Reunited: still nurturing diversity

July 23, 2004

In the late 1960s, Leeds University was a dynamic place. It had an active student union and was at the forefront of student activity. Academically, it had a high reputation.

I went to Leeds to read political science. I was interested in international relations and development. Leeds fitted the bill because it had a very good social sciences faculty and politics department, headed by A. H. Hanson, a specialist in developing countries, particularly Burma, India and Nigeria.

I thoroughly enjoyed academic life at Leeds and was very fortunate to have committed and interesting tutors and lecturers. The design of my course was such that I did not have exams in the second year. This meant I spent two years developing an in-depth understanding of my subject through tutorials and vast amounts of reading. It was also an opportunity to sharpen my analytical capabilities. An uninterrupted two years to study was an exceptional opportunity.

The university had a wonderful atmosphere. It was a happy place, vibrant and liberal with an infectious level of dynamism and energy. There was a vast number of extracurricular activities on offer and I was involved in many, ranging from drama to teaching English to newcomers to Leeds.

Returning to Leeds after nearly 34 years was an uplifting experience. The university has not changed very much. It has expanded, but it looks more or less the same. If anything, it is better maintained. The student union - a hub of activity - appears just as lively as I remember it.

The Parkinson building - founded in 1951 and named after local businessman Frank Parkinson who was keen to encourage students from all backgrounds into university - still dominates the landscape. It remains the heart of both the university and the surrounding community, and continues to symbolise the place.

Parkinson Court - the place where we mingled after our visits to the Brotherton Library - now seems even more inviting. In its centenary year, the university has refurbished the court and its galleries for the first time in 50 years and it has new facilities including a reception area, cafe and meeting rooms. It made me quite envious. I wish we had had those facilities in the late 1960s.

I returned to Leeds to receive an honorary doctorate as part of the university's centenary celebrations. As I sat through the ceremony, I listened to Wole Soyinka presenting the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o with an honorary award, Tony Harrison, a local poet, reciting his poetry, and Sir Ian McKellen reading an extract from Shakespearean play Sir Thomas More, I began to understand why I found Leeds such a comfortable place to study. It is only in retrospect that I have come to appreciate that this rather intangible feeling and the liberal values that permeate the university were what made it such a memorable and exciting place.

It was and continues to be a place that nurtures diversity in its true sense. It was encouraging to see that the university remains rooted in its history and yet is keeping pace with the times. It has developed by building on its solid foundations, but has lost none of its dynamism, values or atmosphere.

Baroness Prashar studied political science at Leeds University from 1967-70. She is First Civil Service Commissioner

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