Death and the University

No, not another piece about the death of the University, but rather a few quirky aspects of burials around the University.

All our universities commemorate former members. For the ancient universities, who for centuries had a staff consisting of men who weren’t allowed to have families and therefore outside lives, there is plenty of evidence of former members in their funeral monuments (see Knoll 2003 for some proper scholarship on this).


Monument to Sir Thomas Bodley in Merton College Chapel

The growth of the universities in the 19th century brought problems as the population grew and traditional grave sites were full.  In Oxford new cemeteries were opened, and provision was made for the Colleges.  Balliol, for example, had plots for members in St Sepulchre’s cemetery.  College masters Benjamin Jowett and Edward Caird lie near philosopher TH Green, but, as a public cemetery, there are also students and servants of the college.


Younger universities also have nearby cemeteries – the campus at the University of Leeds has been built up around a cemetery, now known as St George’s Fields and offering a quiet green space.  The University of Winchester’s main campus is approached from the city via the West Hill cemetery next door.  In each of these cases, a privately owned cemetery found itself next to a university.

The cemetery next to Iowa State is actually provided by the university, which notes that it is ‘a testament to their dedication to the university that so many staff have chosen to be near it in death’.   Although they seem to have been flexible in the past, there are currently eligibility rules – tenure is now required for a place in the graveyard.

Perhaps if you’re not eligible for the university cemetery, there’s an unofficial way of linking yourself in eternity to your alma mater.  You can get a university casket.  oklahoma_university_casket_red__27514-1382115148-300-300

That’s merchandise that no UK Alumni office is offering (although the affinity through the university sports teams is probably more of a motivator here).   Not all of these are official, the holder of the official licence for Oklahoma complained that a casket maker was selling unofficial coffins.

Although few of us will end up in a university cemetery or a university coffin, they do act as a reminder that universities have been the kind of places that people have devoted a life-time to; something special, something enduring.



Ref Knoll, S 2003 Collective Identity: Funeral Monuments to Academics in Northern Europe, in History of Universities Vol XVIII/1




Brightest and Best

Phrases can take on a life of their own.  “Brightest and Best’ had become rather a cliché.  It turns up in all sorts of discussions about retaining or recruiting, used in discussions about the armed services or research staff but particularly in the discussion over international students.  As such it is a special class of the “more means worse” argument- it carries a clear sense that only the best and brightest students should come to the UK.  It links to a notion of elite higher education, and recently had a new lease of life at the Conservative Party conference.

The new Home Secretary made the surprise announcement

We will also look for the first time at whether our student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution.

I’m passionately committed to making sure our world-leading institutions can attract the brightest and the best.  But a student immigration system that treats every student and university as equal only punishes those we should want to help.

So our consultation will ask what more can we do to support our best universities – and those that stick to the rules – to attract the best talent … while looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses. (Rudd, 2016 emphasis added) 

Here we have an exciting distinction – the UK government may decide that a course is good enough to loan money to a UK student to pay the fees for, but not good enough to allow an international student to travel here and pay their own money for.  Nick Hilman has highlighted the folly of this action, and they way that they might try to identify ‘good’ courses and Michael Skapinker notes the foolishness of assuming the ‘best’ universities are just those in a club.  We’ve also had the Times uncover that one of the rationales for treating students as migrants – that they don’t go home – is known to be false.  UUK has a survey that shows only a quarter of the public even think students are migrants. 

Amber Rudd is following in Theresa May’s footsteps.  Certainly her use of the ‘brightest and best’ phrase was consistent through her time at the home office – straight from her first parliamentary statement on immigration in 2010 (when she used in four times).  The phrase was used over and over by the immigration ministers (Hansard allows a search – it’s been used hundreds of times since 2010) .  It has driven the Home Office’s use of metrics, where universities are threatened if the number of students refused a visa, or who fail to arrive falls below a certain point.   It can be argued, though, that, as with many of the indicators used in the immigration system, richest is often used as a proxy for brightest or best.

Brightest and best fits with the notion of students coming to take degrees which are seen as highly academic such as physics, rather than more vocational areas such as business studies.  What universities have known is that without international students much of our science and technology provision would have closed, trapped with small numbers of home students with costs capped at unrealistic levels.   At the same time our business schools have provided education for not only those who might be famous global entrepreneurs, but also the ‘technicians’ of the enterprises they head: the accountants, HR managers, project managers.  Imagine the ‘soft power’ of thousands of procurement managers across the world with a British degree.

Purging clichés is a worthwhile activity, but this one may really be worth expunging.  It reinforces that notion that only the highly selective universities ought to be educating international students, a misnomer that will do us no good.  We have a diverse sector, with research intensive universities as good as any other by any measure, but we also have universities with excellent capacity for educating students in a wide variety of ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ subjects (if you think that distinction really works).  Why ever would we want to exclude those universities from teaching students from around the world, harming the international setting for our own students?

Perhaps we should note what Bishop Heber wanted the brightest and best to do for us, in his hymn, which surely is the main source of this cliché, he wants them to dawn on our darkness and lend us their aid…

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning;
Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;
Star of the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.