The Idea Of A University

Sixty years ago university was very much a minority pursuit. Today the government's stated aim is to get half of all young people into higher education. Martha Kearney begins a new series telling the story of how student life and our universities have been transformed by six decades of expansion.



She charts that growth from the very first campus university built in the late 1940s through the creation of the new polytechnics in the 1960s to the steep rise in student numbers in recent years. But how has that radical change altered our idea of what a university is for?

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By the late 1950s, thousands of 18-year-olds were battering at the doors of Britain's handful of universities.

But Oxbridge and Redbrick alike considered themselves full up.

Martha looks at the unique moment when the state blessed the birth of a swathe of new universities - a period when visions of expansion stirred battles that are still with us today.


A brief history of the Polytechnics, 30 new institutions created in the early 1970s. They were designed as different but equal to the universities. But did anyone really believe in that equality? Through the stories of those who taught and studied at the Polys, championed their existence and derided their shortcomings, Martha charts the development of a new form of Higher Education.

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In 1992, more or less overnight, the number of universities in Britain doubled. But it wasn't due to a massive building programme, or the injection of millions of pounds to construct new campuses. Instead, the nation's polytechnics simply changed the nameplates on their door. They were now the 'new universities'. So was this just a harmless exercise in 'rebranding' or it did it symbolise something else - the triumph of mass higher education - on the cheap?

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Martha Kearney hosts a live studio debate exploring the consequences of the 50-year transformation of British universities. The number of people winning a place at university has massively expanded, but has more meant worse? Is there any agreement, even now, about what a university is for? And have we reached the end of the process of change, or has it barely begun?