British universities: something old, something new


We’ve all heard of them: Oxbridge, Durham, York… They’re well established, highly academic and can be very traditional. They’re the universities that cause awe-inspired reactions from members of the public. It’s unlikely you’re ever going to hear anyone say: “You got into Northumbria?” However, the high regard surrounding the more classic institutions in the UK could be seen as causing a divide, particularly among those students who attend them and those who go to newer and less prestigious places such as Lancaster. So what’s the difference between ‘red brick’ universities, and your more everyday types?

Firstly, the older universities have an extensive list of (usually well known) alumni. They’ve been up and running for years so this makes sense. They also usually have an air of tradition: stone walls, grand gardens, and musty old libraries. For some reason, this makes people think they have a better idea of what they’re doing. Most are academically very successful; they have excellent teaching, world-leading research, and great employment prospects for graduates. Sound familiar? That’s because Lancaster does too.

And I’m pretty sure a lot of other younger universities do. Warwick, Newcastle, UEA – they’re all up there in the league tables with the best of them. The only real difference is that these universities are all around the 50-year mark. Of course, there are other factors too. We have more modern courses, such as photography and creative writing, which Lancaster helped establish alongside UEA. The question is, if newer universities have very similar standards to the more prestigious ones, why is there a divide in the first place?

There are a few reasons. Sixth forms and colleges often champion the older universities; they think it looks better for them if they get droves of students into Oxbridge rather than Lancaster. But this can make young people who aren’t applying there feel overlooked and under-appreciated. Resentment builds, helping fuel the sweeping statements applied to such universities. Kids going to Oxbridge are ‘snobby’ or ‘posh’, whilst the ones attending Lancaster can be seen as ‘dumb’. Of course, neither of these stereotypes rings true and a vast majority of people do not hold this view.

However, if this divide continues, students from both kinds of places risk losing out. The ‘red bricks’ limit themselves, preferring to stick to the tried and tested traditional methods they’ve always used. The courses and their content stay pretty much the same, sticking to the older stuff. Most of these universities are unlikely to offer newer courses, like creative writing or film studies and, although their argument for this is that they advertise traditional degrees, it does create an image of an institution that is stuck in its ways. After all, if Cambridge decided to start offering a course in Media Studies, their high teaching standards could guarantee a great course.

The kinds of stereotypes being perpetuated need to be stamped out. I want to see photographers graduating from Oxbridge and Lancaster playing Durham at football. The young-old dichotomy is a divide that creates tension amongst students and one that threatens to keep both sides in a limited bubble instead of sharing experiences.

It’s easy for us to forget that, at one point, all these universities were just starting out. They too were the babies waiting to grow into their caps and gowns. Lancaster will (hopefully) one day be an ancient university looking down on the new kids. But instead of using years as a way to define and categorize universities, we should be learning from their experiences and sharing new practices. This way, we all benefit. After all, age is just a number.

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