Name, rank and number

Christopher Bigsby can’t keep up with the proliferation of new universities

January 10, 2013

At a recent conference I found myself next to someone from a university I had never heard of. “How long have you been a university?” I asked. “Since Wednesday,” he replied. Universities are breeding. In 1980 the UK had 47 universities, 23 of which were born in the 1960s. Then, in 1992, polytechnics were awarded the title, as if it were not a descriptor but a prefect’s badge, most of them hastening to lose the word “polytechnic”.

Now further education colleges are to be given the badge provided that they have 1,000 students, which would put Sainsbury’s in line for university status since more than a thousand must be working there (Sainsbury’s, as the late, great Alan Coren once remarked, existing to keep the riff-raff out of Waitrose). And it does not stop there. A private company, Pearson, is to award degrees, while the for-profit BPP University College already does so - BPP being owned by the Apollo Group, which also owns the for-profit University of Phoenix. Meanwhile, A.C. Grayling and his flying circus will be “treating every student as an individual” as they “participate in interactive lectures” at the New College of the Humanities, seemingly born out of the rib of the University of London, though at double the price.

There is, of course, already a Hamburger University, founded in the basement of a McDonald’s restaurant in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, 50 years ago. It now sits on an 80-acre corporate campus in Oak Brook, Illinois, and is accredited by the American Council on Education. Its website is tastefully decorated with pictures of Big Macs. It has campuses in Sydney, Munich, London, Tokyo, Beijing and Brazil, where the rainforest is being cut down to make room for the cows, slivers of which will be served with French fries.

Soon, no doubt, concerned parents will be able to create their own universities, to parallel the schools that education secretary Michael Gove is happy to sanction, where scientists can work on breeding new universities from stem cells.

How many universities are there in the UK? By one count, 115. The International Educator magazine makes it 134. Add university colleges, specialist higher education institutions and higher education colleges and you reach 165, but that was yesterday. It is like counting frogs. As Arthur Miller once said: if you see a frog, how do you know it is the same one you saw before? And statistics can be misleading.

My mother was terrified of thunderstorms. She would sit them out in a cupboard under the stairs. I explained to her that the chances of her house being struck by lightning were millions to one. It was struck by lightning. I explained that the chances of it being struck a second time were tens of millions to one. It was struck again. That was when I became disillusioned with statistics and when my mother, presumably, became disillusioned with me. Now, when Brian Cox tells me that there are a 100 billion stars in our galaxy, I have my doubts.

There is a Frank Cotham cartoon that features a television advertisement in which a white-coated man explains that a product is “recommended by nine out of ten people we believe to be doctors”. Jay Leno joked that “The New England Journal of Medicine reports that nine out of ten doctors agree that one out of ten doctors is an idiot”, while it was the American writer Fletcher Knebel who pointed out that 100 per cent of non-smokers die.

Yet we all turn to the statistics that tell us where we rank as universities, believing in them when they favour us and disbelieving when they do not. Press offices spring into action in search of something in which their institution could be said to excel, on much the same principle as is employed in the US where, say, Alabama State University of Christ’s Second Coming can claim to be 23rd among Southern regional universities with fewer than 3,000 students in the first quarter of the alphabet with a religious affiliation.

And just what do these statistics mean? The Guardian’s tables count spend per student without enquiring what the money is spent on (recarpeting the chaplaincy rather than buying books for the library?). There are marks for value added, which suggest that it is wise to accept low A levels, and marks for high A levels, which suggest that it is not. Times Higher Education, meanwhile, boasts of the new, improved statistics in its World University Rankings, thereby, presumably, implying the suspect nature of its earlier ones just as new, improved toothpaste makes you wonder what you have been spitting out these many years.

Sometimes the names of the new universities seem similar to those of existing ones, or are confusingly located. My own university is UEA (the University of East Anglia), but there is also UEL (the University of East London), whose logo uses the same font as the one we recently abandoned. A new university has just been born in Norwich. Angels are rejoicing. East Anglia is also home to another university, originally called Anglia Polytechnic University, whose telephone operators would whisper the word “polytechnic” as if they had institutional laryngitis. Today it is Anglia Ruskin, based in Chelmsford and Cambridge. Arrive at Cambridge station and there is a notice welcoming you to “Cambridge, home of Anglia Ruskin University”, which is true enough but not quite what one might have expected (although it did have its distant origin in the Cambridge School of Art).

There are worse reasons for changing your name, however. There is a respected university in the US that was forced to change its name because of the internet. It is now called Arcadia University. It used to be called Beaver College.

Meanwhile, to date my house has not been struck by lightning. What are the odds?

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