Old vs new – why not both?

Here in Scotland we’re lucky to have four of the seven British and Irish ancient universities within our borders. I’m proud that we have such a rich educational history in these isles, but I do sometimes wonder if we also have a bit of an identity crisis about our HE institutions too!

Ancient and modern are two terms which we hear quite often in higher education. In my experience, it’s been that the epithet “ancient” somehow denotes a kind of elevated academic quality not available in a “modern” institution. In contrast, a “modern” university is perceived as being at the cutting edge, free from hundreds of years of supposedly stuffy teaching, listed buildings and accusations of elitism.

I’ve worked in two ancient institutions and one slightly newer one. The ancient ones do have some things in common with each other; mediaeval campuses, odd but charming traditions, sometimes drafty buildings and student groups which date back many moons.

When I left one ancient to join the second, I felt immediately as though I had a handle on the place. The language of centuries of academic excellence, pre-eminent alumni and world-leading research all sounded very familiar. But then, it should. As I found similar things in the newer university too!

And that got me thinking. What really differentiates one university from another? Is it years and years of existence? Is it the ingrained culture of a place, which changes as the institution grows up, expands or diversifies? Is it the subjects taught there, the specialisms in research fields, the cities in which the university communities live?

Or is it simply the people? The students, the locals, the visitors, the staff? I think it’s the people that most makes a place stand out.

It’s the people that make the difference. You can be part of one of the oldest universities in the country but if you haven’t got academics to teach your subjects, students eager to learn, and staff willing to support both and keep the place going, what’s the point? One of the great advantages of being a fundraiser for a university is that I come into contact with all the parts of its identity.

I train students to be fundraisers, and I offer advice to those seeking it. I talk to academics about their research and the fantastic breakthroughs they’re making. I visit staff in the Library, I apologise sheepishly to the janitors when I accidentally lock myself out of the callroom, I chat with gardeners when I’m trying to figure out whose name is on that memorial plaque on the bench under the tree. Ultimately it’s people who shape our experiences. You might remember the old stone walls and the quaint quads but I think it’s the stories of the people who used those spaces that stick with you.

My current institution is in an odd place, in that it identifies both as sort of ancient and sort of modern. In this way I think it’s giving me the opportunity to combine the best of both worlds – a tradition of amazing teaching, and a desire to drive change for the future.

Whether you’re at a grand older university or a proud newer one, isn’t that what we want higher education to be – a home of fantastic research and a place of life-changing learning?



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