A university is a very good thing for a community. So much so, a community that wants to possess a good fortune must be in want of a university.
In England the geographical distribution of universities is rather uneven, building up from the historical development of the sector. The twentieth century saw the founding of civic universities in major cities alongside a wider pattern of regional colleges that did advanced work (which later might merge into the polytechnics).
There was one determined attempt to deliver regional planning when the UGC invited bids for new universities. There were criteria for assessing the individual bids, but the sub-committee that created a ‘batting order’ for the successful universities managed to distribute them around England. There were also some migrations; when Robbins recommended the CATS became universities, Battersea moved to Guildford to become Surrey and Bristol College of Science and Technology moved to Bath. Subsequent waves of university creations have filled in more and more cold spots, and towns and cities are continuing to push for higher education in their community. We’ve noted that Milton Keynes wants a university, that Hereford wants a university. Where there are still cold spots ‘university centres’ – normally part of an FE college – means there is a presence in places such as Shrewsbury and Yeovil.
But, there’s still an interesting rhetorical flourish to the notion that there’s no university in the county – deployed by the Chair of Wiltshire LEP suggesting that Swindon might finally get one (of course, attempts have been made). But he framed this as a statement:
“We are possibly now the only county in England not to have a university,”
That’s a challenge. Which counties don’t have universities?
Very quickly you need to understand what a county is. There are three main possible uses now.
There’s the territory of a County Council, but these don’t always exist and waves of different local government organisation have switched boundaries, especially after 1974. This gave us new areas such as Avon, Humberside, West Midlands and Tyne & Wear.
There’s a set of ceremonial counties, which are the organisational units for the Lords Lieutenant. These were set in 1997 and some match the old counties (East Riding) and some the new (West Midlands). The City of London is its own ceremonial county.
There’s the historic counties. These have been fluid, with administrative autonomy given to various parts, such as the Isle of Ely, at different times. These got a boost under the coalition government when Sir Eric Pickles was particularly taken with them, promoting the flying of flags and putting up ‘Welcome to the Historic County of x’ signs at obsolete boundaries. As a example, Abingdon was once the county town of Berkshire but moved with the Vale of the White Horse into Oxfordshire. This fluidity is unhelpful in pinning down an answer to our question.
So, if you settle for the ceremonial counties as the best stable list we have, you need to turn to the complex question of what is a university. What the civic leaders of Milton Keynes and Hereford mean when they say they want a university is that they want a proper university, not a university centre (both have one of those). When the Wiltshire LEP says it wants a university, it doesn’t mean it wants a campus of a university based elsewhere (Bath Spa, Cranfield and Oxford Brookes all have campuses in Wiltshire).
So, which ceremonial counties don’t have the main campus of a university in them? Wiltshire qualifies, but so do Rutland, Herefordshire and the Isle of Wight which definitely don’t have a university. Hereford’s New Model in Technology and Engineering won’t open until 2020 and won’t be a university when it does. Warwickshire does have one though – Birmingham and Coventry are in the ceremonial county of West Midlands. Warwick University is right on the border, but the main part of the campus is in Coventry. Warwickshire’s university is Arden – which used to be in Coventry but moved building in 2017 and is now just in Warwickshire. But Northumberland doesn’t have a university, even though there’s one called Northumbria as it and Newcastle are in the ceremonial county of Tyne & Wear.
And finally, the City of London doesn’t have a university. It has plenty of branch campuses, but as City is no longer a university, having ceded that status when it joined the University of London, and London Met is leaving its remaining building in the city, it doesn’t have a main campus of a university.
This pedantry probably doesn’t help outside pub quizzes with very carefully set questions. I’m also making no attempt at the county structures of Wales, Scotland or Ireland. But if the rhetoric of there’s no university in our county helps get LEPs and County Councils behind the notion of investing in higher education, I’m all for it.
[This blog was updated after some discussion of whether parts of the University of Warwick being across the border counted (no) but also the discovery that Arden had moved a few hundred yards. And that Newcastle isn’t in Northumbria. Oh, and I’d forgotten the Isle of Wight]