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The first major push to establish a university in Lancaster was in 1947. However, given that 2014 is our 50th anniversary, it’s clear that local campaigners must have failed to secure the project several times. In November 1961, they got lucky and the House of Commons declared that a new university was to be founded just outside Lancaster. But their luck could have easily gone the other way. What if the county council decided not to push for a university in northwest Lancashire? What if the higher education authorities had never decided to build four new universities in the first place? What would the world be like today without a Lancaster University?
Of course, the first thing that springs to mind is hundreds of thousands of potential students without their certificates. Let’s pick out one alumnus: a then 30-year-old international student named Rami Hamdallah. Without his PhD in Linguistics from Lancaster, Rami never would have become the renowned academic who tripled student enrolment at An-Najah National University, and would never have been picked by the Palestinian Authority to be prime minister. Hence, Hamdallah wouldn’t have resigned during the June peace talks, which would have left president Abbas in an overconfident, dictatorial position. Palestine would have become a major target during the Arab Spring, which in turn would have increased tensions in the Arab-Israeli conflict and forced Iran to rush the completion of their nuclear facilities. In their haste, the Iranian technicians would have caused a nuclear meltdown that was mistaken by the international media for American sabotage. The only logical conclusion is global thermonuclear war. So be nice to Linguistics.
Lancaster would be quite safe from the apocalypse, however, because the city would be a ghost town by then. Lancaster was stunted by the silting up of the river and largely survives on around a third of the population learning or working at the University. Clearly, without the vital inputs of student rent, research partnerships, and amateur performances, Lancaster wouldn’t have had the economic strength or theatrical splendour to withstand Britain’s shift to the service sector. As the population slowly drained away, the 2008 financial crisis would have thrown the remaining locals into turmoil. Even now, police would be retreating into Poundland as protesters march on St Nicholas Arcades. High-profile council workers would fight for the title of Duke of Lancaster and the victor would organise marauding legions to sack Morecambe from his shakily fortified pleasure dome in the Ashton Memorial. Within months, our 900-year old city would be deserted.
Research is a key part of Lancaster’s legacy. Ignoring the myriad of papers on medicine, cyber security, and high finance, the University has hosted one of the first international workshops on “space weather.” Despite the strange name, without the research behind this workshop, electricity grids around Earth would be at the mercy of the stars. Every decade or so, the planet undergoes a series of geomagnetic storms caused by radiation from the sun. In previous years, they have caused power cuts in Canada and Sweden. The space weather workshop is enabling national grids around the world to protect themselves against similar damage. Without Lancaster around to help, these power cuts could go on for days. There would be no lighting, heating, broadcasting, or water.
A slightly more realistic problem is witchcraft. Had the University architects never constructed a campus here, this ridge would be prime real estate for magical cults trying to evoke the infamous Pendle witch trials of 1612. From their fire-lit encampments on high, they would bring pestilential curses upon the townsfolk and conjure malicious spirits to walk the M6. That might not be a problem in itself, because magic isn’t real, but a cult of witches would invariably bring a second cult of witchfinders. Fights would break out regularly around the countryside and local wildlife would be ruined by people trying to gather the most mysterious ingredients in an alchemical arms race.
But surely, you ask, the University Grants Commission would have just established another university somewhere nearby? They almost certainly would, but that is my greatest concern. The other major contender for the new northwest university was Blackpool. “The University of Blackpool” just doesn’t sound right! Where would they put the wind turbine? There is in fact already a University of Blackpool based in a pub in Dublin, which hands out qualifications that are not recognised in the UK or Ireland. I can’t imagine moving students to a pub in Blackpool would have changed that. Clearly, a university celebrating their 50th anniversary in any other part of the world could never have made the world the safer, smarter, and more comfortable place that Lancaster has.