A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 97 England is changing and the more it does so the more it remains the same. It’s just undergone a century of huge war and sacrifice, has stared with frightened eyes at new disease, taken on technological change on an unprecedented scale and embraced multiculturalism with the influx of migrants from the corners of the world. What’s new? We’ve done it all before. It’s what makes us English. England, the country of the Angles. The very name and nationality is German. Our language, despite being one of the most mongrel on the planet, is essentially a branch of German. Native Britons who were here before successive invasions of Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, were themselves invaders and settlers. To the annoyance of those who wish to see this island to be the preserve of some elite white race, who have always been English and whose pure blood has been preserved first, by the English Channel and second, the power of English swords and longbows, there isn’t a resident in the entire country who isn’t either an immigrant or descended from immigrants. Don’t fight it. Embrace it. We’re an impressive race. We’ve proved strong, innovative, exploratory, creative and in many ways rather lovely; and those qualities are the result of mixed blood not from swimming in a small gene pool. We’ve always been farmers; the first settlers came for the rich farmland. Successive invasions were as much about fertile soil as they were about political power. We’ve always been miners: neolithic people were digging copper out of The Great Orme a thousand years before the Romans arrived. We’ve always been innovators and we’ve always imported things we couldn’t come up with ourselves. And, we’ve always been scholars. Our universities are among the most respected in the world. Oxford and Cambridge were established more than 800 years ago as university cities. English monasteries were centres of world learning and scholars have travelled the world either sending out new thinking from these centres or bringing it in. The various strands of Englishness came together in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to make this small island off the north west coast of Europe the very centre of the world as first farmers and then miners, innovators and academics brought their skills to bear to make England the place where the agrarian and industrial revolutions happened first. They brought with them huge problems as society began to separate into owners and workers; haves and have nots; the rich and the poor; those in charge of their destiny and those tied to the wheels of change. But, we can feel proud to be part of the nation that unleashed this change. We can’t turn back time and undo it all; but we can embrace it. And the change continues and England remains England. A land of the ancient and the modern. Where the new is informed by the old. And nowhere more so than here in Edgmond. I’m pedalling along a country road in the gathering dusk and the lights over to my left could be a new housing estate; a little dormitory town for Shrewsbury or Stoke. It could be, but it isn’t. It’s a university. Out here in the Shropshire countryside is a real, fully functioning, twenty-first century university. It hasn’t been secretive but has retained it’s privacy. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d turned a corner and found a stately home lit in neon with a giant funfair in the grounds but I was surprised to find a seat of higher education. Even more surprised to find one I hadn’t heard of. There are round about as many universities these days as there are football league teams and you couldn’t add a new name to that list without me noticing. I had never heard of Harper Adams University and here I was cycling by it; and it looked rather impressive amongst its August trees in the twilight.
The history of university education in England says a great deal about the country so forgive me this digression. By 1800 there were only seven universities in the whole of Great Britain and Ireland. Quite understandably historians refer to these as the ancient universities. One is in Ireland; the University of Dublin, four are in Scotland (the Scots have long been in advance of us in terms of learning. A fact bourne out by so many of the great innovators referred to above being Scottish); Universities of St Andrews, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Only two were in England, but they were two rather good ones at Oxford and Cambridge.
The nineteenth century saw universities established in London (originally University College London and King’s College in the 1820s), Durham (whose constituent college at Newcastle later became a university in its own right), and Wales at Aberystwyth and later Lampeter, Bangor and Cardiff. The ‘Red Brick Universities’ were established in the early years of the twentieth century. By 1900 you could study for degrees at Birmingham. This was joined successively by Liverpool in 1903, Manchester in 1904, Leeds also in 1904, Sheffield in 1905 and Bristol in 1909.
Even today, degrees from these establishments, are more highly valued than from universities that were still to come, at least by the students of those universities. There was a piecemeal process following where such universities as Exeter (1955) received their royal charters. The next great period of university building came under Harold Wilson’s Labour government of the sixties. In the white heat of technological change came the ‘Plate Glass Universities’ of East Anglia, Aston, Essex, Lancaster, Kent, Sussex, Warwick and York. They sound like Henry the Fifth stirring up his troops at Agincourt. They were the scenes of England’s attempts to imitate the great Paris student protests of 1968. In England these were mostly sit-ins and marches and failed to ferment revolution; though Essex, in particular, gained a reputation in the tabloids for subversive politics. From 1992 thirty four polytechnics were made into universities after no-one was able to satisfactorily tell the difference in the quality of degree courses. A First is a First; an upper second is an upper second. And about as many institutes of higher education were elevated to University status. Harper Adams was one of these. England had changed from a country where higher education was seen as the preserve of an academic elite to a one where it was the legitimate aspiration of anyone who sought it. Universities changed in the subjects that were offered for study. Classical education was a study of just that; the classics. Just how useful to the modern world, some may argue, is an intimate knowledge of the works of Plato and the plays of Aeschylus in their original language. Incredibly useful I would (and shall) argue. People tend to sneer at courses in subjects like media studies; often branding them “Mickey Mouse Subjects’. They miss the point. Hundreds of thousands of Britons are employed in the media and related industries. Too right they are Mickey Mouse subjects. The Disney Corporation (owners of the Mickey Mouse brand) has market capital of $104 billion and employs 166,000 people with annual sales of $42.84 billion. Media studies is indeed a Mickey Mouse degree and it will probably get you a job. Harper Adams has always been concerned with farming. It was established by Thomas Harper Adams. In 1892 he left his considerable estates in Shropshire to be devoted to the study of agriculture in all of its forms and the development of highly skilled farmers. It has grown in stages since; sometimes stumbling along, at other times, like the present, going from strength to strength. It has been at the forefront of understanding of agricultural change and has helped shell shocked veterans from world wars re-incorporate themselves back into society as poultry farmers. It has remained committed to the traditional and the sustainable and has been voted university college of the year six years in succession by The Sunday Time University Guide. If it took me by surprise, as I ride past, it is no bad thing. It symbolises both the way the country has moved on as well as the way the country has maintained its traditions. We were once ruled by Normans who rather looked down on those of us who made our living through the land. It remains in the language. The words for animals as livestock on the farm are old English words; oxen, sheep, pigs. Our words for the same animals on the table are French; beef, mutton and pork. As they used to say in this part of the world (so long as you were in a castle), “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.