there were nearly 2.5 million students in the United Kingdom, and universities were ‘estimated to contribute more than £3 billion to the national economy’ [322]. By 2012, 115 chartered universities and almost 200 other types of college offered higher education courses.     

With varying emphasis on architectural and social considerations – the latter coming to the fore in his coverage of recent years – William Whyte has succeeded admirably in depicting the evolution of Britain’s extremely complex university sector in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He draws on a very wide literature and illustrates his text with fifty pictures and diagrams. Extensive research in the archives of a score of universities complements scrutiny of numerous state papers, periodicals and books. The bibliography runs close to a thousand items, to which websites and other unpublished sources may be added. This work of detailed scholarship has the virtue of being both very readable and exceptionally informative.  Author and publisher alike are to be congratulated for producing such an attractive book that casts important light on a really complicated and previously overlooked topic.


 Illustrated version on The Victorian Web :


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