The memorial that marks the spot where Magna Carta was sealed in 1215 is a modest one for a treaty widely regarded as the cornerstone of British democracy.
The small rotunda erected by the American Bar Association in Runnymede, the soggy Thames-side meadow, certainly lacks the grandeur of US monuments to the historic legal document, which include a permanent Magna Carta exhibit situated beneath the Capitol building in Washington.
But a new project located close to the fields visited by King John 800 years ago may soon provide a more fitting tribute.
Thanks to a £1 million Leverhulme Trust award, Royal Holloway, University of London is to establish a new doctoral centre focused on the study of Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary is celebrated on 15 June.
Some 20 doctoral students – five of whom are funded by Royal Holloway itself – will undertake a range of multidisciplinary research projects into how the spirit of Magna Carta lives on in today’s very different society.
With the BBC covering the on-going significance of the “Great Charter” in its Taking Liberties series this year, one might think there is really nothing more to say about the famous document.
But the diverse selection of PhD subjects under consideration shows this is not the case. Students will examine how Magna Carta might be applied to issues of online privacy, state surveillance, ethical concerns around genetic testing for hereditary diseases and the rights of children.
Paul Hogg, vice-principal of Royal Holloway, believes there is a “phenomenal range” of issues to explore when it comes to considering personal freedoms in today’s digital age.
“We are trying to create a new legacy for Magna Carta, rather than simply look back at what it was,” said Professor Hogg.
He points out that Magna Carta’s resonance is primarily as a “concept”, rather than for the actual content of the treaty whose clauses extend to wrangles about fishing traps on the River Medway.
“It has come to represent a way of safeguarding individual rights and we need to carry forward how we think about this in a digital age,” he said. “For instance, young people think very differently about privacy and seldom understand what their rights are in this area.”
Several of the PhD projects will explore these themes, with projects examining youth protest and technology, parents’ rights to check up on their children’s online lives and different uses of social media within families. Professor Hogg said he hoped the work at the Magna Carta Doctoral Centre for Individual Freedom would establish Royal Holloway as the UK’s number one university for studying the peace treaty, which has inspired and informed countless fights for freedom and democratic rule over the past eight centuries.
The centre may host international conferences on the subject and draw in research from current Royal Holloway academics whose work overlaps with that of the centre, he said.
“It may become a type of thinktank where our academics and external people come together to work out how to apply the issue of personal freedom to modern problems,” Professor Hogg said.
He added that one example might be whether a company has the right to frack near someone’s house. “Where do individual rights start and end in these situations?” he said.
In addition to its doctoral centre, whose first students will start their research this autumn, more than 100,000 people have so far accessed a free online course on Magna Carta offered by the university, which it intends to repeat soon.
Professor Hogg said he believed the centre could run beyond its initial five years of Leverhulme funding if its momentum starts to build.
These days Magna Carta seems to belong more to America, where it remains as revered today as it was by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the country’s other Founding Fathers. It is still frequently cited in landmark Supreme Court judgments.
In contrast, when quizzed by David Letterman, the chat show host, in September 2012, David Cameron, the prime minister, was unable to say what the words Magna Carta meant.
Royal Holloway’s success might be the key to a wider reawakening in the UK of why Magna Carta still matters.
20 doctoral students will undertake research projects at the Magna Carta centre.
Queen’s University Belfast
Sunbathers could soon know when to take shelter in the shade thanks to an early warning sunburn indicator developed by a university chemist. David Hazafy, research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast’s School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, has developed a strip of plastic containing “smart” ink that indicates when exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun is becoming excessive. The plastic strip, worn as a bracelet, was created after Dr Hazafy was awarded an £85,000 enterprise grant from the Royal Academy of Engineering.
University of Oxford
A medal given out to commemorate the coronation of Queen Anne was designed by Isaac Newton and not an artist as previously thought, new research has revealed. University of Oxford postgraduate student Joseph Hone made the discovery in the National Archives in Kew after finding sketches and notes about the medal made by Newton, who was working as Master of the Mint in 1702. Academics previously believed that the medal had been designed by Sir Godfrey Kneller.
University of Bath
Students and trade unions who campaigned for two years to get a university to pay the living wage have reported a victory. The University of Bath announced that it will give a living wage supplement to low-paid staff to bring their hourly pay up to £7.85 per hour from 1 April. Bath Students Against Fees and Cuts, Unison, Unite and the University and College Union have staged protests on campus this year to highlight pay inequality, poverty wages and job insecurity.
Brunel University London
Cathy Tyson, the acclaimed actor, is to star in a new play penned by a university student. Tyson, best known for her role in the 1986 film Mona Lisa and the ITV series Band of Gold, will perform She Called Me Mother on a UK tour starting in October. The play, about an elderly homeless Trinidadian woman who sells The Big Issue, was written by Michelle Inniss, a creative writing student at Brunel University London. Tyson graduated with a degree in English and drama from Brunel in 2013.
University of Hertfordshire
Two robots have joined the School of Computer Science at the University of Hertfordshire. One of the new recruits will be used in undergraduate teaching, while the other will help out with postgraduate research. The robots, both called Baxter, are designed to interact with humans, and can be programmed to play games and work collaboratively with people.
University Campus Milton Keynes
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York St John University
A post-1992 university has been granted research degree awarding powers by the Privy Council. York St John University has held taught degree awarding powers since 2005 but, until last month, its research degrees were awarded by the University of Leeds. David Fleming, vice-chancellor of York St John, which became a full university in 2006, said the Privy Council’s move was “a recognition of the university’s strong governance, high academic standards, ongoing development of research culture…and the high quality of the research student experience”.
University of Wolverhampton
Multimillion-pound plans to transform a former brewery site and create a hub for construction education have been submitted to a local council. The University of Wolverhampton is in negotiations to buy the former Springfield Brewery site, where the West Midlands Construction UTC (University Technical College) is to be built. The university – which said the deal would “unlock £70 million investment in the site” – is sponsoring the UTC along with the Construction Industry Training Board.